1(3), May 1984, page 2

[conclusion of McCann article at top of this page]

Computer-Based Composition Aid for Writing

Art Winterbauer
University of Denver

As part of my dissertation research at the University of Denver, I have developed and will test a prototypic writing aid implemented in the Pascal and C languages on a Digital Equipment Corporation VAX 750 computer.

I have developed this system partly as a reaction to some problems I encountered as a teacher of college freshman rhetoric and composition courses. As did many other instructors, I wanted my students to consult with me prior to writing their weekly essays. At these prewriting interviews, we would work together to narrow a topic to manageable limits, to come up with different ideas about the subject, and to make some attempts at arranging this material in a logical sequence. Depending on the type of paper and the student's familiarity with writing, this process could consume anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes before we could discuss the best rhetorical approach to use. Usually, the student would not have given much thought to the paper before coming to my office. I wondered if there was any way to coax the student to ponder the subject matter for at least of couple of hours before coming in for the prewriting interview.

The computerized program I am now developing may be helpful. Major Hugh Burns, USAF, developed a "Socratic Dialogue" system, also computer based, as part of his doctoral studies at the University of

COMPUTERS and COMPOSITION 1(3), May 1984, page 3

Texas. In his dissertation, Major Burns, for example, noted that students could generate ideas for a paper using such a system, but the ideas were not necessarily tightly connected, nor did students show any ability to organize these ideas into a coherent, whole presentation. I have also noticed in similar systems that teachers did not have much control over how the computer program interacted with students. That is, the questions the machine might ask and the types of responses the computer looked for from students were coded in the program, and teachers could not alter these approaches to suit a particular method they might prefer. With these thoughts in mind, I began developing a computer-based composition aid that should prove helpful in assisting a student with narrowing a topic, brainstorming about the topic, arranging the materials into some logical sequence suitable for a college essay (particularly the "persuasive" essay), and over which a teacher would be able to exercise some control. I hope to see better, but less time consuming, prewriting interviews.

Aside from better quality prewriting sessions and the time savings, I also hope the system will prove useful after I complete my research. For a change in routine to be accepted in an educational environment, research shows that, among other things, the instructors have to be comfortable with an innovation and know how to use it, and the innovation should solve a practical, everyday problem. The instructors must also be a part of the development team and have some control over what the final system looks like. In this research effort, I will attempt to include faculty of an academic department on campus (teaching fellows and/or professors) in the development system, and then to leave them a system which they will be able to change individually (within certain limits). Thus, teachers could adapt a copy of the program to follow up how their classes should write papers. I also hope that instructors in various departments could use different versions they adapt themselves for their students. The system is implemented on a time-sharing computer to which most of the students could have access. The different versions of the program would be accomplished by allowing each teacher to designate the files the computer would access for its "vocabulary" and questioning strategies.

A pre-test prototype of the system is currently online and is being used. Although those who have used the system have reported favorable results, much work still must be done to construct a proper experimental approach in order to determine its effectiveness in the curriculum of an academic department at D.U. This approach will probably be a case study and will provide specific information about the value of such an innovation to a particular educational setting.