The Internet Cultural Phenomenon
First Monday


The Internet Cultural Phenomenon: A Bonafide Curricular Theme

Beyond the use of its resources as a research tool, the Internet presents a rich cultural theme for interdisciplinary coursework. In 1996-97, two interdisciplinary courses about and on the Internet were offered at Jacksonville University by four professors from different departments. This paper focuses on the structure, content, and value of, as well as lessons learned from, these virtual courses. Entitled Issues on the Internet, the courses were designed to immerse traditional students in the virtual culture for one semester while exploring issues in science and technology, political science, business and sociology.

Contents

Internet in the Classroom
Issues on the Internet: A Step Toward Internet-Based Courses
Lessons for Future Internet-Based Courses
Final Lessons: What Students May Learn or Fail to Learn

Internet in the Classroom

The Phenomenon

Few acronyms have ever crossed social, business, technical and cultural boundaries to enter the psyche of the populace as fast and effectively as the sometimes famous, sometimes infamous World Wide Web. In less than seven years, it has given the Internet far-reaching potential, under the watchful eyes and persistent computer mouse taps of archivers, business marketers, consumers, policy makers, researchers, educators, artists, curious wanderers, gamblers and forecasters. It is estimated that there are now 15 million host computers on the Internet in over 100 countries, with 57,037,000 U. S. users and perhaps as many as 300 million worldwide users [1]. Everyone seems to want to be a part of this phenomenon although few know exactly why or how. The Internet has indeed generated a spontaneous mass excitement making yesterday's science fiction a reality; it has promulgated an oversupply of products and services, suspending for the moment traditional economic models. Its decentralized nature accounts for its unpredictable development and may be partly responsible for its powerful possibilities.

Hyperbole aside, the Internet is here to stay; it has become more than a dynamic multimedia communication environment: it is a living culture (or a web of mixed cultures), with its own language, residents, historical biographies and autobiographies [2]. It is now seeking maturity by defining its own value system. In that spirit, the Internet presents a bonafide curricular subject, one worth exploring in a formal course which, true to its own nature, should be interdisciplinary and comprehensive.

The Platform

On the educational front, Internet applications have rapidly made their way into the classroom at all levels. But while it is still not clear how these applications will be integrated into the K-16 curricula, it is a safe bet that the Internet will have an unsurpassed, unprecedented role in the enhancement of teaching and learning. Even President Clinton, in his 1997 State of the Union address, boldly stated that every classroom in the U. S. will be linked to the Internet by the year 2000. This vision is certain to bring to college and university educators a serious challenge: the Internet will change the nature of higher education and educators will either "surf" the wave or be swallowed-up by it. This is to say nothing of the non-traditional student market that demands Web-based courses and degrees, leading undoubtedly to fierce competitions from virtual universities and programs, and, hence, improved uses of the medium. There is also the real threat of digital diploma mills [3]. As is the case with a number of curricular initiatives, student interest in technology will play a major role in (a) driving the curricula, (b) influencing teachers' choices and styles of instructional delivery [4], and (c) advancing independent learning [5].

The dazzling effect of the Internet notwithstanding, it is evident that three of its characteristics make it a viable pedagogical platform:

  1. The Internet makes available a comprehensive and diverse array of information.
    It seemingly - almost literally - lays the world at the users' fingertips.
  2. The Internet provides timely updating, delivery of, and access to information.
    Information is not only quickly accessible, but also continuously (even relentlessly) updated, taking it beyond the field of timely information into a realm of the timelessly instantaneous.
  3. The interactivity of the Internet makes all this both possible and personalizable.
    The vast, fast resources of the Internet are within the users' grasp, and responsive precisely and personally to their specific needs in real-time. These resources are not only electronic, they include - and this is the Net's peculiarity - human resources interacting with one another yet remaining private. Those using the Internet give as well as receive, exchanging information wherever and whenever they want, with individuals or global audiences. The Internet has a uniquely multifaceted capacity to enable students to learn in the way they (and we) all like best: to learn more about ourselves, and the world(s) within us, as we learn that much more about the world "out there."

As the Internet provides open access to information and develops into all-encompassing, intertwined communication media, it provides a great experimental platform for academic courses. For example, students can become familiar with just its bibliographic resources or look at it as a "parallel living environment."

Issues on the Internet: A Step Toward Internet-based Courses

Forces Behind the Course

Issues on the Internet (IOI), designed to be a one-semester formal course, was offered twice and was taken by over 100 undergraduate studentse - some day-time students, others in the weekend program. It was inspired by the aforementioned context, but was specifically motivated by the following observations:

  1. Increasingly, entering freshmen bring with them some experience with the Internet; they expect - and are expected by the market place - to augment those skills. IOI responds to those expectations.
  2. Instructors using the Internet in the classroom have to develop a curriculum based on their own Internet experiences; this curriculum contrasts to those developed in their own academic disciplines in which they had been formally trained. But the power of the Internet as a research tool makes it essential to incorporate it into regular classroom use. IOI creates a research-heavy environment that energizes teaching.
  3. There are few other current and major socio-cultural and technological developments, still in a state of serious evolution, which undergraduates can formally explore. IOI offers its students a timely, precious experience with the Internet.
  4. Although use of the Internet is a much publicized and popular discussion topic among professionals and students, actual usage as an academic tool is becoming a basic expectation. IOI is yet another stage in that development.
  5. Beyond the proficiency of students and teachers with Internet tools and the development of Web-based resources, one wonders if they understand, or care to understand, the cultural characteristics of this medium. IOI is an attempt to make this issue a curricular component.

IOI offered its teachers the opportunity to assess the virtual classroom environment and determine the effectiveness of the Internet as a primary research tool. It provides students with the chance to embark on an academic adventure whose effects will be long lasting. It has to be noted, however, that IOI's current structure may not be relevant for long because of rapid changes in technology and the increasing familiarity of students and teachers with the workings and roles of the Internet. As such, IOI serves as a good transitional step toward later Internet-based courses.

Curricular Goals

The course was designed to explore issues on the Internet and issues about the Internet. It asked questions rather than provided answers, one that gleaned projections rather than selections. Its goal was to tackle the esoteric, open-ended question of whether one can live on the Internet or by the Internet alone. In an attempt to investigate such questions and to identify the effects that the Internet has or may end up having on students both personally and professionally, IOI aimed at fulfilling a number student objectives, including the following:

  • Become very familiar with and skillful in electronic correspondence, Web navigation, and the use of Internet services (this will cease to be an objective, but rather an expectation).
  • Develop high proficiency in "virtual teamwork" and virtual decision-making.
  • Complete a number of specific Internet projects; simple ones from tracking stock values and observing political campaigns to downloading NASA interplanetary probes' images and spending "quality time" in chat rooms; and complicated ones, such as checking the accuracy of a advertisement or a medical report.
  • Understand the limitations of the technology and the caveats of total Internet dependence.
  • Envision future Internet developments, and test that imagination.

IOI actively encouraged the students to immerse themselves in the Internet culture. Throughout the experience, students were permitted only to:

  • Use only Internet resources (and the resource textbook [6]); and,
  • Pledge to use the Internet during the semester as much as possible in normal, daily activities outside the classroom (from shopping to reading the news).

Format & Logistics

Two versions of the course were offered: a cross-listed advanced honors seminar and a degree-fulfilling elective course. Both versions were conducted electronically and 100+ undergraduate students worked in teams assembled in a way to allow for diversity of opinions and backgrounds. Each of the two courses was broken into six components including:

  • A get-your-Web-feet-wet introductory exploration;
  • Four disciplinary sections (business, science & technology, political science, socio-cultural studies) in which teams explored specific questions (process) and then submitted an essay on a general theme (analysis); and,
  • A final research project (synthesis) in which the Internet medium acted as the presentation medium.

The students relied for technical support on a teaching assistant who served as the Web developer, and on a physical resource textbook [6] (somehow, students still feel secure if they place a physical resource in their notebook computer case). The students managed their own time and had about two-and-a-half weeks to spend on each IOI segment. Their exploration and essays were posted on the course's Web site and were available for review and evaluation by other teams before final work was to be submitted. The class physically met only for the opening session, a progress session and the final presentations.

Questions & Techniques

The course brought together four broad disciplines and was team-taught by professors representing science, socio-cultural studies, business and political science. Four categories of issues were selected, consistent with the timing of the course and contemporary Internet activities.

Business Issues: Given that some 320 million Web pages exist, with more than one million new pages added monthly, many of which are commercial, it was natural for the course to study business issues on the Internet. How is the consumer market created on the Net? How is the Net affecting the stock market? Will the Net change the way consumers purchase products and services? Will access to and familiarity with the Net create a caste system between users and non-users? What kinds of products are supported and generated by the Net? How do consumer behavior trends differ inside and outside the Net?

Science & Technology Issues: Given the scientific and technological origings of the Internet, it was obvious that technology had to be a natural component of the course. How is technology advanced by the Net? Is technology more accessible because of the Internet? Is science popularized by the Net? Is scientific literacy enhanced by the Net? What effect does the Net have on public policy vis-à-vis research and the environment? How can the Net assist in the advancement of pure and applied scientific research? How can the accuracy of data and reliability of sources be measured? Can intellectual property be protected on the Net?

Political Issues: Offered in an election year, the course attempted to study political issues and public policy. How democratic is the Net? Does the Internet as an entity have political leanings? Does the Net enhance democracy? Is it a self-regulated pseudo-society? Will elections ever occur completely on-line? Does the Net allow politicians to understand the electorate and vice-versa? How do "Internet" bytes compare to other campaign strategies? Will the Net affect citizenship? How effectively do political activists use the Net?

Socio-cultural Issues: Internet lingo, as one demonstration of its culture, set the stage for the socio-cultural dimension of the course: immersing students into Internet culture (for 24 hours, if necessary), providing access to each other, the teachers, and the world of users.

While separate, issues in these areas were not treated independently. A final project created a serious opportunity for connectivity and integration. Across those issues, the course offered many research opportunities: (a) studying the great dichotomies between information explosion and information access, information access and acquisition of knowledge; (b) analyzing the interaction between keyboard sounds, digitized images and synthesized voices with the users' desire for prompt answers to their searches; and, (c) observing users' reactions to technological problems, unexpected changes in the posting of information, and time delays associated with using the Internet exclusively.

Interdisciplinarity

As the course emulated "a study-abroad" program (where the "exotic" culture happened to be the Internet), its pedagogical value mimicked that of the Internet.

Lessons for Future Internet-based Courses

Two major guarantors of success in any Internet-based, interdisciplinary course are planning and flexibility.

Planning: It is imperative to develop ways to make the distance-learning, Internet format work effectively. The experience gained from IOI has given us good insight into how to compensate for some of the shortcomings of using the Internet as a teaching medium. Nevertheless, planning was the most important ingredient in the success of the course. It required a proportionally great deal of preparation prior to the beginning of the semester.

Flexibility: Since an Internet-based class has less structure by nature, an instructor must be able to deal with the unexpected and be able to assist the students with problems. Furthermore, the syllabus cannot be rigid and the students must be allowed some role in controlling the course's direction as it evolves.

Regarding Student Experience Level

At the time the courses were offered, the majority of students who enrolled in IOI were either not very - or not at all - familiar with the Internet. This included a large group of students who were working professionals [5]. Remaining was a small but substantial group of students who had considerable experience on the Web, with strong levels of expertise in searching and navigating through the vast resources available, and developing Web sites. This disparate level of knowledge and experience created unique challenges in course structure. Unless a prerequisite of computer courses or knowledge is established, which IOI did not set, an Internet class will most probably consist of three types of students:

  • students with Internet experience and electronic communications;
  • students with marginal knowledge of electronic mail and some Internet capabilities; and,
  • students totally unfamiliar with e-mail or the Internet.

In order to accommodate those in the last group, and to supplement the "comfort level" of those in the intermediary group, the course has to be structured in such a way to permit on-line training and practice. Training must begin with e-mail and e-mail account development and operating system features, progressing to more advanced features such search engines and storing information. Time not spent in this sort of training is more than lost in productivity during the first several weeks of the course. In fact, those who attempt to "catch on" by trial and error never quite reach an optimal level of competency.

Regarding Facilities and Access

A primary advantage of a course like IOI is using the Internet as a "virtual classroom." However, a "virtual classroom" assumes that the same facilities are available to all students and that Internet access is not a problem. In reality, many students may be handicapped because they do not own computers and must rely on university resources. This situation creates an inequity between those who have their own equipment and can work at their convenience and those who must rely of university laboratories and the availability of machines, software and connections. Typically, but not always, those students who have the highest level of familiarity with the Internet are those with their own equipment and connections in their homes or offices.

Access to the Internet is another unpredictable factor. Services offered by Internet service providers (ISPs) and by university servers have improved considerably since the courses were last offered in 1996, but glitches and other troubles still place many students in difficult positions. One has to be cognizant of this difficulty for the foreseeable future, even though it is becoming increasingly less stifling.

Regarding the Non-Traditional Learning Environment

A major challenge in teaching such a course is the strong divergence away from traditional learning and student/professor interaction. Much of the onus for gathering information is placed on the student with guidance coming from the instructor through assignments. The lack of a traditional classroom environment and class structure is awkward for some students. In addition, there are limitations on what can be done. Electronic communication is void of nonverbal expression; misinterpretations of information can occur. Finally, the biggest drawback is the lack of personal interaction with the students. In a university where teaching is primary and student/professor interactions are highly valued, this could be a major drawback.

Final Observations: What Students May Learn Or Fail to Learn

What do college students learn from a cross-disciplinary Internet course? What kinds of problems result? A preliminary analysis suggests several important patterns, based on our limited experience in using the Internet for cross-disciplinary teaching.

Students easily develop some appreciation for the comprehensive nature of Internet resources as well as how timely or up-to-date these resources can be. Using the metaphor of a virtual library that is both extremely large and current makes the concept easily understood. The interactive nature of the Internet becomes obvious after engaging in certain LISTSERVs and participating in some chat and multi-user role-playing environments. Student appreciation for these aspects of the Internet comes easily and naturally. This however can pose problems as the first reaction seems to be that the Internet is fabulous and an unmixed blessing. It may indeed be fabulous but students frequently fail to comprehend the lack of quality control over much Internet information. Not all Internet information is equally useful or accurate. Since much of this digital information is so voluminous, there is a tendency to conceptualize the situation as a free market place of ideas. In this hypothetical condition, all ideas are free to compete with each other; where speech is unfettered, the truth will triumph. Idyllic as this may be, it does not accurately reflect the Internet.

Print and broadcast media are certainly not known for being completely responsible or demonstrating good taste. Nevertheless, a modicum of quality control is normally present. The proliferation of Internet-based information can be overwhelming and is intensified by an overall lack of quality control. As a result, information mediators have to deal with both the volume and quality of information on the Internet. These mediators process information by collecting, filtering, organizing, simplifying, and summarizing it; then they define the major issues and frame the questions to be resolved. Those best equipped to deal with the nature of this information generally have a stake in how that information is interpreted; hence a bias may be introduced. Even broad-based consumer groups may introduce biases to their information mediation. The expectations that all relevant information is easily accessible and that misinformation will be quickly corrected cannot be met. As in other matters, "buyer beware" is sound advice for the Internet.

Some essayists have discussed low levels of citizen involvement in politics and limited knowledge of public affairs. These observations are often followed by expectations that the Internet will provide a remedy. Given the limited quality control of Internet information and the considerable dependence on information mediators (with their inherent biases), expected improvement in the quality of citizenship is uncertain. There is little social benefit in replacing low levels of information with high levels of misinformation. This situation could even lead to political systems extremely vulnerable to disinformation, or the systematic propagation of incorrect information for nefarious purposes. Americans usually feel secure in considering themselves unaffected by the "Big Lie" technique where propaganda is simply repeated often and loudly. But a more obvious possibility for disinformation comes with the "Sleeper" technique, where misinformation is regularly reinforced through different sources. Each exposure by itself has little impact, but when misinformation is encountered through a multitude of sources, the cumulative effect is extraordinary.

In addition to the potential biases introduced by information mediators, the Internet may accentuate economic, social and other divisions. Those best able to utilize Internet resources are in economic and educational categories with the least need for these resources.

Is there a parallel to the situation posed by the Internet and the Cold War arms race? During the Cold War, our scientific and technological capacity to destroy far exceeded our social capacity to deal with that power. Similarly, with the Internet the dazzling capacity to transfer and transform information has not been accompanied by an effective way of harnessing it. Will the Internet contribute to a growing "caste system" that encourages information "haves" to battle the "have nots"? To a large degree this discussion is academic. As the Internet "genie" has already escaped, we have to find ways to deal with the consequences, via well-designed and carefully planned educational opportunities and programs.

About the Authors

Toufic Hakim, Professor of Physics and Engineering on leave from Jacksonville University, is Assistant to the President at The College of New Jersey.
E-mail: hakim@tcnj.edu

Pamela Prentice, Assistant Professor of Business at Jacksonville University, is a marketing analyst and the Director of the graduate business programs at the University.
E-mail: pprenti@ju.edu

Stephen Baker is a Professor of Political Science at Jacksonville University and serves as a director of the JU Political Research Center.
E-mail: sbaker@ju.edu

John Pauly, a former assistant professor of sociology at Jacksonville University, is an analyst on issues of the media and the Internet.

References

1. See for example http://www.openmarket.com/intindex/ for latest statistics.

2. Many books introduce the history of the Internet; for online history, consult http://www.mediahistory.com

3. David Noble, 1998. "Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education," First Monday, volume 3, number 1 (January). http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v3i1.569

4. Stephen E. DeLong, 1997. "The Shroud of Lecturing," First Monday, volume 2, number 5 (May). http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v2i5.526

5. Frederick Bennett, 1996-97. "Computers as Tutors: Solving the Crisis in Education," First Monday, volume 1, number 6 (December 1996) and volume 2, number 1 (January 1997).

6. R. Reddick and E. King, 1996. The Online Student. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.


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