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Being Smart about Technology

On the Frontiers of Communication and Teaching with Jim O'Donnell

"We have to be smart about how we use technology," counsels Jim O'Donnell. "We're threatened by it only if we use it dumbly." Although a fervid advocate of technology in higher education, O'Donnell invokes none of the hip and overheated argot used by the prophets of technology to herald our deliverance to the promised land. He occasionally lets slip with a "cool," but such excusable oversights are the occupational hazard of one in contact with the boyish cultures of youth or high technology. O'Donnell has close associations with both: he is a Penn classics professor who teaches undergraduates and graduate students, and he is vice provost for information systems and computing.

"In some sense I have two different jobs," he remarks, "and in another sense they both feel like one job. I am an academic, a classicist: I'm a scholar and teacher. It's not what I do; it's what I am. One of the reasons why someone like me is sitting in the vice provost's office is because it's become clear that the real role of technology in higher education has less to do with number crunching and more to do with communication. The traditional humanities are about the means by which human societies create themselves around discourses and communication of one kind or another. In principle, that should mean it is precisely your traditional humanist who's got something to offer in understanding how you would do this technology stuff. So my role as vice provost is a natural extension of my day job."

Listening to him talk, one gets the impression that O'Donnell thinks in complete, well formed sentences. You can almost hear the punctuation drop into the appropriate place, particularly when he utters a complex construction. His assertions bear the marks of his Princeton (A.B.) and Yale (Ph.D.) classical training, incorporating the elements of reason Western cultures inherited from the ancient Greeks. He does not launch into impassioned hyperbole--no ushering in of the best of all possible worlds. Rather, his opinions are steeped in the Hellenistic notions of limit, degree, proportion, relation, contingency, and interdependence of means and end. Shifting with ease between the discourse of academe and business--speaking in measured tones of students and customers, academic missions and market shares--he evidences the balanced judgment, the graded distinctions, and the qualified assertions of the "real world" manager.

Teaching is his primary motivation for exploring the uses of technology. Ask O'Donnell why Penn should continue to use technology for teaching, and his answer will be simple, direct, and unhesitating: "Because we can teach better. Tools of communication that make it easier for people to find more ways to interact, if they're used at all wisely, are things that make teaching go better."

O'Donnell confesses to being a frequent and dedicated user of e-mail, and he is often engaged in scholarly e-mail exchanges with his students at 11:00 P.M., which is when they are working. "With e-mail, faculty can keep in touch with their students outside those magic three hours a week we spend in the classroom. I almost never schedule formal office hours anymore--it's too inefficient. But I see students and talk to them more and better than I ever did. Much more is getting done in a timelier way because questions can fly back and forth, and get answered almost right away."

A former assistant professor of classics at Cornell, O'Donnell likes to tell the story of an international student--"a very shy kid"--who was struggling in a course he taught there. After encouraging him to come and talk, the student finally showed up in O'Donnell's office when he was in a meeting with six "grownups." "The kid sticks his head in the door; he sees the grownups; his head disappears out the door, and he walks down the hall." By the time O'Donnell walked to the door, finishing a sentence along the way, the student had gone around the corner. He dropped the course that day and O'Donnell never saw him again. "I still want that kid back," O'Donnell says. "If we had e-mail, I could have typed a note and arranged to meet him later. Maybe I wouldn't have gotten him, but I wish I had that hook to pull him back. I think there was something useful and important that could have been done for that kid, but we missed it because getting together was hard in the traditional mode. I don't want that to happen again."

Besides teaching, O'Donnell manages the Office of Information Systems and Computing (ISC). ISC is Penn's central computing group responsible for networking, core administrative systems, support services, and institution-wide computer standards. As vice provost, he reports directly to the provost and the executive vice president, a job that brings together the academic and the administrative sides of the house.

"The quality of the Penn education is never threatened by anything other than the potential failure of faculty or our academic leadership to do our job," he declares. "I am tireless in insisting that there are virtually no interesting technology questions particular to a university. We use technology for our own purposes, for our own good: What is it that makes Penn Penn? How can you use technology to make sure we remain competitive and become more competitive? Or, if you think of it as educational mission, How can we identify the things we want to be really good at and get better at those things? In a way, these are not technology questions at all; they're traditional educational choices about institutional mission--the job of academic administration. My task is to inform the president, the provost, and the EVP about what some of the possibilities are for doing that job in new or better or more efficient ways."

One of the new and better ways that technology is being brought to bear on Penn's curriculum is through the Internet. For some faculty, course Web sites have come to replace bulk packs, handouts, and in some cases even the textbook. "At this point," O'Donnell reports, "I rarely do handouts anymore; it takes up too much time. With a Web site, I can put readings up quickly. Once I've done it, it's available to me and my teaching always--and students can't lose it."

O'Donnell's home page ( has links to several Web sites for courses he's taught. A Boethius site, for instance, was created for a fall 1994 Internet seminar and contains the full Latin text of The Consolation of Philosophy as well as a link to the International Boethius Society. The electronically taught course was associated with a regular course that was taught in a Penn classroom. O'Donnell has found that the on-campus students benefit from having to report on the class discussions to the online students. Penn students also "publish" their papers to the larger group, who provide useful criticism.

Penn Professor Norman Smith has a Web site for his Music 21 course (you need a password to access it) that contains audio of classical works, diagrams of the music's structure, the score, and links to composers' biographies in the online Encyclopedia Britannica. "You can click and hear Norm talking about a segment of the music and then hear the music in bits and pieces," explains O'Donnell. "In a way, it reflects the traditional lecture, but it's the traditional lecture where you can sit at home and work through it yourself with much higher quality materials than you ever had before. You can put stuff up on the Net, and it can be broken up and compartmentalized to the point where you've got maybe a small snippet of audio, a small snippet of text, and maybe some video that all run together in a more dynamic kind of environment."

In his courses, O'Donnell typically has his students put up their own Web sites. Assignments are often structured so that students must first publish a paper on their site, and later they are assigned to react to one of their colleague's publications. Critiques are also published and accessible to the whole class. O'Donnell tells the following story to illustrate some of this technology's important pedagogical benefits.

A student in his class once responded to a publication on another's Web site. The author of the original paper believed the critic had not understood what he had written. At this point, teacher O'Donnell steps into the story. "You know, you're right, he didn't get what you were saying, did he? Bad news for you: If you're going to be effective at communication, you've got to get through to people even like him." The student responds, "Well, darn it, how can I do it better?" O'Donnell notes the shift the technology has helped facilitate. "At this point, teacher and student are collaborators on an act of communication where the validation of the communication isn't coming from a grade--the problem is 'he didn't understand that.' In order to get the student to work harder, I don't need to get him to form a negative judgment about his ability by giving him a bad grade. Instead, we get to sit down and form a negative judgment about the other guy. I'm not a judge. We've got a goal and a target, and we're now a team. If I can get students to decide that it really is a challenge to communicate effectively to people in the world, and that there are tools that I, as a teacher, have to offer--that I can be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem--then better stuff happens."

Shifting back into his job as Penn's technology czar, O'Donnell claims to have no illusions that technology is a panacea. "It is possible to use it to dehumanize education, to mechanize it. And I could imagine an institution that's pressed for resources that would cut back faculty, automate, and produce machine-driven teaching and call it 'education.' I'm guessing that will happen. I think the way to keep it from happening is by displaying what the best practices are for using technology. We need to do careful experiments; we need to pilot things; we need to push the envelope in order to explore what it will take to do things well with these tools."

Back on his "day job," O'Donnell wrote a sober review of The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts, which can be read on the Internet ( At the end of the book review, his measured tone and sensible judgment on matters of technology give way to a little poetry, providing a glimpse of O'Donnell's passion for teaching. "The issues that the new technologies raise are very profoundly ones that already belong to the tradition of scholarship and teaching to which I belong. I am sometimes asked whether I shouldn't be speaking up for a nostalgic love for leather-bound volumes, and I freely confess that books are certainly my fetish of choice. But to use them wisely, resourcefully, passionately--that is my profession and my vocation, not a private pleasure. And this place where my words reach readers in the ambiguous virtual space of the World Wide Web is exactly where that profession has led me and where that vocation insists that I be, for now and the foreseeable future. It's an exciting time, and this virtual place, wherever in the river of spinning electrons it may be, is a very exciting place to be."

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