EESE 5/2001

Internet Teaching: Introduction

Thomas Kühn (Berlin) - Guest Editor

While the general pedagogic consequences of the Internet's cultural and political implications have been discussed controversially and without any decisive outcome, it is undisputed that the Internet will bring about far greater changes in pedagogy at large and teaching in particular than any other medium since the introduction of the printing press. The changes will surely be deeper than the mere substitution - or supplement - of blackboards or overhead-projectors as teaching-media in classroom, seminars or lectures. But it is far from sure what these changes will be. I will not speculate on the outcome nor take part in the discussion, but just name two extreme positions - the Internet seen as either blessing or curse - and leave out the great majority of opinions that are to be found somewhere between the two poles. The one extreme celebrates the Internet as a liberating medium. Representatives of this position maintain that the Internet sets people free to learn interactively and according to their own abilities without censorship from potentially oppressing institutions such as states or businesses. It promises - according to the proponents of this extreme position - un-alienated learning, liberating even from material conditions; men and women could come into their own - at least virtually. At the other pole the Internet is condemned as the most alienating of media as it is said to further and accelerate the process towards individualisation to a degree that societies and communities will loose all cohesion. The Internet as a major tool of globalised capitalist exploitation will be instrumentalised as the teaching medium to that end (cf. Tabbi). In this context the possibilities of a subversive or even critical pedagogy with the help of the Internet are discussed very controversially.

Turning to the university as a learning and teaching institution the Internet's role has to be differentiated, depending on discipline, subject, and teaching-topic. It comes as no surprise that the disciplines that are involved in information technology in their courses of studies - mainly applied and pure sciences, economics etc. - routinely work with the Internet as part of their curricula. The case is different in parts of the humanities and in the arts (cf. De Smedt et al.). If the main objects of study are written legal, historic or aesthetic texts the Internet - in the form of electronically archived documents - is just starting to find its way into teaching (see Rommel, Scholz). The case must be further differentiated within the arts when it comes to disciplines like cultural studies that have a contemporary, non-literary outlook (see Kassung/Witte), or to disciplines like linguistics that take a scientific perspective or work with masses of data that is scattered world-wide (see Ipsen), or generally to standardised courses like introductions of all sorts, including many courses in language-teaching (see Ogbue/Süß, Schlickau). Looking at the usage of the Internet at practically the whole range of university-taught subjects in Germany, the Internet has only started to play a significant role still lagging behind countries like the USA, Australia, Great Britain or 'Europe'. Thus, a workshop like "Internet-Teaching" might be old hat abroad or at a multinational level, but hardly at a practical teaching level in the humanities in Germany. If methods, techniques, and experiences of Internet-teaching can be transferred from disciplines with greater experience to so far Internet-free disciplines one has to take into account the various specific demands. Apart from the cross-disciplinary transfer in Internet-teaching the experiences in one's own subject should also be pooled and exchanged. If there is a medium that can be easily adapted to different set-ups it is the Internet and other IT. The task here is not only to improve the existing courses individually but also to develop better information-exchange strategies across the board in one's own and across the disciplines.

Another point refers to the differentiation between the Internet as a teaching medium and an object of study (cf. De Smedt, 2 f.). As a medium to teach with its uses are next to unlimited, its role as an object of study, however, is another matter. Here, a great number of subjects can and should be involved. For the present purpose two aspects should be briefly looked at: technical skills like programming, web-design, e-commerce etc., and the Internet as an increasingly crucial signifying practice within contemporary culture. Both aspects are only two sides of the study of the same of media, or, to be more precise, they are crucial aspects of Internet literacy. Consequentially, the aspect of the Internet as a signifying practice plays a growing role in cultural studies courses, but it also touches upon questions about literature under the conditions of the electronic age. Both aspects of Internet literacy have to be taken into account and pose the problem of how far technical competence has to go that one is able to study the Internet's cultural implications as part of a university course. The question is all the more important as the level of technical competence - i.e. an Internet literacy that is worth its name - both among students and staff is usually very unevenly distributed.

If there is hardly any doubt about the Internet's great and growing importance in teaching it has to be mentioned that it will play in quite a different league from media like blackboard or overhead-projector. It profoundly influences and changes the ways of communication during seminar-sessions and between them. It influences the acquisition and distribution of knowledge, the role between teacher and students, it changes the production and presentation of results, and affects academic standards with regard to an evaluation of course-work.

Some of the aspects discussed can be illustrated from a seemingly negligible angle, that of the workshop's English title. Whereas the workshop's working language was, as its title "Internet in der Lehre" indicates, German; EESE's is English. Therefore the German title had to be translated. But how? Should "Internet in der Lehre" be turned to "Teaching the Internet," or "Teaching with the Internet," or "Teaching in the Internet," or, rather, "Internet in Teaching". Leaving out further possible prepositions one could come up with "Internet Teaching." But even this possibly most adequate translation would indicate a tendency - still teaching "of," "in" and "with" - that would not quite reflect the workshop's results. But for lack of another convincing alternative, "Internet Teaching" was finally chosen as the most appropriate equivalent. These - admittedly minor - problems however point beyond the question of an adequate translation. They indicate to some degree the tension between the potentially vast scope of the topic and a necessarily much narrower focus in a concrete workshop.

Turning to the workshop itself, the aims were not as sweeping, and its purpose was rather practical. "Internet in der Lehre" was intended to bring together academic teachers who have experience with or interest in the role of the Internet in teaching of the humanities at German universities. In contrast to other recent conferences like "Computing in the Humanities" in Erfurt in 1996 (see: Feldmann, Doris; Neumann, Fritz-Wilhelm; Rommel, Thomas (eds.) (1997). 'Anglistik im Internet.' Proceedings of the 1996 Erfurt Conference on Computing in the Humanities. Heidelberg: Winter) or the one on literary hypertexts at Blaubeuren in 2000 (see: Rommel, Thomas; Schnierer, Peter Paul (eds.) (2001). Literarische Hypertexte. Tübingen: Niemeyer), "Internet in der Lehre" exclusively dealt with teaching aspects.

In response to a call for papers the great range of suggested contributions came as no surprise. It became rather clear at an early stage that it was neither desirable nor practical to restrict the workshop to English Studies, the organiser's own discipline. Rather, reports on activities from a whole range of fields should be brought together. Thus, the presentations covered a cross-section of different teaching activities and -experiences in disciplines such as English / German as a foreign language, linguistics, cultural studies, education, philosophy, and literary studies. Some contributors combined theoretical reflections on the use of the medium with their teaching reports or the pedagogic demands of their departments. The workshop itself was divided into three different fields, "organisation and webdesign," "teaching- and learning-programmes," and "literature, cyberliterature, and teaching." During the workshop-presentations some common perspectives evolved that partly confirmed the original structure and partly invited regrouping into two new overlapping fields.

The first field was concerned with developments towards more interactive working possibilities and dynamic structures, both on an administrative and teaching level. One aspect of the Internet as teaching-medium which undeservedly receives too little attention are university and - especially - departmental home-pages. They are consulted by many, students, staff, and general public, as information panels and as data bases. Thus, department-homepages can serve as an indirect teaching-media of great importance. Diethard Pabel and Christian Erbe, webmasters of the English department of Freiburg university, introduced their programme with which the department's course-administration - office hours, schedule, times, places of and comments on courses - can be interactively used by staff and students alike. Once introduced, the programme saves a lot of secretarial and administrative work that can be then redirected in the organisation of courses. Guido Ipsen (Kassel) with his web-based introductory course "Linguistics for Beginners", Udoka Ogbue and Gunter Süß (Dresden / Chemnitz) and Stefan Schlickau (München) with their presentations of web-based language-teaching courses were concerned with interactivity and the dynamisation of work in and with the web. They introduced new possibilities that also indicate a turn from behaviouristic and automatised teaching approaches to constructivist oriented ones. Especially Ogbue's, Süß' and Schlickau's presentations clearly showed that some language-teaching-classes are good candidates for a greater personal involvement and interactive participation of students that stimulates their creativity to no small degree. Here, project-work often seems to be more promising than individualised learning. The development towards greater interactivity should be seen as a complement to the automatisation and standardisation that seems to be appropriate at least for parts of courses with an introductory character. Christian Kassung's and Markus Witte's (Berlin) project can be regarded as a bridge between the administrative aspect and theoretical, content-oriented considerations. As members of a department for Cultural Studies they regard the presentation and maintenance of their departmental homepage as both technically and theoretically challenging. Technically insofar, as the homepage should not only list the various aspects of their department and be kept on the latest informational level but it should also be dynamically linked with other databases such as library catalogues that provide essential services for students and staff. Such an approach turns a department-homepage into an essential tool for teaching. It is theoretically challenging, as their field of research and study expressly includes contemporary signifying practices of which the Internet is a constituent. Thus, the theoretical reflections should be represented in the very structure and organisation of the home-page. The question remains, in how far a balance between technical competence and theoretical cultural reflection on a high level can be achieved with a usually very small departmental budget.

The second field is concerned with the Internet's impact on courses in philosophy and cultural and literary studies on an advanced level. This field has at least two sides and some space in between that was approached by Thomas Rommel (Tübingen). He turned to the preconditions for the usage of electronic texts in teaching. If the analysis of electronically stored literary (primary) texts tends to be determined by the technical possibilities applied, then, Rommel maintained, the scholar has to be aware of the very fact and concentrate on the tool-character of the electronic medium. Karl Hepfer and Fritz-Wilhelm Neumann (Erfurt) took a look at the exemplary potential that William Gibson's Neuromancer (1985) had for The Matrix, its film-version and films like Johnny Mnemonic and the Star Trek-episode The Ship in the Bottle - as creative fictional accounts of virtuality - offer for the implications for the Internet. While Hepfer showed the parallels between the novels, films and the Internet with that of existing traditional philosophic models, Neumann interpreted the popular movies as - permitting such a paradox - 'virtual materialisation' and as versions of utopian and anti-utopian concepts. Hannelore Scholz (Berlin), finally, reported on a CD- and web-project in which she explored and developed the intermediality of the topic Loreley both as a fitting object for research and teaching. By the linking of various media that deal with one theme it becomes clear that multimedia-approaches through the Internet are enriching to both, research and teaching.


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