This essay originally appeared in the September/October 1995 issue of The Sciences, the official magazine of the New York Academy of Sciences, and is made available at MendelWeb with their kind permission. The article was subsequently reprinted in the Journal of College Science Teaching (December 1995/January 1996). Many of my comments are based on the responses I received from the readers of these periodicals, and I welcome further responses and comments.
An ASCII version (19K) of the original, without my notes, is available as well. For those interested in editing techniques -- to put it mildly -- the version I submitted , is also available.
A vast network of documents, data bases, pictures and sounds, the World-Wide Web is a portrait of culture in continual flux. Every day, on laptop computers and at gigabyte workstations, in offices, in suburban homes, and in airplanes hurtling above the Atlantic, thousands of new Web sites are designed. Many of them amount to virtual graffiti -- barbecue home pages and pop-singer fan clubs -- but some give shape to startling new ideas. Navigating the Web, for instance, one can glimpse part of the future of education hovering above the hypertext -- the ghost of an idea in the machine. Like the Web itself, the idea is amorphous and incomplete, but its essential elements can be found by typing "http://www.mendelweb.org/".
Late last year, when I sat down at my computer to create MendelWeb, I had a simple premise: In too many classrooms today, teachers and students have less say about the things they teach and learn than do the textbooks foisted upon them. Given a choice, I thought, teachers and students would gladly forsake their books in exchange for primary texts, myriad raw materials and a chance to piece them together for themselves.
Educators and computer programmers had been heralding the electronic classroom for years: "interactive multimedia" can foster new learning environments, they said; computers can tailor lessons to individual students. In their enthusiasm, however, such prophets had paid more attention to technology than to content and curricular philosophy. Educational software, "edutainment" programs and electronic textbooks were often as coercive, in their own ways, as textbooks were. Their interfaces offered thousands of choices, but they often led users to canned simulations less engaging than any high school lab session.
I recently spent a few weeks browsing software stores and surfing the Internet in search of an educational program on genetics. None offered an interdisciplinary approach to the subject and most were designed to replace rather than augment the social environment of the traditional classroom. Frustrated by what I found, I turned to a successful textbook writer who is also a longtime booster of electronic media: "You're out of luck," he laughed. "It all sucks."
MendelWeb, in its modest way, is a blueprint for the future of the electronic textbook. The site is constructed around Gregor Mendel's 1865 paper "Experiments on Plant Hybrids," a fountainhead of modern genetics, and is linked to computers on several continents. From the MendelWeb home page, one can visit glossaries, commentaries and tutorials in Providence, Rhode Island; a set of historical documents in the Czech Republic; pictures of plants in Australia or New York; and a multiuser virtual classroom in Israel, to name just a few resources. Taken alone, the site offers a richer, more detailed understanding of Mendel's work than any textbook can. Linked with hundreds of similar sites, it could help make the electronic classroom a desirable reality.
In October 1851, eight years after entering an Augustinian monastery in Brünn (now known as Brno), Czechoslovakia, Friar Gregor Mendel was sent to study physics at the University of Vienna. Indeed, Mendel's correspondence shows that he considered himself primarily an experimental physicist.
The preceding paragraph, adapted from a biographical sketch that appears on MendelWeb, may surprise readers who learned genetics or biology from a traditional textbook. If students are taught anything about Mendel, it is probably that he was a monk, that he conducted his investigations alone, over many years, and that his work was not acknowledged during his lifetime. They associate his name with peas and Punnett squares, crossing diagrams and the ratios 9:3:3:1. Few students, and indeed few contemporary biologists, know of Mendel's education in experimental physics, and few have read the full text of his pea-plant paper. Whether Mendel was too far ahead of his time or suffered from "poor information management," his work was ignored for thirty-five years. That lost opportunity for science has today become a lost opportunity for education.
Mendel had the extraordinary ability to approach biology with the experimental design techniques of a physicist, the analytical tools of an applied mathematician and the rhetorical skill of a natural historian. To read his paper is to be reminded that the boundaries between the sciences, even the boundary between the study of science and the study of literature, are no more than expedient partitions of culture. Mendel's paper is a brilliant example of a primary scientific text that can be fruitfully studied by students of various ages, with a wide range of interests, as part of a liberal education. Yet introductory textbooks never bother to include it.
The word textbook has a revealing history. The word was first used to refer to a copy, or an edition, of a classical text, with margins wide enough for student annotations. By the late eighteenth century, however, a textbook was seen as an exemplary and authoritative standard work in (or treatise on) a particular field. Although that meaning is preserved in the phrase "textbook example," it has faded in the past few decades. The 1966 edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language still defined a textbook as "a book used by students as a standard work for a particular branch of study." The latest American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says only that a textbook is "a book used in schools or colleges for the formal study of a subject."
The shift in meaning signals a shift in function. Over the years, in secondary schools and undergraduate colleges, textbooks have degenerated into convenient substitutes for primary documents and firsthand experiences. Designed to satisfy marketers as much as educators, textbooks often lavish more space on snazzy illustrations than on content. They offer the illusion of encyclopedic scope -- devoting a chapter to any topic a teacher (read: prospective buyer) might want to cover but they too rarely treat any topic in depth or in historical or social context. Teachers can find dozens of textbooks on biology, but they may search in vain for a single one on the history of biology -- or, for that matter, any science textbook suitable for students of the history and philosophy of science or for liberal arts students studying science.
Marketing concerns limit what students can learn and how they can learn it, but traditional textbooks have more intrinsic drawbacks. The history of science is full of dead ends and blind alleys, alternative theories, failed experiments and abandoned disciplines. One good insight may have been preceded by ten wrongheaded ones. But textbook narratives smooth out the fits and starts whereby the facts emerge, blurring scientific sources and exaggerating the clarity of their evidence. They may present Mendel's own data next to diagrams suggested by the turn-of-the-century geneticist Reginald C. Punnett years after Mendel's death. Cartoons of peas in perfect ratios may appear next to the author's interpretations of Mendel's work.
If textbooks mention philosophical, historical or social issues at all, they relegate them to sidebars or thickly bordered boxes. An aside on the history of Mendel's experiment, for instance, may mix facts about Mendel's birth, his education, his experiments and his career as an abbot, as if all were of equal consequence in understanding his work. It is not surprising that scientists trained with such textbooks doubt that the humanities can shed much light on their fields. Yet young students are delighted when teachers put scientific discoveries in their cultural contexts. Even in graduate training, where specialized, dehistoricized textbooks seem an irreplaceable professional resource, teachers who can augment the text with historical, philosophical or mathematical analogy are often the most stimulating.
Years before creating MendelWeb, I helped address some of the flaws, as I saw them, in science textbooks and science education through conventional means. "The Theory and Practice of Science," a course designed in 1981 by the Columbia University professors Herbert Goldstein, Jonathan L. Gross and Robert E. Pollack, and with which I was privileged to be involved for several years, was intended for first- and second-year humanities majors at Columbia College who were fulfilling their science requirements. Flexible and interdisciplinary, the course began by teaching students enough mathematics for them to read original scientific papers critically. It then led them through a physics unit centered on the discovery of nuclear fission, from the nineteenth-century work by Michael Faraday to the 1939 paper by Lise Meitner and Otto R. Frisch that first recognized fission in uranium. It also included a biology unit tracing the discovery of the structure of DNA, from Mendel's pea-plant paper of 1865 through the 1953 papers that revealed the double helical structure of DNA, by James D. Watson and Francis Crick.
By eschewing textbooks and breaking down standard scientific categories, the course fostered an intellectual ferment rare in science courses for nonscientists. Classes were taught in a seminar-like setting, with professors from various disciplines observing and joining in one another's lectures and discussions. English and history majors, usually intimidated by science, discovered a use for their excellent reading and analytical skills. Working with primary texts, rediscovering the results of a study (rather than performing cookbook lab exercises) and approaching science as an activity embedded in history, they were motivated to tackle even the more technical material.
"Theory and Practice of Science" proved so successful that it changed the way science was taught at Columbia. It showed both that the humanities had a place in science courses and that students of the humanities could be taught to appreciate real science. Indeed, it prompted the administration to rewrite the science requirement to encourage the use of primary texts.
But the course also had its problems. Four hours a week was too little time to cover all the discoveries in the primary texts, perform some of the experiments they described and discuss the philosophical or historical issues they raised. And it was hard to keep the organic from fossilizing over time. For the first few years, students received only copies of the papers, along with notes and problem sets from their professors. But when a textbook was written to combine those resources, students sometimes stopped wrestling with the original papers and relied on the accompanying narrative. Professors, when presented with the textbook, began to complain about its style, perspective and sequence of papers. Things seemed to be coming full circle.
We knew how to design a good science course, our experience had shown, but our tools were not equal to our vision. We needed primary texts, historical sources and commentaries, but we needed them in a format more flexible, more open-ended, and perhaps more ambivalent than any textbook. We wanted to move freely between disciplines, to pursue any line of discussion, without continually running to the library and scrambling for photocopiers. We wanted to let students and teachers shape their own curriculums but not to set them adrift in a sea of information. But as long as we relied solely on printed text, that seemed too much to ask. Then the World-Wide Web appeared. First proposed in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee and others at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics just outside Geneva, Switzerland, the World-Wide Web is a system of distributed hypermedia: distributed, because the materials are stored on computers throughout the world; hypermedia, because the documents are linked together with hypertext. With a word or image highlighted in a document on one computer, one can click a mouse or press the Enter key and become transported to a document or an image on another computer. In theory, at least, all the materials on the World-Wide Web are as interconnected as the ones on a single compact disc are.
By the time I set out to create MendelWeb, the World-Wide Web stretched across thousands of sites and was expanding day by day. To solve the kinds of problems we had faced with "The Theory and Practice of Science," I decided to design a hybrid textbook, source book and collaborative hypertext that took advantage of resources on the Web. At its most basic level, MendelWeb makes a useful textbook supplement. A biology teacher who wants her students to read Mendel's paper during a unit on classical genetics can have her class download the German or English text from MendelWeb. If they use the on-line versions instead, they will find hypertext links at the end of each of the eleven sections of the paper that connect to discussion questions, historical notes and homework sets. By clicking on highlighted words, students can visit glossaries, biographies, bibliographies and tutorials that explain and comment on the terms used by Mendel -- a glossary of molecular-genetics terms at Johns Hopkins University, for example, or a picture of a flower in Time Warner's Virtual Garden.
The further one strays from Mendel's text, the broader the offerings. Students can use MendelWeb to learn not only about Mendel's work on peas but also about the elementary mathematics Mendel applied and the basic structure of flowering plants. They can study the connections between Mendel and Darwin through links to several of Darwin's original texts, or the relation between Mendel's work and contemporary molecular genetics.
The best thing about MendelWeb is that students can use it to learn from one another, or from tens of thousands of other people who use the Web. They can add comments to a collaborative version of Mendel's paper, annotated by readers all over the world, or exchange views via electronic mail. If they want immediate feedback, they can travel to the virtual classroom called a Mendelroom and debate the meaning of Mendel's paper in "real time" - that is, as they would if they were linked by voice telephone.
Can sites such as MendelWeb replace the traditional textbook? Not yet. There are simply too few of them. But imagine a chain of sites tracing the history of genetics from Mendel to the molecular world of gene amplification; imagine intelligent computer simulations of experiments and links to schools all over the world, where students are replicating historical experiments and posting their data for everyone to analyze.
The paperless office is a myth, but the World-Wide Web can help radically change traditional textbooks. Many of them may be replaced by thin booklets that list the topics to be covered in a given course and the core skills and information that students are expected to learn. Beyond those requirements, students and teachers will be able to use the Web to create their own curriculums. As students work through Web sites, they will complete homework sets and quizzes, which will be graded automatically and can be reported to the teacher. Sites such as MendelWeb, in other words, will enable students to teach themselves. Classrooms, if they continue to exist as we know them, can be devoted to discussions and other social learning experiences.
Teachers might seem mere systems managers in such a scenario, but in truth they will have to devote far more thought and effort to education. As the Web continues growing exponentially, teachers will sift through its overwhelming offerings, searching for new sites to show their students and organizing on-line guest lectures. In time, there could be educational Web sites created by Yale University as well as by the Flat-Earth Society, by the federal government and by tobacco companies. Teachers, with some help from parents and professional organizations, will have to determine which sites offer accurate information and which are filled with mistakes or propaganda. In return, they will be freed from much of the drudgery of grading multiple-choice tests, parroting textbooks and rehashing old lectures.
Given the recent hysteria over pornography on the Internet, readers may have visions of students surfing to sex videos and erotic chat groups. But the problem is not exactly new. The methods teachers use to keep students from passing notes, carving graffiti on their desks or reading Playboy in the school library should also help them keep students from spending their time in MelrosePlaceWeb instead of in MendelWeb. Computer programs and privatization will keep school computers locked out of obscene sites, but too much censorship would do more harm than good. The real threat to the electronic classroom is not anarchy and immorality but a return to homogeneity.
As long as the Web remains open, diverse and relatively uncensored, everyone will find something in it to like and to learn. But what will keep large publishers from taking over educational Web sites the way they have taken over textbooks? If our experience in "The Theory and Practice of Science" is any indication, convenience and consistency tend to win out over flexibility and innovation. Sites such as MendelWeb can put original papers, music and documentaries within reach of a modem; they can put the Library of Congress, the MIT faculty and the Musée du Louvre at the disposal of a school. The trick will be getting schools to use them.