A student-researched website simulates escape from slavery

A college with websites for every single course, and technology that teaches students based on their individual learning styles - could this be the face of education in the future?

Actually, it is already happening at Bowdoin College, a small liberal-arts school in Brunswick, Maine.

Professors can collaborate with "techies" at Bowdoin's Educational Technology Center (ETC) to create Web-based programs they think will help students better grasp their course material. The three-year-old ETC puts Bowdoin ahead of the pack of liberal-arts colleges using technology in education.

"Most of academia in the latter part of the 20th century is a self-selected group of text-based learners, which really omits most people," says Peter Schilling, founder of the ETC. "Multimedia environments allow people who learn and interact with information in other ways to be on much more even footing."

The latest project the ETC has churned out is "Flight to Freedom," an educational role-playing game that simulates the experience of fugitive slaves in the American South before the Civil War (http://academic.bowdoin.edu/flighttofreedom/intro.shtml). Users assume the persona of a historical figure, such as Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman, and move about a map of the 19th-century United States as they are confronted with events taken from fugitive-slave narratives. Bowdoin undergraduates researched and wrote the historical content for the simulation, and created links to their own websites providing historical background for the period.

The idea, says history professor Patrick Rael, who sponsored the site, is to create a world and then let students explore it on their own. "I could lecture to students all day long about the motivations of enslaved African Americans who sought to escape - but how could I convey those experiences to them?"

Dr. Rael also notes that the website enables him to help students hone specific skills - such as analysis and interpretation - without "having to send students to the library to write a paper, and have them get bogged down with all the components which that entails."

For example, users of Flight to Freedom must analyze the data given to them on their character's health, money, and the location of family members before deciding which city to head to next. They must also consider such events as the black tolerance movement of the 1850s and the passage of certain laws.

Other projects in Bowdoin's pipeline are an art-history website that enables students to design their own Zen garden; a botany Web database of virtual-reality plants that allows users to group the images or quiz themselves on the data; and a Biology 101 program that first tests students on how they best learn, and then teaches biology according to their strengths.

So, what's in store for the teachers of the future?

Teachers, inventors, and entrepreneurs predict an endless array of possibilities. But they all boil down to teachers becoming more of a "guide on the side" - directing students to the resources they need to solve problems - rather than the traditional "sage on the stage."

"With the Web, information access is getting so much easier that our mission has to change," Rael says. We can no longer be simple information-delivery systems; we are challenged to think more creatively about our roles."

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