The Digital World:  Teaching Technological Literacy to a Multidisciplinary Audience


Barry Fagin

Thayer School of Engineering

Dartmouth College

Hanover, NH  03755





We report our experience with the development and execution of a course entitled "The Digital World", designed to increase the fluency and comfort level of non-science students with digital technology.  The course relies heavily on computer-aided instruction, including the extensive use of electronic lectures and multimedia.  We describe our successes and failures, and present analyses of student performance by gender, class, and field of study.





1.0 Introduction

                In the fall of 1991, we began the development of a course entitled "The Digital World".  Like existing courses elsewhere, this one would teach the basics of digital technology, but it with two important differences:  1) it would be accessible to non-science majors, and 2) it would have no prerequisites.  Our inquiries at Dartmouth and elsewhere indicated a growing consensus on the importance of technological literacy to a liberal arts education (see for example [NSF86], [NSF89], and [NSF90]).  We felt existing efforts were inadequate.

                We were also interested in reaching students who would not normally consider taking a science course;  those in what Tobias calls the "second tier" [To90]. Tobias suggests that many bright students, particularly women, are alienated by traditional introductory science courses.  Reaching these students is critically important in light of expected shortages in scientists and engineers over the next decade [Ma90].   We hoped that by presenting the right material in an application-oriented, interactive fashion, we would be more successful at maintaining student interest.  Finally, we were concerned about the  monotonous pacing and dry presentation style of introductory science courses, often cited as a reason students leave a technical major [HeSe92].

                For subject matter, we chose material from the author's research area: digital technology.   We believed that by showing the relevance of digital technology to everyday life, we would be able to teach the basic concepts of boolean logic, information theory, and the limitations of digital systems to an intelligent but non-scientific audience.  The project received funding in October 1991, and "The Digital World" was taught for the first time the following spring.  This paper presents our experiences and results.


2.0 Preliminary Studies

                A preliminary examination of the course selections of Dartmouth students showed asymmetry in enrollment patterns.  Figure 1 shows the number of humanities courses taken by class of 1989; the horizontal axis shows the number of courses, while the vertical axis shows the number of students.  Although not completely flat, there appears to be no statistically significant number of humanities courses that most students prefer; results are clustered fairly evenly from 4-10, and then slightly lower but still evenly from 11-22.


Figure 1: Humanities Course Enrollments [Hi91]


         When science enrollments are examined, however, a different pattern emerges.  Science course selection is shown below in Figure 2.  We see that the pattern is strongly asymmetrical, with a spike at the 4-course minimum required at Dartmouth.  (Students with less than 4 science courses have received credit and/or special placement).


Figure 2:   Science Course Enrollments [Hi91]

            At first glance, it appears that students are much more comfortable with the humanities, and that when given the opportunity to choose an elective they will choose a humanities course over a science course.  Other factors, however, may be at work.  Science courses are perceived as requiring more effort for a comparable grade than humanities courses. This may discourage students from taking scientific electives.  However, our survey of the curriculum noted that there were very few science courses available with no prerequisites, particularly for non-science majors.  Thus the shape of figure 2 could reflect not only student apprehension about the sciences but a  lack of enrollment choices consistent with background and ability. Perhaps optimistically, we assumed the second factor was at least as important as the first, and began the development of "The Digital World" accordingly.


3.0 Student Population

          A total of 20 students signed up for "The Digital World".  Breakdowns by gender, year, and major are shown below:


                                 Table 1: Breakdown of Course Enrollment


                     GENDER                                 CLASS                              MAJOR


                     Female: 5                                 Seniors: 7                           Sciences: 8

                     Male: 15                                   Juniors: 4                            Other: 11

                                                                     Sophomores: 3                   Undecided: 1

                                                                     Freshmen: 5



          The ratio of women to men in the course, while less than that of the College as a whole, is typical of science courses at Dartmouth.  Surprisingly, the age distribution of the students was fairly even; we had expected mostly freshmen and sophomores.

                We were also surprised at the large number of science majors in the course.  On the one hand, it may be that we were not as successful at attracting non-science majors to the course as we would have liked.  On the other hand, and perhaps more accurately, science majors may have found the course too attractive to pass up.  College-wide graduation requirements mandate the selection of a certain number of science courses outside the major,  even for students studying the sciences.  Thus certain science majors looking to satisfy this requirement might find "The Digital World" to their liking, particularly if the material is not far from their field of study.  As evidence of this, we note computer science was the best-represented major in the course, with 3 students.


4.0 Course Content

                "The Digital World" met three times a week, and contained a total of 28 lectures.  The topics were divided as follows:


1) Fundamentals: 6 lectures.   Discrete and continuous phenomena, binary notation, boolean algebra, logic gates, basic circuits.


2) Digitization of sound: 5 lectures.   Pulse Coded Modulation, Error Correcting Codes, how Compact Discs work.


3) Digitization of images: 6 lectures.  Bitmapped, grayscale, color images.  Animation, image compression, HDTV.


4) Computers and related devices: 3 lectures.  I/O devices, memory, microprocessors.


5) Special topics: 6 lectures.  Discrete information transmission in living systems (DNA), assistance with course project,  miscellaneous topics taken from the popular press.


                One lecture was reserved for an in-class midterm, and one lecture was held in an electronic music studio.  The course project required each student to develop a finite state table for playing tic tac toe.  Software was provided to simplify the task and to test student tables, which played against each other on the last day of class.  Grades were based on homework assignments, a midterm, a final, and the project.


5.0 Use of Computers and Multimedia

                The material covered lent itself extremely well to computer-based presentation; it is safe to say that the concepts could not be effectively demonstrated without them.  We present below some brief examples of how computers and multimedia were used.  All material was developed and presented using a color Mac II with 4MB of RAM, running System 7.0 with the QuickTime extension.


1) Lectures and course administration.  All lectures were developed and presented electronically as Hypercard stacks (version 2.1).  Lectures were made publicly available on a file server before class for students to download and print.  Students could also execute the lectures on their own machines, at their own pace and at times of their own choosing.  Homeworks and other course-related materials were distributed electronically, and students were encouraged to use e-mail to communicate with the instructor in addition to scheduling office hour visits.  Students reacted very positively to the extensively computerized format, regardless of background.


2) Application programs.  Numerous application programs are required to present the material of "The Digital World".  Programs  used included the following:


Gates of Logic.  Uses graphics to demonstrate principles of boolean logic.  Developed by Prof. Jim Moor, Department of Philosophy, Dartmouth College.  Available by request.


Logic Works.  Simple circuit design and simulation.  Site licensed.


Image.  Image processing program from NIH.  Demonstrates effects of varying image quantization, filtering, color maps and lookup tables.


QuickGif.  GIF image viewer.  Public domain.


JPEG.      Converts GIFs to JPEGs.  Public domain.


JPEGView.  JPEG viewer.  Public domain.


Simple Player.  Mac software for QuickTime animation.  Bundled with System 7.0.


                Lookup tables are used for reducing the amount of memory required by an image.  The acronyms GIF and JPEG refer to image compression techniques.  They also refer to images compressed using those techniques.


3) Sound and image processing.   Much of "The Digital World" is concerned with the digitization of information, particularly sound and vision.  The use of multimedia permits the class to hear the effects of varying sound quantization levels, to see how digital images can be altered, how light blends to give color, how motion can be digitized, and so forth.  There is simply no way to demonstrate these concepts without a multimedia-based environment.


4) Project development and in-class tournament.  Students completed the course project using software developed on a workstation running X/Unix.  Assignments were returned to the instructor electronically, and made to compete against each other on the last day of class.  This was done interactively, with the students watching the progress of each game on the screen.


6.0 Student Performance

          A breakdown of student performance by three categories is shown below:


Table 2:   STUDENT PERFORMANCE (out of 100)


                     Men: 85.1                    Seniors: 87.6                      Science majors: 89.4

                     Women: 89.6               Juniors: 82.6                       Non-science majors: 76.5

                                                         Sophomores: 87.6

                                                         Freshmen: 86.7


(Data from one student with a significantly lower grade than the rest of the class is not included here).


                Although the sample size is small, some features of Table 2 remain surprising.  First, the women in the course performed significantly better than the men, despite the fact that only 2 of 5 were science majors.  This suggests that deliberate efforts by the author to remove aspects of classroom instruction known to alienate women may have had a positive effect [To90].  The author is embarrassed to admit his astonishment when, after the grades were tabulated, he discovered that the top 2 students in the class were women.

                We also expected upperclassmen to perform better than freshmen, and were surprised to find no significant difference in performance between the grades.   Only two juniors were included in the sample set of Table 2, so we are reluctant to conclude much from the lower junior grades.

                Without a doubt, however, our biggest disappointment was the significant difference in performance of the science majors.  Despite our efforts to set up a course that non-scientists could take and excel in, students who majored outside the sciences had a much harder time. 

                Grades were not curved, so the performance of science majors did not affect other students.  It is possible, however, that the presence of students from scientific backgrounds who were obviously comfortable with the material may have intimidated students from the humanities.  Humanities students may also have  had more difficulty assimilating material from what is essentially a different culture.  We will try to address this problem in future versions of the course.


7.0 Conclusions and Future Work

                Student response to "The Digital World" was quite positive, despite  varying student backgrounds and the inevitable problems with the first offering of a course.  A detailed summary of written comments, both positive and negative, is provided in the Appendix.  Readers are in particular referred to the last portion of the student survey, in which students were asked to evaluate the effectiveness of computers  and computer software.  We note that many of these students come from a humanities background, and had expressed some concerns with taking an engineering course.


                In light of student feedback and our analysis of the course, we regard the following aspects of "The Digital World" as a success:



1) Addressing gender-based gaps in performance.  Women outperformed men in "The Digital World", possibly due in part to deliberate efforts by the instructor.  This included calling on students in a truly random fashion (using a computer-based random student selector) and employing a highly interactive teaching style.  The content of the course may also have helped; it was made very clear in the catalog that this would not be a standard introductory science course.


2) Use of multimedia.  Students responded very well to the use of computers, application programs, sound, image, and animation demonstrations.  Students were already familiar with the Macintosh, and had little difficulty in exercising its multimedia capabilities.


3) Implementing a non-trivial programming project.  Almost all students completed the tic-tac-toe project, and most of those that completed it received a perfect score.  We believe this is due to the use of a finite state table instead of a programming language to express the desired functionality.


4) Choice of material.  Students responded very well to the material on CD's, the Macintosh, and HDTV.  Both science and humanities majors asked very sophisticated questions in these areas, questions that went beyond the planned presentation of the instructor.  The importance of introducing theoretical material with accompanying applications familiar to the student  cannot be overemphasized.


                We regard the following aspects as unsuccessful, or at least needing further improvement:


1) Reducing the correlation between field of study and performance.  We had hoped to see non-scientists perform as well as students from the sciences.  This objective was not achieved.


2) Producing a paperless course.  Although the vast majority of material in "The Digital World" was electronic, students printed out complete lectures and brought them to class.  This often produced more paper than if the lectures had not been electronically available in the first place.  It also created a strain on public printing resources.


3) Incompatibilities between students and instructor platforms.  Due to differences between student and instructor computing platforms, students had occasional problems in viewing lectures and executing programs on their own machines.  This led to frustrating experiences in which students blamed themselves for their machine's inability to execute a piece of software.


                We have several plans for future versions of the course.  We hope to incorporate still more multimedia-based material into the lectures, and to write our own custom application programs better suited to the concepts we wish to illustrate.  We will concentrate very carefully on students from outside the sciences, emphasizing repeatedly that they can master all the material covered in class if they abandon any preconceptions they have and apply critical thinking skills.

                Our most ambitious plans call for replacing the software project with a chip.  Students will create finite state tables, as before, but these tables will be used to program a field programmable gate array that lights LED's appropriately in response to input moves.  Students will thus be able to design their own chips that play tic-tac-toe.  In addition to providing a more tangible reward than the previous project, this may help address student concerns about project relevance (see Appendix).

                All course materials produced for "The Digital World" are available for public distribution.   We anticipate further refinements and greater availability after we offer the course a second time, in the spring of 1993.

8.0 Acknowledgements

                Funding for this project was made possible by a grant from the New England Consortium for Undergraduate Science Education, and by the National Science Foundation's Undergraduate Course and Curriculum Development Program through grant  #USE-9156226.  The author is also grateful for the use of equipment supplied by Apple Computer Corporation.  Finally, thanks are due to Professor Jim Moor of the Dartmouth Department of Philosophy for development of the Logic Works application program, and to Professor Jon Appleton of the Dartmouth Department of Music for his demonstration of the Bregman Electronic Music Studio.

9.0 References

[HeSe92] Hewitt, N. and Seymour, E., "A Long, Discouraging Climb", ASEE PRISM,  February 1992, pp 24-28.


[Hi91]  Hitchcock, Charles et. al., Report of the Task Force on Curriculum Development for Technological Literacy, Thayer School of Engineering, Dartmouth College, March 1991.


[Ma90] Malcolm, S., "Who Will Do Science in the Next Century?", Scientific American,  February 1990, p 112.


[NSF86]  Undergraduate Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education/  National Science Foundation, National Science Board Task Committee on Undergraduate Science and Engineering Education, H. A. Neal, Chair -- [Washington, DC]:  National Science Foundation, 1986-1987.  NSF Pub. No. NSF 86-100.


[NSF89]  Report on the National Science Foundation Disciplinary Workshops on Undergraduate Education:   Recommendations of the disciplinary task forces concerning issues in U.S. undergraduate education in the Sciences, Mathematics and Engineering/Division of Undergraduate Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Education, Directorate of Science and Engineering Education -- [Washington, DC]: National Science Foundation, 1989.  NSF Pub. No. NSF 89-3.


[NSF90]  Report of the National Science Foundation Workshop on the Dissemination and Transfer of Innovation in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education:   Division of Undergraduate Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Education,  Directorate for Education and Human Resources, National Science Foundation, May 1990.  NSF Pub. No. NSF 91-21.


[To90] Tobias, S.  "They're Not Dumb, They're Different: Stalking the Second Tier",  Research Corporation, 1990.


[WiCe90] Wineke, W.R. and Certain, P., The Freshman Year in Science and Engineering:  Old Problems,  New Perspectives for Research Universities.   A report of a conference sponsored by The Alliance for Undergraduate Education with support from the National Science Foundation.  [University Park,  PA]:  The Alliance for Undergraduate Education, 1990.



This appendix contains written comments, both positive and negative, supplied by students on their course evaluation forms.  These forms are filled out before grades are assigned.


What aspects of the course did you like most?


Imaging demonstrations in class.


I liked the fact that we were introduced to a wide range of topics.  The project was fun.  I liked the fact that lecture notes were available by computer and that some of the assignments required us to figure out how to use different things on the computer.


I really liked the material.  It was a great way to learn about technology without being thrown into high level engineering.  It was very organized and the problem sets were helpful, too.


Hypercard learning tool.  No outside reading - perfect for dyslexics.  Prof. Fagin's great explanations and teaching method.


Learning how things worked (i.e., CD's, computers, etc.).  Viewing some of the new image and animation capabilities of the Mac.


I liked the pace at which the course moved, it did not become "bogged down".


The final project was interesting and inspiring.  Use of computers in all aspects of the class.


The digital music section - especially seeing the digital music lab.


Interactive lectures, depth to which topics were covered, range of topics covered, good pace of progression from binary to use of binary, circuits to CD's, etc., use of Macintosh as a teaching aid.


Course material format and organization of lecture sequence.


Subject matter itself.


I liked the beginning lecture material on binary notation and algebra.  I liked making circuits and learning about CD's, cassettes, computers, etc. (utilitarian objects)


Material, lectures on computer.


The areas that we studied were all very interesting, and I definitely enjoyed learning about them.  Help was readily available and I didn't feel as pressured to remember everything as I am in some other courses.


I liked Prof. Fagin's teaching style and lectures on the server - this was especially useful if some aspect of a lecture was unclear because it was easy to reread the notes as necessary.


What aspects of the course did you like the least?


Project, lecture notes on computer.


I think we should have spent more time on computers and learning in a little more detail about how they work.  It would have been interesting to have learned a little more about computer viruses.


The project was fun to do, but I'm not sure now applicable it was to the material.  It was kind of a tedious exercise.  For future classes I think there should be a different project.


TA grading style - too harsh at first, probably because she didn't attend lectures and was not always clear on what students did or did not know.


The project seemed to have little to do with any major aspect of the course.


More "lab" type work would be nice, actual circuits and such.


The absence of a text.


More depth with logic gates would be helpful - maybe seeing a real chip would be helpful also.


Not enough information on the topics to be focused on for the exam.  Class was way out here in Cummings.


Class discussions fairly limited.  Class participation limited to being called on during lecture and to final project.  Student input during lectures was kept brief and not allowed to expand into discussion.


What I didn't like was how the second half of the course was taught.  I can't really explain, but I couldn't grasp the information as well as I did during the first half.


Homeworks - poorly written and extremely unclear.


Organization could have, perhaps, been a little better.


I felt at times the class was too easy, but then again this may have had to do with my background - I feel I have a very strong science background and I found that the class required very little time.


Please comment on the effectiveness of computers and computer software as learning aids in this course. 


Lectures on computers were hard to read and thus I got a headache.


Very effective.


Computers were very well used in this class.  Prof. Fagin did a great job of incorporating them into lectures, homework, and the project.


The computer lecture method was extremely effective and easy to learn by.  All the demos, homeworks, and projects involving computers were effective tools for this course.


Useful for images, etc., but lectures were a serious hassle to view on Hypercard.


Very effective, especially NORTHSTAR use.  Hypercard lectures were very helpful.


Excellent - actually could have used lecture Hypercard stacks more in class.


Very effective - although I took notes - having lectures on Hypercard facilitated review and ensured that I would not miss important information.  Tic-Tac-Toe program was easy to use and had a nice looking interface.


Computer was used effectively in class, when it was used.  Lectures were clearer and better organized when presented through the computer display.




Computers were an integral part of the lecture and note-taking process of this course.  However, I would consider them to be more informative sources than they were learning aids.


Extremely effective - vital part of the course.


It was quite useful and would have been much harder to understand without computers.


The Tic-Tac-Toe game was fun but I'm not exactly sure how it related to the course - I don't think it should be weighted equally with other parts of the course (it would have been more fun to design a circuit - maybe for a simple X strategy).