MAILED: April 28, 1997|
EAU CLAIRE -- Jesse O'Neill's U.S. history classes only meet a few days a week, but he hears conversation among his classmates every day about history related topics.
The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire freshman is among the 1,100 students from two- and four-year campuses around the state who are participating in the UW Student History Network, headquartered at UW-Eau Claire.
More than 20 historians at 12 UW System campuses are collaborating this semester to link students -- 200 from UW-Eau Claire -- who are enrolled in introductory U.S. history classes. The links consist of e-mail discussion lists, moderated by faculty, and World Wide Web sites that encourage self-paced active learning by the students.
All students enrolled in introductory U.S. history courses at participating campuses receive daily e-mail with comments from students and faculty speaking to various history related topics and questions. A faculty person from a participating campus monitors the comments to ensure that only those pertaining to history are included. All students are welcome to add their comments to the ongoing discussion.
"I participate when I read something that really sparks my interest," said O'Neill, a history major from Oshkosh who is enrolled in two U.S. history courses this semester at UW-Eau Claire. "I wrote to the list when I was really interested in the topic being discussed and once when I found the comments of certain people subscribing to be totally unfounded.
"It's primarily an intense interest that is needed to drive me to lay down my thoughts for the rest of the state to see."
Dr. James Oberly, professor of history at UW-Eau Claire, is the leader of the project, which he says appears to be the only one of its kind in the country. Other state university systems are looking to the UW Student History Network for information, he said, noting that colleagues in Texas and California have been particularly interested.
"It's really outreach to the freshmen history students across the UW System," Oberly said of the pilot project that began this semester. "This is a way to make students at the two-year Centers feel more like a part of the UW System. It started out as a collaboration among UW-Eau Claire and Centers but then expanded to include Whitewater, Milwaukee, La Crosse and Parkside. Hopefully, next year it will expand even more to the remaining four-year campuses."
So far, Oberly said, it seems to be successfully making participating freshmen feel connected to their universities as well as their peers. And research shows that freshmen who feel connected are more likely to continue their education, he said, noting that outreach to the Centers and freshmen retention have been identified goals at UW-Eau Claire in recent years.
The Network stands apart from many distance education efforts because it enhances rather than replaces in-class teaching, Oberly said. "We think distance education should be about more than experts disseminating information with little interaction," he said of himself and his history colleagues. "We thought it should be more collaborative and active -- that distance education should supplement in-class teaching. There is nothing quite like the magic of a classroom with its face-to-face education so we want to enhance that and not replace it."
O'Neill agreed that the on-line discussion is bringing new perspectives to the in-class activities and discussions. "Many times, aspects of history which cannot be discussed in class due to time limitations are brought to the forefront on the list," he said.
In addition, the on-line discussion provides opportunities for discussion with students who are not comfortable speaking in class or who need more time to reflect on a topic before forming an opinion, said Dr. Robert Gough, professor of history.
"My students have done a really good job with this," Gough said, explaining that participation in the on-line discussion will help students' grades in his classes, just like participating in classroom discussions. "My students have participated and made some relevant comments. Some of the students jumped in right away and others waited until later in the semester."
While not every student participates in the discussion, Oberly and Gough said it's obvious that students do read it carefully. Often during in-class discussions, students refer to comments made on the Network, Oberly said.
In addition to the e-mail component of the project, there also are the World Wide Web sites that encourage students to participate in self-paced learning activities. History faculty from several campuses have posted learning projects that include titles such as "The Blues: From the Delta to Chicago"; "Vietnam War"; "Responses to Industry"; and "Virtual Curator." The Web site is available for viewing at http://www.uwec.edu/Academic/History/UWHN1.html.
By using the Web and e-mail to teach history, faculty are changing the ways many freshmen view the discipline, Oberly said, noting that by using technology students consider cutting edge, studying history becomes more acceptable in the students' minds. "We're meeting students where they are at," he said of encouraging learning via cyberspace.
"The historian sitting in front of his/her computer doesn't look quite as bookish as the old stereotype of dusty books, leather chairs and pipes," O'Neill said.
The project received funding from the UW System Undergraduate Teaching Improvement Committee, and from the National Endowment for the Humanities, via H-NET, Humanities OnLine.
Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: April 28, 1997