February 1, 1999

Nick Marinello

One surprising thing about the Internet is that, in an increasingly significant way, it is making ours a more literate society. The demands of communicating effectively through Web sites, list serves and e-mail are elevating the importance of the written word to a new, if fragile, prominence.

For years, Julia Houston has understood the friendly relationship between high-tech information systems and low-tech composition skills. This summer she'll begin to exploit that relationship in an on-line class in freshman composition.

"This is an option for students who feel comfortable with working on the Internet and comfortable on their computers," says Houston, a visiting professor who has spent the last five months designing the Web pages that will comprise the bulk of the course material.

Billed as UENG 125 in the Tulane course catalog, the class will be offered through University College and, in part, is an attempt to satisfy the huge demand for freshman composition in the college.

"The class is for part-time University College students only," says Houston. "They can satisfy their writing requirement by taking the class." Houston, who received her doctorate in English from Tulane in 1993, has taught composition in both the English department and University College.

"We had many students--I wouldn't be surprised if there were over a hundred--who couldn't take freshman composition," she says. "There weren't enough classes available to them." "We've had more students for freshman English than we could place," agrees Rick Marksbury, dean of University College. Marksbury sees the class serving his students in other ways, too.

"It gives us an opportunity to reach out to students we wouldn't normally track," he says. "People without means to leave their houses or work, for example. They can still get a quality English course on-line."

Quality also is a key criteria for Houston, who doesn't believe that on-line teaching can work for all disciplines. "Internet teaching is really great if you control it," she says, "but I think there are a lot of classes out there that probably never should be taught on the Internet."

Performance-oriented courses or business-management courses are better left in the classroom, says Houston. University College will offer two sections of UENG 125 this summer. Each section will be open to 18 students, and Houston will be assisted by a graduate-student grader for each section.

While students will gather for peer-editing workshops and have occasional face-to-face meetings with Houston when necessary, most of the class will be conducted through Houston's Web site, e-mail, a class list serve and student chat room.

Houston, who for the last year has been running a professional Web site for "Star Trek" enthusiasts, believes her on-line class will be even more demanding of students than those set in a traditional classroom. She will give two lessons each week that will feature interactive lectures and worksheets to be completed in an allotted amount of time.

"The student has to answer every time here," says Houston. "They will have to read and write constantly to participate in class so it will help to focus energy on precisely what we are dealing with. They don't ever get a free ride."

At the end of every lesson, students will find links to recommended Internet sites. Houston, who writes all her own HTML codes, also has developed a self-grading grammar book. "They can go and do comma exercises for hours, if they like," she says. Houston, who admits she had "a billion ideas" how to teach such a course, says she also talked to "every single member" of the English department while developing the class.

The course is being offered as a pilot program during the next seven semesters. After that, says Houston, the course will be evaluated. If the students are anything like their teacher, the powerful allure of the Internet alone may guarantee the course's longevity. "The musician Herbie Hancock once said that he got on the Internet for the first time and didn't get off for 72 hours," says Houston.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000