in mundibus porosibus docemus

Time, communication, continuities, and change:
Aspects of teaching in leaking universes

Author: Heinrich C. Kuhn

This paper is quasi unchanged from the one read at the workshop organized by Marianne Pade on "ICT [1]-Supported Learning and E-Learning in Culture and Language Studies", held in Skagen in the Klitgården Refugium on 2006-06-08.

Document made available on: 2007-01-24
Last update: 2007-02-16

Sections of this talk:

Dear colleagues, dear friends, LLGG,

"Time, communication, continuities, and change: Aspects of teaching in leaking universes"

first section: what is this all about?

When Marianne Pade invited me here, she told me she thought I should talk about something in the vein of theory [2] (and I didn't have enough daring to ask her whether she said this because she assumed that as a member of a philosophy department that would be what I'd do anyway, or whether she said this because [having known me for years and years] she was convinced that having me talking about praxis certainly would mean going for a practically useless paper) … . Anyway: according to its title this workshop here is about "ICT-Supported Learning and E-Learning in Culture and Language Studies". There might be contexts in which it might be a good idea to ask ourselves what we mean by "Culture and Language Studies". I assume: this workshop is no such context: for what we do here it is probably enough to say that "Culture and Language Studies" is just what we do, what we teach, what we are paid for to do and to teach. So: As of now I have no problems with that part of that title. And, although I'm a member of a philosophy department I have no problems with the words "and" and "in" either.

I do have a problem with the word "learning": not because I'd have problems with its definition, but because I'm in the wrong role and character to talk about "learning": I'm no student, I'm a teacher. Of course I do learn something when I prepare a lecture or a seminar, and of course I do (more often than only occasionally) learn something from my students, but to be honest: that's more by luck and by chance, than by intention, planning and endeavour. My learning something is not what I am doing is about, I don't have the students' perspective, and I know too little about the students' perspective to be able to talk sensibly about learning. But as at least some philosophers claim that it is our task to investigate the causes of the things we investigate, and as at least by its intention - and sometimes perhaps even in fact - teaching is one of the causes of learning: I'll talk about teaching. Problem resolved. Well, this problem, perhaps … .

What's left are the words "Information and communication technologies" and "electronic" (abbreviated by "e"). Taken together this seems to be about the use of computers. But which use of computers? It was in the mid 1980s that I definitely switched from a typewriter to a computer for all purposes, but I assume that a lecture written on a computer and then printed out and read to the students is not what we are talking about. We seem to be aiming at something, well, more "modern", I guess. But what exactly? Computer based multiple choice tests and computer based simulations of physical experiments for students and things like that have been around for a long long time (I remember programming such things when I was back at school, and although I might look rather old: I'm even older than I look …).

Teaching is some form of communication. And the teaching I'll talk about here and today is about a teacher teaching one or several students. By writing and publishing books and articles we do address readers, we don't address pupils. So I won't consider this as teaching here (even if there should be a PDF of the book or article accessible to the pupils). "ICT-supported teaching and E-teaching" have many aspects. Those I'll deal with for the rest of this paper (a subset of all of the aspects), those I'll deal with for the rest of this paper all have to do with communication. And most of the points I'll try to make will be rather general in nature, and many of them probably will be rather obvious. Sorry about that.

However: in spite of talking about obvious things: I'll not deal with all common types of electronic communication or electronically enhanced communication. The German portal site "", sponsored by the German federal ministry for education and research and by prestigious foundations, developed i.a. by the cooperation of people from the universities of Tübingen, Bielefeld, Duisburg-Essen and Wuppertal [3] suggests e.g. ◊ to use the internet to publish up to date information about one's lecture series ,[4] and ◊ to publish documents on the internet on what might happen when in a seminar [5]. I won't try to judge the revolutionary potential of such advice[6], nor will I talk about the use of PowerPoint instead of traditional slides or even more traditional photocopied handouts and chalk on blackboards - as the difference seems just to be one between · works sometimes, · works most times, · works always, - but if it works it seems to work without a real difference concerning how something is taught or learned.

second section: about Time, and also about communication

This section according to its title deals with time. But before I try to tackle this: I'll say something about place; about distance. Distance education has been there for a long time. Much of what we talk about here is distance education of some sort. But compared to classical distance education (using letters, paper, envelopes, stamps, and the occasional common seminar) there is one big difference: speed.

And that is crucial: in an electronic teaching environment participants may have feedback not within weeks, but in most cases within less than a day, more often than not within hours, quite often within minutes or even within seconds. This makes - as far as speed is concerned - communication in such an environment more similar to verbal face to face communication than to communication by the use of postal services (well, at least German postal services). On the other hand: except in some cases of use of chat or instant messaging (where fast typing may well take the place of thinking or at least precedence of thinking): normally, however fast, this communication still is asynchronous communication, and it is documented communication: neither of which we do normally get in verbal face to face communication: In most electronic teaching/learning situations the participants have the chance (and should use the chance) to actually read both what they are reacting to and the texts they write themselves in order to react - before they communicate whatever they wish to communicate. Communication in an electronic teaching environment is fast but asynchronous communication. And with many tools it offers the participants options for clear and open and (sometimes even) unambiguous quoting, linking and highlighting, going back to something discussed quite some time ago without loosing either precision of reminiscence nor relevance for the present context. A webforum, e.g. can offer the participants of a seminar ways of well thought and well prepared discussion and interaction not possible in the traditional classroom situation. (Of course: on the other side a discussion in a webforum can get out of hand and turn nasty in ways not possible in the traditional classroom situation: although I have not [yet] seen in a webforum flame wars as heated as in newsgroups or e-mail-communication lists, participants of a webforum are not necessarily angels either, and learning how to moderate a webforum [and learning that this is different both from moderating an e-mail-distribution list and a traditional seminar discussion] takes its time.) [7] And there is one great and potentially dangerous difference to the traditional classroom seminar, and it's - again - connected with time: nights and weekends: even electronic seminars will normally be taught by the teacher on weekdays and within office hours: but the other participants are normally not restricted to weekdays and office hours: and this means that quite a number of unpleasant things can happen during the time the teacher is absent from the forum. No discussion outside of the traditional classroom can ever be as controlled as a discussion in the traditional classroom.

But: it seems that politeness can be increased by teaching only part of such a seminar "the electronic way": it seems that the inclination to attack a person instead of the person's opinions, and the inclination to call an argument "rubbish" instead of "not completely convincing to me as is", it seems that such inclinations towards rudeness can be reduced by making the contestants meet face to face and have a cup of tea/coffee/whatever. There are many possible reasons in favour of "hybrid teaching" instead of "electronic only teaching"; this might be one of them.

I talked about the "asynchronousness" of electronic classroom communication in comparison to communication in the traditional classroom. But there are also types of "synchronousness" possible in the electronic setting that don't exist in the traditional one: it is possible to participate in more than one and the same discussion at the (almost) same time: several discussion threads can be alive at the same time.

Time is more vague, less defined, less restricted in such electronic settings than it is in the traditional ones. And it is this vagueness of time that - at least for me - is one of the most interesting and most positive aspects of electronic teaching viz. electronic learning.

But I'm not quite sure to which extend this vagueness of time, these differences in synchronousness and asynchronousness can be exported from the electronic setting.

So now we have arrived at the point of contiguousness or continuity of the electronic teaching/learning world and the traditional one.

third section: about continuity and/or continuities

Some things obviously remain the same in the electronic teaching universe as they were in the traditional one - or almost so.

We teach the same subjects. (Well, most of the time at least; I can assure you from experience that teaching a seminar session on current Harry Potter resources on the net without network access is no fun: there are some subjects that are not apt for being taught without any use of computers. And this might be true the other way round as well: I doubt that there will ever be a valid and sufficiently equivalent electronic way to teach some of the things concerning the writing and printing of books, types of paper, types of inks, bindings, matters of size, indications that a certain book has actually been read and their absence, musings about when manuscript corrections by the scribe happened, etc.: all the things we'd tend to teach with the actual physical volume in front of and sometimes in the hands of both teachers and students: I have no idea on how to do this in an equivalent manner in an electronic-only setting.)

· We teach about the same texts ( ◊ although the option to cut and paste an electronic version of a certain text may lead to enhanced typographical precision in quotations, ◊ and the option to use electronic analysis on a certain text may be easier to use in an electronic environment where the tools can be made accessible to all participants, so that they can text the methods and results themselves more easily).

· We have to be well prepared (although in the electronic environment we have both more and less time for that preparation: ◊ we can do ad-hoc-research to answer a question within less than an hour after it was posed, whereas in the traditional classroom we might either deliver a not-that-exact answer at once, or report about the answer a week after the question was posed).

· Our teaching materials have to be well prepared and up to date. But, whereas traditional books tend to remain the way they were written, and books and articles put on course reserve shelves tend to remain where they are supposed to be, at least in some fields a good part of the electronic material we might suggest to our students as worth using is changing, moving, even vanishing.[8] And this means: I may be able to prepare a classical basic bibliography on Author A or Subject B several months ahead of the seminar session dedicated to Author A or Subject B, and I will not have to change anything in it up to the time of said session - just, perhaps, adding a single sheet with recently published (or found) entries; but on the other hand: experience shows, again and again, that it will be rather audacious, if not outright unwise, to confront the students with a document on internet resources dealing with the same Author A or Subject B in which not each single URL has been checked (and amended) not earlier than - at the outmost - a week before said session.

· Whatever we may call them: in most cases we seem to be teaching the same basic types of courses both in the electronic and in the traditional environment: · courses keyed to transferring information to a potentially large number of students, and to get them thinking about that information, with very limited options for discussion (traditionally called "lectures"), · courses keyed to reading and discussing a limited number of texts with a limited number of students (traditionally called "seminars"), · courses keyed to empowering the students to use certain methods (traditionally called "exercises"), etc.. However: there seem to be two aspects to consider: ◊ number one: it seems to be far easier to blend different basic types of courses in the electronic environment than in the traditional classroom one; ◊ number two: IMO there is no valid and apt electronic equivalent to the one-to-one face-to-face tutorial, with its openness for corollaries of any kind, with its adding career advice to thorough common reading of texts, with it's great lack of predeterminedness (I tried to teach a tutorial once via email, I'll never try again) [9].

· We have to be available for the questions and requests of our students (though I have to admit that at least in my case the use of email by students has changes things a bit: many of them still come to me to talk to me face to face - in addition to sending emails - but 9AM to 12AM on Wednesdays, the date of my official visiting hours, is the period with least frequency of such visits. Quite some part of this paper was written on Wednesdays between 9AM and 12AM … .)

· We have to try to present each of our students with the tasks, exercise and practise best suited for that students needs and abilities. Electronically set tasks, exercises etc. (together with fast feedback by the student in the moment the student encounters a problem he or she thinks he or she can't solve without outside help) seem to be more easily to tailor according to a specific students needs and abilities.

And there is an other point concerning continuities, a point that also concerns my last point: change. And that's a point that has to do with the "leaking universes".

Leaks from the classical teaching universe to the electronic teaching universe are obvious: There would be no electronic teaching concerning the Latin language and its authors if there had not been traditional teaching on the Latin language and its authors before that, etc..

And there are leaks from the electronic teaching universe to the classical teaching universe as well.

Some of you may teach courses that are electronic only.

But on the other hand: there seems to have been some change concerning the rest of most of our teaching:

fourth section: about change

As said: Some of you may teach courses that are electronic only.

But on the other hand: when did you teach the last time a course that was taught classically only?: · a course with absolutely no information for its potential and/or actual participants distributed via the internet (http, ftp or email, or otherwise), ◊ and the same course being· a course without a single online item in the course bibliography, ◊ and the same course being· a course in which you did not at least one time make use of a computer to show your students something you'd not have been able to show them without the use of a computer, ◊ and the same course being· a course during which you did never ever receive an email pertinent to said course by at least one of your students, · etc.? I guess the answer would be, for of most of you, similar to the answer I'd give for myself: It's really quite some time ago .[10].

The completely classically taught course, the one using only paper, ink, toner, chalk, plus perhaps a whiteboard or a blackboard and perhaps an overhead projector or slide projector: this type of course seems to be extinct - or at least very very near to extinction.

We have (some) electronic only courses and (many) hybrid courses, and that's it.

The classical teaching universe has been (at least partially) swamped by the electronic teaching universe.

And this brings me to my last point:

fifth, and last, section: about making the best of life in a swamp

As said: The classical teaching universe as been (at least partially) swamped by the electronic teaching universe.

For the near future: we won't be able to drain that swamp. Nor, IMO, do we have a reason to wish to be able to do so. Swamps are territories notoriously rich of various forms of animal life. .[11] And instead of draining the swamp we should try to train the Owl of Minerva so that it can best survive and flourish and prosper and multiply in that (comparatively new) habitat.

So: the results to be drawn from this are rather obvious, I think, and I guess you would be able to draw them yourselves, and most (or even all) of you will already have done so:

Let's try to empower our students to use not only the traditional, but also the computer based tools for research, retrieval, analysis and communication.

Let's try to integrate the use of electronic tools into our teaching where and if they are superior to the traditional ones. Let's refrain from doing so where and if they are inferior - unless we want to teach our students about our incompetence as teachers. Electronic tools of communication IMO are strongest in situations where you can use the advantages inherent in their speed, and, perhaps even more important: · in their asynchronousness (the option to research and think and check before replying to a task, a statement, etc.) and · in their synchronousness (the option to participate in more than one discussion at the same time).

And, perhaps most important of all: let's use the appropriate tool for the appropriate task. · chat and instant messaging for almost nothing or nothing at all (as they tend to incline people to posting instead of thinking), · eMail for point to point communication and the distribution of urgent messages (and not for anything else, unless you are 100% sure that too many emails from you won't affect the configuration of the filters used by your students to cope with various types of junk mail), · the WWW to make various types of texts and other documents accessible to our students for use before and after the regular sessions (be they classic or virtual), · Web-Forums for discussions of any points that merit thoughtful investigation, · etc., · and, last not least: let's use face to face communication for everything for which face to face communication is superior.

The tools that grew over the last few decades give us a flexibility of teaching worth using. And as they are (still) on the flow and changing, and new developments tend to be more useful than extinct ones [12] this flexibility is still increasing.

As said: most probably you wouldn't have needed me for these conclusions (but I didn't have anything else to conclude …), but there is one thing which probably only I can do, and should do now: conclude this paper, stop talking, and thank you for you patience and thank you in advance for anything you will contribute to the discussion:





[1] I assume this to mean: "Information and Communication Technologies"
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[2] Mail MP to hck, 2006-04-19, 18:15h GMT+2: "Ich habe ja natürlich nicht gedacht, dass du über Lateinunterricht reden solltest, aber eher über was teoretisches. "
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[3] cf. (Version of 2006-01-27, seen 2006-05-17): " Der Aufbau des Portals wird seit 1.1.2005 durch das Projekt PELe vom Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF) gefördert. Das Portal wird am Institut für Wissensmedien (IWM) in Tübingen redaktionell betreut und auf der Basis formativer Evaluationsmaßnahmen weiter entwickelt. Das Qualifizierungsportal wurde von der Bertelsmann Stiftung und der Heinz Nixdorf Stiftung unter Leitung von Frau Dr. Monika Lütke-Entrup initiiert. Von 2002 bis 2004 haben die Stiftungen die Fortentwicklung des Konzepts und seine inhaltliche Umsetzung am IWM in Tübingen sowie die technische Realisierung an der Universität Bielefeld gefördert und seinen Einsatz in Kooperation mit dem nordrhein-westfälischen Wissenschaftsministerium an den Universitäten Duisburg-Essen und Wuppertal im Rahmen des Projekts e-teaching @university erprobt.". The Tübingen Professor Prof. Dr. Dr. Friedrich W. Hesse is indicated as the "wissenschaftliche Leiter" at URL (2006-03-20, seen 2006-05-17).
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[4] (2006-02-08/2006-05-17): " diese Angaben werden üblicherweise in den Vorlesungsverzeichnissen veröffentlicht, können in der Online-Variante aber auch noch ergänzt oder kurzfristig aktualisiert werden. Entsprechende Informationen können im Internet auf Ihrer Homepage veröffentlicht werden."
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[5] Es empfiehlt sich neben der Ankündigung auch einen Semesterplan mit einer inhaltlich/zeitlichen Strukturierung der Lehrveranstaltung im Internet abzulegen (2004-09-28/2006-06-17): " Es empfiehlt sich neben der Ankündigung auch einen Semesterplan mit einer inhaltlich/zeitlichen Strukturierung der Lehrveranstaltung im Internet abzulegen"
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[6] And I do not say that such are points of no relevance: quite on the contrary, I think them to be very important, as you will see in the second to last section of this paper.
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[7] My thanks go (i.a.) to Lorraine Damerell, Torill Grønhaug, Lilly Nichols for training me in Forum moderation and talking to me about potential problems connected with then use and moderation of web forums.
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[8] I don't know about any reliable numbers concerning "link rot" in general, but according to my experience: at least 25% of the entries in my course documents on electronic resources of potential relevance to renaissance intellectual history studies have to be changed in one way or an other from one year to the next year.
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[9] It's not just that the atmosphere is not the same. In addition to that there seems to be more inclination to skip a session on the students' side, and less barriers against tackling a subject with less than the best possible preparation (on both sides, with the hope that the other partner will complain if he or she thinks it fit to complain, and that then it's still time to research Aspect X a bit more thoroughly), and on the other hand both sides seem to be inclined less than usual to venture rather daring theories or questions, waiting to see how the other one will react. (This is, admittedly, more from memory than from documentation; but I believe it to be based on substantially correct recollections. And: the differences are not due to different student personalities: I have taught the same student in a traditional tutorial as well.)
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[10] As far as my documentation permits me an answer: in my case the answer would be: in summer 1998.
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[11] cf. e.g. the results of (ca. 5.570.000 hits on 2006-05-23)
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[12] (at least as far as teaching is concerned I see more potential in Web Forums than in gopher …)
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