MW Table
of Contents Reader's Mendel MW Timeline Table of Contents for Mendel's Paper

MendelWeb, Textbooks, and the Electronic Classroom of the Future

by Roger B. Blumberg
Draft 3 -- June 30, 1995 -- 4125 words
(A revised version of this essay appeared in the September/October issue of The Sciences, under the title "Ex Libris".)

This semester, in traditional high school and college biology classrooms all over America, students will encounter the name Gregor Mendel, and the details of this encounter can be predicted with considerable accuracy. This predictability is due in large part to the fact that the primary medium for the information they receive about Mendel and his work will be the printed textbook, and the presentations in those textbooks are remarkably similar. Indeed, anyone who has learned about Mendel's achievements from contemporary textbooks may have already summoned to mind cartoon images of peas and Punnett Squares, of crossing diagrams and the ratios 3:1 or 9:3:3:1.

In most schools, the pedagogical choices available to teachers in these classrooms are severely restricted by the scope and content of the textbook. Aside from the inability of printed texts to capture the dynamics of Mendel's experiments, the small space usually aloted Mendel's work, the absence of primary texts, and the marginal role given to historical, philosophical and social issues of science generally, all contribute to the constraints on teaching and learning about the origins of genetics.

For example, although students often learn the free-standing fact that Mendel was a monk, they are are unlikely to know that Mendel studied physics at the University of Vienna, with Professor Christian Doppler, and that, for the purposes of doing science, he considered himself an experimental physicist. Although they may have learned that his work was not appreciated in his lifetime, they are unlikely to have discussed why this was the case, and are even more unlikely to have learned about the scientific works on plant hybridization that motivated Mendel's questions in the first place. Although they may learn that Mendel's "real" name was Johann, they're often unlikely to have realized that Mendel did not use Punnett Squares to model his results -- and not just because R.C. Punnett wasn't born when Mendel did his experiments with pea plant hybrids.

Perhaps most importantly, teachers and students are unlikely to know what Mendel himself claimed to have done, in his work on the species of pea known as Pisum sativum, or what he thought about experimentation, hybridization, and biological inheritance. This is primarily because they have had no experience with Mendel's paper of 1865, "Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden" ("Experiments on Plant Hybrids"), a text that clearly reveals scientific and methodological concerns that were quite uncommon amongst botanists, as well as monks, in the mid-nineteenth century.

The absence of Mendel's history, as well as his paper, from contemporary textbook accounts of his work is particularly ironic when we remember that the results he reported in 1865 were themselves absent from science until about 1900. Whether this lag of 35 years was due to the "prematurity" of Mendel's discoveries, as Gunther Stent and others have argued, or to what we might today call "poor information management," there exists a general, and perhaps uncommon, consensus among geneticists and historians of science that his work was not "properly" understood when it was reported. But whether or not we think this failure to appreciate Mendel deeply affected the progress of science, we have good reasons to think that the current failure to expose students to Mendel's paper and the details of his history is pedagogically wasteful.

Whatever the lasting significance of Mendel's work, he was extraordinary in his ability to approach questions of biology with the experimental design techniques of a physicist, the analytical tools of an applied mathematician, and the rhetorical skill of a natural historian. To read Mendel's paper is to remember that the boundaries between the sciences, and those between the study of science and of literature, are better described as expedient partitions of culture, than as accurate reflections of the world. Furthermore, Mendel's paper is a brilliant example of a primary science text that can be fruitfully studied by students of various ages, with a wide variety of interests, as part of a general, or liberal, education. There seem few good reasons, therefore, to withhold either the paper or the details of Mendel's history from contemporary students of science, and yet that is precisely what is commonly done in introductory textbooks.

The English word "textbook" has a revealing history. The earliest use of the word seems to have been in reference to a copy, or an edition, of a classical text, with margins wide enough for student annotations. By the late eighteenth century, however, there had emerged the sense of a textbook as an exemplary and authoritative standard work in a particular field; it is this meaning which is preserved in the phrase "textbook example", which is used to refer to an excellent instance of some occurrence.

But the association of a textbook with an exemplary standard has faded in the last few decades. Today we commonly think of a textbook, particularly in secondary and undergraduate education, as a convenient substitute for primary documents, and desirable experiences, that are either unavailable, too difficult to (re)produce, or too time-consuming for a classroom environment. While the 1966 edition of the Random House Dictionary still defined a "textbook" to be "A book used by students as a standard work for a particular branch of study," the recent American Heritage Dictionary (Third edition) says only that a textbook is "A book used in schools or colleges for the formal study of a subject."

Today one hears of the promise of electronic textbooks: about the power of "interactive multimedia" to foster new learning environments, about the capacity of the computer to provide individualized learning, and about the educational reforms supposedly made inevitable by the proliferation of compact discs and networked computers. But amidst all the enthusiasm, there is often more attention paid to the technical possibilities and limitations of electronic media, than to the contents of, and the curricular philosophy behind, the materials we wish to develop. In the area of science education, for example, it is clear that the worst characteristics of printed textbooks are so easily transferable into electronic media, that we must be especially careful not to simply create printed textbooks that just happen not to be printed.

Perhaps the most obvious problem that contributes to the limited and limiting nature of printed textbooks concerns coverage. Every science textbook, whatever its format, necessarily represents a trade-off between depth and breadth of coverage; but as contemporary textbooks must try to access the widest possible markets, a successful biology textbook, for example, must include a chapter on just about any topic that will be covered by some biology teacher, somewhere. This multiplication of chapters leads not merely to enormous, redundant textbooks, that have little room for historical depth and philosophical discussion, but to textbook content which may be acceptable to everyone, while perhaps exemplary to no one.

A related problem concerns the sorts of science courses for which textbooks become available. Because most secondary and undergraduate schools offer "standard" science courses (e.g. a two-semester chemistry course, or a one-semester course in cell biology) these offerings represent the markets that are most profitable, and least risky for publishers. Thus we find a number of acceptable molecular biology textbooks, and practically none for courses on the history of molecular biology. The hesitation of writers and publishers to deviate from standard course models not only discourages innovation in textbook content and design, but in curriculum development and teaching as well.

Furthermore, conceiving and responding to markets in this way creates books that have large, but intellectually narrow constituencies. Rarely does one find an undergraduate science textbook that is suitable for students of the history and philosophy of science, for liberal arts students studying science as general education, or for adults studying science in the light of their own varied experiences. Perhaps the best measure of the intellectual poverty of science textbooks is the enormous appreciation we have, as young students, for a science teacher who brings a variety of historical, literary, and practical perspectives to bear on her subject, and who can explain and elaborate scientific discoveries without parroting the textbook she has assigned.

A more recent problem with printed textbooks stems from our apparent fascination with color illustrations and graphics. Examine any brochure for a new edition of a major science textbook, and you are almost certain to find mention of the number of colors used in the illustrations, and the number of plates included in the textbook. Although color images are often very beautiful, effective illustrations, the desire to make extensive graphics a part of every competitive textbook may well substitute a predictable, if ephemeral, fascination with the latest technology, for what, as teachers and students, we think is the best pedagogy.

The problems mentioned so far are primarily the result of economic considerations on the part of publishers and authors. A second set of problems derives from the narrative constraints imposed by the traditions of the science textbook, and by the medium of print. Perhaps the most important of these is the way that textbooks attempt to seamlessly blend different strata of scientific information.

In most textbook presentations of Mendelian genetics, for example, readers will have difficulty distinguishing between Mendel's data (if it appears at all), later representations of Mendel's data (e.g. Punnett squares), cartoon illustrations of the data (e.g. graphics that depict plants or peas in perfect ratios), and the author's interpretations of Mendel's work. Although the narrative may be clearly and powerfully written, the effect of this blurring of sources exaggerates the clarity of scientific evidence, as well as the smoothness of scientific advance and development. Indeed, it may also convey extremely idiosyncratic views, in the guise of an apparently non-contentious third-person narrative.

Similarly, a number of educational studies of secondary and undergraduate textbooks have revealed how rarely, and how poorly, science textbooks integrate philosophical, historical and social issues in their presentations. Perhaps this failing can be neatly attributed to the reality of print, to the fact that a textbook that successfully integrated so much material would require readers of enormous wealth and strength; and that such a resource is the mission of an encyclopedia, rather than a textbook. But a pervasive ahistorical, even anti-historical, style of science teaching must be held responsible as well. The appearance of social issue sidebars, history "boxes", and other formatting devices designed to give the appearance of an historical or social awareness in contemporary science textbooks, dramatizes rather than corrects this problem.

In the case of genetics textbooks, it is common to find a paragraph, or a thickly bordered box, devoted to "the history of Mendel's experiment". These short asides frequently mix facts about Mendel's birth, his education, his experiments and his career as Abbot, as if they are of equal consequence for the understanding of his work. Even when these propositions are all true, such a presentation conveys the idea that social and historical studies of science are largely anecdotal, that they are incidental if not trivial, and that they have little to contribute to the serious study of science. Thus it is no surprise that working and teaching scientists, trained with these textbooks, are skeptical about the contributions a social and historical study of science can make to their knowledge, or to their teaching.

Finally, the unavoidable unity of the textbook narrative results in an unfortunate blending of very different kinds of scientific discoveries, theories, and developments. The descriptions of important experiments, institutional controversies, revolutionary technological advances, the formulation of laws and theories, and the development of scientific applications, are smoothed into a single story that rarely reveals how varied is the scientific enterprise. Clearly such a unified, smoothed narrative also restricts the sorts of learning styles that can be successfully applied in a science course taught from a printed textbook.

It should be emphasized that these characteristics of printed textbooks place a tremendous burden on a teacher interested in presenting science as it is really practiced, either in its experimental and theoretical complexities, or as a deeply historical form of culture. Indeed, too often in science courses, the textbooks, rather than the teachers and students, appear to set the pace of the course, control the paths of investigation, and determine acceptable models of teaching and learning.

Ironically, the ability of electronic textbooks and educational software to include simulations, and interactive exercises in electronic texts, has done little to solve these problems. Because the dynamics of such programs are determined by the current state of computer technology, rather than the most desirable pedagogy, one too often finds "simulations" that are grotesquely artificial, and reminiscent of nothing so much as poorly designed "cookbook" laboratory exercises. Whether presented as educational software, "edutainment", or electronic textbooks, these simulations often remove control of the methods of teaching and learning from teachers and students -- even as they provide user interfaces that offer thousands of "choices". This is not to say that the future of interactive electronic resources isn't bright, but only that here too we can easily mimic, in electronic form, the pedagogical mistakes carried commited without computers.

Thus the much heralded, but virtually non-existent, electronic classroom, at least in its current incarnations, has so far done little to free teachers and students from many of the restrictions imposed by printed textbooks. While some educational software nicely captures the dynamics of physical processes, almost all of it merely reflects the traditional segregation of matters scientific, mathematical, historical and literary. Furthermore, software designed for the "a computer for every student" model is too often a substitute for, rather than an augmentation of, the social environment of the classroom. At best, such software can as easily be used at home as in school, and, at worst, it can transform the teacher's role into that of a systems operator (a role for which teachers are not trained, and a career in which they are generally not interested).

Still, there is no doubt that as interactive technology develops, electronic educational tools can improve upon printed textbooks, can help return control of the classroom to teachers and students, and can introduce degrees of freedom in learning never before available. Yet, the opportunity to create these resources presents authors and publishers with an important dilemma: should they try to solve ,or merely forestall, the problems associated with the printed textbook?

The great capacity of the compact disc, not to mention that offered by global computer networks, can present students and teachers with such an vast supply of documents and images, that the coverage and marketing problems may appear to vanish, just as there may be no apparent trade-off between pedagogy and cinema. Indeed, while electronic resources remain a novelty, it may be quite easy to overwhelm students and teachers with texts, images, audio, video, and seemingly countless links between them. In the long run, however, much of the electronic thrill is sure to disappear, and teachers and textbook writers alike will have to answer difficult questions about what they think students should learn, how they think they do learn, and what sorts of materials they think can best complement and supplement a variety of educational environments.

One new approach to these issues, and to the problems involved with authoring textbooks, is motivated and realized by the development of the World Wide Web, an enormous collection of networked computers throughout the world, containing documents, images, databases, programs, and digital audio and video files. The Web, as it's frequently called, was proposed in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee and others at CERN, as a system of "distributed hypermedia": distributed, because the materials are stored on great numbers of large and small computers throughout the world; hypermedia, because the documents may be linked together in such a way that "clicking" on a highlighted word or image in a document on one computer, can connect you with a document or image on a different, perhaps very distant, computer. Theoretically, all the materials on the World Wide Web are as connected as those on a single compact (or not-so-compact) disc.

Among the hundreds of thousands of computers connected on the Web, and the millions of texts and images they store and distribute, there is a copy of Gregor Mendel's pea plant paper of 1865, as well as an English translation, formatted as hypertext, and linked invisibly to computers on several continents. There are connections to glossaries, commentaries, animations and tutorials in Providence, Rhode Island; texts and databases in Maryland; electronic dictionaries in Germany; a set of documents in the Czech Republic; a multi-user "Moo" classroom in Israel; images of plants in Australia; and pictures of flowers in New York, to name just a few.

This electronic hybrid of textbook, sourcebook, and collaborative hypertext, is called MendelWeb. Constructed around Mendel's paper, it is a collection of resources designed for students and teachers of classical genetics, elementary plant science, basic mathematics, the literature and history of science, and even the history of Central Europe in the nineteenth century. A belief motivating MendelWeb is that, given the choice, teachers and students would gladly forsake traditional textbooks, and with them the illusion of encyclopedic scope, in exchange for a collection of primary texts, and informative, if heterogeneous, raw materials compatible with a wide variety of investigations, teaching strategies and learning experiences. In other words, MendelWeb is predicated on the notion that teachers and students should create their own narratives, and the role of textbooks, sourcebooks, and educational software is to stimulate, direct, correct, and enrich them.

MendelWeb's uniform resource locator (or "url" -- an address given to every document at every site on the World Wide Web), is, and it can be reached by any computer connected to the Internet, whether at home, at school, or at a "cyber" cafe. Typing this address into a Web "client" (i.e. a piece of software like "Netscape(TM)" or "Mosaic(TM)" used to access materials on the Web), connects you with the MendelWeb Homepage. This page contains connections (called "hyperlinks") to all the components of MendelWeb, as well as a variety of science and mathematics Web sites, literature archives, and, theoretically, to every site on the World Wide Web.

With this resource, anyone who wishes to study Mendel's text need not be limited by the information and approach of available textbooks, available courses, or by the books available in local libraries. Furthermore, a biology teacher who wishes her students to have the option of reading Mendel's paper, during a unit on classical genetics perhaps, can download either the German or English text without charge, and show her students how to do the same.

Moreover, students can use MendelWeb to learn not only about Mendel's work on peas, but about the elementary mathematics used by Mendel in the paper, the basic structure of flowering plants, the connections between the work of Mendel and that of Darwin (with links to several of Darwin's original texts), the relationship between Mendel's discoveries and the findings of contemporary molecular genetics, the history of Brno, Czechoslovakia, and much more. MendelWeb takes full advantage of the distributed nature of the Web to lead students to exemplary information sources and learning tools all over the world; unlike bounded, hernia-producing textbooks, Web resources like MendelWeb assume that, for any subject important enough to be widely studied, expertise and exemplary texts are always distributed. Indeed, the transfinite promise of the World Wide Web, as an educational tool, has already begun to change the way students learn and collect information about elementary subjects, and this will necessarily transform the methods used, and the courses offered, by schools at all levels.

MendelWeb can be used in a variety of ways, and because it resides on the Web it is platform independent; whether your computer is a Mac, an IBM, or a UNIX machine, the Web is available to you. At a minimum, students who come to MendelWeb can connect to an archive, for copies of Mendel's paper in a variety of formats; whether they want ASCII text, hypertext mark-up language (html), or a format compatible with Microsoft word-processing programs (rtf), they can download a copy with the click of their mouse.

But students can also connect to an on-screen version of Mendel's paper that contains annotations: highlighted words that are linked to glossaries, biographies, bibliographies and tutorials that explain and comment on the terms used by Mendel. For example, by clicking on various terms, readers can find meanings, etymologies, details from the history of science, and even an interactive tutorial on the meaning and calculation of averages. These "secondary" documents are themselves connected to each other, and to resources outside MendelWeb. Thus, while reading Mendel, you may find yourself looking at a picture of a flower in Time-Life's Virtual Garden, or reading an entry in a glossary of molecular genetics terms at Johns Hopkins University, or reading a dictionary entry in Munich.

At the end of each of the 11 sections of both the German and English versions of the paper, there are "buttons" that connect to discussion questions, historical notes, and even homework sets. MendelWeb is thus compatible with a variety of learning situations, from traditional high school biology courses to advanced studies in the literature of science.

Users of MendelWeb can also connect to a collaborative version of Mendel's paper, annotated by readers all over the world. Whether they are interested in commentary on particular passages in the paper, on some of Mendel's data, or whether they wish to contribute commentary themselves, they will be reading a kind of text unique to networked electronic media; collaborative resources are perhaps the most promising feature of the World Wide Web for education. Similarly, MendelWeb includes a link to a virtual classroom, containing Mendel's paper and a number of secondary resources, inside a "Moo" (a multiple-user domain that allows users to talk with each other in real time). Thus, discussion groups, and formal classes, could be held with students and teachers from throughout the world.

Finally, MendelWeb includes what is perhaps the most basic networked resource: an Internet discussion list. Here, users can ask questions of, and participate in discussions with, other users by using electronic mail. As the participants on such a list will include people of all ages, from various disciplines and with various scientific and non-scientific occupations, this feature of MendelWeb will open up a world of human informatons resources to teachers and students, and will extend and enrich science classrooms of various kinds.

Can World Wide Web educational resources, like MendelWeb, replace traditional textbooks? Not yet. There are simply too few of them. But imagine a chain of "webs", tracing the history of genetics from Mendel through Watson & Crick, and into the molecular world of gene amplification; imagine not only well-annotated primary texts, but introductions and narratives about particular discoveries by experts throughout the world; imagine not only intelligent computer simulations of experiments, but links to schools all over the world where students are trying to replicate historical experiments in real laboratories, and are posting their data for everyone to analyze. It is easy to see how, with resources like these, the introductory genetics textbooks of today would become quickly obsolete, and how teachers and students would be able to create stimulating new and rich science courses, the likes of which have been proposed by educators since C.P. Snow's Two Cultures.

The classroom of the future may or may not be recognizable as a classroom, but it will certainly be transformed by the existence of the World Wide Web. For decades we have heard that, in the post-industrial information age, the primary goal of secondary and undergraduate education must be to teach young people how to learn, and continue learning, throughout their careers, and throughout their lives. The transfinite feeling and scope of the Web shows us why this skill is most important, and the Web itself will provide the raw materials and the educational tools to transform curriculum in a productive and pedagogically sound direction.

Perhaps most importantly, the World Wide Web provides models of educational resources that will give teachers more freedom in the design of their classes, will give students a concrete sense of how education continues (and must continue) in and out of school, and will provide opportunities for young students to study scientific topics in depth, without their having to specialize in particular fields. MendelWeb is therefore just a hint at what can be made available to the classroom of the future.

MW Table
of Contents Reader's Mendel MW
Reference Page MW Notes Table of Contents for Mendel's Paper
MendelWeb was conceived and constructed by Roger B. Blumberg