The Chicago Handbook for Teachers

This page contains the whole of Chapter 10: Using Electronic Resources for Teaching.

See also the table of contents and an excerpt from the introduction.

Using Electronic Resources for Teaching
an excerpt from The Chicago Handbook for Teachers: A Practical Guide to the College Classroom by Alan Brinkley, Betty Dessants, Michael Flamm, Cynthia Fleming, Charles Forcey, and Eric Rothschild

Computers and related electronic resources have come to play a central role in education. Whatever your feelings about what some have called the digital revolution, you must accept that many, perhaps most, of your students are fully immersed in it. At the very simplest level, you will rarely receive a paper or other assignment from a student that has not been written with the help of a computer. Most of your students will have considerable experience with the Internet and will, whether you like it or not, make use of it for much of their academic work. Many of them will be accustomed to using e-mail as a normal form of communication. But it is not just students who find electronic resources valuable. Teachers can benefit from these resources as well, by employing a series of useful tools.

We stress the word "useful" because electronic resources complement, but seldom replace, more conventional teaching techniques. Electronic tools can make classes more efficient; lectures more compelling, informative, and varied; reading assignments more extensive, interesting, and accessible; discussions more free ranging and challenging; and students' papers more original and well researched. Only you, however, can judge if these techniques advance your own teaching goals.

Five Promising Uses of New Technology

Of the many electronic teaching techniques that instructors have found useful, we have chosen five that we believe seem particularly likely to help significant numbers of teachers. All of these techniques demand an investment of time if they are to succeed, and your willingness to use them should be balanced carefully against other, perhaps more important, teaching priorities. But for each technique, there are both simple and complex ways of proceeding, and we will try to make clear the respective advantages and disadvantages.

The five ways in which we suggest teachers consider using electronic resources involve tasks that you will usually have to perform in any case. New technologies can help you perform them better and more easily:

  • Administration: The routine administration of courses (advertising a class, providing copies of the syllabus, assigning discussion sections, and getting out course news) can be more efficiently handled with a course home page, electronic discussion groups, and e-mail lists. These tools can also dramatically improve the continuity and the community aspects of courses, helping students to engage with and learn from each other and even from people outside the course.
  • Readings/sources: The Web and CD-ROMs provide a wider variety of secondary and primary sources (including visual and audio sources) than has previously been available. With your guidance, your students can now gain access to materials that were once accessible only to experts because they were too cumbersome to reproduce for classroom use or too expensive for students to purchase. By taking their own paths through these sources, students can bring their own evidence and arguments into lectures and discussion sections, as well as write on a wider range of research topics.
  • Papers/presentations: Rather than performing assignments and taking exams from the teacher alone, students can perform more independent exercises in publishing, exhibit building, or assembling and presenting teaching units and other materials for their peers. A web archive of several terms' work can make the course itself an ongoing and collaborative intellectual construction.
  • Lectures: A computer with presentation software can provide a single tool for augmenting lectures with outlines, slides, statistical charts and tables, images, music, and even video clips. In addition to printing them as handouts, you can save in-class presentations in a web-compatible format for later review and discussion.
  • Discussion: Electronic discussion tools such as e-mail, conferencing software, and on-line chat services can seed discussion questions before the class meets, draw out your shy students, and follow up on discussions or questions on the reading between classes. For courses without face-to-face discussion sections, these tools can bring the course to life over great distances and help overcome scheduling difficulties.

In the sections below, we discuss each of these techniques and how you might consider using them.

The Necessary Tools

What you need will depend, of course, on what you want to do. Most teachers have computers, and most have at least some access to e-mail and the Internet. In many schools and universities, most students do, too. Many teaching opportunities are likely to be available to you, therefore, using equipment you and your students already have. Other techniques require more advanced technologies that you may or may not wish to purchase on your own, and that your institution may or may not make available to you. It should be obvious, therefore, that you should make no plans for using electronic tools before making sure that both you and your students will have access to the necessary technology.

But owning, or having access to, technology is usually only a first step. Even more important is learning how to use it. This is one of the biggest challenges facing anyone who wishes to use electronic tools, because the knowledge is not always easy to acquire. Many people, of course, are highly skilled in computer technology and know how to teach themselves to do almost anything. But many other people have limited computer skills, are easily intimidated by new and unfamiliar tasks, and tend to avoid doing anything that requires them to learn something very different from the things to which they are accustomed. If you fall in the latter group but wish to expand your ability to use electronic tools, you need to find help. Some institutions offer extensive assistance through their computer centers or their information technology services. Some departments have staff members or graduate student assistants who are hired to handle computer-related problems. There are also many excellent reference works to help you learn about various electronic tools. Just as you must be sure that you have the necessary technology at your disposal before you decide to use electronic tools in your teaching, so you must also make sure that you have access to the necessary help in learning to use it.

Keep in mind, finally, that the technology associated with computers and the Internet changes with breathtaking speed. Although certain skills will remain useful to you over long periods of time, there will be many things that will have to be relearned time and time again. The rapidity of change in this field can be bewildering and intimidating. But it is also the source of some valuable innovations that can be of great use to you.

Before introducing new teaching techniques, therefore, it is wise to make a quick inventory of your own and your school's electronic teaching resources. You will not want to discover halfway through a project that there are major obstacles such as insufficient equipment, inadequate support, or negative professional incentives. Answering a few simple questions can help you determine how practical and promising your planned innovations in electronic teaching are likely to be. While some answers may lie as close as your departmental colleagues, others might require conferring with departmental administrators, librarians, or computer support organizations.

  • Does your school have a web page? What courses have material on-line? Which departments and faculty have web pages? Where are they stored? (One source for help in understanding how your institution's web site works is the person who is in charge of constructing it, usually known as the webmaster. If your school has a web site, look at the bottom of the home page or on the credits page of the site to find the e-mail address of your webmaster.)
  • What kinds of computers and Internet access do students have? Do most students own their own computers? If not, are there long waits for access? Twenty-four-hour computer labs? Provisions for off-campus students? What software is on these computers? And what Internet browser (and version) do students typically use?
  • Has your school purchased or is it planning to purchase a standard software package to manage the creation of course web pages? These tools offer simple fill-in-the-blank on-line forms to allow you to place standard course material on the Internet, after which the program creates the course home page for you. If not, is there a school style sheet or recommended format for course pages? Does your school recommend or support any particular software for web pages? For presentations, word processing, spreadsheets, and databases?
  • What staff is available to assist instructors with educational technology? Are there any work-study students or teaching assistants trained for new media support? What handouts or on-line guides have been prepared for electronic teaching?
  • Are there particular classrooms designed for multimedia presentations? Do any classrooms have Internet access? Are classes that are making use of this technology given extra technical or financial support?
  • Are there special funds or professional recognition for innovative uses of technology in teaching? Are any of your colleagues working on grants that support electronic teaching? What is the attitude of your department and of school officials to this activity?
  • Does your institution have a plan for on-line course materials? Does the school have distance learning plans (methods by which students with on-line access can take courses remotely)? How is your department's teaching and funding going to be affected by these plans?
  • What can you use on the Internet? The new media is so new that no clear guidelines have been established for determining fair use and copyright policies for on-line teaching materials. In general, however, the same copyright rules that govern photocopied packets and other more familiar teaching tools are likely to apply to on-line material. You should, however, identify the office or officer at your institution responsible for monitoring such policies.
  • Will your on-line materials belong to you? Investigate your institution's policies (or ask for one to be made) on whether you or the school owns your on-line materials. This is especially important if you are investing considerable creative time and energy, making heavy use of university equipment and staff, or may wish to take the material with you to another institution.

The Course Home Page

A course home page can serve several functions. Even before the course begins, it can advertise your course to prospective students. Before and during the term it can reduce demand for paper copies of course materials. More importantly, it can present a broader range of material than paper handouts would by including multimedia material and on-line sources. As its name implies, a home page can act as a twenty-four-hour communications center for news, assignments, and discussions. Indeed, it can play host to the four other electronic techniques discussed below.

Before you create a home page for your course, you should first carefully define its scope and content. It is best to start simply and enhance your site in stages to benefit from experience and feedback. The simplest sites consist of a single page reproducing the traditional paper syllabus. The next, more useful level includes separate pages or sections for paper assignments, section lists, and hyperlinks to readings and sources. The most advanced sites, such as those for distance learning courses, can include all the materials needed for the course: lectures, readings, audio and video recordings, exams, and evaluations.

As with most projects, a good outline and definition of your web site can save many hours of revisions and false starts. Ask a few basic questions before you start:

  • What are the goals of your site? Is it going to perform administrative chores? Advertise the course? Introduce unique materials? Publish and archive student work? Answers to these questions should shape the design and scope of your site.
  • What are the features you like and dislike about existing course sites at your school and on the Internet? What institutional support, standards, and tools might guide your efforts?
  • What traditional materials will go on the site? Syllabus, assignments, handouts, bibliographies, slides, maps?
  • What multimedia or otherwise cumbersome material might be easily included on a web page? Sound recordings, images, video, statistical data?
  • Which of your readings are available or could be made available on-line? Are there reputable Internet sources on a particular topic? Can you scan material into your site without violating copyright laws?
  • Will the home page host student publications, lecture materials, or on-line discussions?
  • Which of these items is essential to meeting your goals? Which could be saved for a second, third, or fourth stage? Which have little educational value and should be dropped?
  • What are logical divisions for all this material? Home pages should usually limit their initial menus to seven or fewer choices.

When you set out actually to create a course home page, you will have a number of methods from which to choose. You may have access to someone expert at transferring material from word processing files to a web-compatible format; in this case, prepare your material using a word processor, making sure to use simple formatting that will translate easily to the Web. (Italics and bold are best; underlining can create problems.) Then give it to whoever is transferring the material to your web site. If you are constructing the web page yourself, look for assistance—in computer manuals or from a knowledgeable colleague or student—in using the various editing tools available. These may include schoolwide fill-in-the-blanks courseware; a word processor capable of opening and saving files in HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), the computer language in which web pages are written; a simple text editor for working directly in HTML; or specialized HTML editors such as Microsoft FrontPage or Netscape Composer, which provide a word processor-like interface for composing pages.

The most successful course web sites use the unique capabilities of the medium to provide material not available to students in other forms. This could include hyperlinks (words or phrases, usually in a different color type, which will take students to other web sites with a simple click of the mouse button) to on-line readings, lecture outlines, or even sample exam questions that are not otherwise distributed to the class.

Whether you have constructed your web site yourself or had someone else do it for you, you should proofread your pages very carefully, test to make sure all the links work, and keep a careful eye on the overall size of your pages and individual images. Because web sites often look different on various computers, you should also try to view your pages in as many different browsers as possible, especially in the Macintosh and Windows computer labs that the students might be using. If you have students who commute to campus, you should try to get access to your course materials from off campus using a modem (which connects computers to the Internet using a telephone line) to ensure that your pages and graphics can be displayed efficiently on computers not directly connected to your institution's network.

Once you have constructed a web site, make an effort to publicize it. Be sure that it is listed in all the proper places on your school's web site—that there are clear links to it from, for example, your department's home page. Put the site's Internet address (known as a URL) on your paper course materials. Describe the site to your students on the first few days of class, write the URL on the board, and indicate whether and where they can get help finding and using the Web.

Electronic Sources

For the moment, at least, textbooks and monographs have little to fear from on-line competition. Few students or faculty will submit to reading long passages of text on a computer screen. But many classrooms can benefit from electronic resources in at least two areas: supplementary readings and primary sources. Even the best published readers or photocopied packets tend to dampen the thrill of discovery because they have been preselected and packaged for a particular purpose (seldom your own). Electronic sources, whether on CD-ROM or the Web, can significantly open up the range of materials accessible to your students.

There are a wide variety of electronic resources that can be useful for the classroom. Among the most popular have been CD-ROM document collections such as Chaucer: Life & Times; Pennsylvania Gazette, 1728-1783; and Presidential Papers: Washington-Clinton. Textbook publishers are increasingly providing electronic study guides, map exercises, sample presentation slides, and computerized test banks on CD-ROM, floppy disks, or even on the Web. Some schools are producing, or arranging access to, large collections of digital materials.

The most extensive, if still not fully developed, source for electronic resources is the World Wide Web. Many web sites can deliver primary documents, secondary literature, sound, and images from a wide variety of sources. Students who explore web sites related to a course can bring compelling evidence and arguments back to the class. Publishers are building companion web sites around their textbooks, and large international projects have been launched to provide on-line sources for standard humanities and social science survey courses. Finally, libraries and scholars are making scanned materials accessible over the Web, although the copyright implications of this practice require close attention.

In both cases, these relatively new forms of material require some special handling. You should approach selecting electronic sources for your course with the following guidelines in mind:

  • Ensure that all electronic assignments contribute to the objectives of the course. The new materials should pass the same relevance test as traditional material.
  • Personally evaluate the scholarly quality of your electronic sources. Although linking to electronic sources might be free, one substandard source can lower the credibility of the course.
  • Use the appropriate medium. Can these materials be more easily or effectively used in a more traditional form? Try to use the Web for things that it can do particularly well: displaying multimedia material, hyperlinking to other sources, providing interactive experiences, or improving access to otherwise cumbersome or distant materials. As on-line archives begin providing access to recordings and radio and television programs, its possible value to teachers will increase even further.
  • When dealing with massive collections of primary documents, make the task of using them more manageable by discussing ahead of time the particular questions the collection might help answer. Then divide the class into groups, each of which will explore the archive with a particular question in mind. Short review papers, web-page postings, or in-class presentations can enable each group to share small numbers of documents, images, and other artifacts that address the question or theme they have chosen.
  • Reinforce traditional research skills. Using on-line information requires at least as much skill and discipline as using traditional sources. Just because students can "cut and paste" from on-line sources, the process of researching and writing is not fundamentally different from that for a project that uses more traditional sources. Encourage students to take the same detailed notes and to follow the same strict citation procedures they use for conventional printed sources.
  • Mix traditional and electronic sources. Require students to consult traditional printed and microform source material as well as electronic resources. Most valuable sources will not be digitized any time soon, if ever, so student research should include at least as many traditional sources as electronic ones. Students wedded to the Internet sometimes tend to assume that they need never use a traditional library; some act at times as if they think information that is not on the Web does not exist. Be sure that you structure assignments in a way that does not sever your students' ties to the most important sources of scholarly material.
  • Caution your students to be especially critical readers of on-line sources. Explain the Web's fluid (or nonexistent) editorial standards and the need to determine the standards, origin, and scholarly discipline that went into the creation of each on-line source. Virtually anyone can create a web site, and there is no review process to test sites for accuracy or reliability unless the creator of the site initiates one. To avoid the problems such lax standards can cause, you should heavily emphasize the on-line offerings of established libraries, archives, and universities.
  • To ensure that your students become critical consumers of on-line material, consider having them complete a quick questionnaire after reading the first electronic resource of the term. Ask them to identify the author of the material, give the address (URL) for the site, and comment on the scholarly methods and reputation of the sponsoring organization or individual. Have them try to discover how long a site has been in existence and how long the reference will remain on-line. Will more material be added or corrections made? How should they cite this material in their papers, and can they be sure the material will still be at that location? A short discussion of the answers in class will counteract many of the sources of confusion and disappointment.

Electronic Publishing of Student Work

Ordinarily, when students write essays or research papers for a course, they write for an audience of one: the instructor. But teachers who have persuaded students that they are writing for a broader audience have found that students take the work more seriously and devote a great deal more effort to it. Creating a system of on-line publications for your course, or for your department, can have a tremendous impact on student engagement with scholarly work. On-line publishing also creates opportunities for student collaboration, and for students to take a more direct and responsible role in the learning process than they otherwise might. Another thing that makes electronic publishing valuable is that it exposes students to the stylistic constraints and opportunities of the new digital media. Already, a considerable portion of this nation's business, scholarly, and personal communication occurs through e-mail, the World Wide Web, and private networks of computers. A number of important periodicals, such as Salon Magazine and Microsoft's Slate, exist primarily or solely on-line.

The range of electronic publishing techniques you use in your course depends largely on the technical skills, resources, and imagination of you or your class. Students have performed the following with considerable success:

  • Multimedia in-class presentations: A student uses a presentation program to supplement a standard spoken presentation with images, charts and graphs, or sound.
  • Essays in the form of World Wide Web pages: While even a traditional text essay might be posted for comment, the best web essays will make use of the Web's unique ability to incorporate multimedia elements.
  • Web teaching units for your class or other classes: Students can become teachers by sharing their research and analysis with the class or with an outside audience (including secondary and primary school classes).
  • Web exhibits: By emulating the form and rigor of museum and library exhibits, students can produce a classroom and community resource on their topic.
  • Collaborative projects: All of the above projects lend themselves to collaborative work by groups of students.
  • Classroom archive/library: Over the years, a digitally savvy course might accumulate an excellent library of digital student essays, teaching units, exhibits, and dialogues.

The promise of electronic publishing is almost evenly matched by its perils. The following steps will help you avoid the most common pitfalls:

  • Establish and communicate the pedagogical goals of the assignment. You should justify deviation from traditional forms of student work by establishing that the innovation will improve the students' knowledge, skills, or learning experience.
  • Make the assignment appropriate to the medium. Most rewarding are assignments that make use of multimedia sources, hyperlinks, and collaboration with resources or people over the Internet. For text-only essays, ensure that the students' classmates or an outside scholar or peer comments on the published papers.
  • Provide appropriate technical and stylistic support. Even if the assignment is voluntary, many students will need help with the new requirements of publishing on-line or preparing multimedia presentations. Arrange for help from your school's computer department, devote a particular class to a group tutorial, or devote a portion of your office hours to technical assistance. Teaching computing skills in non-computer science classes is a controversial practice; be sure not to allow the technology to overwhelm the substance.
  • Keep technological hurdles as low as possible. If possible, use web page templates, simple submission forms, and any other aid that can keep the focus of the class on the subject matter and not the tools. Keep abreast of the range of technical skill among your students through classroom and schoolwide surveys, or even a show of hands on the first day of class.
  • Arrange campus, local, scholarly, or international exposure for your students' work. The publishing aspect of the Web is too often assumed to happen spontaneously. A moderate effort at planning how to distribute and publicize your students' work can ensure that students feel their publications have been taken seriously.
  • Integrate and archive student work on the course home page. Many students appreciate contributing to the knowledge of the class and to the learning experience of their peers. A gallery of past student work is also effective advertising of your course to prospective students. Pay careful attention to privacy issues regarding student work; school policy and privacy laws may require pseudonyms and anonymous entries when student work is exposed to an outside audience. Certainly nothing should ever be published without the express permission of its author.

As promising as these new media forms might be, the lack of clear standards for evaluating this work has sometimes hampered their adoption. Teachers are comfortable guiding and evaluating students on traditional essays and presentations. Multimedia presentations or web pages require even more explicit guidelines to avoid highly uneven results. Electronic projects should fulfill the assignment, make appropriate use of multimedia material, conform to on-line style conventions, and respect the diversity and size of their potential audience.

Multimedia Lecturing

Despite several generations of harsh criticism, lecturing remains one of the most common, and often one of the most effective, means of teaching. At its best, a lecture enlivens academic subjects with the instructor's energy and curiosity and with the persuasive nuances of human speech. Nevertheless, lecturing has its limits, most notably the reputed twelve-minute average human attention span, the difficulty of representing complex material verbally, and the awkwardness of presenting diverse, multimedia sources.

These challenges have already led teachers to use chalkboards, overhead and slide projectors, and audiovisual equipment. Some schools are beginning to provide classrooms equipped with built-in or portable multimedia computer systems. You can take advantage of the electronic possibilities for lecturing by familiarizing yourself with the most popular and powerful computerized classroom tool: presentation software such as Microsoft PowerPoint. Business presenters were the early adopters of this software, driven by the less captive nature of their audiences. Teachers have recently begun to use such programs to consolidate into one device the presentation of multimedia material that supplements their lectures.

The basic concept behind presentation software is a familiar one; it is the same as that for the slide show or overhead transparencies. The most elementary use of presentation programs is as a glorified slide projector to display a sequence of pictures or documents to accompany your lecture. When using computerized presentation, however, you can easily add captions to the images, digitally highlight or annotate them, or combine multiple images on a single "slide." Teachers who distribute lecture outlines or write them on the board might want to include that text on a projected slide.

At their most advanced, these programs can allow teachers to add sound, video, and even interactive charts and graphs to slides. You might, for example, project a map that demonstrates various changes as you advance along a time line. If the classroom computer system has Internet access, you can hyperlink your slides to World Wide Web resources, effectively incorporating that material into your lecture.

The use of presentation software in the classroom requires careful planning and a not inconsiderable investment of time. You should be prepared to take some or all of the following steps:

  • Determine whether you have access to the equipment and special classrooms necessary to display electronic presentations. At a minimum, you will need a laptop computer, a projection device compatible with your software and hardware, and a classroom with a convenient electrical outlet, dimmable lights, and an appropriate screen. Check that the computer is capable of producing all the effects you plan for the class such as sound, video, or Internet access.
  • Ensure that your own computer equipment will allow you to create and maintain these presentations. Manipulating multimedia resources requires a relatively powerful computer and, with some exceptions, a modern graphical operating system such as the Macintosh Operating System or Windows.
  • Acquire a presentation program. Many of the more popular office suites (for instance, from Microsoft, Corel, or Lotus) include them. Your campus may already have purchased licenses to one or more of these products. Finally, check to make sure your choice is compatible with the systems installed in classrooms.
  • Write or revise your lectures with the multimedia slide show in mind. Begin to collect compelling pictures and artwork, explanatory maps and charts, music clips, even short videos that might enhance your analysis. Evaluate which of these materials can be rendered in digital form, and consider the copyright implications—if possible by discussing them with the relevant experts in your school. When preparing text for your presentation—headings or explanatory captions—use simple clauses and standard fonts (for example, Arial or Times New Roman) to ensure that your presentation will look the same regardless of what computer you are using. The best font size for headings is twenty-four point, although you can use thirty point or higher if you wish.
  • Be sure to calculate how long a visual or audio presentation will take and how much of a reduction in the other parts of your lecture may be necessary.
  • Digitize the material that best advances your teaching goals. Your campus may have a central lab for digitizing materials, and you might find some of the equipment affordable enough for a department or individual to own. Make the file size of the slides as small as possible, even if it means sacrificing a little of the display quality. These images and sounds will typically be experienced on a large screen or in a noisy room, so fine details might be lost in any case.
  • Keep the design of your electronic slides simple and efficient. Include only material that directly supports the point you are making in the lecture. Eliminate all unnecessary special effects, backgrounds, and animation.
  • Proofread and test your presentations thoroughly on your machine and in the classroom. Pay special attention to the legibility and overall quantity of text on your slides. And be sure your work is stored in at least two different places. Concentrating your multimedia material on one machine or one disk may be convenient, but this also creates a single point of failure in the notoriously fickle personal computer.
  • Have a backup plan. Make sure that you will be able to deliver the main substance of your lecture whether or not everything works perfectly. In the case of equipment failure, do not waste class time trying to solve the problem.
  • Plan to publish your slide shows on the course home page, if you have one. While traditional slide shows are difficult to reproduce for absent students or to review at exam time, many presentation programs offer a relatively simple procedure for publishing your show on the Web.
  • Use electronic resources to help encourage student participation during your lectures—for example, by presenting a variety of images, primary documents, or other materials that could form the basis for an in-class debate or conversation.

Electronic Discussions

Perhaps the most controversial (and probably the most common) application of technology is as a supplement to or replacement for face-to-face conversation. Small group discussions are an irreplaceable forum for teaching, learning, and thoughtful collaboration. They are not, however, without problems. Small discussion groups are an expensive way to organize teaching, and as a result they are becoming less common in some of the budget-conscious schools and universities of our time. Some students—shy people, or those who are not native English speakers—are uncomfortable in small group discussions and do not actively participate in them. Students speaking in a classroom setting can make superficial contributions that would have benefited from more advance preparation. On-line discussions can help compensate for these problems.

On-line discussion tools fall into two basic categories: synchronous (chat) and asynchronous (e-mail, mailing lists, and threaded discussions). In a synchronous discussion, students in effect talk to one another over the Internet in much the same way they speak on the telephone; in asynchronous discussions, the communication is more like an exchange of letters, even if potentially much more rapid. In general, classes with no face-to-face meetings are the best candidates for synchronous on-line discussions that approximate the dynamic and serendipitous qualities of small discussion groups. Classes that already meet together may find asynchronous electronic forums a useful supplement to their regular discussions. A class can also, of course, get the advantages of both by using an asynchronous discussion forum over the course of the term with periodic chat sessions for special guests or events.

The most basic, but still very useful, technique is to use the campus e-mail system to broadcast messages to your students. For large lecture courses or classes that require frequent out-of-class communication this method alone can save considerable amounts of time. E-mail lists—a group of e-mail addresses grouped under a single alias such as "english101" or "us-survey" and often known as a listserve—can be particularly useful for large classes. Lists can also allow members of the class to communicate with each other. Slightly more complicated and resource intensive are threaded discussion forums such as Usenet and various web-based forums; such forums keep a permanent record of each person's contribution so that each succeeding participant can review the entire course of a conversation and add his or her own contribution to it. Chat sessions take perhaps the most planning, the most specialized software, and considerable guidance on chat room etiquette and procedures.

To use electronic discussion tools in your class, consider the following steps:

  • Determine whether electronic discussions contribute to your pedagogical goals. These tools require a significant time commitment from teacher and students and should only be used if they serve an important educational function. Most teachers turn to electronic discussions to get students thinking critically about the reading before they come to class, to answer questions of comprehension and fact as they occur, and to provide some continuity of thought between one week's topic and the next.
  • Investigate the tools and practices of your campus. E-mail is the only technique that has near-universal support on campuses in the United States. Your ability to implement other forms of electronic discussions will be significantly shaped by your school's choice of additional communication tools.
  • Make the on-line discussion substantive and unique. Provide information in these sessions that cannot be found elsewhere or at least not as conveniently. On-line discussions can be a supplement to, or possibly a replacement for, some of the communications that occur during office hours. They can allow a student who has had a conversation with you in your office to continue that conversation with other questions and ideas as they arise; and they can allow a student who cannot attend your office hours or who was discouraged by a long line to communicate with you in other ways.
  • Think of particular purposes that would be well served by electronic discussions. You might, for example, create a web-based review session before an exam. Students can submit questions to you electronically, and you can respond to them by posting an answer on the Web that will be available to all the students in your class. You can organize similar targeted discussions at any point in a course.
  • Consider the demands of on-line discussions in light of students' work load and time commitments. Balance any required participation with reduced demands in other areas of the course. Otherwise, you can expect students to be reluctant or resentful of the new tasks.
  • Require or reward participation to prevent your on-line discussions from suffering the "empty restaurant syndrome" (the aura of failure that surrounds any place or project that attracts few visitors) or becoming the preserve of a small group of computer enthusiasts. Without clear guidance from the instructor about the importance of this activity, even many of your hardest-working students will decline to participate. One particularly successful strategy is to assign one or two students in the class to post a discussion question at the beginning of each week, and another student or pair of students to write a response or follow-up message at the end of the week. Integrate on-line events (student presentations, debates, interaction with outside experts or other classes) into your course schedule.
  • Evaluate the skills and habits of your students. Determine whether a simple list of e-mail addresses can meet your needs. Since many students already use e-mail for personal correspondence, e-mail messages about your course have a high chance of being read. Whatever system you use, you can dramatically reduce student confusion (and time-consuming requests for assistance) by distributing a detailed handout describing how students can perform such basic tasks as sending mail to your class list, reaching your course web site, or using a conferencing system.
  • Republish (with permission from the authors and in edited form) interesting or provocative dialogues on the course web page or through handouts. Having their words taken seriously in this manner will encourage student participation.
  • Evaluate accessibility problems. Off-campus, technologically challenged, and physically handicapped students may require special arrangements. Find out what campus resources are available to assist these groups.

Finally, to make these technologies work in your classroom, you must make regular contributions to the electronic discussions just as you would to a face-to-face discussion. On-line discussions have to be closely monitored to ensure their intellectual usefulness and to reinforce the importance of etiquette in this relatively unfamiliar terrain. You yourself must be a participant to ensure that students take them seriously. But guard your time. Be careful not to create an on-line discussion in which every query is directed at you. Your participation is essential, but you should not allow yourself to be overwhelmed with electronic communications.

Computer technology is becoming both more useful and more cost effective for many fields of teaching. And yet only you, the teacher, can determine whether these methods will prove effective in your classroom. Whatever you decide, remember that technology complements, but does not fundamentally alter, the elements of teaching.

Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 143-67 of The Chicago Handbook for Teachers: A Practical Guide to the College Classroom by Alan Brinkley, Betty Dessants, Michael Flamm, Cynthia Fleming, Charles Forcey, and Eric Rothschild, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1999 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Alan Brinkley, Betty Dessants, Michael Flamm, Cynthia Fleming, Charles Forcey, and Eric Rothschild
The Chicago Handbook for Teachers: A Practical Guide to the College Classroom
Cloth $25.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-07511-2
Paper $10.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-07512-9
©1999, 196 pages

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Chicago Handbook for Teachers.

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