Defying Nature or Second Nature? Distance Education for Archival Enterprise in the United States
by David B. Gracy II
Graduate School of Library and Information Science
The University of Texas at Austin
Every Wednesday during the Fall semester of 1995 in my role as archival educator, I tell you with both pride and humility, I successfully defied one of the most firmly established laws of nature, the law that one person cannot be in two places at the sam e time. Specifically, on fifteen separate occasions last Fall, I taught, at one and the same time, two separate classrooms of students situated in two different cities 80 miles apart. Using the technology of interactive television, which permitted the s tudents in both classrooms to see, hear, and talk with me and with their colleagues in the other classroom, I offered the introduction to archival enterprise course that I had taught for fifteen years in the traditional format of instructor and students i n the same classroom. The challenge of the new experience for me was exhilarating. Yet, as commonly occurs with the introduction of a different methodology for doing something, the new in some respects strengthens and in other respects diminishes its pr edecessor, in this case, the academic merit of the distance education course by comparison with its strictly home campus counterpart.
If this presentation on the topic of distance education in the United States has the sound of a personal reminiscence, it is for good reason. Investigation reveals that my school, the Graduate School of Library and Information Science of The University of Texas at Austin, is the first, and so far only, school in the United States to have offered courses in archival enterprise using the distance education technology. To date we have presented three, mine in archival administration and two in records man agement.
It may seem curious that in the United States, where we have so much distance, so many organizations and institutions producing records, and so great a quantity of historical record to preserve--that in light of these circumstances, we Americans have tak en so little advantage of distance education for increasing the availability of courses in archival enterprise. The causes are three in number. First, it has been thought that to satisfy the demands of the job market, we needed to produce no greater num ber of graduates in archives management than were being produced using traditional methods. Second, much education in records management has been offered in junior college, that is, at a technical level equivalent to the first two years of the baccalaure ate degree. Because records management programs on the junior college level outnumber those on the graduate level, the number of records management education programs is sufficient to meet the need for records management specialists. Third, the impetus to offer courses using distance education technology came from the discovery by graduate schools of library and information science that a pool of potential students existed that the schools could expand to serve. As this pool consists of paraprofessiona ls unable to leave their jobs for school to obtain the masterıs degree which they need in order to attain professional status, the schools could turn the potential students into actual students only by taking the course work to them. These individuals di d not demand courses in archival enterprise.
At first, the schools delivered the courses by sending faculty to the students. Teachers took their instructional materials and traveled to classrooms in far cities to teach courses in the traditional manner. The extent of any program based on such fac ulty travel never could exceed the willingness and ability of faculty to undertake the travel and additional class preparations. This education-at-a-distance was not what we have come to call "distance education." In the United States, distance educatio n is defined as the teaching of a classroom of students located in a city different from the city of the instructor by using interactive television. In practice in my school, the instructor has two classrooms of students--the distant class and the class in the classroom from which the professor is broadcasting. The instructor and the students in each classroom are able to see, hear, and speak to each other so that all students can participate fully in class meetings.
Defining the term "distance education" is essential, because it is used in contexts both broader and narrower than the one presented here. The Australians, for example, define "distance education" as "education that occurs when the learner and the teach er are not face-to-face." This can encompass audio communication and correspondence courses, as well as computers linked on the internet. At the opposite extreme, the term has been applied recently in America to interactive communication outside of cla ss, both among members of one class and between class members and non-class members, using computer technology. This application of the term represents an extension of the concept that distance education is communication facilitated by modern, interactiv e technology, even in environments in which students meet on a regular basis.
Though my class was the first course on archival enterprise--which I define as the dynamic delivery of the archival service to society--presented in the United States in the distance education format of one instructor working with more than one classroom of students at one time using the medium of interactive television, it nonetheless reflects a trend in distance education for the information professions in the United States. The trend is utilization of modern technology to extend education in library and information science to audiences that, for whatever reason, lack the time and/or financial resources to be able to move to the school to study. In 1996, at least three schools of library and information science in three different American states offe r complete degree programs (none of which include courses on archival administration and/or records management) in states other than their own.
My school began offering distance education courses in 1993 in two cities of our state to students consisting both of paraprofessionals wishing to advance themselves in the profession and of individuals desiring to launch themselves in new careers. Reso urces permitted us to offer only two courses per term per city, which meant that the distance education students, to earn a degree, would have to take almost all courses presented. Distance education students would have few choices in the courses they to ok. Since the multiple interests of these students span all areas of the library and information science field, broadly defined, we determined at the outset to offer an array of courses that would give all students both work in their chosen area and a gr ounding in the other streams of our field sufficient for them to be able to change streams should they wish. This meant that few advanced courses would be presented. Hence I could not expect to offer the small group, discussion-format, advanced-topic Se minar in Archival Enterprise that, on the Austin campus, follows the large-class, lecture-format, introductory course.
The introductory archives course consists normally of fifteen three-hour sessions. During the first half of the course, the students study four of the basic archival functions of arrangement and description, appraisal, acquisition, and reference. In ad dition to in-class exercises, all students arrange, describe, and appraise a small record group composed of 78 items. This body of material consists of a selection of documents from and reflecting the make-up of the archives of an actual organization, th e Texas Brewers' Institute. Individual packets of photocopies are provided to the students so that all students can complete the exercise during the week between class sessions. This permits extended class discussion of the challenging Brewers' Institut e exercise. A test over all material presented during the first half of the course insures that the students have mastered the basic knowledge they must have to be able to complete the final assignment, on which they work throughout the second half of th e class, namely arranging and describing ("processing," Americans would say) an unprocessed record group in an archival institution. I visit each project at its pivot, after the students have studied their record group and outlined the appraisal and arra ngement work that lies before them, but before they begin implementing their plans. The purpose of my visit is to discuss the rationale and reasoning they have followed to arrive at the work they outline. But to avoid placing myself in the position of p laying the conflicting roles of both project supervisor and grader, I purposely locate all projects in functioning archival repositories in which the students can receive guidance from professional archivists.
The introductory course, as you can plainly see, reflects a salient characteristic of archival work, namely that it is based in theory established over centuries of practical experience. A passing grade for this introductory course requires demonstratio n of a proficiency in practical application of the theory of archival enterprise. Especially on account of this emphasis on mastery of practical application, two questions arise regarding utilization of the distance education format for teaching archival enterprise. First, is the distance education format good, or even appropriate, for the offering of archival courses? Second, if distance education is appropriate, how does it change the way a course is effectively presented?
For the first question, whether the distance education format is appropriate, the answer is "yes," with the recognition that utilization of distance education makes some activities long comfortable in the traditional format harder to accomplish in the di stance education format. In terms of a course containing substantial practice components, the distance education format, which brings together a larger group of students, permits a wider variety of experiences and issues to be raised and discussed, there by extending every student's knowledge. The television technology allows a student who has a specific processing question, say about options for arranging a body of material, to describe the options on paper, then use a camera to project the possible sol utions onto the screen in my classroom. All students in both classes, as well as the instructor, can readily see both the question and the answer, a situation impossible to achieve without the television technology. In my class, being able to project st udent work on a television screen for all to see greatly improved the opportunity for critiquing and discussing processing options.
Outside of class, teaching in the distance education format a class with a substantial practical component puts an extra burden on the instructor, first, to find processing projects in the distant city for the students to work on during the second half o f the term, then to spend an adequate amount of time in the distant city working with the distance students on their projects. Unquestionably, processing decisions cannot be effectively assessed without being able to look at the material as processing de cisions are discussed with the processor. During the second half of my class, when the students were working on their projects outside of class, I found it necessary to travel to the distant site specifically to meet with students to discuss their projec ts. Having to do this on weekends, on time that did not conflict with the studentsı regular jobs, limited the number of occasions on which I could meet with them.
Beyond the classroom, distance education clearly has many advantages. From the physical perspective that it is important to educate the most people possible to the nature and importance of archival work, and particularly to issues involved in maintainin g the authenticity of information in records, the more courses we can offer to the greatest number of persons the better we have done our work. In pursuit of this goal, distance education offers an opportunity unavailable heretofore.
In the United States, if not elsewhere, two other considerations make utilization of the distance education format for delivery of courses in archival enterprise especially appropriate. First, we are a country in which education for careers in archival enterprise is obtained commonly in graduate schools of library and information science. Second, a large percentage of archival repositories are situated administratively within library settings. And, third, most of the graduate schools of library and in formation science have no instructor in archival enterprise. For these reasons, we few American archival educators need to seize every opportunity presented to us to instill an appreciation of the nature and power of archives in the minds of those who st and to play significant roles with regard to archives. The greater the number of students in library and information science that are exposed to the theory and methodology of archival enterprise the better. Especially is this true in the blossoming worl d of electronic communication in which handling information functions formerly unique to a field, as of archival enterprise or librarianship, are being blurred by the technology for processing information.
A further advantage is that using interactive television can provide as a by product a recording the presentation of the instructor. Not only does this give the student the opportunity of viewing a presentation at a more convenient time, but also, and m ore importantly, it gives us educators the opportunity to share among archival education programs the presentations of experts in given areas of archival enterprise, an attribute we Americans have yet to exploit.
An important goal of education in any field in the United States is to assist the student in establishing a network of colleagues that the student can draw on throughout the studentıs professional career to gather information and test ideas, and with who m the archives professional can work for strengthening the profession to deliver the archival service to society. Many in each studentıs network will be drawn from the student body of which the student is a part; others will come from practicing professi onals whom the student meets through attending the lectures of visitors to campus and through participation in the meetings and work of professional organizations. My experience was that distance education contributed little to this end. Because the stu dents in each of the two classes never could meet outside of class to make each otherıs acquaintance and establish a rapport, each class operated independently. Further, distance education students missed opportunities to participate in professional even ts held on campus in connection with visiting lecturers.
To the second question--if distance education is appropriate for archival education, how does it change instructional techniques--there are several answers. As beneficial as distance education is for taking archival education to students who would recei ve no instruction in archival enterprise without it, there is more to distance education than simply the televised presentation. Graduate-level academic work, to be worthy of the name, requires that each student conduct research and exploration of the id eas and literature of the discipline, not just absorb material presented in lectures. Consequently, essential is support of a good library rich in the periodical and monograph literature of the field. If distant sites lack such facilities, the home camp us must make some provision by which the distant student can overcome this deficiency. Similarly, it is difficult, if not impossible, for the student to master the techniques of archival enterprise without an archival facility in which to practice. Inst ruction alone, even instruction with appropriate exercises, is insufficient. Applying newly acquired archival techniques to any body of material without a professional archivist available to offer guidance and insight is of little benefit.
Second, access to the professor for answering student questions is far more difficult in the distance format. We educators must work harder to make ourselves as available to the distant students by telephone, internet connection, and/or in person at the distant site than we have had to do to achieve the same end on the home campus.
Third, teaching to a camera, even with a live class in the studio, is not the same as teaching in the traditional format. Where students in the classroom with the instructor have a variety of scenes on which to focus--the instructor, overhead projection s, physical examples, and colleagues asking or answering questions--students at the distant site see only the television monitor. To overcome the tedium of staring for long periods of time at this stationary object, instructors must spice presentations w ith a wide variety of formats of presentation, including utilization of many graphic (written) and pictorial images, both still and moving, that require the students alternately to study closely then relax in viewing the monitor. Preparation of visually entertaining and informative images is no small task. In 1996 in the United States, this work is accomplished most effectively by utilizing the Power Point software, a totally new process from that of pasting up text and images for copying, which was the standard but a decade ago. Finally, some of this variety can and must be provided by the technicians operating the cameras by alternately zooming in and zooming out on the professor, panning the class, and fixing on individual students.
The distance format challenged the organization of my introductory class. Always I devote at least one class period to visiting archival facilities to study their space utilization, physical aesthetics, and work processes. To be prepared both to ask an d to answer questions regarding the facilities and their operation, I join the students on these visits. In the distance education format, obviously the only way this arrangement can obtain is for one class to travel to the city of the other class, so th at both groups of students can make the same visit(s) at the same time. In the case in which the distance is too great for the two classes to meet together, some accommodation must be worked out to avoid losing the experience of the site visit, so import ant in a practice-based profession.
Working in a distance education environment challenges the archival and the education expertise of the archival educator. First, we must be and remain proficient in the theory and practice of archival enterprise, which, in the electronic age, itself is changing markedly. From my perspective, the depth of this change is unlike any that has occurred for at least the last 1,000 years, since human beings switched from memory to the written record as the basis of authentic knowledge. Second, change of a mag nitude perhaps as substantial is occurring in education. Until the development of capability for transmitting live picture and sound, the standard format for education was a group of students coming to and studying under the guidance of a teacher. That is the tradition in which my generation of educators matured. But in the present time, the proliferation and availability of electronic media for communicating is changing options for delivering and constructing the educational experience. To be effecti ve teaching in a distance education mode requires a different organization and structuring of the material we have presented heretofore in traditional format. Distance education, in other words, is not simply teaching as usual, merely to a larger number of students at one time.
However individual instructors may react to teaching in the distance education format, the likelihood is great in the United States that more of us archival educators will have the opportunity and the obligation to offer courses via distance education te chnology. Three signs point to an increasing use of distance education for delivering education. For one, the number of regular students is projected to rise over the next several years. Second, we are experiencing a growing demand for education by per sons changing career fields in the middle of their working lives, many of whom seek fulfillment in the broad field of library and information science. Thus, our student population is growing more rapidly than is the number of faculty available to teach t hem. Finally, channeling the satisfaction of this demand away from traditional campuses are calls by governing bodies that expenditures for more buildings and larger campuses be reduced. The result is that we American archival educators can expect to be called on to deliver our courses using distance education technology.
In the foreseeable future, work that once seemed so unusual as to be thought of as equivalent to defying nature itself--the capacity to work in two places at once--will have become simply second nature. That is the wonder and beauty of the advancements of modern society. We archival educators could hardly be in a more pivotal, demanding, but rewarding position. While we are challenged to adopt and take full advantage of new methods of delivery of education, especially distance education technology, we have the privilege of teaching the vigor of archival enterprise, which contributes stability to a rapidly changing world searching for, but uncertain of, the validity of stability. Let us seize our opportunity and make archival enterprise itself second nature to all of those to whom the use and management of information is an essential function of life.
e-mail to Dr. Karsten Uhde, as at: 13.01.2005