Fraser's Rule

Alistair B. Fraser


Recently, a colleague of mine was being evaluated for promotion at a major university. During the preparation of his dossier, the promotion committee sought a copy of his lecture notes for two of the courses he had taught."No problem," he replied, "here are the URLs." "That won't do," responded the committee, "print them out; we need them on paper."

My colleague and I then shared a derisive laugh at the expense of the committee; they wished to evaluate teaching, but just did not have a clue what was happening in the world of teaching. Just where was the flaw in the promotion committee's logic? Let me set the stage by drawing from the sage observations of the guru of evolving media: Marshal McLuhan. Long before the Web or the Internet he observed,

New technologies are always used to do old tasks - until
some driving force causes them to be used in new ways.
Marshal McLuhan (1964)

When the motion picture was invented, early practitioners saw it primarily as a means of distributing existing material, such as stage performances. It was some time before movies were recognized as a new medium with expressive possibilities which, while overlapping existing media, went far beyond anything previously attainable.

When the CD was adopted as a ROM for computers, there was a similar lack of vision as it was pressed into service as a distribution medium for existing books and encyclopedias. Indeed, reviewers of CD-ROMs were quick to coin a derisive term to describe the products of such tunnel vision: shovelware. Now used more broadly, the word, shovelware can be taken to refer to any content shoveled from one communications medium to another with little regard for the appearance, usability or capabilities of the second medium.

What characterized these, and many other media when introduced, was that their value was seen only as one of access: the new medium offered a more ready way of distributing existing material. It was only later that designers realized that the horizons of effective communication had been pushed back and that now ideas could be presented in ways not previously possible.

More recently, the Worldwide Web has burst onto our consciousness. Quickly grasping the distribution possibilities of the new medium, universities everywhere have rushed to move course resources on-line. Things previously handled on paper or film --- syllabus , assignments, notes, data, diagrams, references, exams --- are now presented through the computer. One face of this headlong rush is the amazingly large number of community colleges and research universities with grand plans to distribute their courses across the world.

But, the efforts are virtually all of a piece: the delivery of academic shovelware. Certainly there is value in the broad distribution, but where is the pedagogical value added if one merely distributes virtually the same course resources through a computer rather than on paper? This sort of unimaginative computerization evokes a colossal, "so what?" in my mind. It is, réchauffé; it is warmed over, insipid.

The Web is a powerful new means of communication; its potential is vastly greater than that of merely distributing the réchauffé. Rather, it can offer students superb pedagogical resources that go far beyond anything possible with paper or blackboard; it can deliver the recherché.

A good teacher operates on many levels, but certainly one of them is that of communicating the mental models of one's discipline and beyond. Those models usually involve insights into how some aspect of the world works. They might be the processes by which the human immune system is believed to respond to invaders, how natural forces operate on air to build a cloud, or how the brain can extract something aesthetic from mere aesthesia. The example chosen does not matter, but whether in the sciences or humanities, we are constantly presenting our students with mental models of the behavior of the world around us. Indeed, these models include metamodels: models of how we think about models.

In the past we relied upon words, diagrams, equations, and gesticulation to build these models piece by piece in the minds of the students. We now have a new tool --- not one which replaces the older ones --- but, one which greatly extends them: interactive computer visualizations. Now the teacher can build a pedagogical model and both student and teacher can interact with it to explore the behavior of the system in a way inconceivable in earlier times.

And, the amazing thing is that such interactive models can be readily delivered through a web browser into not only the classroom where the teacher can use them to help communicate concepts, but the computer laboratory, dormitory room and the home, where the student interacts with them to explore ideas. Both I and my colleague provide such things for our students. As one way of illustrating the value added by provisioning students with such interactive pedagogical models, I note that in my courses, 98% of the students respond to an end-of-the-semester survey with the claim that these visualizations made it easier to grasp the ideas and concepts than would conventional teaching tools (the other 2% were neutral; responding were 165 students spread over participants in both general electives and the major).

This leads us to Fraser's Rule for distinguishing the réchauffé from the recherché when someone moves to a new medium.

The extent to which one has taken advantage of the expanded horizons for communicating ideas with a new medium is the extent to which the material cannot then be reproduced in the older medium.

Or, applying this idea to the teachers who move pedagogical resources to the Web, we have the corollary:

The extent to which a student gains a comparable pedagogical benefit from a printout of your Web resources as from the resources themselves is the extent to which you have done nothing of pedagogical value by moving to the Web.

No wonder my colleague and I were amused by the lack of perspicacity shown by his promotion committee. He had built something of pedagogical value for his students and so it could not be successfully reproduced on paper. The committee wished to evaluate him on the basis of a degenerate printout, as incapable of capturing what his students experienced as would a still black and white photograph be of communicating the shifting hues of a flower kissed by the breeze.

Unfortunately, my colleague is unusual. The sad state of affairs today is that almost all instructional material professors have put on the web to date is shovelware. Yet, the Web is a medium whose power for pedagogical communication goes well beyond anything which universities are employing today.


Note: This essay was written for the Syllabus Magazine. Its format of delivery is paper, and thus it cannot actually illustrate the possibilities of the new medium, only comment on them. Those of you reading this on the Web can view my own course resources, Introductory Meteorology. However, be careful to adhere to the technical requirements on the setup page, or you will be unsuccessful. | Alistair B. Fraser |