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WebCT in Utopia

How Dante, iPods, and the Lilliputians led to e-learning enlightenment at one university.
University Business, Jul 2005

Do most faculty just throw notes and lectures online and call it e-learning? Some readers might draw that conclusion from "Thwarted Innovation: What Happened to e-Learning and Why," research published by Robert Zemsky of the University of Pennsylvania and William F. Massy, professor emeritus at Stanford University (Calif.), as analyzed in Rebecca Sausner's enlightening University Business piece (November 2004).

Reports Sausner, "The other truth raised in 'Thwarted Innovation' is that most online education offerings are flat--they're still primarily based on text and pictures, with little use of audio, video, graphics, simulations, or even asynchronous discussions. Once professors figured out how to load their existing notes and lectures onto [course management systems], they stopped innovating." I'm less interested here in debating the point than ensuring that readers get a full flavor of at least one notable exception.

My experience at Georgia College & State University is anything but a black hole. It involves fiery online give-and-take on eternal existential questions, integrated with fine art, classical music and the ubiquitous iPod. I've found that structured online discussion and content delivery supports complex learning and discovery.

GC&SU is the officially designated public liberal arts university of Georgia. I use WebCT as the principal web "interface" for the only required course in the Honors & Scholars Program here: "Utopia/Dystopia: Studies in No Place." Because Utopia/Dystopia is the gateway course for the Honors Program, taken usually by the entering class of honors students, I am especially mindful to engage the students in the core concepts of the Honors Program and the university as well as the core course content. Integral to all three are critical thinking and writing, and it is in this regard that I find online learning most particularly useful. I use our course management system to get students to talk to one another about a wide range of subjects, both specific to and less obviously related to the central course materials.

My students read a variety of utopian/dystopian texts such as Dante's Inferno, More's Utopia, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Gilman's Herland, Zamiatin's We, Orwell's 1984, and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. In addition to such purely literary texts, I have a course website with hundreds of photos of historical architecture and art, which I have connected to the different component units of the course. Finally, each student has more than 2,500 pieces of music (ranging from traditional classical to pop) and other audio files such as poems and famous speeches loaded onto 15GB iPods.

E-learning technology has
provided some truly remarkable
opportunities for real intellectual
engagement and transformation.

The course concepts that unite these texts are two dichotomies: the classical versus the gothic paradigm, and the corresponding elements of utopian and dystopian thought in the Western tradition. The lines dividing these two loosely corresponding and parallel dichotomies are quite blurred, the result being a wide field of course material that is very hazy and thus excellent for catching students up in interesting discussions that I fancy help them to refine their writing and develop critical thinking skills. The interplay between the various texts, discussions and WebCT-based content also helps my students develop cognitive flexibility as well as a sense of community. As it turns out, most of my students live in the Honors Living/Learning Community and thus learn how to model utopian principles (or how not to!) even as they use technology to connect with each other, share, and exchange ideas. WebCT and the iPod docking stations become hubs for the students, a virtual community center for the commerce of ideas and values.

Each week the students are required to make one or more "major postings" (MPs) on subjects directly related to the texts we are currently studying. I ask students to reflect on the relationships within and among texts, or the correspondences among the different disciplines of the course. For example, I might ask my students to look at the painting The Isle of the Dead by Arnold Boecklin and simultaneously listen to the musical piece of the same name by Rachmaninoff. Then I might ask them to discuss both pieces in terms of their structure, style, "color," mood, tone, and so on. Finally, I might also ask them to discuss ways in which the two disciplines--painting and music--correspond. This assignment forces students outside of their communication comfort zone and has produced very interesting responses. Students are not used to writing about either art or music, let alone both, and it is intriguing to watch them stretch their minds to embrace ambiguity.

Other MPs require students to respond to some issue in a text we are currently discussing and relate that issue to their lives in general and their lives in the Honors Living/Learning Community. Still others require students to examine a current event and relate it to utopian/dystopian principles. The point of these MP assignments is, first, to keep my students actively engaged in the ideas of the course, but also to keep them relating those ideas to themselves and their world.

In addition to these weekly MP assignments, I also open discussions on general interest topics and current events. During the fall semester we had some lively online discussions around the presidential election, which involved my students' iPods through downloaded speeches from the National Conventions. This spring we have discussed the tragic Terri Schiavo case and its ethical, social, and political complexity. In both cases, we have been able to make connections to the texts we are discussing, the overarching course concepts, and life beyond the classroom.

General interest topics that are built into our course management system's discussion system, though only marginally connected to the course, are useful for honors community building and sharing: favorite books, authors, movies, paintings, musicians; current events, politics, entertainment, television; university, honors and community events; and service learning or community service opportunities.

Speaking of community service, my students are required to complete 20 hours of service learning relating to the Utopia/Dystopia course. Most of the time they spend working on Habitat for Humanity projects. My students post their hours online, and they reflect on their service learning experiences as well.

Since Habitat for Humanity is an outgrowth of the utopian/dystopian community of Koinonia, Ga., we have a specific pedagogical connection for Service Learning that is rather rare in academia. In the past, I have begun the course by taking students on a field trip to Koinonia and the nearby Global Village, both of which we then discuss upon our return, both in class and on WebCT.

Finally, e-learning technology has provided some truly remarkable opportunities for real intellectual engagement and transformation, of not only my students but of me and my colleagues. For each section of Utopia/Dystopia, I select a faculty facilitator who comes to every class, participates in class and online discussions, and takes half of the class when we split into breakout groups.

A few years ago my facilitator was my department chair. In my small group we had been discussing Gulliver's Travels, specifically the passage concerning the Lilliputians' burial methods. Originally, the Lilliputians believed that the earth was flat. So they buried their dead head-downward. At the end of the world, they thought, the flat earth would rotate and the dead would then be properly positioned to be launched into heaven.

Lilliputians now know that the earth is not flat, but they continue to bury their dead head-downward anyway by tradition. I asked my students if they could relate this passage to beliefs they held that might contradict scientific evidence. Before I knew it, some of us were challenging the literal interpretation of scripture.

I e-mailed my boss and asked, "Is
this just about the coolest teaching
moment you've ever had?"

At the end of the class, one of my students had a meltdown. "You don't understand," she shouted. "In the honors program at my high school, not only were we all Christians--we all went to the same church. I'm not used to encountering differences of opinion!"

She lurched out of the room, went straight back to her dorm room, and started posting on WebCT. Later, I went home and joined the discussion. So did my boss.

It is difficult to describe what happened during the following week on WebCT, except to say that there were hundreds of postings. Hundreds of sometimes angry, sometimes comical, but always passionate postings. My department chair and I, and about half of the class, reignited the Protestant Reformation and relived a thousand years of Christian apologetics. Both my chair and I are soundly schooled in church history and doctrine. We are both students of the 18th century, and as if that isn't bad enough, he is a Miltonist. Long into the evening hours we sat at our computers, Bibles on one side, Paradise Lost on the other, and we posted. And posted, and posted.

At one point--it must have been 2 a.m.--I e-mailed my boss and asked, "Is this just about the coolest teaching moment you've ever had?" He replied "Yes!"

A week later, after the dust had settled, one student said, "All those arguments were really cool, but what the hell do they have to do with the course?"

My boss and I looked at each other and smiled, as if to say, "If he only knew!"

All this started online, in a perfectly innocent WebCT discussion folder called "Gulliver's Travels." But the discussion got so big that I had to move it to a separate folder called "Danger Zone." My department chair, who is about to leave for a new job, declares that his experience co-facilitating the honors seminar is one of the greatest experiences of his teaching career. By the way, he generally hates technology.

E-learning technology can be a remarkable tool to enhance learning and actively engage students in meaningful dialogue, conversation and even controversy. When they can do this and still be civil, liberal arts education is really working.

Robert Viau is professor of English & Interdisciplinary Studies, and assistant director of the Honors & Scholars Program at Georgia College & State University.

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