From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

June 27, 2000*: Something much
It was 28 years ago, this month, that I thought that I'd finished my flirtation with academia. I had submitted the last of my papers and receiving my BA was no more than a formality. I was already on a plane to Israel where I intended to build the new Jew (who for some reason no longer clear to me used muscle more than brain) and invert the pyramid. I was finished with academic studies, so I thought, for good. But things change, and in 1994 I started out on a new academic adventure, this time toward a Masters degree in the School of Education of Tel Aviv University. It was while a student in the department of Communications and Computers in Education that I started writing these columns.

The first two years of my studies were intensive. I took all the required courses and started out on preparing a thesis. When the first Boidems were posted to the web I posted a page with a bit of biographical information, noting, among other things, that I had a little bit of classwork (nothing much) and an entire thesis (something much) to complete. As time went on I discovered that there was no point in denying that I loved the academic setting (if nothing else I could roam the libraries for hours) but I also discovered that research was the bread and butter of the academy, and that I was attracted much less to research than I was to development and to the hands-on reality that it offered. Time passed, and I moved from project to interesting project, while my something much continued to lurk above me, sometimes enticingly, sometimes threateningly, as a goal. I continually found other things to do instead of finishing that project.

Until now. Probably more as a result of outside pressure, and the realization that certain avenues of professional development would remain closed to me without finishing the thesis (after all, on the internet nobody knows that you're a dog), than through any inner conviction, the last six months have seen intensive work on that thesis which have finally come to fruition with its presentation according to the various requirements of the university.

Numerous topics are available for masters students in the area of computers in education, and to tell the truth, all that's really required of us is a well-executed, but not necessarily interesting, study. These theses are often more rites of passage, and mere drops in the bucket of knowledge (two metaphors that have presented themselves to me again and again as I would reflect on perhaps someday finishing this project) than significant contributions to humankind. Still, it was something that had to be completed. I considered preparing my thesis around a number of the available possibilities, though it was clear to me that I'd be examining something that related in some way to the internet. At the time Computer Mediated Communication was still rather novel, and I wanted to get in on the ground floor. A couple of false starts were interesting and even promising, but ultimately didn't lead to a completed project that could sit in the university library and get me my degree.

My first attempt was part of a Virtual Museum. I have always been fascinated by the enormous cultural changes that took place as a result of the invention of the printing press. When given the opportunity to build a hypertextual unit of study around that topic, I jumped at it. Ultimately, however, though the web site was completed, and was even an impressive achievement, I lost interest in examining how pupils might make use of it. Numerous interesting questions were there to be examined, but I neither knew how to examine them, nor just why I might want to. This was what I've come to call a first-generation web site - a site with a rather large number of links embedded in the text, inviting associative examination of the topic, leading, perhaps toward a greater personal understanding of the topic than perhaps a textbook might offer.

My second attempt grew out of my experience as a virtual teacher. I had built a unit of study that was actually being used in a number of schools, and this unit attempted to make rather extensive use of online-discussion forums. These were already in abundant use in different social settings, but hadn't yet been seriously examined as tools for learning, or perhaps for the construction and maintenance of group knowledge. I thought that this was a promising and fascinating issues to study, and I even prepared a number of preliminary notes on the subject. The major barrier to the successful conversion of this topic into a full-fledged thesis, however, was the fact that it was extremely difficult to study student use of these forums if they didn't use them, and on the whole the pupils in this course seemed to find them useful only when required to do so by their (non-virtual) teachers. I even designed a model of intervention via which I hoped to examine how pupils who were intensively instructed in the use of these forums might use them differently than pupils who were only offered the opportunity to use them without any training. Ultimately, however, I found that expecting pupils to make worthwhile use of these forums when their reading and writing capabilities seemed incredibly limited was asking too much of them. A study such as this would have to wait until their reading and writing skills improved..

So what was there left to study? I can't say that I turned toward the poetess Rachel for an answer to that question, since I suppose that I knew that that particular answer was there all along. But that self-reflective direction didn't really materialize until my advisors, well aware that time was beginning to run out, found a way of suggesting to me that the Boidem itself could be a legitimate topic for a thesis.

So where's the thesis? Well, in a sense you're reading it, or at least part of it, and while reading these columns the reader is never more than a couple of clicks away from the section of the Boidem that ultimately got printed and bound and presented. My thesis is, when all is said and done, a case of the panther trying to catch it's tail: I have written a reflective review and analysis of the Boidem and have included it as an integral, if separate, part of the overall project. The gateway to that section can be found from the main contents page, or from here. The thesis is probably one of the first cases of a work of this sort being available in a (very) public library well before it was presented. Since April, 2000, that entire section, along with the entirety of the Boidem, has been available to whomever has perhaps, for some inexplicable reason, chosen to try and look for it. Only minor changes have been made in that section since then. But now it's printed and bound, and that makes it, in some strange manner, more tangible. Even though  it all sits on the server, accessible to all, our culture still views electronic documents in a different light than printed documents, and the mere existence of the printed version somehow gives more credence to the electronic version.

Did I catch my own tail? Perhaps the question should be phrased differently. Did an intense and at least semi-academic examination of the Boidem contribute anything to the Boidem, or to some amorphous vast reservoir of human knowledge, that wouldn't have been available if these columns stood on their own, without the new additional section? After all, one of the insights that I reached was that in a hypertextual setting, we tend to repeat ourselves. Maybe I could have left well enough alone and not taken the risk of going over the same material again and again. Pure bulk was, after all, never the goal of these pages. On the other hand, having the opportunity to review this project from a different perspective garnered me new insights into what was happening (or should be happening) in the Boidem. And the combination of gaining new insights along with a degree is the sort of thing that's hard to refuse.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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