Category Archives: Academia

Data on How Professors Use Technology

Rob Townsend, the Assistant Director of Research and Publications at the American Historical Association and the author of many insightful (and often indispensible) reports about the state of higher education, writes with some telling new data from the latest National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (conducted by the U.S. Department of Education roughly every five years since 1987). Rob focused on several questions about the use of technology in colleges and universities. The results are somewhat surprising and thought-provoking.

Here are two relatively new questions, exactly as they are written on the survey form (including the boldface in the first question; more on that later), which you can download from the Department of Education website. “[FILL INSTNAME]” is obviously replaced in the actual questionnaire by the faculty member’s institution.

Q39. During the 2003 Fall Term at [FILL INSTNAME], did you have one or more web sites for any of your teaching, advising, or other instructional duties? (Web sites used for instructional duties might include the syllabus, readings, assignments, and practice exams for classes; might enable communication with students via listservs or online forums; and might provide real-time computer-based instruction.)

Q41: During the 2003 Fall Term at [FILL INSTNAME], how many hours per week did you spend
communicating by e-mail (electronic mail) with your students?

Using the Department of Education’s web service to create bar graphs from their large data set, Rob generated these two charts:

Rob points out that historians are on the low end of e-mail usage in the academy, though it seems not too far off from other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. A more statistically significant number to get (and probably impossible using this data set) would be the time spent on e-mail per student, since the number of students varies widely among the disciplines. [Update: Within hours of this post Rob had crunched the numbers and came up with an average of 2 minutes per student for history instructors (average of 83 students divided by 2.8 hours spent writing e-mail per week).]

For me, the surprising chart is the first one, on the adoption of the web in teaching, advising, or other instructional duties. Only about a 5-10% rise in the use of the web from 1998 to 2003 for most disciplines, and a decline for English and Literature? This, during a period of enormous, exponential growth in the web, a period that also saw many institutions of higher education mandate that faculty put their syllabi on the Internet (often paying for expensive course management software to do so)?

I have two theories about this chart, with the possibility that both theories are having an effect on the numbers. First, I wonder if that boldfaced “you” in Q39 made a number of professors answer “no” if technically they had someone else (e.g., a teaching assistant or department staffer) put their syllabus or other course materials online. I did some further research after hearing from Rob and noticed that buried in the 1998 survey questionnaire was a slightly different wording, with no boldface: “During the 1998 Fall Term, did you have websites for any of the classes you taught?” Maybe those wordsmiths in English and Literature were parsing the language of the 2003 question a little too closely (or maybe they were just reading it correctly, unlike faculty members from the other disciplines).

My second theory is a little more troubling for cyber-enthusiasts who believe that the Internet will take over the academy in the next decade, fully changing the face of research and instruction. Take a look at this chart from the Pew Internet and American Life Project:

Note how after an initial surge in Internet adoption in the late 1990s the rate of growth has slowed considerably. A minority, small but significant, will probably never adopt the Internet as an important, daily medium of interaction and information. If we believe the Department of Education numbers, within this minority is apparently a sizable segment of professors. According to additional data extracted by Rob Townsend, it looks like this segment is about 16% of history professors and about 21% of English and Literature professors. (These are faculty members who in the fall of 2003 did not use e-mail or the web at all in their instruction.) Remarkably, among all disciplines about a quarter (24.2%) of the faculty fall into this no-tech group. Seems to me it’s going to be a long, long time before that number is reduced to zero.

Welcome to My Blog

Like so many others who enjoy the sound of their own voice and the sight of their own words on a printed page—I would estimate this group as a majority of humanity—I have increasingly felt the urge to write a blog. Blogging has obviously emerged as one of the remarkable, unique products of the web, providing for the first time a nearly frictionless way to immediately reach a worldwide audience with your thoughts.

Having written for paper media, I’ve experienced the frustration of the glacial pace of most publications. In academia this problem is particularly acute. For instance, I completed the first draft of a book chapter I wrote on nineteenth-century mathematics in May of 2002; I finally got to see it in print in May of 2005. Even in the best cases (and there are not many), an academic journal article generally takes a full year from the time you have completed most of the work on the article to the time it shows up on the pages of the journal.

On the other hand, maybe there’s not much urgency in seeing the latest on Victorian mathematics. As far as I know, all of the mathematicians I discuss in the book chapter remain dead, or at least oddly unproductive; those who are interested in their lives and work would just as well wait for a considerate, thoughtful, and complete article regardless of how slowly it took to arrive in print. And unlike in the sciences, there is rarely concern about precedent. My book on the larger history of pure mathematics in the Victorian era has taken about full decade between inception and completion, but I haven’t had many sleepless nights worrying that someone else has duplicated my work or theories.

So here’s the rub, and I suspect I’m not alone in this view: while I’m attracted to the instant gratification of publishing to the web, I’ve more often than not found blogs to be dissatisfying. Perhaps it’s absurd elitism or years of reading overly long tomes. But it’s a feeling that’s hard to shake. The ease with which one can post means that it’s often too easy to post the half-baked and the half-written.

So for this blog I’ve tried to set a higher mark for myself (the elitism now unites with an unwise masochism). While my posts may not be daily, I hope that they will function more like well thought out mini-articles, and transfer to this blog’s audience my understanding of the digital humanities in as great a depth as possible.

Stay tuned for posts explaining how to do for yourself experimental digital work (e.g., how to use the Google Maps API to build your own interactive historical map); posts communicating in a plainspoken way some of the more complex topics in computer science in ways that hopefully will spark ideas among humanists; and posts exploring the implications of new technologies and methodologies for teaching, learning, and researching in a digital age.

I hope that you’ll also join the conversation by emailing me at dcohen@gmu.edu if you have any comments or suggestions.