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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Electronic documents spare trees

By Liz Crumbley

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 12 - November 10, 1994

Peter Rony set off on his quest for efficient electronic transmission of classroom materials for two reasons: a desire to save paper and money, and the spur of a colleague's criticism of Rony's belief in the idea's potential.

Rony, a professor of chemical engineering, is steadily moving toward making his process controls course materials available to his students via computer.

In the past, Rony has electronically provided software manuals and course assignments, primarily in Microsoft (TM) Word for Windows format. During the 1994-95 academic year, Rony and his students will exchange course materials, including laboratory reports, in Adobe Acrobat portable document file (PDF) format.

Rony says he first became interested in offering materials electronically "because students have to spend too much money on paper materials for classes." Rony estimates that electronic transmittal of materials could save each of his junior-level students $15-$20 per semester in paper costs.

In 1984, Tech's College of Engineering became the first public institution in the United States to require all undergraduate students to have computers for course use. Although all of Rony's students and colleagues have computers, electronic exchange of documents among faculty members and students often is stymied because not all computers and software packages are compatible.

Rony had been considering the potentials and problems of exchanging class materials electronically when he attended a meeting of the board of trustees of the Computer Aids in Chemical Engineering (CACHE) Corp. in 1991. When Rony suggested to the board that CACHE software manuals and other documents should be distributed in electronic form, a fellow board member said Rony's proposal wouldn't work because such information couldn't be exchanged among incompatable computer systems.

"I had a vision of what I wanted to do," Rony says, "and my colleague's criticism sensitized me to the underlying technical hurdle." Rony began to search for ways to make his vision a reality.

In 1992, he learned that Adobe Systems Inc., a computer company in Seattle, had created a software package called Acrobat that makes it possible to view the same version of a document on DOS, Windows, Macintosh, and Unix platforms. When Acrobat arrived on the market in 1993, Rony encouraged Adobe to send an Acrobat Starter Pack to the College of Engineering's Multi-Media Lab.

Next fall, Rony will put all of his 1995-96 process controls course information, including assignments, software manuals, CACHE software, and some lecture notes, on a chemical engineering CD-ROM for his students to use with their PC's. Rony's students will provide all of their laboratory reports and technical papers in electronic form for the professor to evaluate. Rony also will be able to use Acrobat to annotate the reports and papers and transmit them back to the students.

Obviously, Rony notes, this electronic exchange will save time as well as paper. No student will have to print or copy a large amount of paper material for each course. Electronic transmission offers other advantages, including an inexpensive medium for viewing color graphics, which are quite expensive to print, and the use of multimedia data types, such as aurio and animation files.

Does Rony think that most textbooks will be offered someday on CD-ROM? "That's the $64,000 question," he says, although he believes computerized textbooks will become an alternative to printed text, perhaps by 1997 or 1998. Rony has suggested to Adobe that the company develop a replacement for the printed textbook--a $300-$400 notebook personal computer with an internal CD-ROM drive, an LCD screen, and the capability to execute Acrobat software. "This would be a bare-bones, portable, inexpensive PC, with no frills or generic capabilities," Rony says. Textbooks could be marketed as CD-ROM discs for use with these computers.

Another question, Rony says, is whether all students will adapt to reading whole textbooks electronically rather than in print. So far, Rony has observed mixed reactions among his students to the use of electronic course materials. Some students are not comfortable viewing material exclusively on their computers. "The object is to minimize the use of paper," Rony says, "not to eliminate it entirely. Students can print material they need to see on paper.

"I'm a paper person myself," Rony said. "I'm adapting to electronic document viewing, but when I really need to concentrate on lengthy material, I invariably print it."

Rony is working on a November 1994 deadline to publish and distribute a CD-ROM for the CACHE Corp. that will help chemical engineering students and faculty members in the United States have convenient access to PDF files that can be viewed via the free Acrobat Reader for Windows, version 2.0. He also has contributed 100 megabytes of information about chemical engineering to the "Engineering Tools" CD-ROM that was distributed earlier this year to all Virginia Tech engineering freshmen.

Rony believes his electronic, PDF file exchange project ties in with the broader College of Engineering computer initiative. "We cannot learn everything about the potential for computer use in engineering education overnight," he says. "Faculty members will have failures in such efforts, but they should always continue to experiment."