Thursday, April 18, 1996

Through e-mail, alumni of Penn reconnect with its academic life
More than 150 graduates, from the '50s to the '90s, are taking a virtual version of a popular poetry seminar offered by the school.

By Martha Woodall

Elsie Sterling Howard said she was fascinated last fall when University of Pennsylvania English professor Al Filreis told her about his use of e-mail to stimulate out-of-the-classroom discussions among the students in his introducto ry poetry class.

Howard, a 1968 graduate who heads Penn's General Alumni Association, had only one question: Had he ever considered trying it with alumni?

``Absolutely,'' Filreis replied. ``We can do it.''

Now, 159 Penn grads from across the country and even abroad are taking a virtual version of Filreis' popular poetry seminar.

They're logging on to read, ruminate and post their thoughts on works by everyone from Emily Dickinson to Allen Ginsberg.

``This is not a course,'' said Filreis. ``It's a conversation.''

The class roster includes psychiatrists, teachers, fund-raisers and graduate students in forestry. It has attracted some who spent their days at Penn in the 1950s, and some who received their diplomas last year. The only thing they have in common is that they once attended Penn. Filreis addresses them all as: ``Dear Alumversers.''

``We have been working with e-mail to augment our [ traditional ] courses for some time,'' said Filreis, who chairs Penn's undergraduate English department. ``Every university worth its salt has been. It was only the next step. . . . This is an experiment.''

Colleges and universities have been offering e-mail and computer-based courses for the last few years. But Penn is among a handful of institutions that are finding new ways to connect with alumni via the Internet. While some schools use e-mail to keep ta bs on class members, Penn has embraced the idea of forging links through learning by giving alumni a chance to experience the kind of intellectually rigorous debate they engaged in on campus.

``Instead of just coming back for alumni weekend, you can have analytical and stimulating conversations 12 months a year, and Penn is bringing it back to you,'' said Howard.

That's what attracted Gwyneth Galbraith, who graduated from Penn six years ago and now works as a fund-raiser for the physics department at the University of California at Berkeley. She stumbled on news of the course last fall while checking out Penn's h ome page on the World Wide Web.

``I feel kind of cut off from Penn, being on the West Coast,'' she said. ``And I miss the stimulation of the classes.''

The noncredit alumni course is free. Filreis is conducting the class on his own time, pro bono. Carlos Decena, Class of '95, and Christy Goralnik, Class of '97, assist him by posting readings and questions, updating the class home page on the World Wide Web and maintaining the system, called a list-server, that automatically forwards e-mail messages to all class members.

Brown University has offered a similar program since October 1994, said Andrew Shaindlin, director of alumni education at the university. Brown, however, charges a modest tuition for its six-week programs.

Although Howard said eventually the alumni program could help with fund-raising, the primary purpose was reconnecting alumni with Penn's academic life.

``Most fund-raising comes from having a good feeling,'' she said. ``This reaches another group of people. It reaches them intellectually and academically. If they feel better about the university, they may contribute more.''

When she and Filreis were making plans to launch the course, they were not sure how many takers there would be when they announced it in the alumni magazine and on Penn's home page.

``We thought we would do great if we had 25 people here,'' said Howard, who logs on for the class from her home in Miami, where she works in marketing and public relations. ``We had no idea what to expect. This was uncharted water for us.''

They also wondered, she said, if the project might appeal only to more recent graduates -- younger people comfortable with e-mail. As it turned out, the class attracted young and old, 'Net veterans and novices, too.

Filreis wondered, also, if the alumni consider themselves ex-students. ``They don't see themselves that way at all,'' Filreis said. ``They just don't have the chance to be students.''

An e-mail course, he said, gives them a chance by allowing them to log on when their schedules permit. This flexibility is the overwhelming reason participants gave for taking the course. Over and over, Alumversers told him they had always wanted to take continuing education courses but never had the time. And it works even though they are not sitting in one spot reading the same poem at the same time.

That ability to read the course material at different times is something that distance-learning experts call asynchronous instruction.

``The asynchronous nature of it is what makes it possible,'' said David Bienenfeld, a psychiatrist who oversees the general psychiatric residency program at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. ``There is not a chance in the world that I would go to a course for one or two hours a week, even if it were at my home. But . . . I can do it when it works for me, whether it is 5 a.m. on a weekday or 10 or 11 p.m.''

Bienenfeld, who graduated from Penn in 1968, said he has been fascinated by the way the course has unfolded.

``Some people seem to wait by the computers,'' he said. ``And by the time I have read the poem, they have posted three pages.''

When he began, Filreis had doubts that asynchronous instruction would work. He's decided he was wrong. Students reading on their own time, he said, pore over the words and offer more thoughtful reponses.

``We are squeezing more out of the words,'' he said. ``It is what a class ought to be -- a profoundly thoughtful conversation about ideas.''

Galbraith said the sheer volume of the mail sometimes made it difficult for her to follow the bends and turns of the e-mail conversations, especially if a poem or a remark sends everyone veering off onto a tangent.

During several recent days, she said, her e-mail was full of tales of anti-Vietnam War protests that took place on the campus in the 1960s and early 1970s. ``I'm not sure how we got there,'' she said.

While the volume of e-mail the class has generated has turned off some members, others are exhilarated.

``I love it,'' said Howard. ``I read everything, every day. Sometimes that is a lot. I can have 100 messages when I log on.''

Despite the results of the virtual poetry class, Filreis is not in favor of abandoning the classroom for the Internet. He's convinced that the most effective teaching approach is a traditional class augmented with e-mail.

Galbraith, who has had the chance to compare Filreis' actual poetry course with the e-mail version, agrees.

``I come from the experience of having been in his class,'' she said. ``I am a true believer in the value of the classroom. I don't think that should ever be replaced. You cannot replace the interaction where you have the dynamic of being face-to-face. T his serves a different purpose -- an entirely different one.''

The e-mail course for alumni, said Filreis, is a way of offering the university's widely scattered graduates opportunities for continuing academic exchange.

He and Howard are talking about offering two or three other alumni courses in the fall -- perhaps bio-ethics and politics -- that would be taught by other faculty members. To address the complaints about the deluge of e-mail, they may offer a mixture o f large and small group sizes.

``We are learning as we go,'' Howard said. ``We want to explore all the options. I have a sense it is all going to work.''

She said that members of this first class have grown so attached that those who are able to travel to Philadelphia next month have insisted on meeting during Penn's alumni weekend. Howard said the class would have its own table under the alumni tent.

Howard said plans include a class picture to post on the Alumverse home page.


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