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image: Campus NewsChalk it up to new technology
>> The Internet has transformed almost every aspect of daily life-including taking a Chicago course.

Students in Candace Vogler's philosophy classes don't realize it, but she's tricking them. Traditional discussion groups don't seem to inspire them, and even the brightest undergraduates in her upper-level ethics and political-thought courses are often too "alarmed" by the presence of graduate students to dive into classroom discussions. Vogler needed a way to get students talking. "This is philosophy," points out the associate professor, "which doesn't happen without a conversation."

IMAGE:  All Chalk course sites use the same interface, and professors can customize their sites' graphics to evoke course content.

Her trick? "Write a midterm that's too difficult for one person to do alone, but if at least three of them do it together, they will do well," Vogler told faculty at a recent day-long seminar on Chalk, the University's online course-manage- ment and course-content delivery system. "I tell them I don't care how many people do it"-but the larger the group, she assures the students, the better their chances of acing the exam.

Once the groups form, she sets up electronic discussion boards on the course's Web-based Chalk site, allowing students to post comments and questions at any time. The system lets her monitor the students' progress and jump in if they get bogged down. The results, she says, are "amazing"-both in the quality of midterms submitted and in changed classroom dynamics. After the online-discussion experience, undergraduates are "much more likely to break in with a question, more likely to build on questions, and even to suggest responses to questions. They have a stake in the class."

Since the online environment seems less intimidating than a face-to-face classroom, undergraduates are also more likely to collaborate with graduate students. One group of 17 students-who sent Vogler a box of chocolates this Valentine's Day-has continued meeting and discussing almost a full year after the course. "They told me they never would have learned to talk to each other without me-but all I did was use a teaching tool."

Vogler is among the 45 percent of Chicago's 1,600 professors-717, to be precise-who use Chalk, which runs on a platform created by Blackboard, one of the nation's top commercial providers of course-management systems. (The company's roots are in higher education, with seven Cornell University undergraduates who helped professors build course Web sites.) Since Chicago set up Chalk two years ago, 680 courses have established sites-587 in this academic year alone-with College courses representing about 60 percent. And this year 6,365 students are enrolled in courses with Chalk sites-about half of them undergraduates.

The system uses the same interface for all course sites. There is a page for course information, such as syllabi and classroom policies, and a page for course documents, including lists of reserve materials. The library now digitizes most reserves that would otherwise be offered as photocopies. The Regenstein reports that 41 percent of all reserves are photocopies, and 79 percent of those are available online as PDFs-making the days when 30 students competing for two photocopy packets while class time quickly approaches a thing of the past.

Chalk sites also have a page for external links, often to online archives, and the communication areas include bulletin boards and a "virtual classroom" for live online discussions or remote office hours. If the faculty choose, students can turn in assignments digitally rather than on paper. And professors can use the site for grading and providing ongoing feedback-which students can (and do) check as the quarter progresses.

For Janice Knight's New England Literary Cultures offering and her course on Chicago, the associate professor of English uses Chalk's external-links page to connect students to "rich" resources. For example, Knight has linked the site to audio and video files of poets (or, as in the case of Emily Dickinson, actors) reading their works. Knight's students can also view facsimile reproductions of original manuscripts and early editions of texts and explore Web sites that provide social, historical, and political contexts for the course texts.

Access to far-flung materials is a great benefit, but Knight says the Web is an opportunity to get students thinking about how a work changes as it's reproduced. She challenges them to consider the politics of literary archives-and the common perception that what's online is politically neutral and represents the whole story. For her course on Chicago, Knight has students keep online journals responding to assigned readings, and they must read each other's entries before class. "So we come several layers deeper into the conversation than we otherwise would," she says.

Knight also teaches a Ph.D. seminar titled Pedagogy and the Internet, where the next generation of college teachers must create their own online courses and prepare themselves for how the Internet might transform a teacher's interaction with texts and students.

"They're thinking about how the Internet challenges the traditional taxonomies of our disciplines," she says, "and about how a layered reading [of online text with audio and visual links] is different from reading texts using the traditional footnote." She challenges them to ask, "Is the Internet just a fancy Xerox machine, letting us 'gussy up' the old materials? Or a fancy encyclopedia, letting us add more background information?" Or does the Web do what Knight believes it does: "raise fundamental intellectual questions about our disciplines?" Her graduate students, no doubt, have already given this plenty of thought online.
- S.A.S.

 


  APRIL 2002

  > > Volume 94, Number 4


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Auteur! Auteur!
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A Run for Our Money
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My Life as a Mind
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Thinking Inside the Box
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Home, home in the Reg

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