Should English departments invest time and money in computer technology? This question was recently given sharp focus for me when I was asked to visit a university and, as part of the agenda, was asked to advise its English department on the advisability of installing a computer-equipped classroom for their writing classes. I am an enthusiast in these matters: I have helped design a similar facility at my home university and have spent the past eight years teaching in computer-equipped classrooms, loving every minute of it. I can't imagine, now, teaching without computers. It is clear to me and to others (e.g., Barker & Kemp 1990; Hawisher & Selfe, 1991, p. 2) that computers have changed our work in ways as fundamental as the advent of the "process" paradigm announced in 1982 by Maxine Hairston. The change has occurred; it would be foolish to pretend that it has not.
Yet I feel I need to be extremely careful in responding to the English department at our sister institution. Yes, computers are here; and yes, few writers would return to pen and pencil. Because writing is now chiefly performed online, we can't not teach student writers in online environments. However, introducing computer technology into an existing system brings about changes in every aspect of that system--some desirable, some not. At the end of the process, the system will function differently; indeed, it will be a different system. It may not, however, function better. We once naively hoped that computers would make students write better. Now we find, as we might have predicted, that students aren't writing better online; they are writing differently. We therefore have to learn to teach differently. The changes required of us and of our institutions will be difficult, expensive, and dislocating.
My need to advise others on whether to embrace the new technology has caused me to look in areas outside education for signs that the transition into the computer age does not occur without dislocation and cost. I, therefore, have a new perspective on events I read about in newspapers and that I experience at home. Here are a few of these events.
Item: I read in the Wall Street Journal a column (Zachary, 1991) that draws on studies undertaken by Catherine Morrison, Ernst Berndt, and Gary Loveman, at Tufts, MIT, and Harvard, respectively. The studies converge on a vexing conclusion: that computers have proved an unprofitable investment for American businesses. Catherine Morrison (1991) finds that in the primary metals industry in the mid 1980s, investment in office and information technology "seems to have been less than optimal in terms of cost savings in this industry" (p. 29). In a study of U.S. manufacturing industries, Berndt and Morrison (1991) find that "there appears to have been an over-investment in O capital in 1986 in the sense that marginal benefits are less than marginal costs" (p. 18). Loveman (1990) finds that "investments in IT were not optimal, and indeed, marginal dollars would have been better spent on other categories of capital, labor, etc." (p. 24). Is this overinvestment in information technology a factor in our present recession? It is tempting to think so.
Though the investment in computers has proved not profitable, it has also often proved necessary. Although "organizations often incur a heavy burden when adjusting to new computer equipment" (Zachary, 1991), it is clear, too, that often computers are necessary if one is to conduct business at all. As Gary Loveman puts it, "Computers raise the ante for playing in a market" (see Zachary, 1991). Behind the card-playing metaphor lurks an awful truth: If you want to play, you have to pay.
Item: In an article in the New York Times titled "Inside the Nation's Best-Run S & L," we learn how the Golden West Financial Corporation decided some time ago not to invest heavily in computer-assisted check processing and computer-run, automated teller machines. The bank is tremendously profitable, unlike most savings banks these days. Because the bank did not invest in expensive computer equipment, it had low overhead costs; because its overhead was low, it did not have to generate a high return on its investments, which meant that the bank did not have to go after high-risk loans. Holding back seems to have been, at least for the short term, the appropriate strategy.
Item: Our daughter's roommate, Becca, falls while ice-skating and gets a nasty bump on her head. She goes to the local emergency room where she has not one, but two CAT scans--computerized axial tomography. I unpack the acronym to underscore the point: that CAT scans are made possible by computer technology. Had Becca had a worse bump, we can imagine that she would have had a trip to the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine--much, much more expensive. Both the CAT scan and the MRI technologies depend upon computers to collect and process the tremendous amount of information collected in the scanning. Through computers, this information is translated into a picture readable by the doctor.
In Becca's case, the CAT scans fortunately found nothing. Becca went home with a bump on her head and a bill, which the insurance company will pay, of $1,400. Each CAT scan cost $475. In the good old days, the family doctor would have prescribed a poultice with the same effect. Today, thanks to the computer, we have access to sophisticated diagnostic procedures. These procedures save lives and cost money. Becca's experience, extrapolated into the population of America, accounts for the fact that, as newspapers now tell us daily, health care costs are "out of control." In the field of medicine, as in the world of business, the ante is up: If you want to play, you have to pay.
Although the data from American manufacturing is interesting and supports my thesis, I choose banking and medicine as my principal analogues because, like education, they are service industries--practically utilities--offering services to which we consider ourselves entitled. In neither banking nor medicine would we dream of going back to the old ways. Despite the temporary success of the Golden West Financial Corporation, can we really imagine the banking industry without computers? Can we imagine an industry without machines that read our credit cards at the point of purchase, correlate what they find there with what they find in a data bank, and tell the merchant whether our account will support this last holiday purchase or an MLA hotel reservation? The credit card makes debt easy to acquire. Somehow we have to develop monetary and ethical systems to cope with the ease with which we can now acquire debt. Further, we need to develop new ways of regulating bankers' behavior. In the 1950s, the small-town banker, the pillar of the community, could not loot that community. The small-town banker was subject to constraints, regulatory forces that became, over the years, tacit. Today's banker, with access to a torrent of fiscal information that is national and international, whose actions affect invisible, distant people, and whose location is most importantly somewhere in cyberspace, needs to feel no responsibility to a particular community. Hence the S & L scandals. Hence the BCCI scam. Change has occurred; banking is not the same; and we're in trouble. We will be in trouble until existing systems change and adapt.
In the field of medicine, who would tell Becca not to have CAT scans? Who would tell the parents or doctors of the prematurely born child to let the child die, despite the cost of keeping such a child alive ($2,000/day x 100 days = a $200,000 baby)? Who will tell me that I should not have life-sustaining, or even life-enhancing, procedures? We do not have new medical ethics in place to cope with the new situation. As a result, health-care costs, now 12% of the GNP, will rise to 30% of the GNP by the year 2000, according to respected estimates. Again, we're in trouble, and we will be in trouble until we have made deep and radical changes in the system--call it culture--that includes health-care delivery in America. A sign that these changes are almost imperceptibly underway is the occasional use of the term "healthspan" instead of "lifespan" in the popular press (Can you live longer?, p. 15).
So, with all this in my mind, how should I advise the English faculty in the matter of the installation of computer-equipped classrooms? Should I tell them to invest in computer-equipped classrooms? Or should I tell them to continue on in the old ways? What I say depends, of course, upon the degree of support for, and interest in, the project. But if there is sufficient interest, and if there is at least the promise of support, I will advise the English department to install computer-equipped classrooms for its writing classes. I will do so because I can't imagine withholding the online writing experience from students who will be writing online for most of their lives, both at home and at the workplace. I will also warn the faculty, however, that there will be high and unavoidable costs associated with this move. There will be, first, the cost of buying, installing, and maintaining the system. The resources will have to come from somewhere--the library? Or perhaps from the fund for hiring part-time lecturers? If so, fewer books--or fewer teachers. Or perhaps we'll do what we've done in banking and medicine: pass the costs on to the consumers and increase tuition, which will mean that literacy, like medicine and banking, will be only for those who can afford it.
In addition to the costs of equipment, there will be the cost of faculty and staff time spent learning and developing the system. This time, spent doing something other than teaching writing, is related to what Michael Scriven (1987) has termed "opportunity costs" (p. 20) that need to be included on the debit side of any calculation of a program's value. In working with our own computer-equipped classrooms at the University of Massachusetts, we've invested a tremendous amount of time writing batch files to make things happen easily, developing file-naming conventions to make housekeeping possible, and developing the kinds of writing tasks that can be performed by groups working online. We've spent time as well in attempts to make our system do things that teachers quite legitimately want it to do for them. Has this expenditure of time been cost effective?
Item: At our university we were told by our computer center that we should upgrade our writing classrooms from WORD 4.0 to WORD 5.0 because the university had upgraded its public-access labs. We wanted to do this because we wanted to be compatible with the university's other facilities, and WORD 5.0 would make it easier for our students to navigate the subdirectory structure of the network. So we put WORD 5.0 on the system and found that, on our monitors, any text that was italicized or underlined flashed on and off--turning bibliographies into visual experiences that looked like pinball machines. After weeks of fiddling with the system and extensive correspondence with Microsoft Corporation, we were told that WORD 5.0 "did not support" the video cards in our 55 workstations. So that was that.
There were five of us involved in this project in one way or another: a consultant from Microsoft, a consultant from the vendor who sold us the workstations, the deputy director of our Writing Program, a staff member from our computing center, and I. Now, what if we had all spent that time, intelligence, and effort working directly with a group of young writers--perhaps from nearby Holyoke or Springfield--in a bridge program designed to bring new people into our university system? Because we are writing teachers, and because our goal is to help people become better writers, that would have been a more productive use of our time.
The institutional costs of installing and maintaining a computer-based writing program can be readily calculated and documented--though they are often covered by our enthusiasm, at least in the early stages of program development. But more important than these costs are costs that are less obvious, less visible: the price paid by students and teachers who are asked to master and make use of the new technology. Writing online is different from writing offline. Much of our old teacher wisdom does not apply in this new dispensation. And teacher-change, as Judith Langer and Arthur Applebee (1987) and Wendy Bishop (1990) have amply demonstrated, does not come easy.
Elizabeth Klem and I have studied teachers as they learned to work in our computer classrooms. One of these studies was published in Computers and Composition (1992), and another is now being revised for publication elsewhere. What we've seen is teachers teaching in a strange land and not altogether happily. The teachers are often uncomfortable in their new teaching environments. I need to say that our teachers are teaching assistants, not full-fledged faculty--but I need to say also that literacy teaching in colleges and universities is done chiefly by such teachers--marginalized, part-time lecturers or graduate students. These teachers are young, inexperienced, and therefore both vulnerable and potentially flexible. Were we to work with tenured faculty, we might find not discomfort but outright resistance: The refusal by the powerful to pay the costs of change.
Our teachers, perhaps in part because of the power relations noted above, were enthusiastic and positive about their work in the computer classrooms. They were also, from our perspective, not making the fullest use of the computer-equipped classrooms. First we will discuss their enthusiasm.
At the end of the semester, when we asked the teachers whether they, if placed in charge of the university's academic programs, would continue our experiment, they said that we should continue and expand. One teacher said, "In an ideal university, every student would have a computer." At a later interview he said, "I think the computer kind of empowers them. . . it's their little machine, and it's their desk, and there's something about the whole syntax of delete a document and create a document, move text." Another teacher saw the computers as a "magical presence." She said they gave her students a sense of "independence" and a "feeling of success." She also said that "Everyone has a better working attitude, or a more self-sufficient attitude, or something." Yes, the Writing Program should equip all its classrooms with computers. "I'd go for pie in the sky."
But even as the teachers were singing the praises of the computer-equipped writing classrooms, they were working in ways that seemed to us to draw the students away from the new technology and the potential of the new medium. One teacher regularly ran full-class discussions, pulling the students away from the computers to discuss topics such as the homophobic reaction to AIDS and a local case in which a battered woman had shot and killed her abusive husband. Another established what Barker and Kemp (1990) have called a "proscenium classroom" (p. 10), despite the classroom's design, which made this extremely difficult to accomplish. She created a physical, offline teacher place to which students looked for authority.
Neither teacher made significant use of the networked computers as a means of connecting student writers. In retrospect, this was inevitable: At that time we did not have models for significant use of the network. Yet neither teacher encouraged students to play and experiment with the new medium. Indeed, students in these classrooms often, and perhaps most often, composed off-screen and brought their handwritten texts to class, copying them onto their screens. The computers were, it seems, fancy typewriters--not new literacy, but a means toward a clean, printed, old-style draft.
The causes of this behavior are quite clear, and they are inescapable,
unavoidable. No training program can cancel them.
The students in these classes, too, were dislocated by the change. Even if the teachers had been ready for the new classrooms, the University itself was not. Outside of their classes, the students found insufficient access to computers. The Writing Program provided computer access in nonclass hours, but those hours were at night, at times that might be inconvenient and might entail a long walk in the dark of a New England winter--on our campus as well as others, a dangerous undertaking. One of our teachers has recently studied her students' access to computers on our campus and has found that one student, a football player, must attend an all-night supervised study hall in a conventional classroom. He, therefore, can't write online.
The environment our student writers worked in--the University at large, including public-access computer labs, roommates' computers, and computers installed in the dormitories--included incompatible operating systems and incompatible word-processing programs. In our classes we were running Microsoft WORD on IBM-compatible computers. This meant that our students with Apples or Smith Coronas they'd brought with them could not use these machines or, if they did, had to retype their papers again and again--wasteful activity, if what we are teaching is writing. Those who were using WORDPERFECT, VOLKSWRITER, SAMNA, PFS-WRITE, WORDSTAR, or DISPLAY-WRITER, either had to learn WORD or had to translate their files before and after they worked in our classrooms--something that is possible but that takes time and involves the risk of losing data. We attribute some of the handwriting we saw in the computer-equipped classrooms to the inconvenient, difficult-to-negotiate writing environment that the students found outside of our computer-equipped classrooms. In the good old days, all you needed was a pen or pencil. Now, you need to find computers and printers that are compatible with your system or your teacher's. This situation is likely to persist for some time, for the dream of universal compatibility seems as distant in the world of computers as it is in the world of human relations.
Further, our student writers were facing what I'd characterize as a rhetorical problem. As computer-writers, they were ahead of much of the rest of the institution. If they chose to work in this new medium, screen-text, they knew that their readers--the professors for whom they were writing in courses other than ours--were requiring printed text. Somehow they had to write on the screen, all the while imagining their work being read on paper. It is perhaps for this reason that they printed out their work so often. It may be that negotiating this passage--between screen-author and print-reader--contributes to the difficulty writers report having as they read their own work on-screen.
We don't know whether the students we observed learned more or less than they would have from these same teachers situated in conventional classrooms. We don't know whether the teachers would have taught better or worse had they been teaching in conventional classrooms. What we think we saw was unproductive conflict among the teacher, the institution, and the new technology--and we think we saw students caught in this conflict in ways that did not foster their learning. Although we have no way of measuring this, it is at least possible that we have increased the cost of instruction without realizing a commensurate gain in productivity. If this is the case in our writing classrooms, then, as I've outlined above, we are in what seems to be good company: The introduction of computer technology in the fields of medicine, banking, and American industry generally seems to have had a similar result.
Charles Moran teaches English at the University
of Massachussetts in Amherst.
I would like to thank Eva Holt for alerting me to the works of
Catherine Morrison and Gary Loveman.
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Bishop, W. (1990). Something old, something new: College writing teachers and classroom change. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Can you live longer? (1991, January). Consumer Reports, 57(1), 7-15.
Davis, B. G., Scriven, M., & Thomas, S. (1987). The evaluation of composition instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hairston, M. (1982). The winds of change: Thomas Kuhn and the revolution in the teaching of writing. College Composition and Communication, 33, 76-88.
Hawisher, G. E., & Selfe, C. L. (1991). Introduction. In G. E. Hawisher and C. L. Selfe (Eds.), Evolving perspectives on computers and composition studies: Questions for the 1990s (pp. 1-4). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Inside the nation's best-run S & L. (1990, September 5). The New York Times, 3:6.
Klem, E. & Moran, C. (1992). Teachers in a strange LANd: Learning to teach in a networked writing classroom. Computers and Composition, 9(3), 5-22.
Langer, J. A., & Applebee, A. N. (1987). How writing shapes thinking: A study of teaching and learning. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Loveman, G. W. (1990, September). An assessment of the productivity impact of information technologies. Paper presented at Management in the 1990s. Cambridge, MA.
Morrison, C. J., & Berndt, E. R. (1991). Assessing the productivity of information technology equipment in U.S. manufacturing industries. (Working Paper No. 3582). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.
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