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The Wired Professor: A Guide to Incorporating the World Wide Web in College Instruction

Author: Anne B. Keating, Joseph Hargitai
Publisher: New York and London: NYU Press, 1999
Review Published: October 2000

 REVIEW 1: Joseph Raben
 REVIEW 2: Rob Friedman

Anyone needing a reminder of how rapidly the academic computer scene has changed in the past few years need only consult the dates in The Wired Professor. Although the book was copyrighted in 1999, the preface by Joseph Hargitai is dated March 1998; we are unearthing a site buried over two years ago. There is no mention of any operating system later than Windows 95, and in the section called "Components and Tools of the Internet," there are almost as many pages devoted to such curiosities as Archie, Gopher, Veronica and Jughead as to the World Wide Web. This perspective through the rear-view mirror may simply be the result of delays inherent in print publishing and distribution, including those at the NYU Press. Perhaps the authors can persuade their next publisher to utilize the methods they advocate in their text.

Another shortcoming of the book is its scope. While it is based on the first-hand experience of both authors in the computer labs of NYU, it seems only slightly aware of any parallel work being done elsewhere. Considering the impact of the Web on both thinking and action in classrooms around the world, little can be said to justify even a partially parochial range of vision. Furthermore, the emphasis is almost entirely on the mechanics of course administration, with little implication that online instruction requires us to fundamentally rethink the premises of higher education. From what subject matter we include in our courses, to the sequence in which it is presented, to the actual mode of presentation, the existence of a medium that is constantly available to each student in a course, with free access to the instructor through email, demands a totally fresh assessment of the nature and content of university instruction.

Nowhere is this truer than in the humanities, where centuries of classroom and lecture-hall instruction have hallowed a tradition of orally passing on information about art and artists that can easily be acquired in the same references as the instructors have consulted. Individual insights into the minds and techniques of artists may occasionally be transmitted to students compelled to sit through the customary 42 hours of instruction per semester, but without any alternative mode of teaching available, few have questioned the efficiency of so many person-hours committed to mastering and learning to love the literary and other masterpieces that constitute our humanistic heritage. Keating and Hargitai concentrate on methods for utilizing the Web as an adjunct for this traditional mode of instruction without ever raising the question of why that mode must be supported by this or any other means.

Most conspicuously absent is any reference to the numerous packages with names like "Web Course in a Box" that allow instructors to enter content into preprogrammed modules that already contain the HTML and whatever else is necessary to post course materials to the Web. Instead the major portion of the book concerns itself with the mechanics of encoding text, including digital images and similar minutiae. Quotations from colleagues at NYU who were interviewed about their anticipation of or experience with online instruction present a view of it as constituting a "complement" to the classroom, probably worth the grueling hours of coding that the authors consider necessary.

As if aware that the core of the book is skimpy, the authors have apportioned about one-third of it to a general history of communication and computing, from the mountaintop beacons of the ancient Greeks to the personal computer and the World Wide Web. Little of this is associated with the central interest of the book, the use of computers in higher education, and the same historical survey is accessible in many other sources, like Robert J. Dilligan's Computing in the Web Age (New York and London: Plenum Press, 1998). While it may be helpful to university faculty to recognize the ancestry of the technology they are using, it behooves the authors to emphasize the link between that technology and the prime mission of that faculty, namely, the education of succeeding generations of students.

The overall organization of the book proceeds from definitions of basic Web terms, like Telnet and E-mail through "Visions of a Virtual University," an attempt in 20 pages to cover all aspects of distance learning. In between are chapters devoted to online research, and to constructing a Web site with HTML, images, audio, video, streaming video and Perl Scripts. An appendix covers useful HTML tips and tricks. The notes are appropriately scholarly, and the bibliography matches the text in trying to cover the entire field of communication, including books on the theory of computers.

On the positive side, one can praise the authors for listing among their notes to the various chapters a good selection of Web sites that can be linked to courses in various disciplines. Of course, in the constructively fluid environment of the Web, some of those sites may have been dropped or incorporated into others, or may very likely have been superseded by newer ones with even richer content and more user-friendly organization. For a newcomer to this field, however, in need of elementary guidance, this resource may be at least as useful as the various print guides that attempt the same task.

The final evaluation of this book is that it would have benefited from exploiting the very method it advocates. In order to keep up with the impetuous pace of the Web, this book should have been posted to a Web site or made available through download from a server. Thus it would have been accessible much nearer to its date of composition, when its content was fresher, and -- most important -- susceptible of the constant updating it obviously requires. The sites mentioned in the notes could have been transformed into Internet links and been frequently checked for accessibility and accuracy. In other words, the authors could (and should) have taken on themselves the task of demonstrating the value of online instruction by engaging in it.

Joseph Raben:
Joseph Raben, professor emeritus of English at the City University of New York, is the founding editor of Computers and the Humanities and the founding president of the Association for Computers and the Humanities. He has taught an online course for graduate English majors at Queens College.  <jqrqc@cunyvm.cuny.edu>

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