Bowling Alone and Surfing Together
Robert Putnam, author of the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and
Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000), believes that
social capital and civic engagement increase when trustful relationships
are built. The environment to build such relationships requires strong
networks and reinforcing social norms. In their study of 374 Californians,
Anita Blanchard and Tom Horan also found trustworthiness increased significantly
when cyber communication is an addition to face-to-face relationships.
Blanchard and Horan's results are less conclusive for cyber communities
that are not also face-to-face (www.cgu.edu/inst/cguri/surfbowl.html).
This new research, in a new medium, takes me back to my own basic theory
of effective teaching—the trust theory. Students grow most when they trust
their environment. They must believe that their professors are up-to-date
and care, recognize their university as a place of quality, find exemplars
they wish to emulate, have available the books, journals, instrumentation,
and Internet access appropriate for the time. The propensity of students
to risk taking on new beliefs increases greatly when their mentors are
experts who care. The educating objective of the university can best be
fulfilled by creating an environment replete with trust.
In the computer we have a new tool to help us build trust. It is clearly
not the only tool, but it is an important one. Many trust-building actions
are simple and easy. Students can become impressed with the expertise
of their professor by being guided to the scholar's Web site and reading
about their publications. Students will interact with their classmates
more meaningfully if they can "get to know them" through profiles and
pictures posted on the class Web site. They can come to a deeper understanding
of the relevance of their studies if the class Web site provides an opportunity
to connect with practitioners in the field.
We can demonstrate that we care about individual differences (e.g., different
learning styles) by providing multiple, redundant ways to learn the material.
We can establish an aura of caring by sending three or four individual
e-mails to each student during a typical semester. We can show respect
for student capacities and knowledge by giving rigorous assignments, and
asking students to make presentations to the entire class. We can help
students come to trust each other by giving credit for helping colleague
students, and by building in many team projects. We can demonstrate our
respect for students by asking teams to create publicly accessible Web
sites about the key concepts of the course. We can create an electronic
journal of student papers. We can connect with students and professors
working through similar materials at different universities, in different
cultures. We can more quickly update our class materials and cite new
information taken from the Internet that was not available when the textbook
Each of us can wisely take the time to ask if there are still other things
we can be doing to increase the sense of trust in everything we do. Reliable,
consistent, individualized, and timely communication is the key.
David Brown (firstname.lastname@example.org) is vice president and dean of the International
Center for Computer Enhanced Learning at Wake Forest University.