Volume 10, Number 5: April 2004
by Marilyn M. Lombardi,
Division of Information Technology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
January, nearly fifty womens studies professors from thirteen UW System
campuses gathered together in Madison to talk about teaching and technology.
The three-day workshop organized by the UW System Womens Studies Consortium
revolved around a question raised by presenters Pamela Whitehouse and Susan
Ressler: How can we, and why should we teach Womens Studies
courses online? I would think the same question resonates with faculty
from across the arts and humanities, particularly those who are involved
in interdisciplinary programs. Simply put, packaged content management systems,
with their narrow, course-bound, and disciplinary frameworks, are not designed
to support programs that actively challenge traditional subject-area boundaries.
On the UW-Madison campus, increasing numbers of interdisciplinary faculty appointments in the humanities, social sciences, and research have been made to revitalize the universitys intellectual talent, an obvious sign of administrative commitment to a trend that some might say began with programs in womens studies. Asian-American Studies, Afro-American Studies, International Studies, among others, are humanities programs that actively encourage students to situate their educational concerns within larger social and professional communities of practice that extend far beyond the individual classroom. Significantly, interdisciplinary programs that draw their faculty from a variety of departments often face the problem of providing their students with a physical home on campus a reading room, a lounge, a center of some kind where students and faculty can come together informally to create a peer-based support system. For this reason, faculty working in programs such as these may be even more sensitive to the failures of online learning environments when it comes to fostering a vital sense of group awareness among teachers and learners.
Dislocation and disembodiment are features of the current online learning experience that womens studies faculty find particularly incompatible with the goals and objectives of their pedagogy. After all, a womens studies pedagogy is meant to foster reflection on experience grounded in our bodies, ourselves. The womens studies classroom, with its roots in 1970s consciousness-raising support groups, becomes a creative, shared space. Within this common context, students gain a critical perspective on our inherited body of knowledge, those cultural traditions that have marked womens bodies in particular ways. In response to that inherited body of knowledge, students construct a counter-story, an understanding that is negotiated among them. They are asked to take responsibility for the positions they assume and become active creators of knowledge rather than passive recipients. Ultimately, the womens studies instructor does not accept the burden of serving as the sole creator and master of course content. That role is distributed across the classroom community.
I could hear frustration in the voices of the Womens Studies Consortium workshop participants as they talked about their experiences with online learning environments, a frustration aimed primarily at the basic design of content management systems. Who were these software designers? Why hadnt faculty members been consulted during the design process? Without a complete grasp of what was technologically possible, faculty were left feeling helpless, forced to accept what was handed to them. Desire2Learn, like Blackboard, WebCT, and every other packaged product on the market today, is essentially a corporate training system modified slightly to reflect the institutional structure and administrative categories of higher education. As such, Desire2Learn supports self-directed learning far more effectively than it supports the simultaneous and collaborative activities associated with student-centered, project-based instruction.
Listening to the concerns of womens studies faculty, I was reminded of an observation made back in 1999 by Janet Murray, a literature professor turned interface designer: the healthiest programs [in online learning environment design] will be those that draw equally on the empirical bent of engineers and social scientists and on the cultural knowledge and expressiveness of humanists and artists . . .We do not need designers who can produce more attractive interfaces with the same formats of communication. We need designers who can rethink the processes of communication, exploiting the capacity of the digital environment to be more responsive to human needs.
Ive been studying these design issues for quite a number of years, first as a longtime womens studies professor and program director and then as the co-founder of an information technology company that specialized in advanced visualization technologies. Now that I manage strategic new media initiatives for UW-Madisons Division of Information Technology, Im in a position to involve faculty directly in the design of a new generation digital learning environment, one that will be more responsive to their needs.
During my presentation, I introduced workshop participants to Croquet, a multi-institutional initiative under development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Minnesota, the University of Kyoto, and the Hewlett Packard Research Labs. One of the driving forces behind the project is Alan Kay, the developer of the overlapping windows computer interface and this years winner of the Draper Prize (essentially, the Nobel Prize for engineers). Croquet represents the next step beyond the familiar desktop computer interface metaphor, a step made possible by Kays open-source programming language and the advanced networking capabilities available on university campuses. Borrowing a phrase from the world of online gaming technologies, Croquet is a massively multi-user three-dimensional environment. We consider this common context to be the necessary pre-condition in any learning ecology for the spontaneous emergence of cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional communities of practice. Within the Croquet virtual environment, the faculty, staff, and students of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and all other participating institutions of higher learning, will be visible to one another (in the guise of digital avatars) and be able to move quickly and flexibly among multi-media learning resources (3D models, whiteboards, web pages, video footage, flash animation, simulations, streaming video, television broadcasts, slide presentations, etc.). Just as they do in the non-computerized traditional classroom, learners will see one another handling these resources and be able to support one another with immediate feedback.
The Croquet initiative is dedicated
specifically to the special goals and objectives of higher education.
It is meant to place the familiar personal information management activities
(Internet browsing, Google-
Network-based telephoning technology
built into the Croquet virtual environment will make it possible for a
person to speak spontaneously and naturally with anyone in his or her
immediate vicinity. Instant messaging and asynchronous text-based forms
of online communication will also be available. Faculty will be able to
simulate the simultaneity we take for granted in the traditional face-to-face
classroom by gathering their students together to witness a live demonstration
in real-time and accompanied by a synchronized question-
Ultimately, the social dimensions of learning and research are the most difficult to capture online, and yet they are arguably the most valuable aspects of campus life. Id like to thank the UW Systems Womens Studies Consortium for giving me the chance to speak with faculty in the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences, whose perspective is so critical to the future of online learning.