UNDERSTANDING ONLINE INVENTION IN THE ELECTRONIC WRITING CLASSROOM
Richard Allen Miller
Considering all the time put into grading papers and helping students revise, teaching first year composition can be a very labor intensive affair. Being on the verge of teaching and graduate student burnout, I looked to throw some variation into this course and make it more interesting for me as well as my students. With an administrative drop of the hat, I was signed up to teach my composition sections entirely in the department's computer lab. Apart from charging a nominal lab fee to the students and having an "X" in the course call number--English 111X--these classes were supposed to cover the same content and material as my earlier versions of 111. Being relatively new to computers and composition, I was enthusiastic that the technological element in this class would in some way excite my students into being more productive and thoughtful writers.
I agreed whole heartedly with Todd Taylor's idea that, "for teachers and researchers in the new digital environments, it is difficult not to be at least somewhat enthusiastic about the possibilities that such technology brings to English studies..."(164). Without a doubt, teaching online in the computer classroom has helped open my eyes to the innovative and perplexing effects online instruction has; moreover, teaching online has helped me to revalue and productively struggle with issues of literacy and the writing process, and carry my academic energies further into this interesting intersection of pedagogy and technology.
ETHNOGRAPHY OR CASE STUDY?
To say that my one semester stint in the computer lab produced a case study or ethnography would be too broad of a statement--if not grossly inaccurate. Instead, I view this first semester of teacher-research as a pilot study or a mini-case study in climatizing myself to conducting qualitative research in the computer environment. As a specific focus in launching this pilot study, I selected online research as an activity to study and solicit student opinion. By closely tracking the students work through a particular essay, I was able to surmise some prevailing attitudes and student perspectives about composing and researching online.
By online research, I am referring to the activity of searching such electronic medium as the WWW, the Internet, and other online databases. Originally, I was attempting to limit my focus to just research involving outside sources--much like what is done at the library for a research paper. With such a parameter, I was hoping to generate critical discussion among students regarding the authority and "validity" of the information they found online and would incorporate into their Problem/Solution essays. Also, I was hoping to enhance their skills of cutting and pasting between Microsoft Word and such web browsers as Netscape. While this last point came with only limited success, I was for the most part impressed with the students' ability to find sources online; however, incorporating this information into their essays was another matter that will be discussed later.
As mentioned before, this pilot study centered around the Problem/Solution essay in BGSU's General Studies Writing Program. This essay in English 111 is usually an essay that argues through an expository structure with the strength of argument usually dictated by the logic of thesis, main points and inclusion of counter-arguments. Of all the essays done in the course, Essay #4 was the longest and only one requiring outside research. It may be safe to say that students performance on Essay #4 often dictated how their entire portfolio would be judged in the holistic evaluation of portfolios done randomly by a pool of instructors at the end of the semester. Needless to say, the assignment for the most part was taken seriously, and the students offered little resistance to researching online in hopes of finding interesting paper topics and sources to support their arguments.
In altering the assignment for these computer sections of 111X, I revised the assignment sheet and inserted a section entitled "Computers and Composition: A Real Application"(URL http://ernie.bgsu.edu/~richm/ess4cs.html/). Through this rather brief addition, I tried to level the playing field for all students in saying that, "I am hoping that some of you will boldly strike out and others of you will become more comfortable in this high-tech environment we learn in"(Essay #4 Assignment Sheet). In addition, the assignment sheet was available online through the class homepage (URL http://ernie.bgsu.edu/~richm/111Xdir.html/) well before I handed out the printed text in class. Noticing that over half the class had accessed and successfully printed the assignment sheet was a good indicator of how comfortable many already were with the move into retrieving documents online.
As a first step in getting this assignment off the ground, I modeled some searches via the data show in our classroom. This technique seemed to capture the students' attention and imagination. From this experience, I realized that instructors, no matter what medium they are teaching in, must recognize the value and practicality of modeling the writing/research process to their students. Searching for information on topics volunteered by class members also invigorated the discussion. After taking an additional class to model searches through Netscape--with such search engines as Yahoo!, Infoseek and Lycos--and Gopher on BGLINK, I turned the class loose for several class periods to do independent research on topics of their own choosing. The work done through these first few exploratory days was interesting to watch and observe.
While some students, who were fairly comfortable with searching online started gather data immediately, other students simply took their research were their interests lead. The latter group tended to ask provoking questions on what would be a quality paper topic. Responding in a relatively open ended fashion, I helped students explore their own interest, and felt many entering ".... into that difficult area where students must negotiate their personal interests with the demands of academic reading and writing"(Adler-Kassner and Reynold 174). Whether such recognition was due to the novelty of being online or not, I do not know; however, students who had in general been much more reserved or tentative with paper topics seemed to open up a bit more. Interestingly almost all the students chose to print out their information as opposed to cutting and pasting into a Word file. I suspect that many felt this was more practical and feasible in the sense of having a hard copy for future reference. The few students who did chose to cut and past (less than 5%), also elected to print hard copies as well. This may be a perspective to keep in mind when researching similar projects.
This introductory phase of the assignment seemed to naturally spill over into other areas of the writing process that I had not anticipated, such as invention. Originally, I had envisioned the students simply "getting to know" the technology for a few days and feeling comfortable with it; however, I was struck with the idea that the process of invention was naturally imbedded in many online searches. Typically students would get to an interesting web site, such as the homepage for the rock group Bush (URL http://www.bushonline.com/) or ESPN's Sportszone (URL http://espnet.sportszone.com/ ) and ask me and other students if the particular site they were at could produce a good paper topic. One student who was interested in chat lines logged onto one, and asked the members of the chat-group for a paper topic! By having students interface with such vast and seemingly limitless data through online research, I am convinced that sparks of invention light their way to forming workable paper topics and arguments when working in an online environment with minimal instructor intrusion.
A helpful activity to further this sense of online invention could be planned freewrites in a separate word processing window--such as Microsoft Word--devoted to the student reflecting on their own writing/researching process. For example, having the students work with search engines on the WWW for a set amount of time, and then asking them to do something such as a directed freewrite listing the different sites they have visited could act as a composing point allowing them to reflect on such a dazzling activity as "surfing". Also, if a class is using some browser such as Netscape, Bookmarks can become a powerful inventory of were a student's interest have brought them. Having students exchange Bookmark locations and finding a thread of connection between such URL's could also stimulate creative aspects of invention that can move students to interesting and provocative topics.
Another interesting side note from watching students research deals with the student perception of drafting and revising online. Students often praised working online as helping them organize and structure their current drafts and research. With such a convenient storage space as the floppy disc, students seemed to feel more in control of their paper production and authorship. This point is interesting due to the fact that floppy disc directories can be as hectic and unorganized as a floor full of papers; it seems key that students are producing maybe only 5 or 6 essays, and this number of documents is easily displayed for them to see. If students were required, say, to save all of their classnotes, freewriting, journals and correspondence with the instructor and classmates on the disc, these praises for organization may fall by the wayside.
These comments about improved organization also struck me as rather contradictory considering that most students elected to print their research as opposed to saving it electronically. When asking students directly why they did not save the research electronically they expressed reluctance to "losing" the information or not following proper procedures to successfully file the data. This situation may help pose further research questions concerning what students are and aren't comfortable with in terms of appropriating as discourse. By this I mean, that a day or two earlier students expressed optimism organizing their writing and research in an electronic format; however, when it came time to retrieve and organize online documents in this same electronic format, student confidence was alarmingly low. I can see how pulling something off the WWW can be intimidating, and perhaps modeling this "cut/paste/save" process would have beneficial earlier on.
Embedded within this inability of students to electronically appropriate outside research is the issue of authorship. In researching this predicament, it may help to ask and explore what the student feels is appropriate to put on their class disc. In other words, some students may have felt apprehensive about "copying" (or more drastically plagiarizing) outside work on their files. On the flip side, all of this speculation may be over blown, and students may just feel it is easier to have outside source material in hard copy format to sift into their essays as they see fit. But even in this last example, the move from electronic-to-paper-to-electronic may signal a moment in the writing process worthy of further review. It seems best to rule no connection out in forming critical pedagogy in such a changing environment.
Perhaps the most confusing part of the assignment for the students, and undoubtedly the least successful, was using MLA online citation form. Perhaps documenting sources will always be a thorn in the side of English studies; however, when dealing with online documentation, we should expect even less uniformity. Part of this failure to document correctly may be that I (the instructor) did not emphasize it enough, yet some conferences with students about incorporating sources exposed the idea that many students had questions about who exactly the author of their online documents were? After going through the formulaic investigation of whether or not we could find an author, title, publishing organization, or affiliation of the producing website, we often looked at each other with blank looks. If nothing else, interesting discussion often ensued probing into the ambiguous nature of some Web documents and the ideas of authorship they implied. Once again, this is a rich area of investigation, and additional discussion in the introduction of the assignment could have helped.
Students who were relatively at home with using the Web and online searches also approached with similar question concerning citation style and authenticity. Mostly these students would come to a conference with a completed draft and simply point to the citations or Work Cited page and ask if they were correct. In most of these cases they were; however, they expressed a discomfort at how long the Internet cites were and how they spilled into line breaks disrupting the appearance of right justification. Distinct from the earlier questions about authority, these student observations seemed textually bound and more editorial than conceptual. Developing a quick and easy hypertextual citation exercise would be very beneficial, and such an exercise would be a beautiful addition to the class homepage.
The value of the class webpage is something I did not exploit as much as I possibly should have; in fact, having a web page up and running with class materials may be the single greatest advantage I see for the instructor at this point. By constructing and referencing students to the web page more often, online instructor seem to have an advantage getting their students to begin researching online outside of such a page. The class web page also serves as a brilliant place to compile useful online resources for the students as well as publish class projects and student essays.
COMPLETED DRAFTS: DIVERGENT PATHS
In looking at the quality of the essays in comparison to section I've taught before in traditional classroom settings, I would have to say they were about equal; however, the online sections seemed to have their papers in at an earlier date in general. As I expected some students simply did not incorporate any online research at all and opted for library research that fulfilled the assignment. I did notice that students who had both online and library research tended to have stronger papers. This combination seems ideal, especially in regard to an assignment such as the Research Paper they will have to write in English 112 the following semester.
Working online has helped me see how technology may be incorporated into any phase of the writing and researching process. At times in writing this study, I had trouble separating such things as invention from drafting and researching from composing, and I think this signals a rich area to inquire in. What is it about technology, and the relationship of computers and composition in particular, that renders it so difficult to categorize or isolate? An interesting perspective by Smith may help elucidate this point: "Regardless of their composition skills, the less computer literate students will have to devote less time to their composition process"(168). I would have to take issue with Smith here on the fact that learning computer skills or literacy, at least in my mini-case study, was part of the composing process. Perhaps Smith is working with too rigid of a distinction between computer literacy and the composition process here. Building in and negotiating relatively loose parameters in terms of the assignment may be a more important factor in helping level the playing field of the online assignment and ultimately online instruction.
In retrospect, this brief study has helped me understand the sorts of data that will be most available for collecting and the critical applications such a study may have in shaping pedagogy and scholarship. Observing and analyzing this specific online assignment has helped me further understand the value in such a perspective as stated by Taylor:"Yet, as the social and economic push to technologize everyone and everything reaches a fever pitch, more and more teachers and researchers are wisely tempering their enthusiasm with incisive critique regarding the prospects of technology and education"(Taylor 164). In looking back on this experience in the classroom and presenting these ideas online, I feel I have just taken a few wobbly steps toward understanding the variables operating in the online classroom and expressing them in terms of research and exposition. Time and patience permitting, I hope to making confident strides within a few years time.
POTENTIAL RESEARCH QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY
Adler-Kassner, Linda and Thomas Reynolds. "Computers, Reading and Basic Writers: Online Strategies for Helping Students with Academic Texts." _ Teaching English in the Two Year College_ 23 (1996): 170-178.
Smith, John. "Rethinking Computerized Composition Instruction." _Teaching English in the Two Year College_ 23 (1996): 168-9.
Taylor, Todd. "Guest Editorial: Hyper-Editing." _ Teaching English in the Two Year College_ 23 (1996): 163-165.
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