Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
121 Williams Hall
Blacksburg, VA 24060 USA
v: (703) 231-6501
Innovative or improved ways of doing things; Creation of new ideas, products, or services; Local commitment to network-based activities
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College students are looking for something and it cannot be found in their textbooks. It is no wonder. The cultural diversity and academic gamesmanship central to a university community dictate that students fundamentally reclaim and re-conceptualize themselves as individuals (which we hope is a process of intellectual and spiritual growth), this is addition to mastering the skills necessary to compete in an increasingly specialized and technologically advanced work environment. What is too often lacking in students’ approach to university life is the kind of esprit de corps dedicated to the critical sorting of academic and social issues. Rarely do textbooks inspire much in the way of intellectual curiosity and vitality in our students. Ask them, they will tell you. Thus, one of higher education’s greatest challenges is to reform the educational enterprise from a rather mechanistic, rote system of learning and refashion it as a truly dialectical process between students and professors, students and textbooks, students and each other, students and the world beyond the ivory tower.
With these assumptions in mind, I set out to explore fresh ways to teach writing and literature at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. The most exciting resource I discovered was the application of our university’s extensive networking capabilities in course instruction. I imagined combining the Internet with powerful desktop computers and their supporting hardware/software. By tapping into the gateway of information (both academic and nonacademic) supported through Internet, students would achieve a greater sense of connection to real, productive, intellectual endeavors, and thereby reduce their sense of educational isolation, their sense that the ‘practice’ of learning is distinct from the ‘real’ world. Future students might link to other students at other universities creating an ‘intellectual network’ similar to the Internet links already established by their scholar mentors. Energized, a colleague and I began the process of grant/proposal writing necessary to turn this vision into reality.
As a result, this fall semester 1992, I was one of two instructors to pioneer the first attempt at Virginia Tech to augment course instruction with extensive on-line information. The first stage in our project was to establish an English Department Computer Bulletin Board (EBB) to introduce students to the basic forms of computer networking. The EBB was central to our pilot course; we posted articles, assignments, student essays, group projects, tutorials, and survey instruments. We introduced our students to ‘Electronic Mail’ and to the EBB’s real-time, electronic ‘Conference’ division. We established ‘Special Interest Group’ (SIG) divisions enabling students to extend class discussions by responding to our questions about issues raised in class. SIG divisions, working in conjunction with other components of the EBB, helped us to assign supplemental essays (and responses to those readings), break students into smaller discussion or project groups working independently from the instructor, and keep alive fertile issues raised in-class.
As students grew comfortable with this basic form of networking, they began to explore further this kind of electronic interaction. Most students began to make use of the on-line Virginia Tech Library System, of the many electronic data-bases in our university library, and of the student-run bulletin boards that run on campus. While our students’ remote privileges to the Internet have been limited by the university, we feel that projects such as a `National Information Infrastructure’ would enable teachers and students to broaden the applications for on-line learning. In fact, our local community, Blacksburg, Virginia, will pilot a ‘Global Village’ as a model for a national network. As this groundbreaking project develops, we hope to include our students in the local/global network, further bridging the gap between academic, professional, and socio-cultural pursuits.
In conclusion, we have found increasing student interaction with the use of computer communication systems, helps students to redefine themselves within an educational community as students increasingly view one another as resources and active participants in their scholarly pursuits. That is, students are less likely to see themselves as a passive audience or consumers in a rote, transactional educational system. Instead, students feel they are the subject rather than an object of their higher education, thay they are writing rather than receiving an education. As one of our students wrote in a review of the course, “[The EBB] makes communicating with you and the rest of the class much easier. I like the conference mode because it’s possible to have group discussions without meeting in person. The EBB is also helpful in that you can read other peoples work and either respond to it or generate ideas of your own.”
Students, if given a chance, can rewrite their own textbooks.