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                    THE ELECTRIC RENAISSANCE
                      A Course in the Ether
                     by Ellis L. "Skip" Knox

   Few people think of history as a "high-tech" discipline.
Historians are commonly pictured as dusty souls rooting about in
library stacks or in quaint archives, and struggling reluctantly
with the trailing edges of the computer revolution.  University
budgets leave us with computers that confirm the stereotype:  why
waste precious resources on us when all we do is word processing?
   The truth is, however, that what we do is far too
sophisticated for mere computers.  Even the comparatively simple
chore of handling a bibliography in multiple languages causes
most computers indigestion.  Ask them to perform a competent
translation and they gibber, thrown by slang or innuendo.  Go
further and try to make a computer do what we actually do --
inquire, explain, generalize -- and they draw a blank.  Compared
to interpreting the English Civil War, modelling a weather system
is child's play.
   Until computers catch up with us, though, they can be put to
use performing other chores.  One of the most promising arenas is
in using computers as an adjunct to teaching.  This is a report
on one such application:  using telecommunications to provide an
alternative to the classroom.
   In the fall semester of 1990 I taught "History of the
Renaissance," a course traditional in content but novel in form
in that it was conducted entirely using electronic mail via
computers and modems:  we had no classroom, I delivered no
lectures, and the students never met face to face.  I used a
personal computer as the host for the class and all the students
had their own computers.  Students, teacher, and administration
alike considered the experiment a success, and we have plans to
try more courses using this method.
   How can one teach history without a classroom?  Quite easily,
it turns out.  In order to discuss the course, though, it is
necessary to explain first the mechanics of how the electronic
classroom works before addressing pedagogical issues.
   The key to the operation is an electronic bulletin board
system, or BBS.  This is a combination of hardware and software
that lets a single computer act as the electronic classroom, and
it provides four main services:  messages, bulletins, files, and
   Messages are usually public, and they are readable at any time
by any student.  In addition, students and instructor alike can
post private messages that can be read only by the addressee.
Bulletins are analogous to notices posted on a physical bulletin
board, except they can be posted only by the instructor; this is
where I include the course syllabus and other notices and
announcements.  Besides sending and receiving messages, students
can also send and receive files; these can be term papers,
articles, even tutorial programs.  And doors act as doorways into
other programs; using this feature it would be possible, for
example, to administer a test electronically.
   I conducted this class, which I whimsically called the
"Electronic Renaissance," as a cross between a discussion group
and directed readings, so the message feature was both the
foundation and the center-piece.  Students would use their own
computers to call the BBS, which had its own phone line and ran
24 hours a day for the whole semester.  Using a few simple
commands, they would receive all new messages, and then hang up,
freeing the BBS for use by another student.  If the student
forgot to hang up, the BBS would automatically disconnect the
phone after a few minutes).
   Students would then use their word processor to read messages.
Some would be questions from other students, others might include
contributions to on-going discussions or private messages from
the professor.  Students would read all these, write replies to
some, ask their own questions, or perhaps broach a new subject.
He would then call the BBS back and post his new messages,
thereby making them part of the general dialog.
   Occasionally the student might download a file i.e., retrieve
a document or other file from the BBS; even more rarely they
might upload a file i.e., send a document to the BBS, but 90% of
the course was comprised of sending and receiving messages --
that is, in dialog.  The creation and management of this
computer-mediated dialog formed the bulk of my duties as
instructor and dictated the design of the course.
   The discussions themselves were both similar to and different
from a live classroom, with similarities outweighing differences
substantially.  As in a classroom, some students were hesitant to
voice their viewpoints, others spoke up almost from the first,
while still others tended to ask questions rather than to write
opinions.  Some messages were clearly stated while others were
murky or ill-informed.
   For all of that, the differences were quite obvious.  The most
evident and most annoying was the delay between responses.  A
student making an observation might not read some responses for
several days, by which time the original "speaker" had moved on
to other issues.  We all had to learn to accomodate ourselves to
a more leisurely pace of conversation.  The fact that the BBS
could keep track of several discussion topics at once compensated
somewhat for the slower pace.
   At the same time, the constraints of the medium caused other
differences that I welcomed.  The most notable of these was the
students' discovery that they had to cite their sources.  They
quickly found they could not discuss the material without stating
the book and page number that formed the basis of their question
or observation.  From early in the course I began to see messages
with quotations or paraphrases followed by an author and page
number.  This also tended to keep the discussion focused on the
ideas presented in the books; I saw very little pure opinion
giving of the sort that I often hear in classroom discussion.
The tone of the discussion was not only "this is what I think,"
but also "this is the source from which I draw my opinion."
   My major role in all of this was as moderator.  I posted the
initial questions and made opening statements.  I brought the
discussion back on track when it wandered or lost focus, and I
tried to liven it when it flagged.  In short, I did what any
professor does in a discussion class or seminar, only I did it in
   Student participation formed a quarter of the final grade.
This, plus the requirement that each student post a minimum of
three messages a week, ensured participation by everyone.  Some
messages were obviously meant to meet only that minimum, but
because there were no lectures and the students had to make their
way through the readings on their own, they tended to ask a lot
of questions.
   As I began to create my syllabus, I found myself rethinking
almost every aspect of the course:  What really were my
objectives?  What should students learn about the Italian
Renaissance?  What was vital and what expendable?  The change in
the medium provided a catalyst for me to reevaluate form and
content -- a worthwhile exercise in itself.
   I decided, ultimately, not to try to reproduce my lectures.
All my lecture notes were in my computer and I could easily have
posted them, but they were outlines and nothing more.  The
students, moreover, had purchased five books that covered various
aspects of the subject thoroughly.  I had deliberately chosen
books with differing viewpoints, and posting my "lectures" would
have given away my own point of view.  I wanted the students to
grapple with the material directly.  Besides, my goal was
changing rapidly.  Rather than worrying about covering a certain
amount of information in a semester's time, I believed the more
important goal was to encourage the students to ask questions and
to form opinions, since only that would produce discussion.
   Once the course began, it became evident that certain kinds of
background information were needed that were not supplied by the
books.  I found myself writing messages of 100 lines or so as the
need became evident from the discussions; for example, an
explanation of medieval money, or a brief excursion into Church
hierarchy.  What my students told me during and after the course
was that they much appreciated these little essays.  If I teach
this course with any regularity, I can envision building a
library of these, to be pulled out as the occasion demands.
   One obvious question that several faculty asked was:  What
about the art?  After all, how can one teach the Renaissance
without teaching the art?  I toyed with the idea of transmitting
pictures.  This is technically possible, but I could not know
whether the students' machines would have the speed and power
needed to display the pictures.  I decided, instead, to spend
only a couple of weeks on art and even there to concentrate more
on patronage and other non-visual aspects.
   I had two special projects for the course, one that worked
well and one that did not.  Both were predicated on the
assumption that this medium is well-suited to cooperative tasks
with common goals.  The one that worked well was a time line
students built together.  Everyone was required to post weekly a
minimum of five contributions to the time line.  The events were
to be related to the area currently under discussion; thus, if we
were focusing on religion, they should be related to that.  I
gathered the various contributions, eliminated duplicates, and
merged all into a common time line that I posted as a file that
the students could download and view or print.  I wanted the
students to finish the course with a conception of Renaissance
events that was of their own making.
   A secondary goal of the time line project was to force the
students to make some decisions as to relative historical
importance.  I arbitrarily decided that the time line would be of
a fixed length and would not be expanded; so, when I ran out of
room, I asked the students which events were "worthy" of being
included and which should be taken off.  Unfortunately, due to
the small size of the class, we did not reach this point until
almost the end of the semester, by which time the students were
preoccupied with their term papers.  I would certainly use this
project again, although I would simply force the issue earlier.
Students are often told what is important -- by teachers and
books; learning to decide some of this for themselves, I believe,
is a vital part of their education.  This exercise made that
process explicit:  they could see their own choices, compare them
to those made by others, and reach a consensus through debate.
   The project that did not work effectively failed primarily
because I did not prepare well enough.  I had each student choose
a city that, for the duration of the course, would be their
responsibilty.  As discussions developed I hoped each student
would be an advocate for his or her city, commenting on larger
events from, say, a Venetian or Milanese perspective.
   The problem, however, was twofold.  First, I did not provide
enough structure.  I should have seeded the discussions with
material that would inherently bring out differing points of view
(e.g., relations with the papacy or with France).  Second, the
students really needed more material to work with.  I should have
selected the source readings, and maybe even one of the books,
with a view to supporting this project. While the students made
an effort at developing a local point of view, they eventually
lost interest as stimulating debates failed to emerge.
   I have detailed these two projects in an attempt to show the
strengths and weaknesses of teaching through this medium.  In a
traditional classroom one could draw a common time line and
collect contributions, but it would be difficult to keep track of
who contributed what; the administration of the project might
turn into a nightmare.  The BBS approach, on the other hand,
automatically provides the tracking needed for grading purposes
because every student's message is date- and time-stamped.
   But organization and planning are the key, as the failure of
the second project attests.  The teacher has to have clearly in
mind not only the rationale and objectives but the implementation
as well.  If the course is not structured to support the project,
then the project is not likely to succeed.  Because the students
are at a distance, it is difficult to make ad hoc changes that
require additional readings or other materials; the teacher
cannot merely put an extra book on reserve in the library!
   I decided early on that this course would have to be more
highly structured than my traditional courses, that the students
would need to know clearly what was expected of them, and so my
syllabus contained more detail than usual.  As the basis of the
class was discussion, it was especially important that everyone
read the material at the same time.  The syllabus therefore laid
out the reading assignments week by week (not my usual practice),
along with general topic headings.  The students kept up with
their work and the class generally ran smoothly.
   The only serious hurdle I faced was the accessibility of
library resources.  This was an upper-division history course,
and a term paper was required.  But I had students living in
rural communities and at some distance from the university
   This was a real concern, but our university library has
agreements with area public libraries for interlibrary loan
services, and I worked out the details beforehand.  For my
course, I used my computer to connect to our library's electronic
system, where I searched for Renaissance-related books.  Using a
feature of the catalog system, I was able to transfer the search
results to a disk file, which I edited and then uploaded to the
BBS.  Any student in a distant community now had the ability to
download this customized bibliography, identify needed books, and
order them through the local library.  As it turned out, all my
students were within 25 miles of Boise and all drove to campus to
get their books, but the approach was viable even if unused.
   The library loan arrangements work for undergraduate research,
but that is as far as I would want to push it.  Students could
not, for example, use interlibrary loan to get a book from
another university to their local library.  Likewise,
interlibrary loan will not cover reference material, documents,
maps or archival sources.  If a student were 150 miles from Boise
and engaged in extensive graduate-level work, these constraints
would be too severe.  There is, in other words, an academic limit
to what one can do with this method.  I expect the limit to
expand, but only slowly.
   Registration, add-drops, books, and other administrative
matters could in some places be a problem.  Our Continuing
Education division, though, has had long experience in handling
students who are physically remote from the campus, and it
administered this course, too.  If a course like this is not
coordinated through Continuing Education, or an equivalent
division, teachers might have to attend to some of these matters
   Because I ran this class in part as an experiment in distance
education, I chose to teach the whole course by modem.  Others
would not want to go quite so far.  One easy application is for
the large lecture hall -- or even for the not-so-large -- where
it is all but impossible to hold discussions.  By setting up a
BBS service, a teacher can readily add a discussion element.
Once set up, not only can teachers create and moderate
discussions, they can post documents and students can use it to
communicate among themselves and even to form study groups.  The
key is that this is all done outside class time.
   Obviously I believe the electronic classroom has potential,
but what did the students think of it?  They thought very highly
of it indeed, liking this format as an alternative to traditional
classes.  None of them want to do away with live lectures, which
always seem to be the preferred medium.  For my students,
however, time was a premium.  They found themselves unable to
attend any but night classes, and upper-division courses were
rarely available at night.  Although what I did is placed under
the rubric of "distance education," the important element for my
students was not so much distance as time.  They either had to
take a class in their free time, at odd hours, or they simply
could not take the class at all.  They were unanimous in favoring
this aspect of the class best because, with the BBS running
continually, they could send and receive messages at any time, as
could the professor.  No one was ever ignored, no one was ever
interrupted, and the teacher knew exactly the extent and quality
of participation.
   They also told me, quite independently and after the class was
over, that they had worked harder in this course than in most
others.  They wanted their messages to look respectable, not
foolish or sloppy, so they gave them careful attention.  Instead
of proceeding carelessly through a class and only being rigorous
for the term paper and the exams, they found they had to -- or
wanted to -- perform at that level throughout the course.
Moreover, because all of the factual information was in the books
and they could not rely on classroom lectures, some students said
they read their books more carefully and thoroughly than in their
other courses.
   The medium, therefore, seems to have some real, if rather
subjective, educational strengths.  My own reaction was in
harmony with the students:  I thought the general quality of
student response was quite good.  Perhaps this is because only
highly-motivated, well-organized students would risk a class like
this, but I have heard a number of reports from other teachers at
computer conferences who have used this approach and say much the
same:  students like the format, they work hard, and the level of
discussion is much higher than in a live classroom.  They also
have noticed that "shy" students speak more freely when on-line
and that racial and sex stereotypes are downplayed precisely
because the social cues that come into play in a face-to-face
discussion are absent in the electronic format.
   Again I wish to emphasize that the advantages noted are quite
appropriate for our discipline.  Discussing issues, asking
questions, and presenting arguments are at the very core of what
we do.  A live classroom allows for some of that but the
electronic classroom may actually be superior in this regard.
   For those wanting to know more about the computer technology
involved, what follows is a summary of the technical side of the
Electronic Renaissance.  For additional details, please contact
me directly.
   The host computer was an IBM XT running DOS 3.3 and PC Board
version 14.2, with a 1200 baud modem.  I ran QMail 2.1 as a door
out of the BBS, though only one student actually used this
feature.  We ran a single phone line but had two phone numbers:
one for local calls, plus an 800 number, to handle out-of-town
calls, that was rotored onto the local exchange.  The students
were allowed to have any hardware and software combination they
wanted, but we strongly urged a particular combination that was
   This combination was a communications program called Robocomm
and an off-line reader called EZ-Reader.  Robocomm is optimized
for communicating with PC-Board and specifically for talking to
mailer programs.  EZ-Reader takes the mail packets from QMail,
unpacks them, and lets the user read messages and write replies.
Uploads and downloads were handled within Robocomm.  These two
products, in conjunction with QMail running on the host reduced
daily connect time to under five minutes.  This made the 800
charges affordable.  These programs are shareware and the
students who chose them paid the registration fees (the shareware
authors gave us a discount).
   Support for this configuration took perhaps a total of ten
hours in the first two weeks of the course.  After that, things
ran smoothly.  The board never crashed, though it did go down
once as the result of a power failure in the building; it came
back up by itself when the power returned.  Students did call me
once in a while, but none of the problems were serious, though
solving them certainly would require more knowledge than most
faculty have.  I have run the campus BBS since 1986 and so was
comfortable with this technology, but that is admittedly an
unusual situation.  Most campuses would have to turn tech support
over to someone other than the instructor.
   History courses lend themselves to the medium of asynchronous
communication.  Historians deal primarily in words and ideas, and
in the processes of inquiry, analysis and communication, which
are just the kind of services a BBS provides.  One traditional
format for history study is the seminar; my BBS-based system
adheres closely to that approach.
   The workload for the instructor, as with a lecture-only
course, can vary widely.  I certainly spent less time on this
course than I would if it had been live, but I could also have
spent far more than I did.  This is driven more by the ambitions
and goals of the instructor than by the demands and limitations
of the technology.
   Students favor the format.  They like the flexibility for
their own schedules, the freedom to speak whenever they wish, the
idea that they can speak publicly or privately to anyone.  They
also like the feeling that they are active participants in their
own education.
   The technology is affordable.  Even my full-bore approach was
relatively cheap, and there are alternatives that are more
limited but that are free or nearly so.  Administrations will
probably like it.  Distance education is popular, and faculty may
be able to get monetary support from your deans or academic
vice-presidents.  Who knows, there is even the possibility of
creating a publication out of the experience!

   Ellis L. Knox works in the Computer User Services group at
Boise State University as a consultant to faculty; he also
teaches courses for the History Department.  For more information
he can be reached via Internet at [email protected],
through voice phone at 208/385-1315, or at Boise State
University, 1910 University Drive, Boise Idaho, 83725.

Ellis "Skip" Knox       [email protected]
PC Coordinator & Faculty Computer Lab Supervisor
Professor of History
Boise State University  Boise, Idaho