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My Dog Knows HTML—Should Your Faculty?

If Benjamin Franklin were to appear here today he would be totally baffled by a hospital operating room, an airport, and people using cell phones. But if he walked into most university classrooms and saw a professor at the front of the room scribbling on a blackboard, he'd recognize immediately what was going on. In fact, he could likely just pick up the chalk and continue lecturing.

While the last century has seen the complete transformation of medicine, transportation, and communications, education has hardly changed at all in the last three centuries. With the availability of affordable personal computers of incredible power interconnected via high-speed—often wireless—networks, it appears that we now have the power and the right tools to transform higher education. In fact, many experts in the field consider this transformation so significant that they refer to it as the onset of "the information age."

Examples of the power of multimedia visualizations and simulations in classrooms fill the pages of periodicals like tempting confections in a candy store window. But can today's software make it possible for faculty who still struggle with e-mail attachments to build such high-quality online educational materials themselves? Software vendors and many IT folks assure us that they can.

We know that modern science can get us to the moon, transplant hearts, and build suspension bridges that span more than a mile, but we don't ask individual faculty to perform these feats. Multimedia visualizations and simulations don't rise to that level of complexity, yet they still remain quite a challenge even for the most skilled team of IT developers.

"My six-year-old uses Dreamweaver," we hear. "If my dog had opposable thumbs," we are told, "he could write in HTML." At a university such as Princeton, where Nobel Prize winners abound, surely faculty would find it a trivial task to build an online course in economics. But they don't—because the available software is too quirky and the learning curves far too steep.

There is little doubt that almost any faculty member at any college or university could learn HTML, Dreamweaver, Flash, FrontPage, Vegas Video, Photoshop, or even JavaScript. And they could master online design, graphics and multimedia design, pedagogical principles for effective online learning, communications infrastructure, database design, content management, online accessibility principles, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and a few other specialized bits of knowledge they'll need to build effective, online courseware.

Recently, one of our Pulitzer Prize-winning faculty members sent his first e-mail attachment after three tries, three phone calls, and more than an hour of coaching. Even after this portentous start, he could probably learn Dreamweaver and build his own Web pages, but it would take him away from the next piece he's writing. Building a Web page is not a difficult task for an IT professional, but it is an unnecessary diversion of time and effort for most faculty members. Worse yet, Web pages built by professionals will be orders of magnitude better than the attempts by even the most determined faculty.

Of course, faculty need to understand some basic information technology. They need to be able to use e-mail, a text processing program, a course management system, and basic presentation software. They also must be able to browse and search the Web. Anything beyond that, however, is so specialized that only faculty with a compelling interest in some facet of IT should be expected to master it.

How, then, do we get the great online multimedia curriculum courseware built that today's students expect and that we know is an essential part of their education? In a few cases we should have a team of IT professionals build it. This will result in a very expensive product of exceptional quality. We need some instances of this level of sophistication on our campuses, but we also need to understand that we can't afford to do this for all the courses we offer.

Faculty can build basic Web pages themselves with something as simple as Word, if they really know how to use it. While there is other software that can build parts of Web pages much easier than Word, there is an enormous advantage in having faculty build Web pages using software they already use.

Any good courseware requires simulations, but these are far beyond the capability of faculty—even many IT groups—to build themselves. We need a large library of simulations using a common Application Program Interface (API) that can be customized and inserted into Web pages. For a faculty member, adding a simulation must be no more difficult than looking up its description in an online catalog on the Web, opening the Web page that is being built with Word, selecting the Insert menu and choosing Insert Simulation, filling in some parameters or checking some boxes, and clicking OK.

No one university could build such a Multidisciplinary Educational Simulation Archive (MESA), and no commercial entity would find doing so profitable. But a consortium of universities could do this and they should. Then faculty could build great online material without even thinking about HTML. And my dog could quit writing HTML and go back to chasing cars.

[Editor's note: Howard Strauss will moderate a panel on disruptive technologies on Wed., July 30, at Syllabus2003.]

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