Teaching Innovations

The Electric Renaissance: A Course in the Ether

Ellis L. "Skip" Knox, February 1993

Few people think of history as a "high-tech" discipline. Historians are commonly pictured as dusty souls rooting about in library stacks or in quaint archives, and struggling reluctantly with the trailing edges of the computer revolution. University budgets leave us with computers that confirm the stereotype: why waste precious resources on us when all we do is word processing?

The truth is, however, that what we do is far too sophisticated for mere computers. Even the comparatively simple chore of handling a bibliography in multiple languages causes most computers indigestion. Ask them to perform a competent translation and they gibber, thrown by slang or innuendo. Go further and try to make a computer do what we actually do—inquire, explain, generalize—and they draw a blank. Compared to interpreting the English Civil War, modelling a weather system is child's play.

Until computers catch up with us, though, they can be put to use performing other chores. One of the most promising arenas is in using computers as an adjunct to teaching. This is a report on one such application: using telecommunications to provide an alternative to the classroom.

In the fall semester of 1990 I taught "History of the Renaissance," a course traditional in content but novel in form in that it was conducted entirely using electronic mail via computers and modems: we had no classroom, I delivered no lectures, and the students never met face to face. I used a personal computer as the host for the class and all the students had their own computers. Students, teacher, and administration alike considered the experiment a success, and we have plans to try more courses using this method.

How can one teach history without a classroom? Quite easily, it turns out. In order to discuss the course, though, it is necessary to explain first the mechanics of how the electronic classroom works before addressing pedagogical issues.

The key to the operation is an electronic bulletin board system, or BBS. This is a combination of hardware and software that lets a single computer act as the electronic classroom, and it provides four main services: messages, bulletins, files, and doors.

Messages are usually public, and they are readable at any time by any student. In addition, students and instructor alike can post private messages that can be read only by the addressee. Bulletins are analogous to notices posted on a physical bulletin board, except they can be posted only by the instructor; this is where I include the course syllabus and other notices and announcements. Besides sending and receiving messages, students can also send and receive files; these can be term papers, articles, even tutorial programs. And doors act as doorways into other programs; using this feature it would be possible, for example, to administer a test electronically.

I conducted the class, which I whimsically called the "Electronic Renaissance," as a cross between a discussion group and directed readings, so the message feature was both the foundation and the centerpiece. Students would use their own computers to call the BBS, which had its own phone line and ran 24 hours a day for the whole semester. Using a few simple commands, they would receive all new messages, and then hang up, freeing the BBS for use by another student. (If the student forgot to hang up, the BBS would automatically disconnect the phone after a few minutes.)

Students would then use their word processor to read messages. Some would be questions from other students, others might include contributions to ongoing discussions or private messages from the professor. Students would read all these, write replies to some, ask their own questions, or perhaps broach a new subject. They would then call the BBS back and post their new messages, thereby making them part of the general dialogue.

Occasionally students might download a file (i.e., retrieve a document or other file from the BBS); even more rarely they might upload a file (i.e., send a document to the BBS), but ninety percent of the course was comprised of sending and receiving messages—that is, in dialogue. The creation and management of this computer-mediated dialogue formed the bulk of my duties as instructor and dictated the design of the course.

The discussions themselves were both similar to and different from a live classroom, with similarities outweighing differences substantially. As in a classroom, some students were hesitant to voice their viewpoints, others spoke up almost from the first, while still others tended to ask questions rather than to write opinions. Some messages were clearly stated while others were murky or ill-informed.

For all of that, the differences were quite obvious. The most evident and most annoying was the delay between responses. A student making an observation might not read some responses for several days, by which time the original "speaker" had moved on to other issues. We all had to learn to accommodate ourselves to a more leisurely pace of conversation. The fact that the BBS could keep track of several discussion topic at once compensated somewhat for the slower pace.

At the same time, the constraints of the medium caused other differences that I welcomed. The most notable of these was the students' discovery that they had to cite their sources. They quickly found they could not discuss the material without stating the book and page number that formed the basis of their question or observation. From early in the course I began to see messages with quotations or paraphrases followed by citations. This also tended to keep the discussion focused on the ideas presented in the books; I saw very little pure opinion-giving of the sort I often hear in classroom discussion. The tone of the discussion was not only "this is what I think," but also "this is the source from which I draw my opinion."

My major role in all of this was as moderator. I posted the initial questions and made opening statements. I brought the discussion back on track when it wandered or lost focus, and I tried to liven it when it flagged. In short, I did what any professor does in a discussion class or seminar, only I did it in writing.

Student participation formed a quarter of the final grade. This, plus the requirement that each student post a minimum of three messages per week, ensured participation by everyone. Some messages were obviously meant to meet only that minimum, but because there were no lectures and the students had to make their way through the readings on their own, they tended to ask a lot of questions.

As I began to create my syllabus, I found myself rethinking almost every aspect of the course: What really were my objectives? What should students learn about the Italian Renaissance? What was vital and what expendable? The change in the medium provided a catalyst for me to reevaluate form and content—a worthwhile exercise in itself.

I decided, ultimately, not to try to reproduce my lectures. All my lecture notes were in my computer and I could easily have posted them, but they were outlines and nothing more. The students, moreover, had purchased five books that covered various aspects of the subject thoroughly. I had deliberately chosen books with differing viewpoints, and posting my "lectures" would have given away my own point of view. I wanted the students to grapple with the material directly. Besides, my goal was changing rapidly. Rather than worrying about covering a certain amount of information in a semester's time, I believed the more important goal was to encourage the students to ask questions and to form opinions, since only that would produce discussion.

Once the course began, it became evident that certain kinds of background information were needed that were not supplied by the books. I found myself writing messages of 100 lines or so as the need became evident from the discussions; for example, an explanation of medieval money, or a brief excursion into Church hierarchy. What my students told me during and after the course was that they much appreciated these little essays. If I teach this course with any regularity, I can envision building a library of these, to be pulled out as the occasion demands.

One obvious question that several faculty asked was: What about the art? After all, how can one teach the Renaissance without teaching the art? I toyed with the idea of transmitting pictures. This is technically possible, but I could not know whether the students' machines would have the speed and power needed to display the pictures. I decided, instead, to spend only a couple of weeks on art and even there to concentrate more on patronage and other non-visual aspects.

I had two special projects for the course, one that worked well and one that did not. Both were predicated on the assumption that this medium is well suited to cooperative tasks with common goals. The one that worked well was a time line students built together. Everyone was required to post weekly a minimum of five contributions to the time line. The events were to be related to the area currently under discussion; thus, if we were focusing on religion, they should be related to that. I gathered the various contributions, eliminated duplicates, and merged all into a common time line that I posted as a file that the students could download and view or print. I wanted the students to finish the course with a conception of Renaissance events that was of their own making.

A secondary goal of the time line project was to force the students to make some decision as to relative historical importance. I arbitrarily decided that the time line would be of a fixed length and would not be expanded; so, when I ran out of room, I asked the students which events were "worthy" of being included and which should be taken off. Unfortunately, due to the small size of the class, we did not reach this point until almost the end of the semester, by which time the students were preoccupied with their term papers. I would certainly use this project again, although I would simply force the issue earlier. Students are often told what is important—by teachers and books; learning to decide some of this for themselves, I believe, is a vital part of their education. This exercise made that process explicit: they could see their own choices, compare them to those made by others, and reach a consensus through debate.

The project that did not work effectively failed primarily because I did not prepare well enough. I had each student choose a city that, for the duration of the course, would be their responsibility. As discussions developed I hoped each student would be an advocate for his or her city, commenting on larger events from, say, a Venetian or Milanese perspective.

The problem, however, was twofold. First, I did not provide enough structure. I should have seeded the discussions with material that would inherently bring out differing points of view (e.g., relations with the papacy or with France). Second, the students really needed more material to work with. I should have selected the source readings, and maybe even one of the books, with a view to supporting this project. While the students made an effort at developing a local point of view, they eventually lost interest as stimulating debates failed to emerge.

I have detailed these two projects in an attempt to show the strengths and weaknesses of teaching through this medium. In a traditional classroom one could draw a common time line and collect contributions, but it would be difficult to keep track of who contributed what; the administration of the project might turn into a nightmare. The BBS approach, on the other hand, automatically provides the tracking needed for grading purposes because every student's message is date- and time-stamped.

But organization and planning are the key, as the failure of the second project attests. The teacher has to have clearly in mind not only the rationale and objectives but the implementation as well. If the course is not structured to support the project, then the project is not likely to succeed. Because the students are at a distance, it is difficult to make ad hoc changes that require additional readings or other materials; the teacher cannot merely put an extra book on reserve in the library!

I decided early on that this course would have to be more highly structured than my traditional courses, that the students would need to know clearly what was expected of them, and so my syllabus contained more detail than usual. As the basis of the class was discussion, it was especially important that everyone read the material at the same time. The syllabus therefore laid out the reading assignments week by week (not my usual practice), along with general topic headings. The students kept up with their work and the class generally ran smoothly.

The only serious hurdle I faced was the accessibility of library resources. This was an upper-division history course, and a term paper was required. But I had students living in rural communities and at some distance from the university library.

This was a real concern, but our university library has agreements with area public libraries for interlibrary loan services, and I worked out the details beforehand. For my course, I used my computer to connect to our library's electronic system, where I searched for Renaissance-related books. Using a feature of the catalog system, I was able to transfer the search results to a disk file, which I edited and then uploaded to the BBS. Any student in a distant community now had the ability to download this customized bibliography, identify needed books, and order them through the local library. As it turned out, all of my students were within 25 miles of Boise and all drove to campus to get their books, but the approach was viable even if unused.

The library loan arrangements work for undergraduate research, but that is as far as I would want to push it. Students could not, for example, use interlibrary loans to get a book from another university to their local library. Likewise, interlibrary loan will not cover reference material, documents, maps, or archival sources. If a student were 150 miles from Boise and engaged in extensive graduate-level work, these constraints would be too severe. There is, in other words, an academic limit to what one can do with this method. I expect the limit to expand, but only slowly.

Registration, add-drops, books, and other administrative matters could in some places be a problem. Our Continuing Education division, though, has had long experience in handling students who are physically remote from the campus, and it administered this course, too. If a course like this is not coordinated through Continuing Education, or an equivalent division, teachers might have to attend to some of these matters themselves.

Because I ran this class in part as an experiment in distance education, I chose to teach the whole course by modem. Others would not want to go quite so far. One easy application is for the large lecture hall—or even the not-so-large—where it is all but impossible to hold discussions. By setting up a BBS service, a teacher can readily add a discussion element. Once set up, not only can teachers create and moderate discussions, they can post documents and students can use it to communicate among themselves and even to form study groups. The key is that this is all done outside class time.

Obviously I believe the electronic discussion has potential, but what did the students think of it? They thought very highly of it indeed, liking this format as an alternative to traditional classes. None of them want to do away with live lectures, which always seem to be the preferred medium. For my students, however, time was a premium. They found themselves unable to attend any but night classes, and upper-division courses were rarely available at night. Although what I did is placed under the rubric of "distance education," the important element for my students was not so much distance as time. They either had to take a class in their free time, at odd hours, or they simply could not take the class at all. They were unanimous in favoring this aspect of the class best because, with the BBS running continually, they could send and receive messages at any time, as could the professor. No one was ever ignored, no one was ever interrupted, and the teacher knew exactly the extent and quality of participation.

They also told me, quite independently and after the class was over, that they had worked harder in this course than in most others. They wanted their messages to look respectable, not foolish or sloppy, so they gave them careful attention. Instead of proceeding carelessly through a class and only being rigorous for the term paper and the exams, they had to—or wanted to—perform at that level throughout the course. Moreover, because all of the factual information was in the books and they could not rely on classroom lectures, some students said they read their books more carefully and thoroughly than in their other courses.

The medium, therefore, seems to have some real, if rather subjective, educational strengths. My own reaction was in harmony with the students: I thought the general quality of student response was quite good. Perhaps this is because only highly motivated, well-organized students would risk a class like this, but I have heard a number of reports from other teachers at computer conferences who have used this approach and say much the same: students like the format, they work hard, and the level of discussion is much higher than in a live classroom. They also have noticed that "shy" students speak more freely when on-line and that racial and sex stereotypes are downplayed precisely because the social cues that come to play in a face-to-face discussion are absent in the electronic format.

Again I wish to emphasize that the advantages noted are quite appropriate for our discipline. Discussing issues, asking questions, and presenting arguments are at the very core of what we do. A live classroom allows for some of that but the electronic classroom may actually be superior in this regard.

For those wanting to know more about the computer technology involved, what follows is a summary of the technical side of the Electronic Renaissance. For additional details, please contact me directly.

The host computer was an IBM XT running DOS 3.3 and PC Board version 14.2, with a 1200 baud modem. I ran QMail 2.1 as a door out of the BBS, though only one student actually used this feature. We ran a single phone line but had two phone numbers: one for local calls, plus an 800 number to handle out-of-town calls that was rotored onto the local exchange. The students were allowed to have any hardware and software combination they wanted, but we strongly urged a particular combination that was PC-based.

This combination was a communications program called Robocomm and an off-line reader called EZ-Reader. Robocomm is optimized for communicating with PC-Board and specifically for talking to mailer programs. EZ-Reader takes the mail packets from QMail, unpacks them, and lets the user read messages and write replies. Uploads and downloads were handled within Robocomm. These two products, in conjunction with QMail running on the host, reduced daily connect time to under five minutes. This made the 800 charges affordable. These programs are shareware and the students who chose them paid the registration fees (the shareware authors gave us a discount).

Support for this configuration took perhaps a total of ten hours in the first two weeks of the course. After that, things ran smoothly. The board never crashed, though it did go down once as the result of a power failure in the building; it came back up by itself when the power returned. Students did call me once in a while, but none of the problems were serious, though solving them certainly would require more knowledge than most faculty have. I have run a campus BBS since 1986 and so was comfortable with this technology, but that is admittedly an unusual situation. Most campuses would have to turn tech support over to someone other than the instructor.

History courses lend themselves to the medium of synchronous communication. Historians deal primarily in words and ideas, and in the process of inquiry, analysis, and communication, which are just the kind of services a BBS provides. One traditional format for history study is the seminar; my BBS-based system adheres closely to that approach.

The workload for the instructor, as with a lecture-only course, can vary widely. I certainly spent less time on this course than I would if it had been live, but I also could have spent far more than I did. This is driven more by the ambitions and goals of the instructor than by the demands and limitations of the technology.

Students favor the format. They like the flexibility for their own schedules, the freedom to speak whenever they wish, the idea that they can speak publicly or privately to anyone. They also like the feeling that they are active participants in their own education.

The technology is affordable. Even my full-bore approach was relatively cheap, and there are alternatives that are more limited but that are free or nearly so. Administrations will probably like it. Distance education is popular, and faculty may be able to get monetary support from your deans or academic vice presidents. Who knows, there is even the possibility of creating a publication out of the experience!

—Ellis L. Knox works in the Computer User Services group at Boise State University as a consultant to faculty; he also teaches courses for the History Department. For more information he can be reached via Internet at dusknox@idbsu.Idbsu.Edu, through voice phone at (208) 385-1315, or at Boise State University, 1910 University Dr., Boise, ID 83725.