Finding a Healthy Approach to Technology
University of Washington, Seattle Campus
Dr. Suzanne Goren's 'What I did this Summer' essay would include developing and teaching a unique Web-based course that addressed the literary portrayal of mental illness among women (such as the woman who haunted Jane Eyre in the novel of the same name, written by Charlotte Bronte). TH490, "The Madwoman in the Attic," was offered for the first time in the summer of 1999 at the UW Tacoma campus. Goren was awarded a grant to develop the course from the Health Sciences Center for Educational Resources (HSCER). The grant included technical assistance in building a course Web site and setting up a Web-based discussion forum that would become the nexus of student interaction over the quarter. Ralph Warren from HSCER has acted as Goren's technical liaison for the course.
A Hybrid Style
Although the delivery method was primarily Web-based, students did meet face-to-face twice
during the quarter. The first meeting took place on the first day of the quarter and was devoted to teaching students the technical skills they would need to participate in the course via the Web for the rest of the quarter. Warren and Goren decided to make the initial time investment in training students, hoping it would pay off over the quarter with increased student participation. "We knew...frustration would be so great, [the students] would only focus on the difficulties if we didn't train. So, we committed the hours to it. Students seemed to feel a real sense of competency. All of the students in this nursing program are already nurses, but this kind of skill is something they don't have."
The second face-to-face encounter took place during the third week of the quarter, giving students a chance to evaluate the course and suggest ways to improve the learning environment. It also allowed students to reintroduce themselves, this time connecting both faces and names with the Web-based interactions they had in the discussion forum over the previous six weeks.
Seeing the Patient in a Whole New Light
As students continued to develop their technical skills, they began to tackle the real issues Goren had lined up for them. Through a series of literary selections spanning both time and place, students grappled with questions rarely addressed in allopathic medical circles, including: Who labels mental illness? What is considered deviant behavior in what culture? What is the power relationship between the 'diagnoser' and the 'diagnosed'? "Some students would diagnose the characters. I asked them to step back from that, that diagnosis is just a metaphor," says Goren. "Nursing programs, of necessity, have been shortened and all of the aesthetics have been given short shrift. Nursing is practiced in a corporate world. We're quick to give [a patient's ailment] a name, some meds, and move on. Sometimes the behaviors described as mad or crazy don't seem so strange when viewed in the context of the patient's life."
Drawing Out Students with Online Discussion
Goren says some students enrolled in the course assuming that they wouldn't have to work very hard. Goren assured them this was not the case. "I'm going to be in touch with you every week. There's no back of the class," she told them. One method Goren used to keep her finger on the academic pulse of the class was to require students to submit a confidential 'journal entry' each week, articulating their thoughts on the readings. Initially some student comments were uninformative, consisting of the standard-issue, "That was very interesting." "I would say, 'Let's go beyond interesting,'" Goren recalls. Over the quarter, the Web-based discussion board became the main forum for student exchange.
Goren believes the Web-based class probably elicited more participation from students than would face-to-face interactions. "See, that's the irony of this. People think of it as so distant; actually it's quite intimate and it's so personal." Personal interaction with each of the students is, however, time-consuming for Goren, "partially because I'm a lousy typist," she muses.
Considering Access Issues
The staff at HSCER encouraged Goren to think carefully about the design of her online resources, taking into consideration the access issues of enrolled students who would be logging in from home over slower telephone lines. To ensure a quick download, Goren used images minimally in the course Web site, although she would like to expand the course to consider representations of madness in art. Goren hopes to pursue uses of the Web to facilitate non-traditional course structures on the UW Tacoma campus. "[In traditional courses] students meet every week. Why not have a month where they don't? Why does it have to be the same all the way through?" she asks.
A Nursing Student's Perspective
"The freedom that this class brought to this full time employee, mother of three, graduate student was incredible. I could do my homework at 2 a.m. if I wanted. Sometimes that's when I think best!" -Kathy Bressler