THE COMPUTER AS TUTOR
by Dr. Daniel Schultz
ABSTRACT: This paper is based on a current collaborative effort by English and History faculty. Our project emphasizes writing across the curriculum and writing to learn through the use of computers , and the computer as vehicle for fostering student discussion. The technology, including student messaging to both peers and professors, paper posting capabilities, network-based discussion groups, and access to on-line writing instruction, creates an environment in which writing becomes essential to the learning process, resulting in better student writing as well as rentention of material. The on-going project aims at courses where neither writing nor technology has traditionally been a focus, hoping to spark innovation, creativity, and flexibility. A by-product of this project is to develop the technological literacy so essential to our students in the job market of the twenty-first century. The project demonstrates the potential for self-contained study groups by means of support built into the network. In addition, the project introduces students to the internet for cross-cultural exchange. We hope the paper will open discussion on similar projects.
If literacy is "the power to be able to make oneself heard and felt, to signify . . . the way in which we make ourselves meaningful not only to others but through others to ourselves" (qtd. in Forman 141), then literacy is not simply a matter of learning to read and write. It is, in fact, a complex process of communication that cuts across all disciplines in the academy and, as such, should be a primary focus of all courses, not just those which focus on rhetoric and composition. Collaboration between disciplines, especially between members of English departments and members of departments where the teaching of composition has not traditionally been a focus, should be fostered and encouraged in an attempt to spark innovation, creativity, and flexibility as well as to improve productivity and assessable outcomes.
Our Western Civ project is an attempt at such cross- curricular broadening of scope. We believe that finding methods to incorporate recent scholarship in the field of literacy and computers into a traditional classroom is an important aspect of both curricular and faculty development. Our project attempts to develop writing activities that focus on "literacy issues as identified, imagined, and debated by students--issues such as the collaborative group's location in broad institutions and the effects of those institutions on the group, the formation and dynamics of the group, its reading and writing practices, the role of individual preferences, and the place of technology" (Forman 141). We are not looking to make computers the focus of instruction; rather we are seeking to use computers to support the concepts of collaborative learning and writing to learn, methods by which our students can, using technology already available on campus, develop literacy skills.
If no other benefit accrues from this project, it will have been worth it simply to call attention on our campus and across the State University of New York (SUNY) system to the idea that the use of technology has far-reaching social implications, the impact of which is apparent at public institutions, particularly community colleges, where students are typically technologically disenfranchised. Studies indicate that "the absence of technology in poor households and its presence in privileged homes suggests a growing chasm in literacy practices--for instance, in the use and value placed on reading, writing, and listening in conjunction with technology" (Forman 133). The community college is, for many students, the only place they can access the current technologies. A 1988 marketing report indicated that in only 21% of lower-income households did at least one family member have access to computing at school (Forman 133), and although we can assume that the percentage has risen in the last eight years, we can also assume that that increased access is still far below that of people from affluent families (who in that 1988 survey showed 43% school-based access) (Forman 133). In addition, access to technology is reflected in racial and gender statistics as well: "Primary users are more likely to be male than female . . . . [and] minority students and those with non-English backgrounds [have] less opportunity to use technology than white students" (Forman 133). The political, socioeconomic, and cultural implications are enormous: we are witnessing the development of a "war between the 'techno/crats' and the 'techno/peasants'" (Selfe 97). And as professionals committed to the mission of the community college, it becomes our responsibility to foster student access to the technologies they will need to compete in the marketplace of the 21st century.
A project of this sort cannot succeed without the many efforts of the appropriate support personnel. It implies several dimensions--a college-wide commitment to its goals with appropriate funding, time, equipment for them to be pursued; and integration of various segments of the college community in a common goal--students, faculty, support staff, administration. A recent television show revealed how, at the high school level, the equipment is there, but it is un- or underutilized by the staff who are unfamiliar with its teaching potential. But an institution that encourages this kind of endeavor and supports its faculty can only benefit. It is hoped that our project is but a first step for continuing efforts in collaboration where disciplines, technology, and teaching strategies interface.
Our goals for this project were many, but we were basically trying to find a way to reinforce across the curriculum the skills that students learn in composition classes. These goals focused on an attempt to incorporate more, and more effective, writing into the Western Civilization course currently taught on campus. If successful, the model could be applied to other disciplines as well. Current on-campus offerings which lend themselves to this mode of instruction include most science and social science disciplines as well as many of the humanities. We chose this course because it is a course in which there is already a good amount of writing, it is a course which demands that students read from multiple sources and use those sources in an academic way, and it is a course that lends itself to cross- cultural discussion. We wanted to find a way to use the available technology to achieve these goals.
Our first goal was to incorporate more writing into the syllabus. Although the Western Civilization students already did a fair amount of writing, we believed that they needed more practice in learning to write. Often students come to a community college with limited writing backgrounds. We wanted to give them more writing experience in a content area to help them understand, synthesize, and analyze issues, topics, and information in a collaborative learning mode. The more students write, the better they write. And the more such writing is encouraged and mentored by faculty in non-composition disciplines, the more students will make the transition from their writing classes to their other courses. In fact, the major obstacle for disadvantaged students, a pool from which we draw many community college students, is their lack of experience with the academy and the modes of academic discourse and their unfamiliarity with technology. For such students to succeed in the academy, they need to "learn how to think and write in ways that are acceptable to other members of a particular 'rhetorical community' if they are to become insiders of that group" (Hawisher 73).
In addition, we wanted to give students the opportunity to try out their ideas in writing before they are asked to write formally on a topic. Often, fear of the blank page, prior experience with punitive grading, and lack of clarity about subject matter hamper a student's ability to express his/her ideas. These "prewriting" discussion activities on the computer would minimize the punitive aspect of grading and provide constructive criticism prior to the submission of a final paper and/or exams. Most importantly, we wanted students to find a way using writing to learn about the concepts they were studying in class and clarify procedural issues before they found themselves in academic trouble. The goals: to help students improve their knowledge and their technological skills, increase retention, improve their job marketability. And since studies have indicated that networked classrooms "can function as localized forums for acquiring the written literacy of a discourse community. . . . helping students write, interpret, and negotiate texts . . . [as they] participate[e] within a context that promotes active learning" (Duin and Hansen 89), we decided to develop networked discussion groups in an attempt to guide students through this process. Initially there were five discussion groups for the class. Our experience has indicated that it spread the active discussion leaders too thin, and for some groups there was virtually no discourse. For the latter part of the semester and for the spring semester, we divided the class into two groups as a way of ensuring fuller participation.
The network would allow students to open a classroom discussion via the computer alleviating the timidity many feel while discussing orally in class. Some students are reluctant to speak in front of their peers. The computer discussions give them a private channel to express their ideas and insights in a non-threatening environment. According to Karen Hartman, "students who used networks to create, share, and discuss their own texts with other students and with instructors significantly increased their participation in comparison with students and instructor interaction in non-networked" classes (qtd. in Duin and Hansen 102). More than this, class participation becomes tangible: it is easier to see exactly who has participated and how much.
Our idea was also to set up new ways using technology for students to "write to learn." Often students see the computer simply as a mechanical tool for writing papers. But we were hoping to show them how to use the technology as a vehicle for developing the thinking processes and as a resource base for acquiring data in research. They engage in collaborative thinking and writing activities that should demonstrate that the process of writing itself is the process of thinking and that they will learn material better if they write about it. Most faculty who begin to incorporate technology into their classrooms, particularly the power of word-processors, tend to "continue the practices of the past, perhaps modifying them slightly" (Tuman 59). In fact, we are only beginning to discover the potential for the software in terms of invention strategies and critical thinking for students and innovative pedagogy for faculty. But these things will develop over time with interaction between students and professors--so long as we maintain the kind of flexibility it takes to be creative. In the meantime, students will be able to take advantage of the word-processing facilities that makes the mechanical processes of writing more feasible by minimizing the problems associated with spelling, grammar, format, and bibliography, among other things.
Another goal was to find a way to run a teacherless, student-centered study group where students learn to work collaboratively towards a common goal. Such student-centered learning activities are current with contemporary trends in education, emphasizing a team-centered approach to learning. Because the network lab facilities are open and accessible to students at all times of the day and evening, a networked study groups allows students to join the group on their own time, increasing flexibility in terms of participation. They are no longer tied to a particular weekly time set up by our Learning Skills Center (LSC) for a study group. In addition, such a computerized group diminishes the need for a study group leader, possibly cutting the costs of a group run and funded via the LSC. The teacher himself/herself can control topics and keep students on task. Ideally, "instructors' roles and responsibilities would be flexible--at least until there is some evidence of how instructors may best intervene [in guiding student collaboration]--and might consist of on-line coaching, leadership of in-class discussions, facilitation of small group work, and lecturing" (Forman 141).
We also wanted to find a way to spot student difficulty before they floundered on exams. Such a process would have two outcomes: first, it would allow the teacher to see his/her own shortcomings in terms of presentation while (s)he still has a chance to correct such shortcomings; and second, it would be an effective pretest for students, a way of demonstrating mastery learning prior to an examination.
Another benefit that the technology provides is the messaging system built into the software which functions as a kind of email, giving students further access to professors. Again, because the labs are open for more hours than professors can hold office hours, such a system alleviates the problem of student schedules that often conflict with office hours,as well as time constraints that the typical community college student may have--jobs, family, external situations which can impact on on- campus time to see professors if they are having difficulties. Messages can be sent daily and responded to immediately.
The technology provides knowledge not readily available to students as the population at a community college is, traditionally, made of what scholars in the field have called "techno-peasants"--a new disadvantaged social class. If education as a vehicle for upward mobility is to be retained, then it is essential they have access to the new technology in a variety of applications.Consequently, we wanted to ease students into an informed discourse among scholars using email and internet listservs. This makes students aware of the wide parameters of the new technology in the teaching/learning process, giving them insights into cross-cultural dialogues and access to a multicultural perspective on a variety of issues. Opening such a technological door can help make them aware of tolerance for diversity, providing a forum that goes beyond the limitations of our library resources and the geographical confines Auburn, New York. Such a broad exchange will enhance opportunities for students to "identify and debate conflicting ideas and interests. . . value difference, . . . and regard their growth as readers and writers in broad cultural and political terms rather than as the acquisition of a narrowly functional competence" (Forman 13).
We developed 12 discussion sessions for the students to use as a study group, one for each unit studied. The class was broken into discussion groups, each group working together for the entire semester, building a sense of collaboration in their learning experience. Questions we designed for each topic help students to focus on key ideas, concepts, individuals, and events with a goal towards seeing these in a historical, cultural, perspective. The discussion sections train them to use the sources they have been assigned in class--handouts, textbook, films, and class lectures--to formulate their ideas about the various topics. They learn to read sources carefully to respond to the questions, to use the sources to support their theses, and to document the sources correctly. In fact, we assume here that "a writing-from-sources pedagogy associated with the social perspective [ helps students understand] the rhetorical conventions of a community [that] can be learned by a close study of its texts. To help students internalize and assess critically characteristics of writing in particular discourse communities, we can teach them to read analytically, marking the text as they go, and to summarize, synthesizing another writer's ideas through the process of writing" (Hawisher 73). This prepares them for the six exams (three each semester) that have also been loaded into the network. The culmination of these efforts would be the transference of the accumulated knowledge and skills into a final research paper.
We have also developed 12 mini-lessons in writing strategies as backup instructions available on the network, including reading and writing strategies as well as test-taking and studying hints. These procedures reinforce instruction given within the English Department and support given in the LSC. If writing strategies are weak and students need a simple review, it is now accessible on the network and applied to the particular discipline so that students have models to follow in their own writing. There is no way of knowing, using our software, how often students actually use these writing resources; but we should learn through final evaluations, how effective they were.
Other class information is also available on the network. There are 11 bibliographies in the network listing for students works of literature that correspond to the topics they are studying. Other kinds of information are also available. Students who lose syllabi, who miss handouts on research papers and so forth will be able to pull them right off the network without having to track down the instructor and add to his/her clerical burden. Deadlines for work are all posted and can be controlled easily by shutting the system off when the deadline has passed. This once again shifts the burden of responsibility onto the students, making them responsible for their own learning just as they will need to be responsible in the "real-world."
We have also given students access to email and internet accounts (including Netscape, Lynx, and Gopher) in order to encourage cross-cultural exchange. Without being enrolled in a specific class where email accounts are required, it is difficult for them, on this campus, to get connected. This will help broaden their perspective in terms of knowing what information is accessible for a variety of learning purposes outside the specific classroom context. At first we had planned to put them in touch with students in other countries via email, where they can obtain different perspectives on issues discussed in class. But recognising the difficulty in controlling the emailing not only of our own students but also of students in other countries, we decided instead to start a listserv on our topic for the second semester--holocausts--and advertise this on the net. We were hoping, and this is still in progress, that our students would again access to a multicultural perspective on the topic, again expanding their ideas and reinforcing writing skills at the same time. This was expanded to include encouraging their use of Netscape, by making it one of several take-home exam options. Potentially such internet connection increases student access to scholars, journals, and other students in other countries interested in similar problems and issues. Student participation in these various discussions is encouraged via reward of in-class credit. This would be an integral part of the student's final grade.
One difficulty that we are encountering is the time taken away from the normal lecture-format, and in a content- heavy course, most of us have little time to give up. Class time must be spent, however, on instructing on the use of email and network software because of the relative unfamiliarity of students in application of technology to the learning process. This amounts, however, to not more than two class days of instruction for networked discussions. We found that holding email classes outside class time was no problem: students were eager to get email accounts and more than half were willing to come for extra instruction.
A larger problem is one of motivation. Most of the discussion on the network are done on the students' own time; we had hoped the reward aspect might encourage such involvement. But we found this to be an insignificant incentive for many students. Part of the difficulty, we believe, is that students who are unfamiliar with the technology and already burdened with non-academic pressures such as family and work responsibilities, did not take the time they needed to go to the lab to participate in discussions. We decided that for second semester, we would build more time into classtime itself. We also found that some students did not recognise the benefit of these small group discussions until the semester was almost over. We are not sure how to bring students on-line earlier; this is something we need to work on. Use of past students in the lab sessions and their endorsement of its utility was a significant stimulus to student involvement and should be encouraged.
Moreover, technology brings with it all sorts of problems over which teachers and students have no control. Viruses, network difficulties, crashing systems, failure to observe appropriate precautions in saving materials may initially create student and faculty frustrations. Students must be aware of such problems from the outset so that when such problems arise, accommodations can be made between student, teacher, and lab personnel. Here the messaging system is especially important since it alerts the instructor to malfunctions on a timely basis.
To elaborate the benefits of technology in the classroom is a useless exercise. Obviously, it must be utilised by all segments of the academy if its full potential is to be realised. Often, teachers are isolated in their own disciplines and there is little discourse on a cross- discipline basis. In fact, a technology-based pedagogy, if effectively implemented, might be the means to improve community college faculty unity by what Cohen refers to as "a discipline of instruction" (Cohen 102, 162, 167), a unified focus on improved instruction which could result in better teaching/learning, greater student retention, and improved acquisition of knowledge and skills. Faculty no longer labour in isolation--they connect with other faculty both on-campus and off sharing common ideas, knowledge, concerns. So technology "plus" pedagogy translates into empowermemnt in making the learning experience more meaningful in terms of real-life experiences.
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