Higher Education in the Information Age



The Undergraduate Experience

Myra Lotto

 

Stanley Chodorow: Thanks very much, Doug. Those of us who are in the university note that each year the freshmen come in and replace the previous freshmen in terms of their knowledge and comfort with the new technologies, and we thought it was important that we would let a couple of students who in fact aren't freshmen, but have sustained their interest and their role and have some experience with what at least is going on here in the use of technology in education. We'll start with Myra Lotto, who's in the class of '99. Myra.

Myra Lotto: A few years ago things were quite different. Webs were still made by spiders, gophers were furry little rodents, Yahoo was what we yelled while jumping into the swimming pool, Macintoshes were 99 cents a pound, and viruses would eventually go away. But now we've got this strange, new information technology stuff to play with, and this is exactly what's going to make my college education different from any of yours and different from the people who graduated just two years before me. Just a few years ago learning was about class periods and structured papers. Now students are finding an alternative through things like e-mail, listservs, and the Web. In the Spring of 1996, the Spring of my freshman year, I had my first real academic experience with info-tech in the classroom, an experience I'll never forget. I took an English class, English 103: The Short Story. It was a class by a popular Penn professor, Al Filreis, who also happens to be my academic advisor and the faculty master of my dorm.

Al seemed to gain popularity for his somewhat unorthodox teaching style. He gives the class a topic for debate, and then he presents a position. Students then separate themselves into groups in opposition or support of the position. Class was, to say the very least, contentious. A bloody massacre would be the more accurate term. But the twist in this class was that the course was a college house seminar. Only residents of my dormitory, Van Pelt College House, were allowed to enroll. This turned your neighbors into classmates and sometimes enemies.

I should have known receiving several e-mails from the professor before the semester even started that this class was going to consume a fair amount of my life. And over four billion texts later, our 26 person class shattered the Penn record for most bytes transferred over a single listserv. In four months, we wrote 2,200 pages of text. There's nothing quite like opening up your e-mail account every day to see 74 new messages from your adoring classmates. Discussions never seemed to end. Frantic e-mailings at 3 a.m. gave way to screaming matches in the hallway. It was absolutely one of the most exhausting experiences I've ever had, but it taught me a whole new way of thinking. You see, class never ended. When we left the classroom, we'd all walk back to the dorm, we'd walk into our rooms, and we'd log on. Within ten minutes e-mails would be flying. The topics, the dialogue, the passion of our learning never stopped.

There's still a huge disagreement as to exactly what we learned in that class. I think that one thing we could all agree on was that it brought us together in one writhing mass of impassioned, angry students who would look back at the experience and always remember it as a turning point, a truly unique learning experience.

A few weeks before the end of the semester, my nutty professor looked upon his minions and commanded them to make Web pages. He said simply, "Do a Web project, and make it good." Well, what in the world is a Web project? I'm the author of three of them, and I still don't know what they are. It's all just too new, and there's no precedent set. And I can only give you a temporary definition that fits with what I've done and what I've seen. A Web project is sort of a cross between a Web site and a term paper. If you visit any of these $10,000 professionally designed corporate Web sites, you see a nicely structured tree of information that eventually blurs the different branches into one nice mass of information. If it's a good Web site, you should be able to look at this mass of information and know exactly how to find the answer you're looking for. Now, if you take all this and give it a thesis and conclusion and add some salt and pepper and garlic you have a Web project. I promise you these projects are qualitatively the same as papers. They demand the same analysis and the same preparation. The medium is the only difference. A whole new rhetoric is born when you have the freedom to create hypertext links between pieces of supportive evidence. As with corporate Web sites, Web projects can eventually grow into a single mass of information, easily navigated, that produces an overwhelming sense of convincing argument. Web projects escape linear thought while maintaining a level of analysis that you'll also find in the best term papers.

So we are, and we're growing into our techno-savvy shoes at a furious pace, and we have to remember to provide support for our new creations. As we grow towards the concept of a 24-hour university where the learning never stops, I ask you to turn your focus to Jane Doe who is desperately trying to complete her paper. It is 11 p.m. the night before the paper is due. Jane has just completed her first draft, and she runs down the hall to her friend Joe. Joe is an undergraduate, a writing advisor, paid by the university to give peer feedback. Joe reads the paper. They spend an hour discussing ways to improve it, and Jane begins her lengthy revision process. Jane works diligently, but there is much to be done. Now it is 5 a.m. Joe is asleep. Jane is panicking. Jane has reached the procrastination zone. In the procrastination zone, time seems to slow to half it's speed. In the procrastination zone, you suddenly lose every writing skill you possess. Suddenly every sentence is in the passive voice, and your thesis turns to mush. Jane undergoes a physical transformation. Jane Doe has disappeared, and in her place stands e-mail woman. E-mail woman possesses super-hero powers. Quickly she leaps to the keyboard and copies the weak spots of Jane's paper into an e-mail. In her infinite wisdom, e-mail woman sends this submission to the University of Pennsylvania 24 hour writing support line. Slowly, Jane returns to her original form and passes out on her bed. In the morning, Jane awakens and leaps to her computer where she discovers an e-mail from Myra Lotto. Myra, you see, does not sleep. Myra has elaborated on Joe's comments and added her own feedback on Jane's newest revisions. It is only 9 a.m.. With a boost of confidence, Jane can now complete her draft and hand it in by 11 o'clock when it is due. With the aid of her trusty, 24 hour, electronic advisor, Jane has escaped the procrastination zone.

You may think that Jane's trip to the procrastination zone is an isolated experience, but this is not the case. It is now 5 a.m. on this very Monday morning and I am desperately trying to revise this speech while narrowly escaping the procrastination zone. The fact is there are hundreds of Janes on campus, and I am one of them. And we're up all nights busting our butts to write as best we can. The fact is we're already a 24-hour university, and we're lucky because we can use our technology to create a 24-hour support system for our 24-hour university. A university that works to accommodate my four hours of sleep is a university that is in touch with the needs of the student body.

So we've got these tools that produce a continuing dialogue, and we've got the Web providing an alternative to conventional paper writing, we've got a support team for a rapidly changing education. What is it all leading to? It's leading to the flip side of discipline. The point is it's new, different. It's not better than the conventional ways and it's not worse. I still resent my tenth grade English teacher who told me that I'd never write a truly original paper on the Canterbury Tales because every thesis, he said, has already been thought of. Well maybe it's true. It would be sad if this was the case, but maybe it is true. I'll tell you one thing, though, just two weeks ago when I finished my Web project on Chaucer's use of the seven deadly sins, I was sure that it was one of a kind. As someone who has wild dreams of becoming a writer some day, it's a wonderfully warm feeling to think that I've actually produced something original in my life.

Our use of technology doesn't serve to replace the term paper standard. It just offers a different way of accomplishing new things. We're starting to look at learning with a freer mind. We're using our technology to make connections and to continue dialogues that would have ended or been squelched just a few years ago. It's so loose that it's a little frightening, even disorganized, but from the jumble a whole new way of thinking is born. I am a student at a research university. I want to do something new that's never been done before. And here it is. This new way of thinking, learning, and writing: this is my research. Thanks.

 

 

PENN
Contact: heia@pobox.upenn.edu
URL: http://www.upenn.edu/heia/proceed/present/lottotrans.html
Last modified: 30 October 1997