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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 (

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 was published.

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.

About the Author

David Brown ([email protected]) is vice president and dean of the International Center for Computer Enhanced Learning at Wake Forest University.

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