But now enter "virtual" classrooms. Suddenly Michigan folks find themselves "seated" next to classmates baring more skin than they can hope to show for months. Two worlds collide in cyberspace and what breaks out?
"One day [the Michigan students] started snapping and sniping at the Berkeley students," said Howard Besser with the School of Information Management and Systems. "At first I wasn't sure what was going on. Turns out in Michigan it was a particularly bad day, gloomy and snowy, and when we panned down with the camera, they could see a lot of the Berkeley students wearing shorts."
Besser gazes off into the distance. "A well-taught class is not just the classroom, it's person-to-person interactions," he said.
As Besser's experience illustrates, Berkeley professors are finding out the wrinkles of technology aren't limited to Internet busy signals. What keeps them guessing is the unexpected ways people react to technology.
UC Berkeley's Academic Senate dubbed this spring CyberSemester '97. Experts addressed every aspect of cyberspace.
Even Vice President Al Gore had his say during a February visit: "I believe it's underhyped. That's another reason why I congratulate you on having CyberSemester," he said.
But everyone admits when it comes down to the teacher in the classroom, surprises keep coming.
Take calculus, for example. UC Berkeley students can select their lecture followed by the traditional discussion section. Or they can substitute a workshop or multimedia experience developed by UC Berkeley graduate students for the discussion section.
Many students ponder calculus with dread. When the math gets so tough even your calculator doesn't help, you know you're in trouble. However, having a computer bring abstraction to life helps.
No surprise, the multimedia approach caught on like wildfire, quickly filling sections this spring, said Mathematics chair Calvin Moore.
"I chose calculus with the computer section because I felt it would give me more exposure on how to do math problems on a computer," said undergraduate Isi Meanugo. "It's really cool....It's almost like a new computer game."
But calculus veterans know one glory of the discipline is watching teaching assistants step up to the board and flawlessly execute solutions. So what happens when this goes away?
"When the student is sitting down with us and we can actually see them attempt to solve the problem, the teaching assistants are very surprised at the confusion that's going on," said Ole Hald, co-vice chair of instruction for undergraduates. "They saw first hand how students struggled."
If anyone can predict the effects of technology, it's Alice Agogino, associate dean of engineering and multimedia pioneer. She leads a national effort to reinvent engineering education.
A while back, she tested student performance by running her course in two formats, traditional and multimedia. She hypothesized students would learn equally well with either method, but would have more interest in multimedia.
Whoops, let's try that again. Both types of coursework drew equal interest but the students using multimedia outperformed classmates.
Though too small a sample to be significant, "it's what they call statistically trending," Agogino laughed.
Language instructors used reel-to-reel tape 30 years ago, but today cut CDs and speak with remote enclaves via the Internet.
However, not everyone wants to go there with them. Mark Kaiser, associate director of the Berkeley Language Center and creator of a Russian CD-ROM heard students say, "I came to the humanities because I didn't want to get involved with technology and I don't want to get involved with this."
Cecilia Chu, lecturer in East Asian Languages, can relate. She is developing software to translate traditional Chinese characters to simplified, now common in mainland China.
"I am painfully struggling against my personality," said Chu softly. "I can be creative, but I'm neither systematic nor analytical.... My personal hobby is art and part of this will become creative. But before it becomes creative, I have to suffer."
She expresses a fear held by many: "I want to let people see through my eyes," she said, "but I'm not sure if they are clear enough."
However, talent like Chu's will carry the information revolution forward, even computer folks assert.
"Arts students generally have a better sense of visual and oral perception than computer science students," said Larry Rowe, director of the Berkeley Multimedia Research Center. "They push the boundaries of those perceptions further."
When developing web pages, many students "just put the page up - see there's visual, there's audio, but arts students often break new ground," he said.
Vive la révolution.
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