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Vol.26, No. 10 Nov. 20, 2000

School of General Studies Offers University’s First Paperless Undergraduate Class

By Abigail Beshkin

When Thucydides wrote his History of the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C.E., he never dreamt that students at Columbia would be reading his account of this great war in hypertext.

The authors of the Epic of Gilgamesh in the second millennium B.C.E. probably never imagined students would “drag and drop” an animated version of their saga into an online portfolio. But that is how eight students in the School of General Studies are learning ancient history in Columbia’s first paperless undergraduate class.

The course, ancient and classical traditions, is by no means an online course—students meet twice a week for lively seminar discussions led by Marc Meyer and David Grey, adjunct professors in the School of General Studies. But the course’s syllabus can only be found online, and all of the required readings are linked off of the course’s homepage. In addition, students “hand in” their papers online, and professors edit them electronically, using different colors to indicate their corrections and comments.

“Before the first paper was due, students asked if they could hand in their papers in hard copy, and I told them, ‘absolutely not,’” Meyer said. Now, the students not only hand in their papers online, but they’ve learned ways to enhance their work by supplementing it with online multimedia portfolios created in the new CU Analyzer.

The CU Analyzer, launched this fall by the Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, allows students to create a multimedia portfolio with material gleaned from the Internet, and fill it with video, sound, pictures and text. For instance, a student who is writing about Plato’s Timaeus can add to his or her portfolio an image of Plato to illustrate the essay. A student writing about a particular piece of music can add an audio file into his or her online portfolio.

“The use of such dynamic tools as the Analyzer, combined with the students’ own sense of analysis forces them to look at things in different ways and to use different media other than just text media,” said Meyer. “Their final papers will be populated with a variety of different media.”

In addition, the CU Analyzer has enabled the GS students to build a comfortable online community. Students can continue their dialogue after class, but instead of merely using a bulletin board, they can access the same materials and use them as a springboard for a discussion.

“Instead of just talking about a vase with an image of Achilleus on it, everybody can have it in front of them at the same time, and have a conversation about it,” Meyer said. After one particular class, Meyer said, his students wanted to continue a discussion they’d had about the idea of sacred space in ancient religions. Students were able to view different sacred spaces, like the pyramids at Giza, with the Analyzer.

This format offers a particular advantage to students in GS, returning students who often work full time while taking courses.

“The more access our students have to substantive research materials, the more they can enhance the seriousness of the class,” said Peter Awn, dean of the School of General Studies. “Many of our students have schedules that demand the flexibility of remote access, yet they still must have the experience of a classroom community—this class offers both.”

At the same time, Awn and Meyer point out that the online component is in no way a substitute for face-to-face interaction. “The point isn’t to create a paperless class just for the sake of having a paperless class,” said Awn. “The goal of this course is to test the limits, and see how we can bring together both the traditional learning and the online elements available in higher education. This is the wave of the future in the classroom—not substituting one for the other, but bringing together both.”

To Meyer, the advantages of a “paperless” class are clear.

“Studies have shown that the most effective learning takes place when a student develops an emotional attachment to the work,” said Meyer. “If I’m using a program that can stimulate more senses, then the opportunity for emotional involvement is greater. The more they learn, the more it stays with them.”

So far, the feedback from students has been glowing, and they say they like the constant back-and-forth online and the ability to access the reading anytime anywhere—not to mention the money they save on books.

“Where else would I get to read the Rig Veda, the Iliad, the Analects, and the Book of Revelations as I sit in my apartment, any hour of the day or night?” asks class member Beatrice Winner.

Another GS class member, Sonia Resika, said, “This class offered a unique opportunity to read and discuss the great books—without books! Many of us had reservations initially about the format of the class, but quickly realized we were involved in a truly stimulating experiment.”

Meyer has been a lifelong scholar of ancient texts, so the irony of having the world’s oldest texts studied online is not lost on him. At the same time, Meyer thinks that many of these revered ancient thinkers would be proud.

“Aristotle would appreciate it,” he said. “Aristotle found reality embedded in the notion of the whole fact of change and our paperless class certainly is a change.”