LEARNING TO WRITE (AND TEACH WRITING) VIA THE WEB: A FIRST AND ONGOING EXPERIMENT
John Wong City U of Hong Kong <firstname.lastname@example.org>
This paper discusses a first experiment in creating and using a WWWBoard type online discussion forum to help students at the City University of Hong Kong to improve their writing skills. The discussion forum is named Writing Club, funded by an English Enhancement Programme. Since it is an initial attempt at such a teaching / learning method, the Club restricts access to members only. Interested students at the university had to go through application and registration procedures to get a username and password to log on to the Writing Club via the Language Institute (LI) homepage, LI being a language teaching unit at the university. Membership is free of charge. The writer develops the departmental homepage and coordinates all efforts regarding the Writing Club.
The Writing Club represents the first attempt by the university to use the web to help students with their writing skills. All registered students, both full time and part time, are eligible to apply. The Club does not, however, function as a "writing clinic". Students don't log on mostly to ask questions about writing problems. They log on to send messages and to read messages posted by members of the club. It was emphasized in the promotion  period that the purpose of the Club was "to create an environment of written communication where members can help one another by giving constructive feedback". Issues on writing problems will be raised and discussed only in relation to writings sent to the forum. It was further emphasized that web resources regarding writing skills will be explored and training sessions on using Netscape will be provided.
In an attempt to fully utilize the Self-Access Language Learning Centre at the City University of Hong Kong, the Language Institute at the university set up four clubs to encourage students to take part in, namely, the Reading Club, the Conversation Club, the Listening Club and the Writing Club. Students have to register as members before they can use facilities and resources provided by the clubs.
The Writing Club was the last club to be set up. There was a general feeling that teaching writing, be it for the purpose of communication or accuracy, would be more demanding than teaching other skills. Teacher preparation, such as having to read through members' writings, and teacher student contact would require more efforts. It was also felt that writing would not be an interesting enough skill to learn or to teach, particularly in the context of a club.
These feelings, it must be pointed out, all stem from the traditional classroom teaching of the subject. Even though in recent years the popularity and user-friendliness of word processors have made writing (producing) papers much more easy, the teaching of writing, particularly to a relatively large group of students, still involves a great amount of painstaking effort in reading and proofreading, and in giving comments. The restricted audience of the teacher does not add much communicative motivation to the writing effort either. The web, however, has begun to change people's attitude towards writing. It promises a much wider audience than even local area networks. Both educators and learners alike have been drawn to it for different reasons.
The writer has had some experience helping students publish their writings on the web ,  and believes the web can serve to promote learners' interest in developing writing skills. University students in Hong Kong, because of their easy access to the internet, are ready to benefit from the web. Online discussion forums such as the Time Magazine discussion boards were starting to draw attention. Enthusiastic net surfers from all over the world started to post writings and respond to threads of discussion. It took minutes to load a discussion board when the transmission time was still at the 14,400 baud rate. With a world wide audience, people have started to treat writing differently. In return, this change of perception has stimulated more interest in writing. Students at City University of Hong Kong have long been active on electronic bulletin boards, which are text-based. The writer believes that the windows-based web environment would soon take the place of most such boards and is convinced that it is time more efforts were invested in this area. It was under these assumptions that the Writing Club via the web was started in November 1996.
Writing Club Online Discussion Forum Interface Design
Collaboration with the Computing Services Centre at the university was sought soon after the plan to run the club was finalized. It was then decided that Frontpage Explorer would be used to implement the creation of the online discussion forum. The Writing Club page makes use of two column frames to facilitate members' browsing of articles. The left frame is the contents page, where the titles of all articles posted to the forum are displayed, from the newest to the oldest. The right frame is the welcome page and displays the contents of an article when the corresponding title link in the left frame is clicked on. A permanent "post" link is put in the left frame, and will display the "post" page in the right frame when clicked on. Another "post" link is put in the right frame, but shows up only in the "welcome" page. For easy reference, a demo page has been prepared. ( Note that clicking on the hypertext links will not retrieve the corresponding article or page. The white texture background is not shown in this demo page.) The page for members to send their article to uses the common AnyForm type interface and looks like the following:
To post an article, click anywhere in the subject field and type in your article subject. Then click in the comments area to type in your article. Please email me if you have problems posting your article. Subject: Comments:It was also decided that a "search" function be built into the page so that members can search for articles they want to read or re-read by typing in a key word. This function, naturally, will not be of much use until after there have been a relatively large number of articles posted. As of March 10, 1997, a total of around 150 articles have been posted. To demonstrate the search function, I just typed in the word "education" and the search bot provided by Frontpage Explorer produced the following table in the right frame. I attached the search results below: (Note that clicking on the hypertext links in the table will not retrieve the corresponding article)
Number of documents found: 20. Click on a document to view it, or submit another search. Search Results Document Title Size Date On-line Education 1K 19 Dec 1996 15:35:38 HKT SHOULD PHYSICAL EDUCATION BE COMPULSORY IN TERTIARY INSTITUTIONS 1K 25 Feb 1997 14:35:52 HKT Should physical education be compulsory in tertiary institutions 1K 26 Feb 1997 12:59:53 HKT Re: On-line Education 2K 19 Dec 1996 15:35:38 HKT Re: On-line Education 2K 19 Dec 1996 15:35:38 HKT Re: Should sex education be a compulsory subject in secondary... 2K 27 Feb 1997 11:21:03 HKT Re: On-line Education 2K 19 Dec 1996 15:35:38 HKT List of things to do to make HK better 2K 19 Dec 1996 15:35:56 HKT Re: Victor's suggestion 2K 19 Dec 1996 15:35:56 HKT Should sex education be a compulsory subject in secondary sch... 3K 20 Feb 1997 11:12:23 HKT Re: Should young people be exposed to policial issues? 2K 27 Feb 1997 11:45:08 HKT Re: Should sex education be a compulsory subject in secondary... 2K 27 Feb 1997 11:42:13 HKT Should physical education be compulsory in tertiary institutions 3K 27 Feb 1997 18:18:37 HKT INTRODUCTION 2K 09 Jan 1997 18:13:46 HKT Should we blame student suicides on study pressure and school... 3K 20 Feb 1997 11:02:35 HKT Should young people be exposed to policial issues? 3K 27 Feb 1997 11:02:19 HKT Should the public examination be abolished? 3K 20 Feb 1997 11:21:21 HKT Democracy is never a gift 3K 19 Dec 1996 15:36:02 HKT _discuss Discussion 34K 06 Mar 1997 12:23:13 HKT Should mothers wtih pre-school children work outside the home? 4K 27 Feb 1997 11:03:52 HKTMembership Application and Registration
Membership is free. But students were required to apply to join the club. It was believed that many students at City University were already familiar with web browsers such as Netscape or Internet Explorer and would be able to handle online registration, and so an online registration form  was designed to make the registration process easier. Students could choose to stay in the comfort of their own home to send in the application. There are also hundreds of workstations on campus which can open the application web page. For students not comfortable with such registration procedure, a clerical staff was instructed to help students register in the general office of the department. Totally around 70 students registered to become members, with slightly more than half of them doing that online, implying that at least half of the applicants are already familiar with the web.
The online application form used an AnyForm program resident on the university's web server. All online applications were sent to the writer's Unix email account. Applicants who came to our general office to apply were instructed to check their email for further announcements, mainly about their username and password for logging on to the discussion forum. At the end of the enrolment period, the writer had to email every applicant to ask them to confirm the application via email. This was considered necessary particularly for students who sent in online applications. The AnyForm program does not require applicants to verify their email account with their passwords. Any student could have filled in incorrect information on purpose or carelessly. Asking them to confirm their application via email could make sure that all the email addresses are valid and that the owner of the email account does want to go through with the application. However, all these precautionary measures mean an extra administrative burden for the writer, being the coordinator of the club.
In the email sent to applicants asking them to confirm their application, it was mentioned that if they were not familiar with internet browsers such as Netscape, they should request to be offered a place in a training session on using Netscape and the Writing Club online discussion forum. Totally around 20 members replied with such a request. Two training sessions were eventually scheduled. A few members replied late and individual sessions were offered later.
The training sessions revealed some problems with the interface design of the post article page, namely the post method used by Frontpage Explorer's discussion board wizard. Novice users tend to hit [Enter] instead of [Tab] when they finish entering information in the subject field. This activates the form post action. A member's blank article (with only the subject) is then posted to the forum, when s/he is not yet ready.
The same habit of hitting the [Enter] key instead of [Tab] when novice members log on to the club results in an error message saying "authorization failure". Although that does not do any harm to the board, in the sense that no empty messages are posted, some members feel frustrated and lost. What's more, the logon is case sensitive, which many members are not used to, particularly when typing their names, which were all set in the lower case. It might be better in the future to capitalize the first letter of usernames.
The Writing Club is a little more than three months old at the time of the writing of this paper. It is still at its initial stage and may not be considered a success yet. A few more months' observation time may more accurately reflect the results. It is obvious at this point, though, the planning and organization of the online education aspect of the forum needs further structuring to better utilize the capacities such a medium has to offer. The fact that multimedia documents can be posted as articles to the board makes writing (and reading) an almost totally different activity than it used to be. However, most users, even though they have a working knowledge with web browsers, are not familiar with the Hypertext Mark-up Language. Some are even not aware that underlined or blue (default) text may be hyperlinks and so may never find out about the "background" documents until they are explicitly told about them.
It must be pointed out, however, that never at any point in the past three months was the multimedia capability of the discussion forum emphasized. In fact, the writer refrained from putting even simple text hyperlinks in his articles until one member started doing that. It is not that hyperlinks are not suitable for the forum. On the contrary, they are important when one does not want to distract readers by including too much unnecessary information in an article. They are particularly useful when one wants to mention or refer to relevant but not very important information.
Once hyperlinks have appeared in certain articles, and have interested some members, discussion related to HTML was inevitable. While some members are very keen on learning more about it, others do not have any knowledge of the subject and are therefore totally indifferent to the discussion. There was a request that basic HTML be taught and was considered. However, since there were not enough members interested to need one session, the idea was soon dismissed. Looking back, a basic training session on the hyperlink / hypertext part of HTML may do good to student writers, as popular wordprocessors have already built in hypertext or similar features. Writing is no longer strictly linear. A Writing Club can certainly cater for members who need training on using hypertextual or annotational features of wordprocessors, in addition to web browsers which come with editing (or composing) functions.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Writing clubs on the web have much to offer. Unlike non-web or non-networked settings, the web setting promises audience and is much more flexible in organization and design of writing activities and publication formats. There is also much room for creativity. This room for creativity and flexibility, however, in turn calls for devotion to planning and organizing and courage for experimentation.
At this point in our trial, there are the following issues to consider for future development:
a) should the club be open to public instead of restricting access; b) should the club be further restricted to a smaller number of students, who are required to pay minimum enrolment fees to ensure participation and retention c) should the objectives be modified to a focus on only free communication, to ensure there is no pressure on the teacher to deal with a potentially great number of students who may write to ask for help, for example, proofreading their writings; d) should more attention be paid to language accuracy, and if so, how to achieve that; e) should individual author pages be incorporated into the Writing Club to encourage more creative writing; f) should a theme be set for different periods so that members can work on a particular category of writing such as Fiction, Sci-Fi, poetry, critiques, academic reports or papers, song lyrics, journal etc at different times.
The three months' trial has also resulted in the following recommendations for anyone interested in starting a similar club in a university setting: a) organize the club in such a way that members from different disciplines, age groups, modes (part- and full- time) are willing to interact and exchange more writings b) prepare a database of web pages that have reference to grammar and writing issues so that links can be made to them in responding to student writers' writing problems; c) make sure simple and clear instructions are put on the "post articles" page so that students know the exact procedures and will not keep sending in blank articles; d) alternatively, make sure the adopted program will not invoke the post action unless users click on the "post article" button; e) consider using frames to facilitate users' browsing of articles; f) consider adjusting the ratio of frames used so that most display types will be accommodated; g) consider adjusting the size of the text input area so that it fits into an average size screen; h) build physical wrapping into the text input area so that users do not have to keep using the horizontal scrollbar to read text beyond the column limit of the text area; g) there is a double carriage return requirement for the present program if writers want to have double spacing for paragraph breaks.
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