Not so long ago, the climax of a college education was a final paper, 30 to 40 pages long, annotated with footnotes, typed or printed on white paper. It was read by a professor and probably no one else. Contrast that with the Web site on the history and myths surrounding King Arthur constructed by Birmingham-Southern College seniors Joe Boyles and Jake Livingston. More than 5,000 people have visited the Web site the two of them built for their major college project.
Instead of dense copy on white paper, their Web site is alive with pictures, illustrations and maps. The text is cross-linked and connected to primary sources. Reading about Merlin, you come across a reference to Stonehenge. Click on a link and off you go to more information on the ancient megalith. Or follow a link to Livingston's and Boyle's journals, and get their first hand impressions of visiting the sites.
Currently on their second trip to England to search out and document places connected with Arthur, Boyles and Livingston don't believe they would have gotten so involved if they'd been writing a traditional paper.
"We never would have had the motivation to do a lot of that stuff," Livingston said.
It is commonly observed that the Internet is changing education
by making a previously unimaginable wealth of data available at
the click of the mouse. Beyond that, the technology is changing
the work students produce and the way students and faculty interact.
Students still write papers, but they are often submitted electronically and may take the form of Web pages or Power Point computer-based presentations. They still go to class for lecture and discussion, but that discussion can continue after class through e-mail.
The night before an exam, a professor can answer last-minute questions. But the professor and students can be anywhere, meeting in an electronic office, a class chat room on the Internet.
Susan Hagen's specialty may be medieval literature, but she is a big advocate of using modern technology. She pushed Livingston and Boyles to go beyond the traditional concept of a final paper. "I know that they learned a lot. It allowed for a lot of creativity," she said. "And they really enjoyed what they did."
Though some professors feel the new technology is a distraction or even a threat, Dr. Hagen believes it can augment a course. Her class schedules and reading materials are posted on the class Web site. Give a slide show in class and students will see the images once, she said, but post them on the Web and they can see them again, any time they need them.
College classes can be intimidating, with students afraid to speak for fear of sounding foolish. E-mails and chat room discussions allow time and reflection and care in crafting a question. "Students who are very reticent to talk in class can type it out," Dr. Hagen said.
Assigning students to build a Web site or develop a Power Point
presentation also fits well with current approaches in higher
education, which place less emphasis on lecturing and note-taking
and more on encouraging students to explore material on their
own, and often in teams. The approach teaches skills that students
will need in the modern workplace.
"It has allowed us to train students more professionally for presentation," Dr. Hagen said.
Internet-based research has its pitfalls. Students can pretty up a poor paper with pictures and graphics and cut-and-paste information from Internet sources. Some of that information can be inaccurate or come from biased sources.
Some professors are teaching students how to evaluate the reliability of Web sites, Dr. Hagen said.
Beyond that, they force students to search traditional printed material. "Many of us put a limit on the number of electronic sources a student can use," she said.
There is still no substitute for a student directly and deeply encountering a great work of literature. "We don't want to do way with that at all," Dr. Hagen said. "That's the joy of liberal arts."
For all the eye candy and technological enhancements, Livingston's and Boyle's King Arthur Web site is deeply rooted in traditional academic research.
Almost 40 books are listed in the project's bibliography, ranging from centuries-old histories to contemporary archaeological texts. They found that the familiar conception of Arthur, the knight in shining armor presiding over a grand court and castle, bore little relation to what the historical Arthur would have been: "A hairy brute of the sixth century running around in timber halls instead of castles."
The historical Arthur, if he really existed, would have lived in the fifth or sixth century after the Roman withdrawal from England, at a time when the island was beset with invaders from the mainland.
As new as the presentation might be, the inspiration for the project is also rooted in college tradition. Boyles and Livingston wanted to take a road trip across England, visiting pubs. After initial research, they headed for England. The duo rented a car, plugged a laptop into the cigarette lighter, and set off. Inserted in the laptop was a CD-ROM atlas of England that they used to navigate to the Arthurian sites, scattered across England. At each site, they'd map the exact location, record their observations in an electronic journal, and snap pictures with a digital camera.
Through Birmingham-Southern, they were able to arrange a personal
at-home interview with Geoffrey Ashe, one of the world's leading
scholars on Arthurian literature. Ashe gave them a tour of sites
nearby linked with Arthurian legend.
In the end, they chronicled their visits to 50 Arthurian sites, and plan to add 25 more after this month's trip. They also visited many pubs.
On their Web site, they list the Internet service they used to make their hotel reservations, the directions of their tour, and the places they stayed and ate. And with it posted on the Web, they've gotten feedback from people all over the world who've visited their Web site. "This just turned out to be an incredible experience for us," Boyles said.
The Web site can be found at http://panther.bsc.edu/~arthur/.