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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

Literally every English handbook contains the triadic mantra: know your audience, your subject, and your purpose for writing any document. While Meatloaf may believe that "two out of three ain't bad," readers of Keating's "hybrid book -- part hands-on guide, part history, part design manual and part discussion of the implications of using the Web in college instruction" (x) may well question the purpose and effectiveness of this concatenation. Together, the parts of this hybrid are apparently aimed at seducing techno-phobic or -resistant faculty into the information age. In offering a historical context for an overview of communication technology and its effects on education, an HTML primer, multimedia tips of the trade, and a brief, tentative foray into the polemics of computers in the classroom and distance education, the authors set out a smorgasbord that is supposed to coalesce into a satisfying and encouraging entry point for the "non-computer savvy reader" (ix). The hands-on chapters demonstrate Keating's ability to deliver helpful hints and her command of the basics, but the parts don't add up to a satiating or satisfying whole.

Like it or not, using multimedia technologies for instructional purposes is becoming as ubiquitous as SUV drivers with cell phones glued to their ears. Web-enhanced courses -- in your classroom or from afar -- are past the fad stage: many universities and quite a few K-12s as well, have bought in heavily. The Internet is fast supplanting TV and the telephone as the entertainment and communication media of choice. Web sites accompany most other media when purveyors hawk products ("visit our Web site..."), news groups inform the public (e.g., CNN.com), and Hollywood entertains the citizenry (play along with Regis through enhanced TV). Even cereal companies link the promotional backs of their boxes to the Web, as if they had to try to wed kids to the Web. As usual, college teachers are last to catch the wave, sequestered as they are behind yellowing lecture notes and office doors. But Keating intimates that with a commanding knowledge of HTML, patience with hardware and software, and a spark of ingenuity, even sages of the lecture stage can make sound use of the skills and tools that support techno-pedagogy and leap into the Information Age.

Before asking readers to roll up their sleeves though, Keating, the Curriculum Coordinator for Instructional Technology for the School of Continuing and Professional Studies at NYU, presents "A History of Information Highways and Byways." It is an eclectic pastiche/overview of communication technologies, sprinkled with quotes from the Iliad and Herodotus and references to indigenous South American cultures of yore, moving chronologically toward the present state of NYU's LAN. The rationale: "The development of telegraphs and networks is significant for understanding the Internet because it demonstrates the relentless push toward more speed, more capacity, more raw volume, more'consumers'" (12-13). Perhaps a few words on information technologies and their role in education generally, or writing (the teaching domain of the author and her most gentle reader) in particular would have been more to the point (readers must wait for the third chapter). For a more in-depth and sure-footed read on the socio-cultural meaning of speed, capacity, volume, and consumerism as it pertains to the Internet, read Mark Kingwell's A Civil Tongue: Justice, Dialogue and the Politics of Pluralism (1995); Dreams of Millennium: Report from a Culture on the Brink (1997); Better Living: In Pursuit of Happiness from Plato to Prozac (1998); Marginalia: A Cultural Reader (1999); and The World We Want: Virtue, Vice, and the Good Citizen (2000), and for a history of the written word as it relates to the Internet, James O'Donnell's Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace is suggested.

With history as the genre in play, Chapter 2, "A Guide to the Geography of the Internet" reviews historically the technologies, events, and personages that together have amassed into the Internet's infrastructure. Readers are introduced to Archie and Veronica, Englebart and Nelson, and network architecture principles (the post-mod "geography" metaphor is alluded to here), along with the tools of the Internet. A full third of the way into the book, we are also introduced to the professed subject: "the twin aspects of many 'wired professors' lives: research and teaching" (71). The chapter serves to remind the prospective wired professor that, while the Internet's speed reduces the amount of time we used to spend in the stacks and at the card catalog, "the reliability of information on the Web is a critical issue in Web-based research" (73). It is also a call to arms:
    Universities must build and maintain industry-strength networking and computing environments. Campus-wide information networks need to be strengthened and in some cases updated to university Webs. . . Faculty members need to have good tools, they need technical support, and they need to meet and interact with others involved with this process (77).

Though wannabe web-sters might get jazzed from the tenor of need delivered in the earnest tones of regional MLA conferences, administrators often dismiss this bargaining table language. Show them outcomes and quantitative studies, then they'll talk about perks for Web development.

Problem is, there are no substantive data here, only anecdotal, qualitative ones. These are from interviews with Keating and Hargitai's colleagues at NYU who have developed Web courseware in Hargitai's Academic Computing Facility's Innovation Center. Robin Nagle, for instance, director of the Draper Interdisciplinary Master's Program in Humanities and Social Thought at NYU, found that "the interactivity built into [her course] Web site was an essential component of its overall success . . . In a university, the Web allows teachers and students to dissolve classroom walls, continue conversations outside the boundaries of time, invite outsiders inside the discussion, and glean knowledge from people with similar expertise or curiosity from anywhere that the world is interconnected" (85).

Chapter 3, "Online Research and Reflection," doesn't give the newbie much in terms of research methodology, but it is rich in the reflections of several NYU Continuing Ed adjuncts and staff, and screen shots of cool things one can do for courses such as "The Anthropology of Trash," "Tourist Productions," and "The Politics of Cyberspace." The reflections cumulate to a unified call for student-centered learning, with the Internet providing the tools, incentive, and medium for group work: For Keating, "Since the Web is a public space, it is a very real stage for the public performance of group projects. However, perhaps more importantly, the Web and the projects that are initiated there naturally bring the students in my class together in groups, while at the same time preserving the individual inquiry I have come to value as a teacher" (101).

Halfway through the book, readers find what the title suggests. "Putting Together Your First Instructional Website" is the most useful and well-designed chapter of the book. It is basic HTML offered up with an encouraging voice and straightforward style. Beginning with the "minimal components," Keating and Hargitai move through headings, image placement, lists, links, and tables with little extraneous material, plenty of examples, and words to the wise. If only Microsoft Help files were written as clearly and simply. With Chapter 5, "Second-Stage Instructional Web Design," the authors are just as informative and direct, but here add reasonable advice and caution for implementing multimedia into Web pages and course material: "Careful preparation of material -- which means editing and compression in the case of images, audio and video, and sometimes working in authoring and modeling environments such as Director and VRML -- can still be difficult and time consuming. Here is where you will need to pause and evaluate the rationale for using multimedia components. What is the scope of the project? How will using multimedia help? What are the limitations?" (152)

To be sure, this chapter's content is far beyond the skill-set of the wired professor's intended audience. Figuring out unordered and ordered lists is one thing. Creating CGI script is quite another. And the content leads to the question: wherefore HTML instruction for this audience, the majority of teachers who simply want to "translate their existing class routine to the Web with minor additions" (79)? With Netscape Composer or Microsoft FrontPage on the low end, and Macromedia Dreamweaver and Flash on the high end, HTML is, today, often written behind the scenes, and animation is as easy as drag, drop, and save.

"Visions for a Virtual University," the sixth and final chapter, purportedly demonstrates the "current controversy over the use of Web pages in university courses and how this has become intertwined with distance learning [DL] in many people's minds" (203). David Noble of York University is set up as the voice of the opposition, with his DL-as-basis-for-administrative-exploitation beliefs. So much of this book is culled from within the confines of Washington Square's technophile Humanities faculty, it should be surprising that the views of NYU's loudest voice against education through technology, Neil Postman, aren't mentioned once (see, for instance, his Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology). Keating's is a conciliatory, temperate writing voice: "At the heart of the controversy is a fear that as the shift of course content to the Web continues and increasingly includes integrating external resources and even educational software, college instructors will lose their autonomy in the classroom" (206). For Keating, it is only a matter of time until these technologies and what we can do with them in academia will become acceptable to both faculty and administrators. It is an accommodating view, one that promotes the social constructionist philosophy that has been infused into the writing classroom over the past 15 years or so [1]. Student-centered pedagogy is a given, group projects supplant individual grading criteria, the instructor steps off the stage and mingles with students, guiding them to a vista where sociopolitical agendas are deconstructed handily and become grist for English 101 papers.

Keating writes, "As the critics of distance learning warn, the danger of the Internet for us as teachers is not the technology itself, but the co-optation and commercialization of our profession" (217). Our profession hasn't changed much in the last 150 years; the tools and the environments have -- that is true. But the same technologies that Keating touts as advantageous to the new pedagogy are also those that are driving a highly competitive marketplace, one paying high dividends; the same place that students are striving so hard to enter. Adopting the new techno-pedagogy will not ward off the commercialization Keating sees as the demise of the teaching profession. Techno-pedagogy is simply the latest form of adaptation to a changing teaching environment, one that is challenged by commercial efforts to satisfy the learning needs, and garner the tuition dollars, of the digital generation.

1. See, for example, Daniel Anderson's "The Bus Stops Beyond Language," along with the works cited.

Rob Friedman:
Rob Friedman, author of Hawthorne's Romances, directs the distance learning program for the Computer Science and Information Systems Departments at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He has taught English, Humanities, and multimedia information systems courses for 12 years and researches/publishes on subjects interdisciplinary. 

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