9(2), April 1993, pages 107-112

Electronic Quills:
A Situated Evaluation of Using Computers for Writing Classrooms.

Bruce, B. C., & Rubin, A. (1993).
Technology in education series.
Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Sibylle Gruber

"Quill is a computer program. . . . Quill can send messages to people, couples, groups, and companies. Quill is a disk used for all kinds of things" (p. 98). This enthusiastic report on a computer program is taken from an article in the 5th Grade DIRTY News, a newsletter created with a software system developed by Bertram C. Bruce and Andee Rubin and explained in Electronic Quills: A Situated Evaluation of Using Computers for Writing Classrooms. As Bruce and Rubin explain, QUILL was "designed to help in the creation of functional learning environments that involved extensive writing and reading" (p. 29). For these purposes, the authors developed several programs that help in the writing process: WRITER'S ASSISTANT, a word-processing program; PLANNER, a program to help organize ideas; LIBRARY, which made students' writing accessible to other students; and MAILBAG, an electronic mail system. Electronic Quills is more than an explanation of the software. The authors provide insight into the social and cultural contexts of QUILL; they point out reasons for using QUILL in the classroom; and they present a situated evaluation of the program.

The research on QUILL's implications for teaching reading and writing in Grades 3 through 5 was conducted throughout the United States, including Alaska. Bruce and Rubin point out that the findings from the Alaskan studies were especially helpful because teachers were already acquainted with process writing and, for the most part, had some computer equipment in their schools when the program was implemented in 1983. The authors also explain that the Alaskan school system, with its diverse student body, use of technology in schools, financial problems, and its move toward local control, can be seen as a model for the rest of the United States.

The authors detail what the reader needs to know about the languages and literacy skills of Alaskans, the changes that the state experienced because of the amounts of oil found in 1968, the technological advances such as audio conferences necessitated by large distances between communities, and, of course, the educational system of Alaska. One of the main arguments of the text is that information on the program itself would tell just half the story; the people who use the program and contribute to its success or failure, and the social, political, and cultural situation in the community need be taken into consideration.

In addition to explaining QUILL in relation to what Bruce and Rubin call the "Alaskan context," they elaborate on the theoretical ideas that prompted the development of QUILL. They emphasize literacy, culture, society, and learning, and explain QUILL in the context of these terms. They point out that QUILL was designed to support literacy development and to help students maintain their own culture while becoming successful members of mainstream society. It is interesting that Bruce and Rubin suggest that different cultural groups, although acknowledged, will need to make certain justifications in their value systems in order to survive in today's world. The authors' stand on this issue will spark some controversy among those who are unwilling to admit that success is dependent on acculturation more than on individualism. However, Bruce and Rubin are in accordance with Knoblauch (1990) when they argue for the necessity of a "universal literacy" (p. 12). To arrive at this stage of "universal literacy" without destroying cultural diversity, Bruce and Rubin suggest a writing environment that supports collaboration and provides meaningful goals and real audiences. This kind of environment, they explain, emphasizes the relationship between community, communication, and education, and thus leads to a functional learning environment.

Bruce and Rubin see QUILL as an instrument that fosters a functional learning environment (a term also used by D. Newman, 1987) "in which activities seen from the learner's point of view lead to goals beyond learning for its own sake" (p. 16). The authors envision their software as providing a tool to encourage planning, critical thinking, reading and writing skills, sharing of ideas, global revisions, and meaningful communication. PLANNER, LIBRARY, and MAILBAG were created to provide the tools for achieving functional learning that moves beyond a school purpose toward a stated (or real) purpose.

Before examining QUILL in the writing classroom, Bruce and Rubin present an "idealization" of the program, which explains in detail what the QUILL software was intended to achieve. During this part of the project, the authors do not include the context in which QUILL was used but only concentrate on an ideal setting for their software. Implemented in a real environment, QUILL was used by teachers and students for their own particular needs and purposes. It is easy to see how the actual use of QUILL for individual needs strengthens the authors' insistence on real purposes instead of school purposes. Only if the program is flexible and can be adapted to the specific circumstances--such as a diverse student body, different age groups in one classroom, and long distances between schools--can "real" learning, or functional learning, take place. The best technological equipment would fail if the software were inflexible and restricted to function in an "ideal classroom." If the software did not allow for individualized uses of PLANNER, LIBRARY, or MAILBAG, the students in Alaska could not have created the newsletters nor could they have written any of the stories that had meaning to them and connected them with their community.

That QUILL is successful in providing real purposes can be seen when looking at the uses of MAILBAG. Students adopted this tool for their own needs and communicated to real and sometimes distant audiences as the following message from two eighth-grade girls shows: "This note is to all you good looking guys out there in the world. . . . We have a very short supply of foxy dudes here. So if you are a total fine babe PLEASE I repeat PLEASE write us!!!" (p. 90). This, of course, is not the only use that was made of MAILBAG. Bruce and Rubin provide a number of other examples to suggest that MAILBAG addresses a real purpose and real audiences. Newsletters produced in the writing classrooms were distributed to the whole community and fulfilled the purpose of either keeping people up to date on school or social events or providing a historical account of the community. In all these cases, QUILL contributed to the success of making writing accessible to people outside the classroom, to preserving the culture, and to helping integrate diverse cultural groups into the larger society.

Although QUILL made it easier to reach real audiences, the authors point out that their idealization of revision was not realized in the actual classroom environment. On the contrary, instead of an increase in meaning-centered revision, students were satisfied with copyediting, a phenomenon that Bruce and Rubin attribute partly to the preexisting ideas about revision and partly to students' restricted access to computers. The refusal of students to revise more meaningfully raises the question as to whether computers encourage global revision. Apparently, as Bruce's and Rubin's findings show, computers can facilitate revision, but it is the teacher who has to encourage the student to revise. It seems unlikely that students will understand the concept of global revision just because a computer makes it easier to delete, add, and rearrange whole passages without effort. Only after they have been introduced to meaningful revision can they be expected to use this skill in their writing. Here, the responsibility lies with the teachers; they have to address the importance of global revision over copyediting. Of course, this would mean changing not only students' attitudes toward writing but also those of parents and many teachers who still consider correctly spelled words and proper punctuation to be the most important features of a written text.

Bruce and Rubin touch on the teacher's responsibility when they look for reasons as to why QUILL failed to encourage meaningful revision. They conclude that it is not the computer program at fault but the attitudes of those involved in the writing process. As an example, they point to the successful implementation of revision in one classroom; they explain, however, that "it was not the arrival of the computer that increased the amount of revision that occurred, but the changed social context that resulted from the teacher's solution to classroom management issues that enhanced students' motivation and opportunity to revise" (p. 143). Implicit in this statement is Bruce's and Rubin's acknowledgment that computers alone cannot change the restricted writing classroom to a functional learning environment. It takes committed teachers, a change in classroom management, and a change in the attitudes of everybody involved in the writing process to arrive at a stage where learning is more than studying for tests and writing texts for school purposes only.

After explaining the idealization of QUILL and its realization in the classroom, Bruce and Rubin explain their reasons for using a situated evaluation of QUILL. They dismiss formative and summative evaluation because of their restrictive application. Instead, they endorse situated evaluation which, according to Bruce and Rubin, "examines the various realizations of an innovation in different settings. Its concern is with the characteristics of contexts that give rise to different realizations" (p. 204). This statement is in accord with the preceding chapters of Electronic Quills in which the authors have already provided readers with a detailed description of the "ideal" and "real" applications of QUILL. Their overarching argument is that the realizations of an innovation must be the essential components of any evaluation. In other words, it is crucial to take the social, political, and cultural needs of the user into consideration.

Bruce's and Rubin's chapter on situated evaluation can be considered the most important part of the book because it explains the authors' approach to computer-assisted writing instruction. However, they spend only 13 pages discussing the paradigm that they created for evaluating QUILL, whereas formative, summative, and alternative methods--which are discarded as too limited--take up most of the chapter. Although the information on alternative methods is interesting, Bruce and Rubin could go into more detail about the model they chose for evaluating QUILL Here, Bruce and Rubin could pull together all the information presented previously and thus explain the connections between the individual chapters and the importance of this information to the purpose of the book--namely to provide a situated evaluation of computers used in writing classrooms. Instead of making "Situated Evaluation" the highlight of the book, the authors relegate it to an inconspicuous position that fails to do justice to their research.

Apart from this shortcoming, Electronic Quills provides an excellent account of the uses of QUILL. It is also an exemplary effort by Bruce and Rubin to include the many different contributors who made the Alaskan QUILL project a success. The authors follow their own advice about the importance of collaboration and frequently quote the participants in the Alaskan project. The reader is thus permitted to catch a glimpse of the cultural, political, and social situation through the eyes of the original source. Furthermore, Bruce and Rubin provide extensive comments by individual teachers about the application of QUILL in the classroom. An interesting development described by the authors is the unforeseen use of the electronic networking system by other educators. Contributions ranged from personal to professional, and the participants expressed pleasure at being able to converse through e-mail. Carol, one of the participants in the Alaskan QUILL project, comments: "It's amazing how 'connected' I'm able to feel . . . and I really do believe that this same kind of 'connectedness' wouldn't occur if we were using phones or the mail system. Certainly there would be no way to share thoughts so readily with such an extended group . . ." (p. 176). And Mary Goniwiecha, an elementary school teacher in Fairbanks, points out: ". . . You bush teachers are so good about communicating with us that we city folk are put to shame" (p. 176). E-mail proved to be one of the main communication tools that allowed the participants to try out new ideas, make suggestions, and receive information. Although Bruce and Rubin did not plan on using the network for this purpose, it served to increase the sense of community and the dedication of the teachers who were involved with QUILL. It also supports the findings by Bruce and Rubin, Hawisher and Moran (1992), and Lepper and Gurtner (1989) that electronic networking is a collaborative effort in that "temporal and spatial boundaries of the conventional classroom" disappear (Hawisher & Moran, 1992, p. 9).

In Electronic Quills, Bruce and Rubin state that "our purpose is not to praise QUILL nor to find fault with its vision of educational change. Instead, it is to show that a detailed, self-critical appraisal of the evidence yields surprises and reveals a richness in what students and teachers do that belies both optimistic and pessimistic visions of technology in relation to educational change" (p. 1). Bruce and Rubin are true to their initial words. Electronic Quills is not a mere idealization of a software package but an account of its realizations--with all its benefits and problems. Their remarks might sound pessimistic to some, but their words have to be seen as a realistic assessment of the present situation. It is the responsibility of future researchers to follow Bruce's and Rubin's example and provide a realistic assessment of the significance of computers in the writing classroom. Additionally, further studies can expand on the evaluation of the research conducted and thus make even greater contributions to studies of electronic environments.

Sibylle Gruber teaches in the Department of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.


Hawisher, G. E., & Moran, G. (1992). Electronic mail and the writing instructor: A place in the curriculum. Unpublished Manuscript.

Knoblauch, C. H. (1990). Literacy and the politics of education. In A. Lunsford, H. Moglen, and J. Slevin (Eds), The right to literacy. (pp. 74-80). New York: MLA.

Lepper, M. R., & Gurtner, J. L. (1989). Children and computers: Approaching the twenty-first century. American Psychologist, 44, 170-178.

Newman, D. (1987). Functional environment from microcomputers in education. In R. D. Pea and K. Sheingold (Eds.), Mirrors of Mind: Theory, Research, and Development from Bankstreet Center for Children and Technology (pp. 57-66). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.