Presentation Abstract

The Death of the Wizards: How and Why an Online Department Failed and How It Succeeded

One model that might allow individuals an alternative to the traditional ways of making scholarship and to the traditional ways of teaching is the virtual department, a complement to the actual or physical department. At the University of Illinois at Chicago, a group known as "eworks" attempted to build such a department using a governing structure in which a number of individuals served as “wizards.”

At its inception, James Sosnoski, the founder of eworks, described this virtual department in the following terms:

"eworks is an online environment under construction on Tigger [a Unix machine] at UIC which features the work of members of the English Department. At first glance eworks appears to be a web site. However, it is not intended to be a conventional site on the World Wide Web. Rather, HTML code is used to create a FRAME that provides graphical boundaries within which other softwares are embedded--for example: listservs, bulletin boards, newsgroups, collaborative writing tools, and MOOs--for use in the online work of the English department. eworks has three primary functions. The first is to be an online site for obtaining information about the English department, its various programs and projects. In this respect, eworks functions as other web-sites do--as a locus of information that can be accessed world wide. Second, eworks publishes the work of the faculty and students of the English department and its adjunct programs. In this respect, it is not only a readable hypertext but also a reference database. For example, one of its the features is a glossary of terms used in literary and rhetorical studies. Third, eworks is a place FOR work. In this respect, it is a central agency for ongoing work in various courses offered by the English department. For example, the collaborative tele-seminars taught in the department are housed in eworks. This means that syllabi, "lectures" (texts of the teachers explanations and instructions), student and faculty research is entered into eworks by cooperating faculty and students. In sum, eworks is intended to be a virtual English department that provides an online complement to the activities of the actual English department."

Certainly, this was an ambitious goal. Since then, the eworks collective has written a number of small grants, including a technology grant that allowed them to buy their own server for the English department; indeed, writing the grant was itself done as a collaboration.

However, from the beginning, even though the people actually working with eworks may not have acknowledged it, or even actively resisted thinking about it, various individuals involved in the eworks collective were compensated differently by the department and the university. This inequity was greatly compounded by the fact that the people with the highest levels of technical skill -- the people capable of actually building eworks -- were among the lowest paid members of the collective. This tension -- and an ongoing tension between decision-making styles and between hierarchical and decentralized power structures -- brought an effective end to eworks in mid 1997.

Though the founder of eworks has since resigned from his position as Head Wizard and though the structure of wizards has apparently been abandoned, the department as a whole is much more aware of the potential electronic environments offers for teaching, and is in many ways more sympathetic to the use of such environments. For my presentation, I will briefly summarize the history of eworks, discuss its successes and failures, and theorize on new or other models for electronic teaching than the virtual department which finally – and fatally – transferred the hierarchical power structures of the traditional department to the spaces created by new technologies.

Works Cited:

Sosnoski, James J. "description of eworks." The eworks Conversation <E-WORKS@LISTSERV.UIC.EDU> (December 22, 1995).

Author: Keith Dorwick

Category: Distance Education

Target Audience: Not Applicable

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