Higher Education in the Information Age

The Undergraduate Experience

Steven Morgan Friedman


Stanley Chodorow: Very good. Our final speaker is Morgan Friedman. Morgan, I remember a conversation in his residence at about eleven o'clock one night in which the topic of the conversation was "Does Morgan sleep?" And Morgan didn't know at the time. He thought he might from time to time doze off at the keyboard. All of his peers who were in the room testified that there was no time of day or night when Morgan's signature was not on their machines, one way or another, and so they couldn't figure out when or if he slept. But Morgan has created some remarkable pages and projects and is going to tell us a little bit about his experience. Morgan.

Steven Morgan Friedman: Unfortunately last night was one of those late nights when I didn't sleep, so I may not be fully with it, but I hope to be. One of my interests is the 1830's. I like the 1830's a lot. Also, like Mark Taylor, who spoke a little bit about before me, I'm also very interested in the history of universities. As a result, the past years, for a series of projects and grants and the like, I've been going to all these New England old universities trying to figure out what exactly university life was like back in 1830. One thing I discovered was that, among the students back then, they really had an intellectual community in a lot of sense of the word. Well, overlooking the tendency to riot and burn down buildings, but I'll write that off to the whims of 14 year olds. University students were 14 at the time. And the reason, I'm theorizing, why they had such an intellectual community is because all the students went through what I call a "shared, common, intellectual experience".

It was very easy for them. Back then the universities were all tiny. Everyone took the same classes. There was no diversity, religiously or ethnically among the students. What's happened today with our universities is all three of these things have disappeared. Universities are huge, we have lots of electives, and our students are very diverse. As a result of this, this shared, common, intellectual experience has disappeared. As a result, we don't have the intellectual communities that they once did. What I'm going to propose to you now is that we can recreate this intellectual community using new technologies. Specifically, I want to suggest that we redefine or re-conceptualize the notion of interactivity.

Most people look at interactivity the way my German professor did in September. I started German in September. I did think it was going to be fun. I'm not sure what I was thinking. And the very first day, on one of the first days of class, the German the professor excitedly told the class all about the Internet--she was very gung ho about it--and all the new technologies everyone had been hearing about, and she said that they were going to be using it in the class. The department had, after all, gotten a nice grant the summer before and spent all summer working on it. Big Web site--a very elaborate Web site. So I was very excited, being the Internet savvy person I think I am, and I eagerly awaited for this.

What I discovered, though, after a few weeks of playing around with the Web site was what their interactivity was, was really just a Web site with lots of information on-line and a bunch of or lots of exercises with these fill in the blank sort of things. And it was very nifty because you would fill in the answers, click submit, and they would tell your grade immediately, and it immediately sent it to your teacher with the times down and all that, which is very good for what it did. However, I went up to the teacher at one point and I told her that we weren't making full use of the Internet as we should be. And this wasn't nearly enough in my mind. It's only the tip of the iceberg. And so what I ended up doing was I proposed to the teacher three courses of action, three things we could do that to varying degrees we implemented for our freshman, first semester, German class.

The first thing that I proposed was the use of this very spiffy new technology called "Real Audio". With Real Audio, through Netscape Browser when you're on the World Wide Web, you can listen to a live radio broadcast 24x7. Well one day I was surfing and I discovered that all these German radio stations broadcast continuously about all the time. So I started listening on my computer sitting at Netscape to these live German radio stations while I was writing my papers about the 1830's and so on, and it was enormously helpful. And I went to my teacher and suggested that we should do the same for we should encourage these students to do the same. This is truly an invention of the Internet. However, this really doesn't have much to do with my new notion of interactivity. It was just something very helpful and useful I discovered and wanted to share with all of you.

The second thing, more to the point, the second interactive use was I suggested that we create a course listserv. Course listservs, as Myra was talking about a little while ago, increase the dialogue and discourse outside of class. Even if we just go to our e-mail at ten o'clock at night and see "Guten tog, vergates" sort of thing, it is bringing that sort of German dialogue into our lives.

The third thing I proposed, well at this time something separate and very coincidental, which is, separately from all this, I maintain a Web page which is a unique Web research listing all the home pages, or lots of home pages, of American university students, organized by university. So you can click on Williams College, then you go to the Williams page listing all of their home pages, which is a very nice page actually.

However, at this time, I randomly got an e-mail from Herr Roebuck Stein in Austria suggesting to me, "Hey, why don't you add these student home pages from Germany." So I looked at their lists, and there are all these hundreds and hundreds of German students just like Myra and me and everyone else in my German class who are putting up all of this information about themselves in this, living in Germany, using all the same words and everything that we were learning in our class. I got immediately absorbed, amused by the fact that I could actually understand what I was reading. And I went through a lot of these pages and I ended up e-mailing lots of these random people, just with "Guten tog," you know, "Icht heizer Morgan" and so on in my very beginning German. And what ended up happening was I created all this discourse and dialogue and was able to have German conversations, granted very simple German conversations, but none-the-less German, I think, and with all these native speakers who were very happy to have a pen pal and someone as enthusiastic as I was.

This, I think, is the point: that my notion of interactivity is all about creating this sort of dialogue and creating this sort of discourse. Rather than having a static Web page and all this very good, useful information, I think to be truly interactive you have to go one step further and we have to take full advantage of having the other human beings on the other side of the computer.

Now just to give you two other examples of when I've done this in an academic setting that proved to be very successful, well also true to my interests in the history of Penn around 1830, last year I created a very nifty multi-media Web tour through the history of Penn. And although it's been quite popular with everyone going to see the pretty pictures, the most popular part of it has been an "Ask the Archivist" sort of feature, where students or anyone else interested in doing research can send questions in, interact, and have discourse directly with us, in addition to all the information we put on line.

A second use of this dialogue aspect of new technologies that I'm encouraging is an independent study I took last semester. Myra spoke about Al. I'll speak about professor O'Donnell. I took an independent study with him, in which I met him, we had dinner twice the whole semester I believe, but we would exchange e-mails three, four times every day. The whole semester. We had a non-stop conversation. One-on-one. About all the books and lots of other things that I was doing in the class, and I would e-mail him my papers. This is another thing, taking the Web projects and everything in class one step further to the dialogue. And this, too, is also the criticism that I have of the pundits and everyone who goes around declaring that the Web and the Net is so democratic because everyone's behind an e-mail address. I say, "No, it's not that we're equal behind an e-mail address," because we're not. Really the Net is really democratic because it provides us with an opportunity for free and open discourse and dialogue, and what democracy is really about is having open discourse and discussion.

So where am I going to or what does this all boil down to? Well, it brings us back to the 1830's. These days for me everything seems to bring me back to the 1830's, and I just spent a couple weeks in Cambridge doing research about the university there, Harvard, in the 1830's, and I found something that really caught my interest a lot. Back then all the students would get together and print up these pamphlets about 20 pages, speeches, things, everything--print them up, distribute them everywhere. They usually called them "Circulars", or "The Student Circulars", and they would give them everywhere, kind of like Web pages in a way. But then, because they were often addressing issues on campus, very often the faculty would get together their own circular, print them up, and distribute copies to everyone else in Cambridge. Then I found a lot of incidents where this continued on and on, where the faculty would print a response to the students, the students would write another response to the faculty, and so on. And this would happen endlessly about all the issues.

What this was was, back in 1830, the students had interactivity, interactivity 175 years before the Internet. They were interacting and having this ongoing discourse and dialogue with their professors, and that's why they had an intellectual community back then. And what I'm suggesting, too, is that, using these new technologies, we, too, can do the same, with our own twist for the 21st century.



Contact: heia@pobox.upenn.edu
URL: http://www.upenn.edu/heia/proceed/present/friedmantrans.html
Last modified: 19 January 1998