Dr. Don Bouldin, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, joined UT in 1975. Bouldin has written more than 120 publications and been the principal investigator for nearly $4 million of sponsored research. Email Bouldin at dbouldin@utk. edu and view his course page at http://www- ece.engr.utk.edu/ece/bouldin_ courses/ece551/overview.html to observe his approach first-hand.
Don, what led you to incorporating the WorldWide Web into your life as an educator?
In November of 1993 I went to a conference and the WorldWide Web was a hot topic. When I came home I had someone install the necessary software and began "surfing." Eventually I came upon the homepage site of another school and liked how it looked. As I sat there, I suddenly realized how simple it was to copy the files the school used to create its page over to my computer and then edit out the university name and change it to the University of Tennessee. It's actually legal.
That is how I learned html (hypertext markup language) coding-by example. In fact, I've never even read the beginner's guide to html because anytime I see something I like, I just copy it and edit it. So, I didn't have to start from scratch.
The next summer I spent about three days of doing nothing else but surfing the Web and getting my course pages spruced up. Since then, I have been able to add course material to the Web at my own pace. I have to type class information on my computer anyway, so I just put it in the html format and it's done. It's very little additional effort now from what I would have done with a word processor.
How much course-work do your students conduct on the Web?
I teach four different courses and for one of them I have essentially 100 percent of the handouts on the Web. The other three I have just my syllabus up. I have plans to take them into the 100 percent category. In what I'm referring to as the 100 percent course, that's where I have the syllabus, homework assignments, tutorials, example project proposals and reports, a reprint of a book chapter I wrote, and even some of the PowerPoint flyers I have produced.
Your students actually hand in or do their lab work and reports right there on the Web?
The very first homework is done on the Web. I don't even ask for a hard copy. In order to finish the assignment, my students have to complete the first two-thirds of it and then "email" it to me. I then acknowledge that it was done and send them the remainder of the assignment. In many cases I not only don't require a hard copy, I actually discourage them from even bothering to print it. That does scare a few of them at first.
A more recent development is that they don't actually send me the file, they just send me the path, or Web address, to the file. That keeps me from having to use disk-space twice: once in their account and once in my account. It exists in one place, and all I want to do is read it, anyway. For instance, if you wanted me to see something on your page, you would not have to send the document to me, you just have to send me the link.
Many professors might be apprehensive about having students do course work on the Web because they believe there's a higher risk of cheating, copying or altering their work. How do you deal with that?
First of all, I'm teaching at a senior and graduate level where [the students] are doing some fairly advanced things anyway. Just about everything I have them doing on the Web is something I don't mind them sharing with each other. In a sense, I'm saying that I'm using it only for situations when I don't mind if they study together or discuss material with each other anyway. For those things which I think need to be restricted, I do them the old-fashioned way now. It's possible to do encrypted things and all.
What advantages have you seen in incorporating the Web into your courses?
This is my second year of doing it, which proved to be a real advantage. It's like anything else I do; the next time around I don't have to re-invent it all-I can just make slight changes. But working on the Web carries even more advantages. For example, there's always a couple of pioneers who do the assignment the day it's assigned. Everyone else waits until the last minute. Well, a couple of the pioneers will work on the assignment and I'll get their feedback on items they don't understand or on flaws they found in the material. So, I could make that change and everybody had an instantly updated copy-and I could make that change any time of the night or day since I have access from home as well.
Has using the Web been beneficial to your effectiveness and efficiency as a teacher?
The way it has helped me the most is that it essentially allows me to do something only once. In other words I can publish it on the Web and somebody calls me up and says, "I would like to have such and such a paper," or "Do you have some slides on this?" or "What do you do in your course?" Well, I can just send them a link-and I'm through. I don't have to find it in my file, go down to the copy machine, make a copy of it, fill out an address label, put it in the mail, and then they have to wait a week. So in some ways it's improved my productivity for finding my material and making it available.
Do you direct your students to sources of information on the Internet outside of your department and university?
Yes, and to illustrate how easy and effective it is, I was recently talking to a student in my office and he said, "I need to go to the library," and I replied, "Oh, we can do better than that."
I then turned around, typed in a couple of key search-words and the browser listed the information he was looking for at several universities, libraries and conferences. We looked down the list together and I said, "Now here is a bibliography of one hundred references on this topic and over here is a tutorial." So, in a sense, they're doing the classical library search for citations and information, but they're doing it from their desktop.
Do you personally conduct research on the Internet, then?
Yes, in fact I also get information there on when to send in proposals and discover broad-agency announcements regarding calls for proposals. I find getting information out of Washington about grants and the like via the Internet is very convenient.
Has this positively or negatively affected your interaction with your students?
I think it's very positive. They like being in my class because they know they're getting to do things that are a little newer and cutting-edge, and that is very attractive to them.
So, do you find any of them apprehensive or most of them pretty familiar with the Web and excited about trying it out?
Either my students are brave or they're like my ten year old who surfs the Web and doesn't have any fear of the unknown.
The Web can also be fun for them. Something I did do with this course, which I thought made it fun, was that I added a page with everyone's picture on it. Under each picture I have a link to the homepage which the student had to create. In the cases where students were generating a homepage for the first time, I gave them an example and they only had to fill in the details.
How has working on the Web affected your students' grades and performance?
I think it's helped the quality level and productivity a little bit. I also believe it's enabled them to spend a little less time on detail and a little more time on content and the real issues I want to cover in the course. When I'm starting the semester, having students use the Web slows me down at first, but then it speeds back up. Over a semester it is a net gain.
I personally found just having reports done on a computer has really improved the polish of them. The quality level of our reports in the last ten years compared to the first ten years is amazingly better.
Now just I give them an electronic copy of a previous report and tell them to work off of it. I want them to follow the same outline; so they actually edit the words but keep the outline. It's easier for them to remember to follow the instructions and to meet all the requirements that way. In fact, I even leave them place-holders for the figures.
One concern many educators have is that using the Web in courses will detract from interaction with students. Has this been your experience?
No, it's actually resulted in more quality time. Just having an electronic connection between us actually means we probably have more interaction. I don't know that I've minimized the face-to-face interaction; I've probably just added communication. And it makes general communication less infringing on someone's time-much like we use answering machines when we don't need an immediate answer. It turns out to be very efficient. I'll answer any question as long as the student doesn't mind waiting a couple of hours or a day to receive an answer. In this way I can answer when it is convenient to me.
How do your students get access to the Web?
There are some schools like Virginia Tech that require every freshman to buy a computer. We don't. But there's sufficient lab space and there are also machines in the library and in the dorms.
Would you say that preparing for class like this is initially more work?
Sure. There's more work on the front end, but then I save time later. I did the extra work before last year's class, and now that I'm doing everything the same the second year, I'm only making a few changes. It's already paid off. Henceforth, I expect to be ahead in my preparation-or else I can take the time to add to my curriculum.
In integrating the Internet into your courses, it's best to work with material you think will be repetitive-if you use it even once more it's worth the effort the first time. The other thing is, it can be done incrementally. For example, I teach four courses and one of them I really spruce up and the others I just have a little bit on the Web. As a result I'm doing it partly the new way and partly the old way. Maybe next year I will have enough energy to build on the ones I'm still doing the old way.
In integrating the Internet, people don't have to feel like they need to tackle the whole world-win a Nobel prize on the first day. It can truly be done incrementally.
There's nothing that forces someone to make this transition very quickly. It can be a gradual transition based on the time a person has available, and they don't have to feel badly if they don't get it all done at once.
In your opinion, as a Christian professor, do you see advantages to incorporating the Web into your teaching?
I think there are a number of possibilities for low-key witnessing situations. For example, once when I was out of town I took advantage of automatic-email reply to add a scripture verse at the end of my reply message. Later, I had a couple of people from other schools respond by saying, "I assume by now you're back-and thanks for sending me the Bible verse." In fact, that message probably went to a thousand people.
I know that you're not a forecaster, but do you feel there is a trend in incorporating the Web more into education?
Yes, and it's to our benefit. For example, I traveled to Monterey, Mexico once to give a one-week tutorial. I took with me a couple hundred transparencies, and I was thinking that it was a shame I didn't have a laptop. And then I thought, "Well, why do I want to even carry a laptop? All I really need is a disk that would work on their computer."
Then, during my presentation I was using their computer and a thought occurred to me. "Is this computer on the network?" I asked. They said it was, and so I actually "logged in" to Tennessee, popped up a window in Mexico, and showed them things as fast as I needed to.
I forecast that there will be conferences where the lecturer walks in with nothing and makes a presentation using only the Web; none of those attending would have to take notes-they would need only the Web-address pointers. In fact, conference administrators could just capture the pointers and mail them to the participants electronically. So the proceeding would be done as just a series of links.
How have you used the Web in your own research and proposals?
I was asked to do a grant proposal once and I was told to email it in-it was a preliminary that didn't need official signatures. The catch was, it had to be six pages or less.
I was writing the proposal when I realized I could just email them the address; they could come to my page and read it off my machine, and it would be in color and have pictures. Then I thought that where I was restricted to one paragraph about me in the proposal, I could add a link to my homepage which has my full biography. In the end, I met the requirement of six pages, but I had links to another 50. If someone wanted additional material, it was at their fingertips.
Do you believe that any professor can be involved in the Web as much as you are, or is that level reserved for the "techies" in the university?
The fact that I happen to like computers just gave me the inclination to do it. I don't know that I had any particular technical skill. I believe it's really become so simple that if a person can run a word processor, they can fire up the Netscape browser and make use of the Web.
I gave my ten-year-old son five minutes of instruction in surfing the Web and he was off. Now, he wasn't composing his own pages, but as far as being a user, I think it's that easy. All he knew was how to point, click, and drag. And that's really all he had to know.