Teaching "Live" on the Internet

Dr Paul J.E. Dekker
ILLC / Faculty of Humanities
University of Amsterdam
Nieuwe Doelenstraat 15
NL-1012 CP Amsterdam, The Netherlands

This abstract draws from a report by Paul Dekker and David Beaver, Report on ECDS: an Interactive Course on the Internet. A slightly modifed version of this abstract has appeared in ELSNews, the newsletter of the European Network in Language and Speech, in June 1997.

From begin May till half of July 1996 an academic course was taught for an intercontinental audience "live" over the internet, the Electronic Course Dynamic Semantics (ECDS). In this event, the internet not only served for the distribution of teaching materials, but also for instruction and direct communication. Every week the participants "came together" in electronic classroom meetings by joining an email-list, via which they discussed that week's literature. The lecturers David Beaver and Paul Dekker made literature available on the web and they presented lectures about the course materials in the form of html course notes in advance of each classroom meeting.

The main aim of the ECDS project consisted in investigating the possibility of providing academic tuition via the internet. The course attracted a group of twenty people from Japan, Uruguay, the United States and a number of European countries. The overall conclusion was that, despite a couple of obvious disadvantages, effective instruction over the internet is possible and desirable.

Lecturing on a keyboard
It is easy to think up disadvantages of a virtual class when it is compared with a real one. The main one was seen to be the impoverished means of communication. In the ECDS course people felt the absence of visual clues, and a structural delay in the exchange of messages (up to a couple of minutes) hampered immediate steering and reponse. Besides, since all course material (literature, course notes, class-room exchanges) had to be written out, this entailed a more than usual load of work for both the students (reading) and the lecturers (writing).

Despite the mentioned disadvantages, all participants considered the electronic class-room and the course itself quite a success. The obvious advantage of an electronic course is of course that it is geographically (almost) unconstrained. Students can consult the course materials and attend to the class-room no matter where they are. It offers a unique opportunity for students and researchers in isolated areas, and it allows for the cumulation of geographically distributed expertise.

Another specific advantage of a course like ECDS is that all material, being written down, always remains available, for re-reading, correction etc. Moreover, the participants agreed that, because all contributions to the classroom had to be written down, they eventually ended up more thoroughly formulated and reflected upon than initially conceptualized, and they said to agree that this improved their performance.

Most emphatically unfounded proved to be the lecturers initial fear that nobody but the lecturers would communicate in a class where people couldn't "see" each other. Although the discussions took a while to warm up each week, there was typically more need to cut off discussions than to invigorate them.

Keeping a world-wide class together
A couple of the lecturers' findings may be directly relevant for similar future initiatives. In the first place people should count with the differences in local time. The ECDS classroom was being held Friday 15.00 - 17.00 CET, which was 06.00 - 08.00 for US West Coast participants, and 22.00 - 24.00 for participants in Japan. Such a vast difference in local time apparently affected thestudents' attitudes.

Secondly, a new medium of information exchange requires new strategies of control. The lecturers felt the need of being more pertinent or explicit about who is allowed to make what kind of contributions. Surely this is a very subtle issue, which can only be sensibly judged after more intensive and extensive experimentation.

Thirdly, the participants found it worthwhile to attend the class in small groups at the same physical location. In such local groups, the (reading, writing, reporting) work could be properly divided. Moreover, the people who worked in groups greatly appreciated the possibility of an oral, face to face, exchange of thoughts about the topics under discussion.

Fourthly, although examination didn't show up as a problem in the ECDS course, it will if such courses are to become regular events. It is hard to verify over the internet that a student has taken an exam honestly and without help, so other forms of examination must be investigated.

Finally, with the ECDS course only a limited use was made of existing means. Communication consisted primarily of electronic mail and the exchange of documents via ftp and http, plus a modest use of chat. Although limited these means already enabled an effective exchange of knowledge and ideas. However, some (pre-course) practice period, in which the methods and tools to be used are tested out, was considered an absolute necessity.

Giving body to a virtual class
What does this experiment imply for the future of the information society and the language and speech community in particular? We firmly believe that distance learning is with us to stay, and will become more important in the future.

Probably everybody will agree that personal contacts are of vital importance, and digitalizing human beings cannot replace being in someone's physical presence. The participants in the ECDS course explicitly mentioned missing the personal contact (one group of participants invited one of the lecturers to visit them). Therefore, we will experiment with combinations of electronic and "physical" courses. In conjunction with the 1998 Saarbrücken Summer School in Logic, Language and Information, we experiment with an ECDS-2 course which starts with an electronic component before the school and includes meetings at the Summer School. We hope to be able to report also on our findings with this second course on the Bergen conference.

ECDS and the Humanities
As concerns course contents, the ECDS course sits at an interdisciplinary field between "alpha" and "beta" sciences: dynamic semantics is essentially a branch of science with linguistic and philosophical roots on the one hand, and logical and mathematical ones on the other. The conclusion about the ECDS, therefore, are also relevant for the humanities.

Of course the more general advantages of giving a course over the internet also apply to courses in the humanities. Clearly the (world-wide) reusability of developed course material is a great benefit in the humanities, too. Also the possibility to reach students in remote areas, and the possibility for students to reach remote expertise and skills, make up an increased potential for students and researchers in areas such a linguistics, history, and philosophy. Making a world wide offer of course open to the public need not any longer be solely restricted to the efforts consuming organization of relatively summer schools, and other intitiatives of that kind. For note that the humanities, espcially the merntioned branches, comprise many specialized research areas which tie small and geographically distributed groups of researchers toegther. Especially for these groups, the use of the internet in training and education constitutes a substantial improvement of the infrastructure, which, it seems, by far hasn't reached its limits yet.

Finally, we think the giving of world wide courses may also function so as to level organizational and institutional borders between neighbouring research and training disciplines. Such courses are generally not given as part of preformatted and geographically restrained curricula, and they may thus facilitate the construction of education programs cut down to the benefits of the students. Of course, the road to heaven is not without pitfalls. Acute now is the development of world wide examination methods, and that of widely accepted systems of crediting criteria.