The Chronicle of Higher Education

Vol. XLI. No. 15, pp. A23-25, December 7, 1994

Information Technology

Ron Kriz (right) teaches a multimedia-presentation class at Virginia Tech
with Gordon Miller, III: "someday this is going to be commonplace."

Term Papers Go High Tech

More and more professors assign projects that embrace new electronic technologies.

By Thomas J. DeLoughry

A staple of college life for more than a century is getting a new look on some campuses.

The term paper, which has evolved from the typewritten to the laser-printed variety in recent years, now seems to be on the verge of making a break with paper altogether.

New, high-tech student "papers" can now include such things as campaign commercials, recordings of poetry readings, articles from 100-year-old magazines, and full-color movies of developing chicken embryos.

Students--from freshmen to doctoral candidates--are including the new material in multimedia projects for classes in such diverse disciplines as biology, business, history, political science, and aeronautical engineering.


The new term papers require tools that are far more sophisticated than those used by most college instructors. But that has not stopped a handful of professors from adding computer programs like "Power-Point" and Photoshop" to the list of things that their students are expected to learn.

Those who assign electronic term papers say the technology adds a new twist to their courses and the process of developing the projects can teach students new communications skills and improve their comprehension of subjects that they are studying. The technology, they say, also fits in nicely with efforts to encourage teamwork among students and to promote student-centered projects--two trends often promoted by those pushing for better teaching higher education.

While some students object to being forced into the role of multimedia specialists, many respond well to the new challenges and are excited about the chance to do something different from old-fashioned term papers.

Molly Armstrong, a junior at Trinity University in San Antonio, says she had her doubts about why she needed to learn so many computer skills for a team project in her micro-anatomy course last spring. "Once you're finished with it," she says , "then it's possible to look back and say, "Look at what I did! It was worth it."

Ms. Armstrong and another student Heather Kalbaugh, took images of the heart of a chick embryo from a microscope and transferred them to a computer. They then used the images to create a three-dimensional model of the heart and produced a computerized movie that enabled viewers to rotate the heart and "tour" it.

The two students also used images from their textbook to create a movie that demonstrated the heart's development over time.


Ms. Armstrong says she hasn't been able to use her new skills outside of biology because her other professors still prefer traditional term papers. But she expects her experience with the electronic project to come in handy when she enters the job market or applies to medical schools. "The fact that you've been exposed to something like that makes a big difference," she says.

Robert V. Blystone, the Trinity professor who taught the micro-anatomy course, says Ms. Armstrong's enthusiasm for electronic term papers is typical of many students in his course. The practice of creating images, analyzing them for presentations, he says, gives students a greater sense of ownership of their work and causes them to learn more than they ever did in writing a traditional paper. "All of a sudden a term paper is not just some sort of report," he says. " It represents something they've created."

The specter of having to present their work to their class also pushes students to work to their class also pushes students to work harder, Mr. Blystone says, noting that students are often more critical of each other's work than he is.

Bob Boynton, a political-science professor at the University of Iowa, also detected greater enthusiasm among his students when he asked them to do high-tech papers. Last spring he required those in his "American Politics" course to develop multimedia presentations by using an inventory of political advertisements that professors had stored on a CD-ROM. Teams of students did research in the library and viewed hundreds of the ads to prepare their presentations, which together represented a high-tech textbook for the class.

"It's something new and different for students," says Mr. Boynton, "and they enjoy it because of the novelty."

He adds: "What I'm trying to do is introduce some variety into the students' learning experience. I think the idea of have more variety in what we do in higher education is a good idea."

Elsewhere on the Iowa campus, Brooks Landon, an English professor, requires students to develop multimedia projects in a class he reaches on the impact of technology of early-20th-century literature and culture.


Students use advertisements and magazine articles from the turn of the century and video documentaries of two world's fairs to illustrate the changes brought about by technologies such as electricity.

"This course has prompted more self-motivated study from students than anything else I've taught," says Mr. Landon, who has been at Iowa for 16 years. "One of the delightful and unexpected results of this course is that I get an awful lot of students who have not been traditionally outstanding in English courses, and they do really superior work."

Their performances improve, he says, because they are excited by the project and devoted more attention to their writing an organizational skills. Students do not get good grades for simply putting photographs and movies in the computer however. "The last thing I want them to do is create a collage," he says.

At Hamline University, Richard Smyth sees the use of high-tech term papers supporting pedagogical reforms that the institution has endorsed. Mr. Smyth says the exercise teaches students how to work in teams and allows them to develop their projects on their own--two goals that Hamline and many other colleges are emphasizing.


The challenge of working in the electronic medium teaches students problem-solving skill, he says. The assignment also falls in line with a movement among writing instructors to have students write for audiences beyond their classrooms.

"What bigger audience can we have than the whole world?" asks Mr. Smyth.

Worldwide exposure for students' work is also part of the plan for Ann Harper Fender's course at Gettysburg College. Ms. Fender, a professor of economics, requires students in her interdisciplinary writing class for freshmen to develop World-Wide Web pages that integrate the course's reading list with their writing and other media, such as movies and audiotape.

"What will come of it, I'm not quire sure," Ms. Fender admits. "This may just be a total dud."

She is optimistic, though, that the project is helping students work together, think critically about the content of her course, and learn about computers. "If they learn to deal with this, they will be more capable of dealing with whatever is the emerging technology that comes up," she says.

Carl E. Ferguson, Jr., supports the effort to give students new computer skills and argues that institutions--especially business colleges--should feel obligated to prepare students to do high-tech presentations.

Mr. Fergusion, a professor of marketing at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, has required students in his marketing-strategy class to do electronic presentations for the last two years and they have responded well.

"This is the norm in the business world," he says. "I think that's one of the things that motivates us and charges us to continue to push the envelope."

The growing popularity of the high-tech tools has also spawned separate classes dedicated to teaching students how to use them. Multimedia projects are common in many art classes, and several education colleges now offer courses devoted to helping students learn how to teach with the tools.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University has offered a course for the lst five years that is designed to show students how to use computer simulations and visualizations to analyze data and multimedia tools to explain their research to others.


Gordon G. Miller, III, an instructor of the course and director of the multimedia Lab at Virginia Tech, says developing multimedia presentations should be "a basic skill, like learning to write a good term paper."

"When they do multimedia they must organize ideas and information in much the same way they would to construct words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, but they must also master the visual elements involved," he says. "This added complexity is not an easy thing to master and is a vital step towards learning to communicate effectively using visual information."

The Virginia Tech course has been taken by undergraduate and graduate students in such fields as chemistry, civil engineering, and electrical engineering. They have used the data-analysis and presentation skills for senior research projects, master's theses, and doctoral dissertations.

While the course has proved popular with students, Ron Kriz, the second instructor of the class, says it still has not been accepted by all faculty members. Dr. Kriz is an associate professor who has a dual appointment in the department of materials science and engineering and the department of engineering science and mechanics.

He says he as battled with colleagues at Virginia Tech to win respect for the high-tech methods, which many equate with the special effects that they have seen in movies such as Jurassic Park.

"The hardest thing to sell to academics is that this isn't just pretty pictures," says Dr. Kriz. "It becomes a discovery-of-knowledge tool and a way to communicate knowledge to people in whatever field."

"We're not entertaining here; we're educating. Someday this is going to become common place. There's no doubt about that."

End of Article