'Net Is Fast Becoming A Teaching Tool

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

The Internet, long heralded as a boon to academic research by scientists and literary scholars alike, is fast becoming a key component to Boston College faculty in their classroom work.

With the Internet now accessible to most of the campus, faculty have found that its technology can complement lectures and class discussions. As the University community becomes more familiar with this technology, administrators and faculty say, the Internet could reshape many aspects of teaching and learning.

"The Internet provides a rich, new source in education - one that will ultimately be incorporated at all levels," said Associate Academic Vice President Robert Newton. "One can draw a parallel between the impact of this resource and that of movable type: When books could be mass-produced, education changed phenomenally, and permanently. Students now come with the expectation that the Internet will be part of their college experience."

Among the more popular and commonly used Internet technologies are the World Wide Web, which enables users to view documents stored at other computer sites, and USENET, which is composed of numerous "news groups" functioning as discussion forums. The University's costs for obtaining these services are minimal, according to Information Technology Assistant Director Paul Dupuis.

Faculty who create a USENET news group for a specific class may use it to announce assignments, examinations or other related news. But others find a news group can augment class discussions, especially for a course in which large numbers of students are enrolled, or even alter the nature of class participation.

Prof. John Williamson (Sociology) posted a question for students to consider each week on the news group he established for his "Death and Dying" class, dealing with issues such as assisted suicide and teenage homicides. These questions often drew as many as 20 to 30 responses apiece, some of them even from outside of the class, he said. Williamson awarded extra credit for participating in the USENET group discussions.

"In a class where there are 100 people or more, it seems to be a core group who end up doing the talking," Williamson said. "There are many others who, for a number of reasons, are not able to contribute to the class discussion. But in the USENET format, you'll find these students are able to reflect and write essay-type statements. From my point of view, they were saying some important things about the subjects we were examining."

Asst. Prof. Charles Hoffman (Biology), who taught a class of 250 on molecular cell biology and genetics with Asst. Prof. Thomas Chiles (Biology), found their news group an effective way to elaborate on textbook material where it was necessary. But most importantly, Hoffman said, a news group simply gave students more opportunity to pose questions and comments.

"During office hours, you'd have 30 people lined up and many of them had quite similar questions," Hoffman said. "Not only did our news group get more information to more students - by the end of the semester, nearly everyone in the class had logged on at least once - it gave them a feeling of access. They could ask a question at just about any time of the day or night through USENET, and they would get an answer."

Prof. Mary Cronin (CSOM), author of several Internet-related books and publications, has set up a Web site for her class "Business on the Internet," which enabled students to view case studies and pursue links to other sources Cronin felt would be valuable. In fact, as part of their assignment to devise a model business plan, students had to design a Web site for their fictional company.

"I see the Internet as multidimensional, making a number of things possible for faculty," Cronin said. "It is another way to channel your students' interest, to challenge and stimulate their creativity - and yours as well."

Assoc. Prof. Jeffrey Howe (Fine Arts) wanted his class to study the slides he used in his lectures on American architecture on their own, but found photocopying the images unsatisfactory. So Howe constructed a Web page and included digitized images of the slides on it, thus enabling students to view them at their leisure.

"This is not just a gimmick, because the students are expected to know these images and their significance to American architecture," Howe said. "My expectation is that, whether they use their own computers or those at campus workstations, students should have a good opportunity to take their time and look at the slides."

While faculty have been able to obtain assistance from InfoTech in setting up Web sites or news groups, Cronin believes the University should be examining the broader implications of using Internet technology in the classroom.

"The Internet has sparked a lot of interest in the academic community, but has also raised some questions," Cronin said. "If this technology seems as if it is going to make life harder, people often find it easier not to deal with the matter at all. I think that it often can make life easier, if you give some thought as to how it will best serve you. I look forward to seeing more discussion about this at the University."

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