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Ex Post Ex Libris: Comments on the published article

The published version of "Ex Libris" contained a few errors, a number of things I wish had been expressed differently, and several points I now think weren't quite right. The luxury of the Web, of course, is that such corrections can be made available in hypertext, without rewriting (i.e. hiding) the original. I would be happy to hear your comments on the article and/or these notes.

virtual graffiti :
An unfortunate phrase. The Web includes a great number of sites devoted to the presentation of artwork, art installations, and variety of artistic productions, and whether or not people find them important, I think the fact that they can flourish on the Web is terrific. My point, however, was to draw a distinction between the overwhelming number of sites that are used primarily for publicity, and those that are used primarily for purposes other than selling something, or someone. My feeling is that there are actually very few of the latter, and that this is not an inevitable consequence of the nature of the medium. For example, it is discouraging to see how few college and university sites include information rich enough for educational purposes (e.g. local or institutional histories, original documents, or on-line curriculum). At the same time, almost all of these sites do include the cyber-equivalent of an admissions brochure. (For an important discussion of publicity and images, written well before the birth of the Web, see the final essay in John Berger's Ways of Seeing (Penguin, 1973). For an interesting, if depressing, look at the ubiquity of selling in the U.S., see the recent book by Earl Shorris, A Nation of Salesmen (Norton, 1994)).

lab session :
The exact role of the laboratory exercise in secondary and undergraduate science education is open to debate, but I think most scientists and science teachers would agree that the "cookbook" lab session -- one in which the goal is to follow a set of pre-defined procedures, to get the right result -- is neither a particularly productive use of students' time nor an accurate representation of the practice of experimental science. Similarly, it seems that computer "labs" in which results are completely determined by the student-set parameters, no matter how graphically astonishing, do not noticeably improve upon the "cookbook" model; not, at least, if the goal is to give students a feeling for scientific experimentation. Simulations, on the other hand, are nicely handled by computers, but a responsible teacher has to first make clear to students the deep differences between simulation and experiment.

"It all sucks.":
The lesson here is: Be very careful when you speak to your editor on the phone! This is an accurate quotation, and I agree with it, but it wasn't my intention to have it be a part of this article (note that it does not appear in in the version I submitted). The story came up in conversation with my editor at The Sciences, and the only good thing I can claim is that I convinced him not to use the textbook writer's name and affiliation.

From the MendelWeb home page:
Not exactly. The links to these various places and sites are scattered throughout MendelWeb, and most often come from the secondary source material. Thus the glossary and the timeline include links to sites throughout the world, while the homepage, and the html versions of Mendel's paper contain only local links.

This is incorrect because, by 1851, Mendel was already a priest. According to Iltis [1932/1966], on his 25th birthday (July 22, 1847), Mendel was ordained subdeacon, on August 4th he was ordained deacon, and on August 6th he was ordained a priest.

biographical sketch:
I removed the short biography from MendelWeb, just prior to the first edition, because I decided I would rather have students read Orel [1984], Iltis [1932/1966], Olby [1985], or even the entry in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. I am currently working on a revised sketch that I hope will add something new to the worthwhile biographies already available.

Consider the following entry for "text-book" from the OED:

textbook narratives:
I describe some the problems of textbook narratives in more detail in "MendelWeb: An electronic science/math/history resource for the WWW", a paper prepared for WWW2 in Chicago. Some of these problems are captured nicely in these excerpts from the OED's definition of "text-bookish":

eschewing textbooks and breaking down standard scientific categories:
This is a bit much, I agree, but the course did give students a sense of learning about science in a much deeper way -- deeper technically and philosophically -- than they had previously experienced in secondary and undergraduate science courses. Furthermore, the course allowed students to see connections between what applied mathematicians, physicists and biologists do, in ways made invisible by traditional departmental curricula. Of course, I think most of these achievements were due in larger part to the team-teaching and seminar style of the course, than to the materials we assigned and distributed.

disc are:
"disc." would have been fine, I think, unless the idea was to make certain readers wince at the end of the paragraph.

annotated by readers all over the world:
Althought the collaborative hypertexts of Mendel's paper have been available and publically write-able since September 1995, no one has contributed a single annotation. Although I'm happy that the texts are not being used for "hello world" sorts of messages, I sincerely hope some of the teachers and students who use MendelWeb will soon begin to add their comments, questions and references to the texts.

virtual classroom:
The Mendelroom is a virtual space created on a MOO (an object-oriented multi-user computer program), running on computers in Tel Aviv and in Washington, D.C. If you are using a computer that can handle a graphical browser like Netscape, then it is likely that you can use MendelWeb and the Mendelroom simultaneously. For more information, take a look at the Mendelroom Information Page.

posting their data:
Although I've yet to find any classes, or teachers, or botany groups trying to replicate Mendel's experiments, a few friends are determined to begin growing a few plants in the Spring of 1996, primarily to provide photographs of the plants for MendelWeb. I am hopeful that a larger effort can be organized somehow, as I think access to real experimental data would be one of the most valuable aspects of MendelWeb. If you or someone you know is interested in growing peas, keeping records of the results, and making the data available at/to MendelWeb, please please let me know (and/or see the data page).

create their own curriculums:
I discuss this in more detail in my November 10th article about MendelWeb, written for the "In the Loop" section of Next Wave, the on-line publication by AAAS and Science magazine.

graded automatically:
Thanks to some former students who wrote and expressed their disdain both for multiple-choice questions and multiple-choice questions dressed up as open-ended questions, I have just about abandoned the idea of automated homework sets. In the Spring of 1996, I will replace the first set of problems with new ones, and create a set of worked problems from the old ones. In the meantime, I will continue to answer mail from teachers and students about particularly homework problems. Given world enough and time, of course, I would like to design an intelligent database that could respond to short-answer and even short-essay questions; and given the restricted semantic domain of elementary biology and genetics questions, this doesn't seem too unreasonable. If you know anyone who is working on such a project, I would appreciate your letting me know.

I would go further now, and say that as more (and better) educational materials become available on the Web, and as more teachers have access to these materials, teaching may be able to recover/discover its identity as a craft. If the old model of the classroom demanded that teachers regularly make severe "practical" compromises in their course goals and structures, because of budgetary constraints and/or poor, dated educational media, the new model will demand that teachers be clear and precise in the formulation of their pedagogical goals, when presented with the enormous supply of new, seductive, and often irrelevant, educational media.

Unfortunately, the only way school computers (or any other networked computers) can be kept from accessing sites that the so-called "Communications Decency Act 1996" is meant to eliminate, is to only allow school web browsers to visit pre-approved sites; the model of simply "blocking out" particular sites doesn't work well when "indecent" material is available at sites that appear suddenly, are short-lived, and later reappear at a different internet address. This may provide a way to employ great numbers of people in the name of site(s) supervision, but I think that, at best, it's a deeply flawed way to side-step an important social issue. As for the Communications Decency Act of 1996, it seems to me only to preserve and protect the "legal" pornography industry in the United States, and I fail to see how anyone can be particularly proud of that.

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MendelWeb was conceived and constructed by Roger B. Blumberg