The Shroud of Lecturing First Monday

The Shroud of Lecturing

Explosive growth of the Web and the dynamism of the home page encourage instructors to develop more interesting and interactive ways to engage their students in learning. At a fundamental level, the Web challenges the authority of the professor in the classroom by democratizing information. It shifts the focus from production and delivery to customer and content -- from professor and lecture to student and information. The most skillful instructor is therefore the one who can best teach discernment among myriad competing sources of information. The culture of higher education is likely to be profoundly changed as a result. Development of pedagogical tools and curricular content will move beyond the scope of most individual faculty, who will require the help of a skilled team. Individual departments will be less important as the literal and figurative interconnectedness of information on the Web exposes the artificiality of disciplinary barriers. And individual institutions will learn to share their resources, students, and revenues, inevitably diluting the importance of "the university as a physical space" in many cases. Failure to prepare for this technological change will open the door to others who are unlikely to be motivated to preserve the larger values of the 800-year tradition of the university.


A Trace of Glory
Distributed Learning and Discernment
Democratization of Information
A Convincing Structure

A Trace of Glory

In Spring 1995, Michael Mauldin concluded that the World Wide Web comprised more than four million documents (mostly "home pages") occupying about 30 gigabytes of storage on nearly 24, 000 servers connected through the Internet. In late September 1995, Mauldin and his partner John Leavitt, the co-creators at Carnegie Mellon University of the now-commercialized Internet indexing and searching tool Lycos, increased that estimate to over eight million documents. They were adding and revising another 50, 000 pages a day through automated computer programs referred to as Web-crawlers or "spiders," but the rate of their effort, if not the accumulated volume, was overtaken by one begun earlier in September by Eric Brewer at the University of California at Berkeley. Using four parallel workstations, Brewer's Inktomi was finding and indexing more than 100, 000 documents a day. And then on December 15, 1995, along came a new spider, AltaVista -- although it most certainly did not sit down: by Fall 1996 this project from Digital's research laboratories in Palo Alto had indexed the full text of more than 30 million pages and claimed to have the world's fastest spider, "Scooter, " able to crawl at 3 million pages per day. (Crawl? Perhaps this is a field ripe for more realistic jargon.)

What is one to make of this business? And in particular, what are the implications of this stupendous growth rate for higher education? First of all let's ask "Growth rate of what?" Is it merely data, or data structured as information, or information actually organized into knowledge, as one of my University at Albany faculty colleagues Thomas Galvin prefers to distinguish? Or is it, as in the recent television ads for the NYNEX Yellow Pages, simply "more stuff"? Certainly there is a lot available that can qualify as frivolous or useless. But there is also an astonishing richness of sources accessible with unprecedented ease and speed to anyone with an Internet connection and a browser such as Netscape Navigator. If I planned to be in Paris, I could find out what string quartet concerts are scheduled at the Louvre. Or if I want to know the weather somewhere in the U.S., I can get data from an Atmospheric Science server in my own institution; but, more than likely, I will seek out a simpler map that someone at the Weather Channel has prepared. Or if I need data on the geochemistry of volcanic rocks from the sea floor of the eastern Pacific to complete a research manuscript, I can simply go to a database at Columbia University instead of digging through my reprint collection, photocopying yet more pages in the Library, using an outdated floppy, or contacting colleagues.

The point is that today, whether you regard any particular item as useful or useless, there are many items on the Web; the number available and the subset of them being made easily accessible by the indexers and their spiders will increase almost infinitely; and therefore over time the things of value to any particular person, say an undergraduate student, will increase merely enormously. This situation has the potential to change higher education in a simple but profound way: faculty members standing in front of the classroom will no longer be the arbiters of knowledge that they have been for six to eight centuries (at least in some of the older institutions in England and Italy), and therefore in many disciplines the lecture as a principal mode of instruction may survive with only a trace of its former glory.

Distributed Learning and Discernment

The latter conclusion is probably easier to see and certainly easier for most faculty to accept. In fact, others have made virtually the same point, though typically for different or more general reasons. For example, as long ago as mid-1994 (!), William Graves, Associate Provost at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, introduced the concept of distributed learning in calling for a re-assessment of instructional delivery models in the face of new societal expectations, diminishing budgets, and expanding technology. He noted the inefficiency in this new climate of the labor-intensive contact-hour course and the threat to quality that arises in trying to balance class size and courseload, and he pointed out that distance learning is not a solution. By most definitions, distance learning says that students can be anywhere and that a teacher will reach them to transmit knowledge in traditional ways, which commonly means lecturing with one- or two-way video and audio transmitted by phone line, cable TV, or satellite. By contrast, distributed learning says that information can be anywhere and that the teacher and students can find and use it to create and transmit knowledge in non-traditional and arguably better ways (and, no, the students and teachers need not be in the same physical location, but that is secondary and may even be irrelevant). Explosive growth of the Web is the breakthrough that makes distributed learning possible. The pace has been so rapid, in fact, that Graves didn't even mention the Web in his remarks.

Graves urged that we find ways for faculty "to guide the student learner when guidance is most needed and in a way that inspires exploratory self study" (my emphasis). To change his business metaphor only slightly, we need to reconceptualize education around customer and content -- student and information-- rather than around production and delivery -- professor and lecture. The role of faculty then becomes to facilitate acquisition of knowledge by teaching discernment, which is getting very close to the goal that most of us longingly articulate: we want to teach students to think.

In the September 22, 1995, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, in a piece on "What Promise Does the Internet Hold for Scholars?", Raymond Smock, former Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, described the dilemma that scholars can face in choosing among multiple digitized versions of documents -- in his illustration it was the Gettysburg Address -- and in knowing whether all, some, or none of them are of value. This is, of course, precisely the issue of discernment, and it requires someone of expertise and energy to organize the information into knowledge, perhaps even into wisdom. One excellent example of this is Roger Blumberg's MendelWeb, a "textbook"on genetics crafted around hypertext links to Gregor Mendel's original papers. Here is a section from the Table of Contents of MendelWeb:

Mendel's Paper of 1865

  • Table of Contents for Mendel's Paper

  • Versuche uber Pflanzen-Hybriden (Mendel's original paper in html)

  • Experiments in Plant Hybridization (a modified version of the "Bateson" translation, in html)

  • Experiments in Plant Hybridization (an annotated version of the above, in html)

  • The MendelWeb Archive (to view and download both German and English versions in a variety of formats)
  • It is obvious that Blumberg has shown, in principle, how to address the discernment issue raised by Smock, and he has done so with original sources that the typical undergraduate student might otherwise never encounter. For those faculty and students for whom a historical perspective is a helpful approach to teaching and learning, what could be better?

    In an article entitled "Ex Libris" in the September/October 1995 issue of The Sciences, Blumberg also described some of the potential impact of MendelWeb and similar sites. For example, a textbook has fixed content the minute it is printed, and it tends to be used in the linear fashion in which it was designed by the authors. In other words, it is closed, static, and serial. By contrast, MendelWeb or any Web site is open, dynamic, and hyperlinked. Blumberg included a version of Mendel's paper to which any browsing reader can add comments --hence students can learn from each other -- and he built in links to other Web sites such as the Time Warner Virtual Garden that add content and breadth but avoid duplication. There is no better illustration of how knowledge is artificially compartmentalized by reductionism than to move on from such primary links to sites that are three or four mouse clicks away. The risk of getting sidetracked from the Virtual Garden (through Jeremy Hylton's home page at MIT) to Trinity College Dublin is worth it, as long as you know when to stop.

    It is important to understand from an example like MendelWeb that the Web doesn't offer simply a more convenient form of inter-library loan, the traditional way of borrowing print materials from other institutions. Rather, it promises access to pages that a teacher wants the student to look at, hyperlinks to "more stuff" that the author of the home page judged to be more-or-less relevant, searchable indices for other topics that the student can decide to pursue, and all of it instantly. But what sets even these features of the Web apart from the very best research library is the dynamism of the home page. Imagine that you looked at a book on the shelf of such a library and then returned a week later to look at it again -- and it had been updated by the author in the interim and perhaps annotated by someone else with the author's permission. Imagine that you had a question about a fact or the logic of an argument or a bibliographic source -- and you could turn to the end of the book, immediately send a message to the author or other readers, and be reasonably certain of a prompt reply. These impossibilities in the library exist now on the Web.

    Echoing Graves, Blumberg concluded that "Sites like MendelWeb... will enable students to teach themselves. Classrooms, if they continue to exist as we know them, can be devoted to discussions and other social learning experiences. Teachers might seem mere systems managers in such a scenario, but in truth they will have to devote far more thought and effort to education." The role of the teacher then becomes to provide a type of customized mentoring that fits the needs of the many different modes by which students learn. This will generally not mean fewer faculty, but rather ones who have adopted a different perspective on teaching. Most faculty will welcome the intellectual challenge of this kind of change, whether they see it as a way to improve their teaching or as a way to work with the latest technology. What will be much less welcome to some is the challenge to faculty authority that will arise when data, information, and knowledge are freely and easily available to anyone.

    Democratization of Information

    All this moves toward democratization of information, like giving out the CEO's e-mail address to all the employees, or even the public. Once it is done, life may never be the same again. It is one thing to be challenged in the classroom by a comment such as "But it says such-and-such on page 87 of the textbook." It is quite another to have a student say to you, "I looked at two dozen Web sites last night, and the information I found doesn't support your conclusion." It is one thing to deal with the dated words of an absentee author, quite another to confront immediate, personalized discoveries --"I looked/I found" -- especially if you haven't yet discovered the source yourself!

    Most of higher education, both institutions and faculties, is not prepared for this future. There is insufficient equipment, network infrastructure, support, and expertise to realize this vision overnight, or perhaps even over a decade. But these are merely budgetary impediments, however daunting they may appearat a particular time and place. Many faculty members are eager to embrace or create their own pieces of this future, and the newest arrivals to the professoriate simply take it as a given -- it is the only working environment they have known. These people will prod their institutions from the academic side to invest the money, as will competition from the enterprise side. (Remember, higher education is a business, although one whose model has changed recently almost without notice, as pointed out by Arthur Levine, President of Teachers College at Columbia University in the January 31, 1997, issue of The Chronicle in an essay entitled, "Higher Education's New Status as a Mature Industry." Although most faculty do not like this idea, the seed is already there as described in The Virtual Academic Village. And if Motorola University already exists, can a real university at IBM or Microsoft be far behind?)

    Some small number of traditional institutions will take a leadership role in creating this future, but it will not necessarily be the ones with the most technological facility. There are certainly barriers to the easy flow of information on the Web, but tools such as Java, which offers platform-independent, browser-based applications, WebSeeker, which can search multiple Web indices and directories simultaneously, URL-minder, which can detect and notify users of changes in Web pages, HyperWave, a next-generation Web system, VIR Image Engine, which searches and sorts collections of photographs and other images, and FlashPix, which promises to make the handling of images as simple as word processing, suggest that the pace of innovation can generally address technological issues as they arise. As a result, I believe that the fundamental challenge presented by the Web to higher education is not technological but cultural -- not to its curriculum and pedagogy but to its outlook and values.

    This point has been made by several other authors, and as the titles of their pieces suggest, it is not a comforting prospect (but then neither is the notion of a shroud):

  • "Warning: Information Technology Will Transform the University" (William A. Wulf, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Virginia and currently Interim President of the National Academy of Engineering);

  • "Electronics and the Dim Future of the University" (Eli M. Noam, Professor of Finance and Economics at Columbia University); and

  • "Power Plants or Candle Factories?" (Donald N. Langenberg, Chancellor of the University of Maryland System).
  • A Convincing Structure

    But perhaps the most compelling backdrop for all such discussion is "Come the Millenium, Where the University?" by Gerhard Casper, President of Stanford University. He put the larger issue succinctly: "The main question is this. Will technological substitution be complete, or will the university as a physical space continue to attract students?" Casper described simply and eloquently the value of universities to society, both organizationally and spatially, as they perform their roles in credentialing, socially integrating, and maturing students; creating, assessing, and transferring knowledge; and selecting, reviewing, and nurturing scholars, locally and globally. His conclusion: "The university as a physical space will remain attractive to the extent that we will make it more valuable to people to interact personally and face to face in learning and research.... The university as a physical space will be superior to anything else to the extent that we provide a convincing structure for individual learning."

    There will be at least three pieces to be worked out as part of such a "convincing structure." The first and simplest will be initiatives of individual faculty to create more MendelWebs and their own imaginative variants. One elegant and thorough design is the history of science project, Galileo, at Rice University, and another interesting one is a materials science course at MIT on Interactive Crystallography that links to Maple, the computer algebra system. Among the most extensive lists of such offerings are Teaching and Learning on the Web at the Maricopa Community Colleges and World Lecture Hall at The University of Texas at Austin. These lists make it clear that this new approach has been adopted across the entire spectrum of disciplines. And as both the quantity and quality of such offerings inevitably increase, another arena of academic competition may develop. The scholars who create these new sites may become "attractions" in their own right, in the same way that distinguished researchers are now to doctoral students, and institutions will certainly seek to bask in their reflected glory. Graves mentioned a subtle point, however, that may emerge soon: "We would do well to remember that quality education and quality entertainment share one characteristic: both should be engaging." The implied comparison is one that many people in higher education would prefer to avoid, even though it may be obvious and comfortable to students of the Nintendo generation.

    More importantly, the entertainment parallel brings up a practical consideration analogous to one described by Martin Solomon, former Vice Provost at the University of South Carolina, in a paper on "What's Wrong With Multimedia In Higher Education?"

    Developing quality multimedia courseware is too difficult for 98% of all faculty. Watch the end of a movie next time and notice that to produce 120 minutes of interesting material it required 100 different people at a cost of, say, $15 million. A typical higher education semester comprises over 2, 000 minutes of material. Reasonably, a meaningful amount of multimedia content might cover 10% of the course. That comes to 200 minutes -- much more time than a multi-million dollar movie.

    Providing a faculty member with a multimedia computer, a camera, a videodisc and a sound card is like giving someone a hammer, nails and lumber and asking for a house to be built. A skilled, trained professional can transform hammer, nails and wood into a nice house. But the typical faculty member has insufficient training in graphics, computer programming, directing, producing, animation and the like to make a success out of multimedia.

    The point is not that developing quality instruction using the Web presents either universal difficulty or astronomical cost. The links above to the lists at Maricopa and Texas show that neither is the case. But new skills and additional expense certainly are part of the picture, and therefore curriculum development will no longer be the exclusive domain of the instructor. Many faculty, perhaps initially most, will require assistance. Albert Van Helden, Professor of History at Rice, described his experience in an e-mail message to me:
    ... the threshold level for the Galileo project was pretty high. I spent half the time of a sabbatical year working on it, and I had a half-time electronic librarian and two students for ten hours per week each and full-time during the summer.
    And since then, his list of collaborators has grown with the addition of a studio arts technician. This is an example of "scaling up, " in which at every level -- the individual, the discipline, the institution -- old ways of working will have to expand to encompass others. And at all levels this will be a challenge to more than business as usual. However social an animal a given faculty member may be, there is also an intrinsically-solitary aspect to the life of the mind that most of us find appealing in some degree. For many, scaling up will clash with deeply-held values rooted in that life.

    The second piece of providing the "convincing structure" involves matters of institutional policy, organization and practice. For example, imagine a student who is going to live in Houston for a semester and goes to the registrar's office in his or her home institution to ask about transferring credit from Rice University for its course History 333: Galileo in Context. While there may be a fair amount of required paperwork and signatures, this is a pretty routine matter most places. Now imagine the same student asking to take the same course over the Web as part of his or her course schedule at the home institution, i.e., without ever setting foot in Houston. Galileo himself would be familiar with the likely institutional reaction: "Heresy!" (In response to an e-mail query from me, Professor Van Helden indicated that no student has yet requested to take the course remotely.) The scaling-up issue here is real-time sharing of instructional responsibility beyond the bounds of typical, geographically-based consortia. It is one thing for individuals, departments, and institutions to agree that a course a few miles away is appropriate, another thing entirely to consider a course at an institution that might as well be on the moons of Jupiter.

    As another example, faculty and executive officers will need to deal with the recognition and weight given to the commitment to and the interdisciplinarity of instructional activities in promotion and tenure decisions. This will surely grow in importance, even (especially?) in research universities. Perhaps most fundamentally, institutions may be forced to consider rebuilding their internal economies around something other than the academic department and its traditional narrow course structure. If Graves' derogation of the labor-intensive contact-hour course is widely accepted, then some other coinage may have to be minted for these economies. Interdisciplinary cadres? Teachers vs. researchers vs. service providers? I would simply note that the next unit of granularity below the department is usually the individual faculty member, who is tenured and promoted (or not) by his or her university. To date, such action most often represents institutional endorsement of an evaluation undertaken by one's external disciplinary colleagues. But as disciplinary breadth and instructional depth increase in importance, some scaling up must occur in the evaluation process. All of which leads to an intriguing question: How will the internal economies -- and the view of tenure itself -- change if institutions decide to deal, in effect, with the individual rather than the discipline?

    Thirdly, no institution can afford to proceed in isolation. This calls for the ultimate in scaling up. Stated bluntly, can the academy learn to share its resources, its students, and therefore its revenues in a more fundamental, yet transparent way? When my university revised its library expansion project a few years ago to increase greatly our already substantial array of electronic services, we began to talk about a "digital library." It is now clear that there will not be a digital library at Albany and another in Albuquerque and others in Ames, Amherst, Ann Arbor, and so on through the alphabet soup of the home cities of the members of the Association of Research Libraries. Rather there will be the national digital library to which many institutions will contribute in their distinctive and valuable ways. The same is true of distributed learning. Realization of its potential at least to reinforce and perhaps to ensure Casper's "convincing structure" for universities does not require technological innovation but forceful, collective leadership from executive officers. Unlike the digital library example, where developments are largely driven by professional interests and held back by myriad intellectual property issues, it seems likely that competition and technology will force distributed learning into prominence and sooner rather than later into widespread availability.End of article

    The Author

    Stephen E. DeLong is Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs/Information Systems at the University at Albany/SUNY in Albany, N. Y. In this position he serves as chief information officer and technology strategist for the University at Albany, one of the doctoral campuses of the SUNY system. Dr. DeLong is also Professor of Geological Sciences. He received an A.B. in geology in 1965 from Oberlin College and a Ph.D. in geology (with a formal minor in mechanical engineering) from The University of Texas at Austin in 1971 and then spent a post-doctoral year at the California Institute of Technology before coming to Albany as a faculty member in January 1973.e-mail: delong@poppa.fab.albany.edu
    Original text: August 1995
    Original posting: December 1995
    Latest revision: March 20, 1997
    Copyright © 1995-1997 by Stephen E. DeLong.

    Copyright © 1997, First Monday

    The Shroud of Lecturing by Stephen E. DeLong
    First Monday, volume 2, number 5 (May 1997),

    A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

    © First Monday, 1995-2020. ISSN 1396-0466.