From the Teaching column in the February 1998 Perspectives

Teaching with the Web: Two Approaches

Patricia Seed, February 1998

I. The Web as Superbibliography

By original professional affiliation I am a Latin Americanist, and while my research has increasingly taken me further and further abroad, I still retain substantial interest in teaching both the earliest and the most recent histories of the region south of the Rio Grande. For the past 14 years I have been teaching a course on U.S. relations with Latin America whose aim (beyond providing a basic acquaintanceship with the past) has been to increase undergraduates' awareness of the role of media in shaping perceptions of different countries in the Americas. My technique for so doing has been to spend half the semester on a minicourse in undergraduate research in which every student had to find original media sources and report on how they shaped perceptions of Latin America and the United States.

Teaching at a small university, with few resources for acquiring expensive subscriptions to Latin American newspapers and magazines, I spent over a decade frustrated by the large gap between what I wanted students to see and what they were able to find. Only under exceptional circumstances did any of them have access to media from different nations. Several years ago one student, who came across about-to-be-discarded copies of La Naci&oacuten from Buenos Aires, was able to provide vivid photographic evidence of different media representations of the U.S. invasion of Panama. The day after the invasion La Naci&oacuten's front page displayed a giant U.S. marine holding a machine gun on a five-year-old. The political message communicated by the front page was unmistakable. And as the student found, neither this image nor any like it appeared in any major U.S. news media; they instead concentrated on showing crowds cheering the soldiers. Upon seeing La Naci&oacuten's photograph next to the ones appearing in comparable American sources (Time, Newsweek, the New York Times) students could easily understand how Argentines were interpreting the U.S. intervention in Panama. American audiences—including those who travel to Latin America for business or pleasure—usually fail to comprehend how the people of Latin America have seen and heard very different kinds of stories about the United States. As a result, U.S. visitors to other lands frequently encounter expectations about their own conduct at odds with their comprehension of themselves.

Because all the major Latin American newspapers and many television stations now have web sites, students can have direct access to images, sounds, and text coming from Latin America. Even without extensive knowledge of the languages, students can readily see simple differences in stories by looking at headline size, article length, photographs, editorial titles, and cartoons, all of which they can understand visually. The web has leveled the playing field, making it possible for those of us teaching at institutions with limited resources to provide access to an extraordinary range of otherwise exceedingly expensive sources, enabling students to pursue higher quality research than ever before.

Internet access has thus enabled undergraduates at Rice University to engage in sophisticated research on the contemporary images and mutual (mis)perceptions of United Statesians (the name my English friend Peter Hulme insists on) and Latin Americans. Using ordinary web browsers (Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer), undergraduates can learn for themselves what news of their country is appearing in the media of other nations.

To illustrate how the web has successfully democratized access to international media, I will provide three brief examples from past classes. One of my long-term goals has been to teach undergraduates how to monitor the process that leading U.S. newspapers use to select which stories on Latin America to print. With online subscriptions to news wires—Reuters, AP, and Agence France-Presse—relatively cheap for educational institutions, classes now have the same access to news stories as do editors of all leading newspapers. Over the course of several semesters, students taking this class have been able to see for themselves what types of selections the major news organizations have made. During the spring semester in 1996, for example, the Washington Post and the New York Times consistently chose drug-related stories and financial news over political stories from wire service reports originating in Latin America. From this we were able to discuss in class what perceptions of Latin America operated within the editorial staffs of major American papers as well as within the reading communities they were trying to reach.

The web has also democratized access to other types of information. The American entertainment industry is one of the major sources of information about the United States for people residing in Latin America. Programming for several Latin American television stations is now posted on the web. As a result, another student last year was able to examine Chilean television programming—and the kind of images of America being portrayed. Because several members of the class had been exchange students in Chile, they added an ethnographic dimension and provided information on how their hosts understood the U.S. programming they were viewing.

A final topic set of media-related issues concerned the World Bank, which frequently posts early versions of proposed funding on the web. By reviewing a recent proposal for development in the poverty-stricken Secano region of Chile and interviewing (by telephone) several of the relevant officials at the World Bank, students were able to point out many crucial weaknesses in the way in which the World Bank was acquiring local information in Chile. The bank was trying to find out if there was likely to be significant local political opposition to the project, but was relying upon news sources that were unlikely to tell whether political opposition was conceivable.

Without the democratic reach provided by the World Wide Web, our understanding of these important cultural and political dynamics would have been postponed for years, perhaps even decades. A scholar (not an undergraduate) would have to find information on Latin American television programming, or newspaper archives (physically located in a distant or inaccessible site) and would be attempting to assess their impact upon Latin Americans' perceptions of the United States long after the events had occurred. And it would have been virtually impossible (without great expense and insider access) to find out what choices were being made by editors of U.S. newspapers regarding their selection process for Latin American articles. Now we can teach our undergraduates how to do basic research in this area—and provide them with the tools to do their own exploring.

To take advantage of this newly democratized world of information I have a style of using the web for teaching that I call the Web as Superbibliography. Every student in the class is required to construct a bibliography of sources that they will examine throughout the semester. But this bibliography—which is created in the first half of the course—is not made using conventional media. Rather, it consists of an individual web site containing links to all the sources they have found. Students must learn HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language), the programming needed for web browsers, early in the semester to complete their bibliography. This requirement has had an unexpected side benefit. By the second or third week of the semester, students will know whether there are sufficient sources available for them to research a project. This avoids the inevitable complaint, particularly at schools with limited library resources, that they could find no material on the subject in the library. To see how effective such techniques can be, visit http://www.owlnet.rice.edu/~hist269. Of the students whose work is displayed, only three even knew what HTML was at the start of this semester.

As with any source dependent upon networked technology, the central unsolved problem is archiving information. While I can teach contemporary issues, I still cannot assign the recent past as a topic for investigation. Some material on Chiapas that was accessible last year is no longer available. The technology has not quite been my fairy godmother fulfilling all the wishes on my instructional want list, but it has certainly made it possible for me to teach about Latin America the way that I have long tried to do.

II. The Web as Exhibit

Having used the web to teach bibliographic research for several years, I have only recently begun using it for its graphic display and interactive capacities. I call this using the Web as an Interactive Exhibit. The approach puts more demands on the instructor in terms of building class pages, but the effect can be equally powerful pedagogically. This was brought home to me one Friday, when at the end of a three-hour-long seminar (nearly 4:00 p.m.), students were asking me if we couldn't go on just a little while longer and work with the graphics on our web exhibit. Any time students are asking to stay on in class at nearly 4:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, something is seriously wrong. They are hooked, but fortunately I do not feel obliged to sign them up for the Betty Ford Clinic. As far as I know, the Betty Ford does not yet have an admission category for the browser- or Photoshop-addicted.

Using the web as an interactive teaching exhibit allows the students to see and manipulate images during lectures. This requires access to a computer lab in which all (or nearly all) students can see the picture in front of them as you are lecturing. In my course in the history of Spanish and Portuguese overseas expansion, an early lecture topic concerned the possibility of navigating the various oceans of the world prior to 1440. To show how relatively easy it was to navigate from Scandinavia to Vinland in Leif Ericsson's time, I used a set of online oceanographic maps from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) showing the continental shelf along northern Europe and the North Atlantic coast. The students readily understood how easy it was to reach the coast of what is now the Canadian province of Labrador, using the coastline and the midnight sun. To illustrate another major navigational accomplishment, the great 12th-century Polynesian voyages, I showed a different set of NOAA maps, displaying wind flows and currents across the Pacific. Students were thus able to understand how circulating streams of air and water could be used to travel between the island groups now named New Zealand and Hawaii. Having used handouts, slides, and overhead projectors previously for such lectures, I was astonished by the dramatic leap in comprehension and understanding that the web provided. Students became actively engaged with maps, sharpening both their map-reading and visual acuity. Being able to zoom into sections of the map provided greater confidence in asking questions, because students could be certain that they were asking about a legitimate object, not merely a speck on a screen viewed at a distance. Rather than having to assimilate all of an unfamiliar picture during class, students could also examine the maps on their own time. (And to my surprise, they did.) Interactive exhibits hand viewing control directly to the students, allowing them to assimilate knowledge at their own speed and in their own style. This enables science-phobic students (taking this course as part of a language and literature sequence) to better understand some of the early scientific history of navigation.

Looking closely at maps enhances comprehension, but learning to manipulate the maps themselves makes the learning interactive, requiring active, rather than passive, student participation. Therefore this approach requires students to use basic web graphics capabilities to analyze, measure, and study maps, thus involving them in projects of undergraduate research.

To provide students with the opportunity to enhance their understanding of several historical topics, each student was given web access to a valuable historical map. They copied a smaller version of the large map (or a section of it) from the class page, placing the image in their own account where they could manipulate and analyze it without disturbing the original. (Keeping the images in the class page allowed students who made mistakes to recopy the image into their own account and try again.)

While there are several libraries that have maps posted on the web, I wanted the students to examine nautical charts from Portugal. The Huntington Library generously made available black and white images of two major maps in their extensive collection of Portuguese overseas material. This opportunity allowed each student in the class to examine the characteristics of an original 15th-century nautical chart, and to use those to understand some of the difficulties of both charts and sailing over 500 years ago.

To ensure that students learned to use the graphic techniques to analyze and study the maps, Photoshop (a graphics handling program) was introduced and was taken up rapidly and enthusiastically.1 Using graphics programs, the students were asked to evaluate such topics as compasses, the compass rose, the semiotics of claiming northern Africa, terrestrial magnetism, and deliberate and accidental distortion in maps. Visual answers were required and dramatically demonstrated the status of 15th-century knowledge of the Atlantic. To show distortion, we placed a contemporary map (generated without charge by Xerox Corporation) over the Huntington's early 15th-century nautical chart.2 The superimposition eloquently illustrated the plan's major distortion was in the position of the Azores. The students were then able to debate whether the error was deliberately deceptive or merely inaccurate. Given the Azores' distance from the coast of Portugal and the fears of European sailors—who were coastal navigators—of lengthy voyages on the open oceans, many students concluded that the Azores had been deliberately repositioned to reduce the sailors' fears of long seaborne journeys out of sight of land.

Creating interactive exhibits for students entails a great deal more preparatory work on the part of the instructor than does assigning web page bibliographies. You must scan in images you want to use (seeking the appropriate copyright permissions) or find images already on the web that will illustrate the points you wish to make in lectures. But web surfing is no more difficult than searching slide libraries. To enable undergraduates to research the maps themselves, permission to use rare charts must be found. But using the graphics and the interactive capacity of web browsers have made an enormous difference in the students' willingness to learn new material or material they were previously adverse to learning.

Educational web pages are often merely continuations of text-based material. Syllabi, already hierarchized and ordered packets of information, dot university course pages throughout this country. While I am in favor of these voluntary contributions to the Federal Paperwork Reduction Act (and have my own contribution at http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~feegi/hist327/syllabus.html), these uses fail to take advantage of the interactive possibilities of the web, those which permit students to interact with images and exhibits, and stimulate their critical and creative abilities at the same time. (See http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~feegi/hist327.)

For the online exhibit I have created for students, see http://www.rice.edu/latitude.

—Patricia Seed teaches at Rice University.

Notes

1. Photoshop is an expensive program, but two other relatively cheap or shareware programs that do the basic graphic texts well are Lview Pro and Paintshop Pro. I use both programs for different types of changes.

2. Available at http://pubweb.parc.xerox.com/map.