Computers & Geosciences, Volume 25, Number 8, 1999

Another Node On the interNet

John C. Butler
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204

Project Sisyphus: An Experiment In Electronic Communication

"For betraying the gods in favor of the mortals Sisyphys was condemned to punishment. He was sent to perform the task of pushing a huge rock along a steep slope. Unless he could topple the stone on the other side of the peak of the mountain he could not be free. Each time Sisyphus neared the stone rolled back to the ground leaving him tired and throwing him in despair." There are some days when it seems that Sisyphus and I have traded places. Just when I think that progress is being made, something happens and I begin again.

For the past few years I have been experimenting with LISTSERV as a way to communicate within tightly defined groups. Various authors have praised these threaded electronic discussion groups as providing a great way to facilitate discussions. Many have argued that students, for example, are more likely to respond by e-mail than in a face-to-face setting. You can delay an electronic response until you have had time to clarify your thoughts whereas when the instructor or boss is present you are under pressure to respond now.

I "own" a LISTSERV called the Virtual Coffee Room which is described as "discussions regarding geoscience course materials on the Internet". The name reflects the discussions that used to take place in the coffee room of the Geology Department at Miami University. Anything and everything was fair game for discussion by those assembled. Could a LISTSERV somehow stimulate discussions among a group of faculty members around the world who share a common interest in using the Internet to help create learning environments? Currently there are 199 subscribers in 22 different countries yet 85% of the contributions are from less than 10% of the subscribers. I also own UH CAMEL (Creating And Maintaining Environments for Learning) at the University of Houston which has about 130 subscribers (about 15% of the faculty). The percentage of electronic lurkers on this list is about the same as on the Virtual Coffee Room. It has proven hard to stimulate a sustained discussion on just about any topic. The one exception occurred when someone posted an announcement of a meeting that was to be held in the Kiva (a meeting room in our College of Education). Within a few minutes one of the subscribers asked "where is the Kiva?". Within a couple of hours there were 9 different responses. No other question has generated that much response within the two-year history of UH CAMEL.

I also "own" a LISTSERV called The Dye Society, which discusses the genealogy and history of the family of Hans Laurentszen Duyts (1644 1708). There are about 125 subscribers and during its two-year history more than 2,500 individual messages have been posted and lurkers account for about 20% of the subscriptions. The difference seems to be that The Dye Society is very narrowly focused. A tremendous amount of information is shared on a daily basis and one wonders how such work could have been accomplished when snail-mail was the primary medium for exchange.

Project Sisyphus was designed to see if a more focused set of questions would enhance communication. This project is described at and is designed for faculty teaching introductory geoscience courses during the fall semester of 1999. Four times during the semester a question will be raised. The first question, for example, "what do you do in the first week of the semester that generates interest in the topic" will be asked about three weeks before the start of the semester. A panel of 7 faculty will each provide their own response. Subscribers who may be interested in trying something new, therefore, will have time to incorporate a suggestion in their own course or they can publish their own suggestion. Several weeks later responses will be solicited from those subscribers who tried one of the suggestions. Did it work? How do you know that it worked or did not work? All of the suggestions and responses will be published on the web and readers are encouraged to check in once in a while if they are interested in learning how their peers handle a particular situation.

I would be interested in learning of the experiences of the readers of C&G who are attempting to facilitate sharing information using electronic distribution lists. What works for you and what does or has not worked?