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Bridging Technology and Academ


The current information technology mediums, such as the Internet pose exciting new opportunities for researchers and educators and, at the same time, present numerous questions and challenges.  One of the current frustrations of many faculty includes their limited conceptual grasp of how these technologies can benefit themselves and their students.  For certain, the Internet as it currently exists, is largely an undefined and unrefined information resource.  This ostensible weakness, however, provides early adopters of these infant technologies to participate in and to define the role of the Internet for our discipline before it gets defined for us.  The primary objectives of this paper are to present the potential of technology to faculty just beginning to consider it, as well as open a dialogue with colleagues regarding its utility as a research tool and a heuristic device in the sociology classroom.  Three specific questions guide the discussion:  1) Why should sociologists concern themselves with the Internet?;  2) What are the various Internet technologies available to sociologists?, and; 3) How can faculty begin to integrate these technologies into their classrooms and research.

Key words:  teaching sociology, information technology, on-line teaching

Information technology is quickly becoming the hub of efforts within the higher education community.  Indeed, colleges and universities have demonstrated a fierce rush to amass technological tools, and are only now addressing the possibilities for adapting them to academic use.  Ideally, new networked information technologies, such as the World Wide Web and E-mail will become fruitful pedagogical tools for faculty of all disciplines.  As academic libraries are “virtualized” and classrooms are equipped for Internet, teleconferencing, and distance learning, faculty are left to rethink and redefine their role as educators.  It may be that the higher education community has constructed technology around education, and now must meet the challenge of re-building education around technology.  Inventing technological-enabled education falls principally on the shoulders of university faculty, who must learn the hardware and software functionality of the new technologies, innovate educational uses that meet curriculum needs, and implement a new technology teaching paradigm for their respective disciplines.

The new technology teaching paradigm is largely an autonomous, non-centralized venture within and across the academic community.  Within universities, available technology is usually utilized by a small segment of the faculty population.  Across universities, technological-enabled teaching efforts are also scattered and individualized.  Geoghegan (1994) explains this phenomenon by categorizing faculty into technological-use groups — “innovators,”  early adopters, “mainstream,” traditional faculty, and the “nonadopters,” those who will never adopt technologies into their classrooms.  Geoghegan emphasizes that the majority of faculty need assistance in “crossing the chasm” to become “innovators.”

Many obstacles lie at the chasm between faculty technology non-use and use in the classroom, including infrastructure deficiencies, lack of technical training support, lack of incentive, lack of preparation time, and lack of class time.  Perhaps the most formidable obstacle is the process of applying technology use to teaching a social science discipline such as Sociology.  Training for educational technology use must emphasize a “technology-in-context,” or discipline-specific approach that presents faculty with possibilities and paradigms for networked resource use in their specific discipline.

This paper will present observations, commentary, and planning issues for social scientists considering the adaptation of selected networked information technologies (NITs) in the classroom.  NITs include technologies that facilitate time and space-enabled information exchange, such as Internet functions, distance learning, and teleconferencing.  The NITs discussed in this paper are those that are Internet related — World Wide Web (Web); Web authoring and publishing; electronic mail (E-mail), Academic Discussion Lists (listservs) and Usenet Newsgroups.  This paper draws from efforts at St. John’s University to prepare faculty of various disciplines for educational and instructional use of a new technology infrastructure that heavily accentuates these (NITs).
Rationale for Incorporating Networked Information Technology into the Curriculum
As our global society moves into the information age, the importance of networked information for research and current awareness is becoming a reality in all sectors of society, and within all academic disciplines.  For sociology professors, researchers and students, NITs are becoming just as important as the traditional library as a means of scholarly research, and even more important communication tools, connecting users with a vast number of users with various interests.  Forrester Research estimates the current number of global Internet users at 10 million, and estimates that this figure will rise to 52 million in 2000 (Stacey, 1995).

Governmental policy direction for educational technology has an important effect on how the higher education community accommodates NITs.  As the Clinton/Gore administration maintain, technological literacy is “as fundamental to a person’s ability to navigate through society as traditional skills like reading, writing and arithmetic”  (White House, 1996).  The RAND report, “Fostering the Use of Educational Technology: Elements of a National Strategy”, (Glennan and Melmed, 1995 ) observes that, “Information technology is the fundamental underpinning of the science of structural re-engineering.  It is the force that revolutionizes business, streamlines government and enables instant communications and the exchange of information among people and institutions around the world”.  Vice President Gore predicts that, “By the year 2000, sixty percent of the new jobs in America will require advanced technological skills”  (White House, 1996).

The Educational Technology Initiative (1996), of the Clinton/Gore administration proposes the community-wide participation of parents, teachers, business leaders and the higher education community to collaboratively build the social, financial and educational infrastructure necessary for the employment of technology as an instructional and informational tool into the secondary schools by the year 2000, and continuing its presence through higher education.  The four fundamental goals of this initiative are to furnish schools with modern computers to provide access to each and every student; to connect all classrooms to the Internet; to integrate educational software into the curriculum; and to provide technology preparation for teachers through the medium of higher education.

In light of this governmentally directed policy direction, higher education has an obligation for providing a parallel, if not more advanced learning, about and with technology to satisfy the needs of future students.  Moreover, higher education plays a critical role in preparing future teachers for educational technology awareness and instructional utilization in the classrooms of the future.  Many colleges and universities are even exploring an information skill literacy curriculum integrated into the core or major curriculum and/or requiring a working knowledge of technology for college graduation.  For faculty, NITs will realistically change the classroom experience, with or without their actual use.  Faculty must develop an awareness of the research and communication techniques that will enter their classrooms either by their own hand, or inevitably as students enter with technological literacy skills.

The instructional use of NITs has various benefits for both faculty and students.  For faculty, NITs enable scholarly interconnectivity between research communities and interests.  Whereas the thicket of traditional academic research was traditionally isolated geographically, the potential for cross-disciplinary communication and collaboration is now time-enabled and space-enabled by E-mail and the Web.  For example, E-mail discussion lists of various topics have a professional collaborative function, as common postings can include calls for papers, calls for research initiatives, conference announcements and other professional information.  NITs can also have an instructional advantage for faculty in the planning and distribution of course materials and assignments.  Actively applying technology to a practical need encourages faculty to become well versed in the various technologies, without compromising class preparation time.

The instructional use of NITs has many potential benefits to students.  For example, the Kickstart Initiative report by the President’s Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure (NIIAC) concluded that NITs could improve learning outcomes among students of low socio-economic status.  NITs such as distance learning and teleconferencing enable educators to provide simultaneous, multi-location instruction, thus expanding the opportunity for students in rural areas to participate in a wider variety of courses, that for economic reasons, are usually exclusively available only to students in more urban, developed geographical areas.  NITs also offer education economies of scale.  After a large investment, the cost of use per student is relatively low, and the amount of potentially accessible information is immense (Massy and Zemsky, 1995).

The adoption of NITs into the higher education community through teaching and research is a trend that will likely gain more and more momentum.  Most colleges and universities are building the connectivity infrastructure that will make available the hardware and software needed by faculty and students to learn about and with networked information.  Beginning to think about the particular resources and applications of NITs for sociology will assist faculty in facing this challenge realistically and effectively.
Networked Information Technologies for Sociology:  Research, Course Development and Communications

In an educational context, NITs can be used for at least three main categories of pedagogy:  research, course development and communications.  The following discussion will present an overview of how the Web and E-mail can be used in the sociology curriculum and some of the challenges presented.
Sociology Research
The real utility of the Internet for research is its capacity to individualize and customize the research experience by bringing it to the desktop.  From the home or office, library catalogs can be searched from home; government documents can be downloaded in full-text; newspapers can be browsed; data archives can be analyzed; on-line dictionaries can be used to look up words; and more.  Sociological related research materials on the Internet should supplement traditional academic library resources, rather than replace them.  The following major categories of social science-related resources will be discussed: government resources, including data archives, research institutions, newspaper and journal publications; trailblazer pages; and bibliographic utilities, such as library catalogs.  Within these categories, there are resources that are applicable to a variety of sociological specializations, such as Theoretical Sociology, Crime and Criminal Justice, Aging and Health Care, Gender Studies and many more.

Every major government agency in the United States has a Web site that provides extensive information about the agency, links to publications, grant information, data archives, and more.  In many cases, government resources on the Web are more up to date and contain supplementary information in comparison to print resources. The number of available documents increases almost daily as a result of Public Law 103-40, “The Government Printing Office Electronic Information Access Enhancement Act of 1993,” a measure intended to increase the electronic availability of government documents.  Government agency Web sites can also contain useful data archives, such as that of the Census Bureau.  The Census Bureau features extensive raw data archives, news, grant information and “links” to other relevant statistical sites.  International governmental agencies are also increasingly setting up Web sites.  The United Nations Web site, for example is a rich source of information about the agency and its functions.  The scope of resources on the Internet provides the means for students to access government information that was previously unavailable geographically, or impossible to locate in a library not participating in the depository program.

Research institutions such as the Urban Institute, Rand, and the University of Michigan gather and house information and data on a variety of sociological topics and issues.  These data are gathered via numerous governmental, educational, organizational, or commercial sponsored interests.  The General Social Survey (GSS), for example, is available on line.  At its Web site are data files from prior years codebooks and documentation area available for download or to order.  The Gallup Organization is another example of on line research sources, but it is currently a commercial, for-profit interest, and offers a limited selection of public releases from Gallup Poll results.

Free, on-line, full-text publications include the New York Times, the L.A. Times, and CNN Interactive.  They are “browseable” much like a print paper, or searchable by keyword.  Though most do not provide on-line access to archives, for current awareness Web-accessible newspapers are a practical alternative to the print format for those who cannot afford a subscription or are restricted by geography.  The keyword search function of Web newspapers allows readers to go directly to those articles that provide a match, thereby circumscribing irrelevant articles.  The digitization of the peer-reviewed traditional journal is less enthusiastic, though there are a few, such as Sociological Research Online. Most traditional print journals have hesitated in making issues available on-line because of cost considerations and copyright issues, though they commonly make available on-line abstracts and tables of content for current and back issues, such as American Sociological Review and others.  Peer-reviewed, wholly electronic journals can be distributed either via E-mail to subscribers, or globally via the Web.

Web bibliographic tools include library catalogs and selected reference works.  There are numerous library catalogs available on-line, including those of many colleges and universities and the Library of Congress.  On-line library catalogs are an excellent bibliographic resource for students; before actually going to a library, searching can be done from a remote site, such as a home personal computer, or a campus computer laboratory.  This adds a convenient dimension to library use, particularly for literature reviews and citation analysis.  Reference works are also a popular resource on the Web.  Full-text, keyword searchable versions of thesauruses and dictionaries are maintained at various sites.

Another category of Internet social science resources is what is colloquially referred to as “trailblazer pages,” which are typically maintained by social science departments, organizations or individuals with a special interest in the discipline.  These Web sites are attempts to index the “best” resources in a given area.  In fact, when an instructor composes a course Web page and adds a section consisting of links to related Web documents called “Social Science Resources,” this is in effect a trailblazer.  Most trailblazers in sociology hierarchically categorize resources into sections, reflecting the various sub-topics within the discipline.

Using these resources does present several challenges because of the tremendous quantity and quality of Web resources.  First, searching for Web sites of relevance to a particular need is complicated by the full-text indexing practices of on-line search utilities.  On-line Web search utilities can be used to extract current resources from the Web that are relevant to a keyword search term.  However, an Internet-wide search on a keyword such as “Marx” or “Critical Sociology” can yield literally thousands of documents, many of them irrelevant or contextually meaningless.  Second, of the millions of Web documents retrieved by a search engine on a particular topic, authorship can range from students to government agencies to terrorists groups, or even be representative of a hybrid of interests.  Because the Web is a cost-effective, largely unregulated media and publishing tool, it is replete with a large quantity of political information sources that range from the White House to “Bill’s Democrat Dirt Page.”  Finally, the “linking” aspect of hypermedia authoring can result in the linking of high quality and poor quality pages.

The blending of resources and interests on the Internet presents the need for students and faculty to sharpen evaluative and critical-thinking skills, and appraise each Web site independently in the context of its purpose.  Searching the Internet not only requires learning the on-line search skills, but also the cognitive training to critically select and evaluate resources for quality, contextual meaning and relevance.

Course assignments that reflect use of these resources for sociological research should be introduced in conjunction with traditional library resources.  For example, students can be asked to prepare a term paper using both print and Internet resources, and write a short synopsis comparing the research experiences.  This type of assignment allows the student to gain networked information and traditional research experience, reflect on the research process using both avenues, and communicate the experience in writing.  Another useful assignment that incorporates the Internet as an information tool is the composition of a social policy issue paper, deriving information from the various electronic sources.  This exercise helps students recognize the characteristic diversity of opinion on the Internet, stresses the exigency of evaluation and critical analysis of networked information, and encourages students to form opinions about multifaceted issues.
Publishing on the Web: Online Course Development
In addition to its value as a research tool, the hypermedia publishing aspect of the Internet makes it a medium that can be used for course materials distribution.  Making teaching materials available via the Web alleviates the print distribution burden, and compatibility discrepancies encountered with other electronic media.  It also is relatively simple to create, edit and update files to reflect new or updated course content since they are already in electronic format.  In addition, via the Web, faculty in the same discipline from globally dispersed institutions can collaboratively share and originate teaching resources, thereby avoiding reinventing the wheel and enhancing the professional exchange of new ideas, methods and applications of technology.

Web documents are organized in a hypertext system.  In this type of system, information in the form of text, graphics, animation, video, images and programs are arranged in a nonsequential manner, connected semantically via links to other Web “pages” residing internally, or externally.  A link appears as blue or purple underlined text in the document.  By clicking on a link, the user jumps to another Web document that contains content related to the linked phrase or term in the original document.  An HTML document usually contains unique information composed by the author and links to other Web resources.  The composition of hypertext (often referred to as HTML Authoring, or HTML programming) is quite easy, and there are many editing software applications that automate the manual coding of text into hypermedia.

The “linking” aspect of HTML authoring is a significant process whereby the author searches for, evaluates, selects and presents links to external Web pages that are relevant to the purpose of the Web site being constructed.  It is crucial that “linked” sites are evaluated carefully for relevance and quality before being presented on the Web site.  Evaluation of a Web site should follow the basic tenets of print resource evaluation, including the consideration of such factors as authority, accuracy, currency, purpose, quality of links, and stability.  Once material is coded in HTML, it is transferred to a Web server, usually at an academic institution, or via an Internet service provider.  Usually, this simply involves giving the materials to the Web Master at a college or university who will place them on the Web server, or following a set of instructions for transferring the files to the Web server via the File Transfer Protocol (FTP).

A course Web page can be created to supplement the traditional course, or as the primary interfacing medium between the instructor and students.  Course Web sites can include various components, as deemed necessary by the instructor. Generally, the traditional syllabus should be presented, including information about the instructor, the department, and teaching aids.  Campus resources such as the library, the computing center, and administrative offices can be “linked” if they have Web sites.  Any other resource in electronic, word processed or print format can also be added to the Web site.  For example, lecture notes, study questions, and take-home exams, can be converted to HTML and posted on the site.  Print resources, such as reserve reading articles, or book excerpts can be scanned into electronic format and converted to HTML in preparation for the Web.  An important caveat about scanning print publications for on-line publishing is copyright law.  Publishers should be consulted prior to digitizing the material and posting it on-line.  Many times, the ability of the Web administrator at the university to restrict access to selected Web documents is a required condition for digitization of copyrighted material.

The assignment component of a course delivered supplementary or wholly via the Web can utilize forms, where the student completes an assignment and enters data into fields on the Web page, which is transmitted to the Web server and accessed by the instructor.  Forms are not a necessary function, and may also present technical, compatibility problems amongst Web browsers.  Forms are most valuable when the Web site is the primary medium for interfacing between students and the instructor, providing a fast, effective way of submitting short assignments.  The research function of the Web page allows faculty to arrange a pathfinder for students, linking information resources from around the world, but only those that are relevant to the course, course assignments or topical need.  This is an opportunity for the instructor to present to students the most valuable Internet resources that are congruous to the course need.

There are many proprietary stylistic guides available that specify the particulars of “good” taste and “bad” taste in HTML authoring.  For the purposes of the course, however, the focus should be on clarity, informational value, and quality of links to other resources.  The main purpose of the Web presence is indeed not the special features of the technology itself, but the student learning experience in the context of the particular course.  Perhaps the chief stylistic detail is simplicity, i.e., low graphics, moderately sized linked pages, and the avoidance of platform dependent special features.  Graphics tend to slow down the transmission of data on the screen, and special HTML features such as frames, are not supported by all Web browsers.  These and other stylistic factors essentially mean the difference between student use and non-use of the resource.

A course Web page does have many advantages for sociology students and instructors.  Notably it demonstrates a contextually meaningful application of technology, so that the learning experience not only encompasses technology as a resource, but technology as a tool.  Also, the linking aspect of HTML authoring allows the instructor to “link” only Internet research materials relevant to the curriculum need, thereby providing a controlled pathfinder that presents the Web for research and awareness in a significant, practical manner.
Electronic mail is perhaps the most oft used networked technology by faculty and students. Green (1994) estimates that one-third of American faculty are currently using electronic mail, and this figure is likely to be higher today with increased access account availability, university-wide infrastructure development, and GUI-based electronic mail programs such as Pegasus Mail and Microsoft Exchange.  Cartwright and Kovacs (1995 http://contract.kent.edu/change/articles/ beyond2.html) cite that E-mail is a particularly attractive communications tool in academe as a result of two key features:  rapidity of transfer and low cost.  Electronic correspondence is usually accelerated, sometimes messaging can be as quick as seconds.  Paper mail, in contrast, may take several days to deliver.  E-mail is also a convenient way to avoid the postage costs that are incurred as a result of traditional paper mail.  E-mail is also time and space-enabled – messages can be sent twenty-four hours, around the world.  This allows for greater collaborative possibility not just between students and faculty, but amongst scholars and students from various universities, as well as with professionals from other types of research institutions.

Using E-mail as part of course activity provides students with an incentive to become technologically knowledgeable.  One general use of E-mail is to promote electronic discussion outside of the classroom by requiring students to activate their E-mail accounts and use them to correspond with the instructor and each other.  One method is to compile and distribute a roster of student E-mail addresses to the class and request that each individual pick an E-mail partner for the term.  At the end of the term, the student can be asked to turn in the log file transcript of the correspondence.  Faculty can also utilize E-mail as a course information distribution medium, sending simultaneous broadcasts to students with lecture notes, exam hints, or extra-credit assignments.

The E-mail function of academic discussion lists (listservs) in sociology and other disciplines pose a unique tool for enhancing communication and participation within a course.  Lists are managed and distributed via E-mail to “subscribers.”  Subscribers can read messages others post to the list, or reply to public messages.  Academic discussion lists offer a scholarly tone of discussion, are current, and are frequently reviewed by a “moderator” who screens postings for relevance and merit.  There are thousands of discussion lists that feature various topics of interest that students can be asked to subscribe to.

A “list owner” at an educational institution maintains a list.  Academic discussion lists are relatively easy to set-up with the help of an academic computing department.  A common practice among faculty is to establish a discussion list expressly for a course, inviting the students to discuss class issues in the open electronic forum.  If privacy is an issue, subscription to the list can moderated by the list owner, though if the instructor elects, invitations to subscribe to a private course list can be posted to other discussion lists external to the class, or even the university in order to invite more expansive public interaction and scholarly debate.  Faculty who have implemented a course-specific discussion list report that student-student communication is enhanced, particularly for students who are usually passive or shy.  A useful aspect of a course discussion list for the instructor is the ability to keep an archived transcript of discussions.  Review of these discussions can be useful as a means of analyzing trends in class response to various issues.

Discussion lists are useful in introducing students to the experiences of public debate, writing, verbal/written presentation and a source of diversity in opinion.  Before establishing a discussion list, it is a good idea to stipulate codes of civility and respect.  “Netiquette” should be taught at the outset, during student instruction, and reinforced throughout the course.

Another powerful communications tool is Usenet, an internationally distributed set of electronic discussion groups on a wide variety of topics.  Newsgroups are the conference-like discussion groups that make up Usenet.  The groups fall into various categories, including computer, news about newsgroups, science, social issues, recreation, talk, miscellaneous topics, and alternative.  Newsgroups, except for alternative groups, are created through a voting process that solicits votes on a given topic from the Usenet participant community.  There are no restrictions in creating alternative groups, and like listservs, a newsgroup specifically for students in a course can be created with some technical assistance from the academic computing facility.

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