9(1), November 1992, pages 101-107


Keith Dorwick

For many beginning writers, the hardest part of the writing task is facing that first blank page (or empty screen) and getting started, finding the ideas that will be the seed for an essay. Having taught both composition and literature classes for the last few years, I find that my students often have a great deal of difficulty with their first critical papers. After all, as first-year students, they are not yet trained in either college-level reading or critical assignments writing: Of course, their first assignments will be trying for them to complete. The network version of Helen Schwartz' SEEN: TUTORIALS FOR CRITICAL READING published by Conduit Educational Software [1] seems to help them over that first hurdle in such content areas as literature, art, and history, and it also allows teachers and students to create or modify tutorials as necessary. Though in some ways SEEN's interface is a bit daunting, a few changes could easily clear up the problematic areas of that interface.

Student-Use Modules in SEEN

SEEN is packaged with a series of student-use modules ("Essay Analysis," "Art Exploration," "Historical Conflicts," "Character Analysis," "Plotting in Literature," and "Exploratory") called "tutorials" that allow students the opportunity to grapple with questions appropriate to content area. After working through tutorials that contain 13 to 23 individual "frames" (screens), students post their work (called "Idea Files") onto a public "bulletin board" where class members can add to or comment on other students' work.

The tutorials on "Historical Conflicts" and "Art Exploration" seem useful and interesting, though perhaps a bit simplistic. For instance, though the tutorial on "Historical Conflicts" notes that "changes usually occur because two or more groups have different goals that conflict or cause problems," it goes on to ask, "How would you divide the groups in <students' subject> into two opposing sides?" It's the rare historical conflict that divides neatly into east and west (as the quote above indicates), but students just beginning the study of history might find this tutorial a useful tool. Similarly, the art tutorial asks questions and allows students to record their reactions to the use of color, the human form, or of medium and historical period. Again, although I think these would be useful questions for beginners to ask themselves, I would like to know what art historians and historians think of SEEN or, indeed, of the very idea of such a program as a teaching device. (In fairness, I should note that the manual for SEEN states that the six tutorials are appropriate for a Humanities course; I think the manual is describing a basic introductory course not necessarily intended for future specialists in any given field.)

However, I do feel I am on stronger ground in discussing the tutorials that analyze my own field. I tested SEEN in a basic literature course I taught last semester at the University of Illinois at Chicago [2], running the network version of SEEN on an IBM token-ring LAN supporting 40 IBM Model 30s with 1 MB of RAM each. Students posted their work directly on a file server. The students' reactions were overwhelmingly positive during the week we used SEEN to analyze the work of Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. I allowed the students to pick any character or literary work from the week's reading list, and I encouraged them to try any or all of the tutorials that focused on a literary work or works.

The students found that they did have things to say about literature when prompted, and that the medium (typing directly onto a computer screen) allowed those students who were shy to make themselves a real part of the classroom discussion. Those students who were not native English speakers particularly enjoyed the fact that SEEN allows students to write at their own speed; their work could be posted at any time and read by other students in the course at a later date. Further, the quality of discussion was at least as good as that found in an oral classroom discussion, and not monopolized by the few good students who knew how to play the academic game.

Bulletin Boards: A Means for Classroom Collaboration

However, SEEN would not be nearly as useful to my pedagogy (which stresses collaborative work in a student-oriented classroom) if it did not possess a bulletin board that allowed students to post their work. After reading an "Idea File" and its associated comments from other class members, students can post their additions to the conversations in a third window (see Figure 1). By doing so, students are looking to other students for information, for ideas, and for reactions, all of which help to create a class that is as teacher-decentralized as a classroom can get while we still grade our students. Still, the use of the three windows gives students the chance to move around and try different viewpoints. It might be useful for teachers to connect the use of the windows with classroom discussions of process composition. Students move about in the three windows (reading a comment here, commenting on that point there) in the same way that many of us teach beginning writers to think about their own craft, in which writers reconsider the argument here, rewrite a paragraph there.


[Figure 1]

Figure 1. Students' comments on SEEN "Idea File."

FLexibility: Making the Tool Your Own

Generally speaking, SEEN has a built-in flexibility that I find absolutely remarkable for a DOS-based program: The path the students take from frame to frame can change depending on the student's responses. For example, in one tutorial, SEEN asks if the literary work under consideration has an omniscient narrator, and directs students to the next appropriate frame for their choice, depending on their answer. In many ways, the tutorials are structured much like a hypertext package in which student responses and decisions change the course of the students' experience as they use the program.

More important, SEEN includes a set of teacher utilities that allow teachers the opportunity to customize most aspects of what appears on the screen. If the existing tutorials do not meet the teacher's needs, they can be modified with a minimum of fuss. Further, the teacher can create new tutorials for subject matter not covered by the six tutorials provided by Conduit, the program's distributor. I created the beginnings of a tutorial for use in a Milton course (my specialty) for this review. Writing a new tutorial is fairly user-friendly, and Appendix F of the manual ("Forms for Creating SEEN Frames") includes the necessary materials for designing tutorials. Student design and use of new tutorials could be a wonderful way of teaching both content areas and logic and argumentation as students create tutorials that will engage the interest of other students while the class is working on understanding and enjoying a poem or play. Teachers and students both are encouraged to experiment with and to change the package from Conduit. My classroom experience with the tutorials provided in the package was itself positive, but the opportunity to shape a dialogue with users that exactly fits my pedagogical stance is rich and exciting. Of course, it takes time to create the frames and enter them in the computer (though limited editing is possible), but the payoff is worth the effort.

Teachers creating their own tutorials will find the SEEN manual very useful and practical: It includes appendixes that help a user to understand how SEEN operates and how it is organized (a major help in learning how to use a program). It also includes suggestions for classroom use that have been developed through classroom use, and so avoid being that all too commonly seen combination of classroom exercises that are theoretically interesting and pedagogically impossible. Conduit has provided users with scripts for the tutorials packaged in SEEN, allowing users interested in writing their own tutorials with examples created by Schwartz.

Room for Improvement

Unfortunately, the news is not all good. There are some problems with using SEEN. For one thing, I wish the windows in which students read and comment on other students' writing could be larger--only the shortest, least useful and interesting responses fit on all three screens (see Figure 1). Of course, all three windows can be scrolled with the use of either the arrow keys or the page up and down keys, but it takes at least three separate uses of the "Change Window" (ALT W) command to read the initial comment, to read other student responses to that first comment, and to add to the dialogue.

Moving around in SEEN can be difficult: The menu bar interface is a little unwieldy. Students can use the ESC and arrow keys to move around in SEEN, but there is no place for students to learn how to operate the menu system within the program. (I am only discussing the menu bar here; there is a better way to get around, the ALT commands, which I will address later.) The help screens that purport to tell students about various commands are no help at all. They grind the classroom to a dead stop without getting things moving again; it's ironic that they exist for the express purpose of helping the student. For instance, again using the "Character Analysis Tutorial" as an example, frame 4 of 23 (see Figure 2) notes some of the commands available for student use in SEEN ("back," "advice," and "example"; however, it does not tell students what to do, how to proceed to the next screen, which is what the student needs to do. Certainly the note on the bottom of Figure 2 ("Press ESC to go to the menu bar") does get students to the menu bar but the command they need ("forward") is not mentioned in the help screen and doesn't even show when they do type ESC (see Figure 3); "forward" is one window over and accesed only by the right arrow key, something that students could not learn from Figures 2 or 3. My students wanted to proceed with the tutorials, but they were uniformly flummoxed (as was I!) when Figure 3 appeared. There is no intuitive right move that allows first time users of SEEN to complete the tutorial.


[Figure 2]

Figure 2. Examples of SEEN commands available for student use.  

[Figure 3]

Figure 3. Example of some of the proceduaral problems associated with SEEN.

It is much easier (and quicker) for students to get around with the use of the ALT keys. The manual does provide a list of all the ALT keys (called "Short-Cut Keys") broken down by function, and recommends that students keep a copy of the list next to the computer. For instance, to move to the next question in a sequence, the students key ALT F for "forward;" to go back, they key ALT B. With the exception of "post" (ALT O), the ALT key commands are fairly logical and straightforward because they use the first letter of the command as a mnemonic device. As a result, they're easy to learn. Further, students who know Conduit's WRITER'S HELPER STAGE II will find that they are using the same interface in SEEN. If Conduit should revise SEEN, they could help users a great deal by adding the "forward" command to the list of suggested commands pictured on the screen in Figure 2. It would also be useful for Conduit to add the associated ALT key equivalents to the commands shown in Figure 3. (Of course, teachers can also modify the tutorials themselves until Conduit releases a new version.)

There is also a fairly serious programming flaw that Conduit should certainly fix in a new edition: In the version of SEEN I looked at, students will destroy their work if they complete any one tutorial more than once under the same name and subsequently attempt to post it on the bulletin board. In that situation, SEEN posts the following message: "That file exists. Do you want to replace the contents with your new work (Y/N)?" At this point, the student has lost either the new or the old "Idea File." If students answer "Y," the old "Idea File" from the previously completed Tutorial is destroyed and the new material saved; if students answer "N" or press the ESC key, they are bumped to the window from which a tutorial is started, and the new tutorial they tried to save is lost. In a classroom that stresses process writing, students may be working on revisions of papers from any point in the semester--and the loss of an "Idea File" with (potentially) week after week of associated student comments could be disastrous. The manual addresses this problem by suggesting that students enroll under more than one name if they wish to complete and post a tutorial more than once. But surely there should be a recovery possible at the time the student exploring SEEN attempts to post the second "Idea File," perhaps by allowing the creation and transfer of the current (new) "Idea File" to a new pen name before either file is lost.

My students and I enjoyed learning about how literature works through SEEN, a software package that encourages students to think critically and engages them in a process that is both collaborative and student centered. For my pedagogy, a program like SEEN opens up new avenues in the classroom, and I recommend SEEN to those of you who are involved in the evaluation and purchase of software for computer labs that serve students taking classes in the humanities.

Keith Dorwick is a Graduate Student in the English Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

SEEN is available from the following source:

University of Iowa
Oakdale Campus
Iowa City, Iowa 52242
(800) 365-9774

Single copy: $110
Network: $660
Lab packs are available.

System requirements are an enhanced Apple IIe or GS with 128K memory, or an IBM compatible with 256K memory.


  1. I would like to thank Molly Hepler of Conduit for providing a full network version of SEEN for this review.

  2. I wish to thank my students taking English 101 for their patience as we worked through SEEN together.