Report by P.I.'s Elizabeth Losh and Ellen Strenski on
Virtual Research I (1998-9) and Virtual Research II (1999-2000)

Virtual Research I developed online instructional material to help a combined annual total of 6,000 undergraduates in Humanities Core Course and WR 39C to improve their research skills: (http://e3.uci.edu/fac ulty/losh/research and http://e3.uci.edu /faculty/strenski/research). Virtual Research II aimed online instructional material directly at these students' instructors--graduate students, lecturers, and faculty teaching HumCore and WR 39C: (http://e3.uci.edu/fa culty/losh/resources and the password-protected site at http://e3.uci,edu/programs/comp/39c-staff). A webliography prepared for one of our recent conference presentations is available at http://e3.uci.edu/faculty/losh/pubs/WesternStates.html.

We are pleased with the local pedagogical success of these two projects and their congruence with the mission of the research university --to exploit opportunities, online as well as in the library, to inculcate research skills. Students are learning to be better researchers, and their instructors are becoming better teachers. We have been gratified, as well, by invitations to share our work at several national and international conferences. As a result, we are now consulting with other composition programs that are considering similar projects to acquaint them with the practical problems of indexing, searchability, maintenance, editorial control of web pages, and possible intellectual property issues and privacy problems. The fifth edition of A Guide to Writing Sociology Papers (Richlin-Klonsky and Strenski, St. Martin's/Worth, 2001) will also include some of this material (for example, http://e3.uci.edu/faculty/strenski/research/evaltable.html).

On the basis of several questionnaires and surveys of students and instructors, we can say confidently that instructors have raved about Virtual Research II, a HumCore instructor calling it, for instance, "a lifeline." One WR 39C instructor referred to it as "wonderful," not a comment heard often about pedagogical material dealing, in this specific case, with plagiarism.

If students have not been quite so enthusiastic about the additional work that Virtual Research I has embodied, they have resoundingly acknowledged its value. For example, in response to the question "Which units did you find useful? Why?," students typically responded that "all of them were useful in some way" and "None are useless." We believe that Virtual Research I improved UCI's HumCore and WR 39C curriculum--our immediate concern, but what students seemed particularly to appreciate was the project's more general applicability: "I can use this for research for school as well as research in my every day life. It saves me a lot of time now when I sit down to do research."

One result that initially surprised us was students' positive response to one of the units, on "Disinguishing between Primary and Secondary Sources" (http://e3.uci.edu/faculty/strenski/research/primquiz.html). This subject matter has the potential to be extremely boring. Yet students named it as one of the most helpful. The reason? It was the only unit that we developed with Javascript as a self-grading, interactive quiz. To present curricular material in a game-like fashion seems not at all to denigrate it,

For economy, convenience, and logistical sharing of print and multimedia resources, we believe that such virtual interfaces for curriculum and faculty development projects will become more common More than a simple delivery system of pre-defined course content, this new electronic medium presents some subtle but urgent pedagogical and theoretical challenges, particularly to the traditional--but increasingingly inefficient and maladaptive--division of academic labor. A web interface for instructors automatically inculcates a pedagogical culture that challenges disciplinary boundaries and institutional hierarchies. By "publishing" their statements about teaching and scholarship, this common electronic interface lets graduate students, lecturers, ladder-ranked faculty, and information specialists emerge alongside each other. UCI librarians and computer scientists have contributed materials on Internet search and evaluation, and colleagues in history, philosophy, and linguistics, have collaborated on composition curricula that emphasize logical analysis, the assessment of evidence, and language acquisition. As a result, historians, philosophers, linguists, cultural critics, and information specialists have a platform from which to challenge the curricular assumptions of what have traditionally been courses that privilege literary interpretation over other models for humanistic inquiry.


Ellen Strenski, 14 December 2000