COMPUTERS and COMPOSITION 10(3), August 1993, pages 63-89

Networks and Project Work: Alternative Pedagogies for Writing with Computers

Bernard Susser

The association of networked computers with social constructionist theory and pedagogy has become a truism in the computers and writing literature (Eldred, 1989, 1991; Hawisher, 1992; Selfe, 1990a), and the large number of articles describing networked classrooms attests to their popularity. Barker and Kemp (1990) have formalized the relationship between networking and social construction in their "network theory," which states that the "essential activity in writing instruction is the textual transactions between [sic] students" (p. 15). They argue that networks facilitate these transactions to "encourage a sense of group knowledge" (p. 15), and conclude that network theory supports "social constructivist models that privilege a communal process of knowledge making . . . implemented through the computer-based collaborative approach" (p. 26). [1]

This network theory is welcome because it grounds the practice of our computer writing classrooms firmly in current writing theory. However, Barker and Kemp (1990) are "concerned with computers only as textcommunicating or text-sharing devices" (p. 17); this neglect of the social writing potential of stand-alone computers results in a privileging of technology over pedagogy. This paper argues for a broader network theory that recognizes a wider range of social writing with computers. There is no intent here to oppose the use of networks for teaching writing. My purpose is to suggest that writing teachers without access to networks may apply network theory and obtain most of the advantages of networked classrooms using alternative pedagogies such as project work.

This paper begins with a description of the three main uses of computers for writing as a social activity: networking, telecommunications, and project work. Because network theory emphasizes networking, I examine the advantages and disadvantages of teaching writing on a network. Finally, I argue that reports in the literature and the example of an English as a foreign language (EFL) writing class show that project work shares most of the advantages found for networking. My conclusion is that a networked classroom may be helpful but is not necessary for making meaning through collaboration, creating a discourse community, or communicating to a wider audience. This argument is not intended to convince teachers now using networks to abandon them, but to demonstrate that computers and writing is about instruction and not about technology.

Social Writing Pedagogy with Computers

Computers are used for teaching writing socially in three ways: synchronous, instructional, and asynchronous networking; telecommunications; and project work. These are summarized in Figure 1. The situation is complex because all technologies are available in many formats and can be combined variously in any given teaching situation. More important, one technology can be used pedagogically in many different ways (Bruce & Peyton, 1990, p. 172), or the classroom context can shape the way students use networks and the benefits they get from them (Palmquist, 1992). In Figure 1, the first point to note is that in hardware terms, computers are either networked or they are not, but in terms of use there are important distinctions among the different kinds of networking and between networking and telecommunications, as described below. The range, direction, and emphasis of these pedagogies have been characterized somewhat arbitrarily by their major orientation. For example, synchronous networking usually centers on a classroom, focuses inwardly on the class members, and emphasizes a collaborative approach. This description does not represent the whole of synchronous networking; it is an abstraction to assist comparison among the social writing pedagogies.


[Figure 1]

Figure 1. Social writing pedagogies with computers.



Synchronous conferencing is defined by Eldred (1991) as "conferencing between [sic] individuals all logged on at once" (p. 51). Terms used to describe synchronous conferencing include: ENFI (electronic networks for interaction [2] ); electronic discussion (Barker & Kemp, 1990, pp. 21-23); interchange (from the software Daedalus INTERCHANGE [3] ); CACD (computerassisted class discussion; Bump, 1990, p. 51); CSCW (computer-supported collaborative work; Easton, Easton, Flatley, & Penrose, 1990, p. 34); and GSS (Group Support Systems; Egbert & Jessup, 1991). Although these all refer to synchronous conferencing, there are important differences among the software packages used. Taylor (1992) argues that "document-sharing software" allows collaboration on a single document, and "electronic conferencing software" (such as REALTIME WRITER [4] and Daedalus INTERCHANGE) promotes collaborative learning rather than joint document production. Bump (1990) shows that REALTIME WRITER and Daedalus INTERCHANGE are both called ENFI but the former is designed for more teacher control than the latter. Further, there are important differences in the way teachers and students use any given system. To mention just two extremes, Thompson (1988a) finds that in ENFI, the "teacher gets most of the lines," although Kremers (1988) could leave things to the students and walk out of the classroom (p. 76). [5] Synchronous networking usually applies to a class meeting physically in one room, but there are cases of long-distance ENFI (e.g., Harris, 1992; Thompson & Simpson, n.d.).

Instructional networking is my term for a use of the networked classroom that is not covered by the synchronous or asynchronous labels. A typical example is Educational Online System (EOS). As described by Barrett and Paradis (1988), this is a "troping of the class as machine" (p. 164) that uses networked hardware and software to "support conventional classroom practices" (p. 160), in this case a "cycle of lecture, in-class exercise, review, and feedback" (p. 163).

There are four types of asynchronous networking. First, e-mail refers mainly to messages exchanged between individuals, either student-to-student or between teacher and student (e.g., Kinkead, 1987, 1988). Second, "computer conferencing" technology "permits messages to be addressed to individuals or to a conference, all of whose members can read and respond to the message" (Spitzer, 1989, p. 188; see Kowalski, 1989). Third, in "formal text" transactions (Barker & Kemp, 1990, pp. 17-18), students upload their drafts to the network for reading and comment by other students; this is often called file-sharing or the paperless classroom. Here, too, the same technology can be used in different ways; Skubikowski and Elder (1990) emphasize the "creation of a writing community" (p. 104), while Jennings (1990) argues that this technology "makes it easier to concentrate on coaching and practicing" (p. 47). Students may share drafts as they collaboratively author a single text. The fourth type is a simulated network using stand-alone computers, what Selfe (1990a) calls "computer-based networking strategies" (p. 197). Examples of these include: designating one disk (kept in the writing lab) as the class "bulletin board" (Thompson, 1990, p. 44); dedicating one computer as a mail server (Kemp, 1989; Milone, 1985, p. 36); sending disks through the mail (Marx, 1990; Ubbelohde, 1991); passing disks and copying files onto hard drives (Hesse, 1992, p. 90); or having students swap computers (Yoshida, 1990).


Telecommunications has two main instructional uses. One use is distance learning by computer-mediated communication (CMC) using wide- area networks (WANs), either as an "additional medium of communication" within a multimedia distance learning model, or as a "virtual classroom" [6] (Mason & Kaye, 1989, p. 1). [7] Here the objectives may be to include within a classroom community persons who cannot be physically present, or to offer a course to more students. Like asynchronous networking, its movement is centripetal, drawing people into the community. In the second category, students in class write on stand-alone computers or on a network; they may or may not have direct access to the modem or mainframe that links their classroom to the outside world. The following discussion refers to this second category of telecommunications, which concentrates on centrifugal applications that communicate with wider audiences rather than on networking among students in the same class. [8]

Composition and language arts teachers use telecommunications in various ways, but the assumption is usually that they are communicating with distant classrooms. The pen pal activity is a common way to get students started with telecommunications (Roberts, Blakeslee, Brown, & Lenk, 1990, pp. 82-85), and is particularly favored for second or foreign language instruction (e.g., Robb, 1992). The major benefit is that students are writing for a real audience, and so they revise more (Daiute, 1985b, pp. 175-176). Another advantage is that an "ongoing personal exchange with writing partners their own age" motivates students to further reading and writing (Schwartz, 1990, p. 21). On the other hand, "simply asking students to write to one another is an extremely limited use of a new powerful educational tool" (Riel, 1987, p. 30; see also Miyake, 1988; Rogers, Andres, Jacks, & Clausen, 1990, p. 26; Upitis, 1990; Wright, 1991, p. 101). Further, letter writing itself does "little to encourage students to revise and edit their own work" (Levin, Riel, Rowe, & Boruta, 1985, p. 166). Finally, this activity is often difficult to manage satisfactorily (Knapp, 1986, p. 38; Levin, Rogers, Waugh, & Smith, 1989, pp. 17-18; Riel & Levin, 1990, pp. 158-161).

Compared with pen pals, cross-age peer tutoring via modem provides a more structured learning experience. As university education majors communicate with or tutor elementary and secondary students, the former gain teaching experience and the latter can learn from their older peers without concern for the teacher's authority (Dobler, 1992; Hadaway, 1992; Payne, 1987; Peyton, 1989). In some cases, outside experts advise the students; in one example, a professional poet was in "electronic residence" to respond to the students' writing (Owen, 1990). Although not impossible without computers, telecommunications makes the logistics of these exchanges more manageable.

The sister class concept adds cultural understanding to meaningful communication. In a UK/USA communications project, the "differences in their lifestyles, interests and language fascinated the children. The Cambridge England kids didn't know that there was a Cambridge in Massachusetts, and they couldn't tell the sex of their new pen pals from their names or their interests!" (NATE, 1990, pp. 5.2-5.3; for other projects see Beazley, 1988, 1989; Schwartz, 1990; Soh & Soon, 1991). The De Orilla a Orilla network emphasizes bilingual education (Cummins & Sayers, 1990; Sayers, 1988, 1989; Sayers & Brown, 1987). Drawing on Bakhtin and Vygotsky, Cummins and Sayers (1990) argue that the contact with other cultures made available by telecommunications provides the impetus for "cognitive changes to take place" (p. 24; see also Cummins, 1988; Riel, 1985).

Telecommunications activities have included newspaper writing, science and social science projects, simulations on international politics, electronic debates, and so on (Clark, 1992; Levin & Cohen, 1985; Levin, Riel, Miyake, & Cohen, 1987; Levin, Riel, Rowe, & Boruta, 1985; Levin, Rogers, Waugh, & Smith, 1989). [9] However, the "mere presence of a computer network does not create an educational environment" (Cohen & Miyake, 1986, p. 268); only carefully planned activities will result in genuine learning. The benefit of telecommunication projects such as these is that students are brought together into a community: "Knowledge is constructed and owned as a consequence of interaction with the computer, teacher, and classmates" (Riel, 1992, p. 204).

Several studies show that participation in telecommunications activities improves students' writing ability (Riel, 1991-92; see also Duin, 1990; Riel & Levin, 1990, p. 162). Cohen and Riel (1989) suggest that many telecommunications activities are "functional learning environments," that is, "focused contexts in which novices learn skills by participating in similar activities as experts while receiving the necessary support to make their participation successful" (p. 144). The collaboration and writing for a distant audience that these projects entail provide the motivation for rewriting and editing (see also Riel, 1985). Miyake (1989b) analyzed the contents of the messages exchanged during a project on an international network and found that the "diversity of the participants were [sic] actually the key to the success of this type of project" (p. 3); further, she argues that the process of solving problems in this type of project enriches students' cognitive problem-solving skills (Miyake, 1989a), which results in better writing.

Project Work

The term project work usually is associated with elementary education, but its basic principles apply to all levels; it is an approach that promotes learners' "intellectual development by engaging their minds" (Katz & Chard, 1989, p. 2) through "an in-depth study of a particular topic" (p. 2). Project work for writing on the secondary or college level includes group work, collaboration, peer review, and especially producing some kind of finished product--a report, an anthology, a newspaper, and so forth--often for an audience beyond the classroom. Projects should be assignments that students "cannot accomplish independently but can, with help from their friends, complete successfully" (Gere, 1987, p. 109). Computer programs, particularly word-processing, desktop publishing, and telecommunications programs, play an important role in facilitating project work, but the "most successful projects have been those which have a life of their own away from the computer" (Sayers & Brown, 1987, p. 24).

The most popular project for writing classes is publishing a newspaper, because a "newspaper has a real purpose and audience . . . it is a team effort . . . [it creates] a sense of writing as a discovery, building, and refining process" (Daiute, 1985b, p. 177; see also Fluitt-Dupuy, 1989; Harris, Arntsen, Thurman, & Merrill, 1987; Kraft, Bycina, & Lee, 1992; Mehan et al., 1986, pp. 63-73; Milone, 1985, pp. 38-39). A variation of the newspaper theme is the autobiographical newspaper (Morics, 1991; Ross, 1991). Another common project is the class anthology. Although each section is authored individually, "students often collaborate, working with their peers to produce better writing" (Worman, 1991, p. 47). The anthology might be published in a magazine format (Doerfler, 1992). In many projects, students collaborate to write a single piece: an essay (O'Connor, 1989), a poem (Hamilton, 1991), a play (Daiute, 1985b, p. 178), even a novel (Knox-Quinn, 1989) or a textbook (Adams, 1992; Hochman, 1992). In business and technical writing classes, students use computers to collaborate on instruction manuals (Boiarsky, 1990, pp. 63-64; Kelly, 1987) or to write proposals and reports (Arms, 1984; Duin, 1990; Madigan, 1988). Other projects include simulations (Hyland, 1990, pp. 75-76), interactive fiction (Lebauer, 1990), and debate (Stephens, 1984).

Advantages of Writing with Networked Computers

The literature on networking describes its benefits in three areas: writing and language development, community building, and classroom management. Here I will describe the claims made by advocates of networked writing classrooms and then point out a few problems. [10]


The first argument for learning to write on networked computers is that networking enhances the students' understanding of writing as a social and collaborative act (Barker & Kemp, 1990; DiMatteo, 1990; Eldred, 1991, p. 48; Langston & Batson, 1990, pp. 151-152); it "encourages critical awareness about how communication, or miscommunication, occurs" (DiMatteo, 1991, p. 9). Further, the network helps develop a sense of audience and writing for an authentic purpose (Peyton, 1990, p. 17; Peyton & Batson, 1986, p. 6; Skubikowski & Elder, 1990, p. 93). A networked classroom generates more student-to-student transactions than the usual classroom (Barker & Kemp, 1990, p. 17), and there is maximum time on task (Egbert, Jessup, & Valacich, 1991, p. 22). The network provides a fluid medium for writing that helps students learn about revision (Skubikowski & Elder, 1990, p. 96) and may encourage revision (Gifford & Pattow, 1991).

Networked communication aids the transition from speaking to writing (DiMatteo, 1990, pp. 76-77; Fletcher, 1989, p. 59; Forman, 1987, p. 28; Peyton & Mackinson-Smyth, 1989, pp. 104-105; Thompson, 1988b, pp. 17-18). The network enhances language development or acquisition as learners get extensive, meaningful, and comprehensible exposure, immediate feedback, and language modeling (Peyton & Batson, 1986, p. 5; see also Batson & Peyton, 1986). Networks encourage self-assessment by showing students the effect their writing has on others (Newbold, 1990, pp. 19-20). Network use gives a greater variety of discourse in the classroom (Johnson, 1991, pp. 74-75); ESL students were found to use longer turns and "information-giving transactional language," suggesting that this "may encourage students to express more information than they would in class activities . . ." (Esling, 1991, p. 127). Further, CACD encourages international students to overcome their "previous cultural training which rewards silence" and participate in class more actively (Markley, 1992, p. 8). Finally, networking and the use of "groupware" reflects the way writing is done in the real world (e.g., Batson, 1989a, pp. 2-4).


Networked classrooms help to create a community of writers. "The computer, far from making the class more impersonal, fostered a strikingly close community in one of the nation's largest universities" (Schriner & Rice, 1989, p. 476; see also Skubikowski & Elder, 1990, p. 93). Networks allow participation by people who live in remote locations or who are handicapped (Selfe, 1990a, p. 193; 1990b, p. 123). Networks create an open and egalitarian classroom: "Networking's main advantage is the egalitarian quality of the participants' discourse, the dissolving of certain inequities--produced by gender, class, ethnicity, and personality differences--that exist in normal classroom discussions" (Eldred, 1991, p. 53; see also Faigley, 1990, pp. 306ff.; Jennings, 1990, pp. 44-45; Selfe, 1990b, pp. 124ff.). Further, networks help to empower students and weaken the "proscenium classroom," reducing the teacher's authority and role as information provider (Barker & Kemp, 1990, p. 16; Cooper & Selfe, 1990, p. 851; DiMatteo, 1990, p. 76; Jennings, 1990, pp. 44-45; Kremers, 1990; Selfe, 1990b, p. 125; Skubikowski & Elder, 1990, p. 103).


A final advantage of networked classrooms is classroom management. Peer-critiquing and collaboration were common before classrooms had computers, but networks make these activities much more convenient for teachers and for students (Moran, 1991a, pp. 45-46). Students can take the class discussion home on a disk or a print-out, and the teacher has the same data to aid in planning future lessons or to identify students who need help.


Not all reports on networks are favorable. [11] Some research shows that network writers "become more self-absorbed, producing more writer-based prose" (Eldred, 1991, p. 55), and online writing is a "set of asocial monologues" (Moran, 1991b, p. 51). Looking at transcripts of peer-group conversations, Marx (1990) finds that this type of writing "seems to provide little practice for sustained, formal written communication" (p. 25). In "network theory," the "most important skill in good writing is the ability to read student text perspicaciously" (Baker & Kemp, 1990, pp. 23-24), but Moran (1991b) notes that students are not reading much of what is written on the network. One reason for this is that some writers suffer information overload from the networking experience and cannot deal with the huge amount of text they accumulate (Spitzer, 1986, p. 20; Thompson, 1990, p. 50). Another reason is that students do not like to use computers for peer editing (Kowalski, 1990). Finally, the claim that writing in networked classrooms prepares students for real-world writing remains unproven; recent research suggests that most professional writing is collaborative only in a limited sense (e.g., Couture & Rymer, 1989; Elwart-Keys & Horton, 1990, p. 43; Smit, 1989, pp. 50-52).

The argument that networks help students' language development assumes that there is a close relationship between spoken and written language. This position has support from some linguists, but others argue not only that "writing and speaking are very different activities, but also that the kinds of language which result from these activities are very different too" (Chafe & Danielewicz, 1987, p. 112; see also Nystrand, 1987, p. 211). Studies analyzing the product of network communication show that it is a "hybrid language variety, displaying characteristics of both oral and written language" (Ferrara, Brunner, & Whittemore, 1991, p. 10; see also Murray, 1985, 1991). It must be admitted that the systems observed in these studies are so primitive that this research may not tell us anything about networking with more recent software. However, Thompson (1988b) warns that "merely writing down speech might ultimately become a hindrance rather than a help to developing writers" (p. 24). [12]

One problem specific to synchronous networking is the "strangeness" of an activity that requires a roomful of people to type to each other rather than hold a discussion ("strange" is Batson's [1992] word, p. 1). Of course, ENFI originally was designed for hearing impaired students, and it was indeed a stroke of genius on the part of Batson and his colleagues at Gallaudet University to devise this use of computers to allow deaf students to carry on classroom discussions. However, with students who can speak and hear, such online class discussion ignores the axiom that "writers, unlike speakers, do not produce language in the company of a language receiver" (Nystrand, 1987, p. 198) and "violates many deeply ingrained cultural assumptions we make about communication" (Feenberg, 1987, p. 173). Even Thompson, a prolific exponent of ENFI's virtues, says that "artificial constraints on the practical use of spoken language do not inspire students to put much effort into message writing when it seems more reasonable to speak aloud" (Thompson & Orwant, n.d., p. 12). As a result, students using networks sometimes complain of the slow pace and lack of coherence of the networked discussion (Bump, 1990, p. 61).

The networked classroom can help to build an open, egalitarian community of writers, but not always. One of the few studies to present hard data shows a highly unequal pattern of participation, with the teacher dominant and some students much more active than others (Peyton, 1990, p. 23; see also Hartman et al., 1991). Langston and Batson (1990) have one study showing that online class members participated equally, but they refer to other studies that "both contradicted and supported this finding" (p. 146). Selfe and Meyer (1991) list the claims for the egalitarianism of conferences but point out that there is "little objective evidence for them" (p. 164). Many reports point out that "social inequities still exist" (Eldred, 1991, p. 54), that often the "teacher gets most of the lines" (Thompson, 1988a; 1988b, p. 24; see also Duin, 1991, p. 140), and that some students can dominate the discussion because of personality traits (Hiltz, 1990a, p. 62), writing and thinking ability (Spitzer, 1986, p. 20), or even typing skills (Murray, 1991, pp. 45-46).

Finally, Hawisher and Selfe (1991) have reminded us of Foucault's point that a technology cannot guarantee any particular behavior "simply by its nature" (p. 60). Networked classrooms can support pedagogies that eliminate the proscenium classroom and empower students, but for some teachers the "major advantage of having students work on a network is that the teacher has the opportunity to intervene directly during the writing process" (Spitzer, 1990, p. 62). [13] Teachers not trained for or not sympathetic to networking pedagogy may ignore or subvert the technology's potential (e.g., Klem & Moran, 1992).

Social Writing with Stand-alone Computers

Writing on stand-alone computers can be a social activity; as Sudol (1985) says, when writers work "in a room full of computers, rather than solitary confinement, they form a community in which their work becomes a public act" (p. 33l). Researchers have found that "classrooms with computers are buzzing with communication" (Daiute, 1985a, p. 41; see also Simpson, 1986). Computer labs, whether networked or not, weaken the teacher's authority (e.g., Cyganowski, 1990, p. 70). The literature on writing projects cited above is filled with examples of students working on independent computers who could collaborate, form a community of writers, and communicate with a wider audience. (In many projects described in the telecommunications section, students worked on stand-alones; only the teacher had access to the network.) These reports show that through their engagement with projects such as class newspapers, students gained the same benefits claimed for networks: They improved their writing and formed writing communities. Networks are probably superior for class management, but many teachers find the advantages of face-to-face communication more important.

The following example confirms these results. In this case, Japanese learners of English translated works of their choice from Japanese into English. It might be objected that an EFL situation is not a relevant example. However, computers are used widely for ESL and EFL writing instruction (e.g., Susser, 1990), ENFI was designed originally to teach hearing-impaired students written English as their second language (Batson, 1988, p. 32), e-mail and telecommunications projects are used for language learning (e.g., Lunde, 1990; Sayers, 1989), and synchronous networking is being used for ESL (Markley, 1992) and FL (Beauvois, 1992; Kelm, 1992) instruction. Further, an EFL example is valuable just because this situation makes explicit the social constructionist view placing "language at the center of knowledge because it [i.e., language] constitutes the means by which ideas can be developed and explored" (Gere, 1987, p. 73; see also Bruffee, 1986, p. 778). If project work with stand-alone computers in an EFL class can affect the learners' writing ability, language development (acquisition), and sense of community, then it is likely to be at least as effective with students working in their native language.

The class was a second-year EFL writing course in a Japanese junior college, meeting once a week for 90 minutes in the computer lab. [14] The class was conducted as a workshop; while the students wrote, I helped with computer and writing problems during the first semester, and in the second semester I spent most of my time in writing conferences with individual students. Although connected by a LAN, the students' computers operated as stand-alones because of the software used; students could not communicate with each other over the LAN or send files to each other or to me. All file concatenation was done by carrying disks from one computer to another. There was one printer for every two computers, so even printing was done by a stand-alone rather than by network method.

The following description is based on my observations and students' weekly reports (reproduced as written except for spelling corrections and dated according to European style). Concerning writing and language development, the first point is that the students themselves made the decision to do translations, and then chose what to translate. This gave them control over the topic (Johnson, 1989, pp. 44-46). They developed a sense of the gap between the style of the original and what they could achieve in English: "One sentence is long and the expression is very unique" (YK, 91-11-14); "my translation was too simple and did not hold the original meaning or the author's intention" (NI, 91-11-14). They displayed a sense of audience: "When I chose this book (children's poems), I wondered if you could understand this. But as you seemed to be interested in this book, I was relieved" (AI, 91-12-9); "But, in English, the point that writer wrote unclear [in Japanese] must be translated to be clear" (YM, 91-12-19).

The translation task created a new situation when students brought their first (partial) drafts for my comments. EFL writing students usually act as if the teacher, especially a native speaker of English, has more authority over their English texts than even the authors. Now the person with the most authority was the author of the Japanese original, and the students found themselves in the unusual position of knowing more about it than the teacher did. When they were not sure of the original's meaning or how to translate something, they had to appeal to their peers for help.

The writing community formed slowly. First impressions of the class showed excitement at being able to use computers but dismay that the class would be "lonely": "I regret that we can't watch our friend's faces, and that we can't talk happily each other" (YK, 91-4-25); "Because of the tall computers I can't see my classmates apart from the one next to me" (NI, 91-4-25). The project helped to counteract these feelings: "I have a good feeling about the project" (YK, 91-6-29); students saw that the project was a means to work collaboratively: "I want to make a great project with my classmates. So we have to cooperate each other" (TH, 91-6-20); "I want to translate one book by all classmates" (SM, 91-6-20). To carry out necessary tasks, the students overcame the physical obstacles of the computer lab to form groups and engage in intense discussions: "I was talking to the others about the project and then the time was over" (NI, 91-6-6); "So I couldn't do classwork very much that time, but I was interesting talking a class project with other people" (KK, 91-6-20). The community resulting from these discussions was reinforced as they consulted each other on problems of meaning as well as mechanics, such as standardizing the paragraphing and translating terms consistently.

Concerning management, they all agreed that the computer was a great help: "It is difficult for me to translate it. So I typed or erased a sentence again and again. . . . At that time I think it is convenient to use computer" (NM, 91-11-14); "Once they have their translations done, it is easy to make changes" (NI, 92-12-19). No one complained about the inconvenience of trading disks and making many printouts, but this may have been more their ignorance of what a LAN could do rather than their satisfaction with the status quo. On this point I admit that a file server would have been handy. [15]

Project work offers most of the advantages that networked classrooms provide because the task conforms to theories emphasizing that the "use and learning of a second language are in large part social activities" (Johnson, 1991, p. 64); this resembles the process of language development described by Vygotsky (1978), who said that "learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers" (p. 90; see also Gere, 1987, pp. 81ff.; Moll, 1989, pp. 56ff.). In the foreign language classroom, too, "no student is wholly ignorant and inexperienced" (Bruffee, 1984, p. 644); there is usually a wide range of English-language abilities in any given class, so there is much opportunity for mutual help. Project-based learning gives coherence to task-based curricula, a major element of contemporary language instruction (Legutke & Thomas, 1991). Finally, the project goal was to produce a publication that might be read by a wider audience and would serve as a keepsake of this experience. This meets Vygotsky's criterion that "writing should be incorporated into a task that is necessary and relevant for life" (1978, p. 118).

This example, and the literature cited above, show that the major benefits of networked writing classrooms can appear in classrooms that do not use network hardware but do emphasize social constructionist pedagogy. Project work using computers can help students develop an understanding of writing as a social activity and form a writing community, although LANs are useful for file management and WANs are essential for telecommunications projects. This paper is not directed against networks or any other computer writing technology; it has attempted to expand the range of network theory by proposing project work as an alternative to the networked classroom, emphasizing pedagogy over technology.


This paper is a revision of my presentation "Building Community through Project Work in the EFL Computer Writing Classroom" at the Eighth Conference on Computers and Writing, Indianapolis, IN, May 1-3, 1992. I would like to thank the editors of Computers and Composition and two anonymous reviewers whose penetrating comments were of great help in preparing this essay.

Bernard Susser teaches in the English Department at Doshisha Women's Junior College, Kyoto, Japan.


  1. For other typologies of networking and telecommunications, see, for example, Barker and Kemp (1990, pp. 17ff.), Easton, Easton, Flatley, and Penrose (1990, pp. 34ff.), Eldred (1991, pp. 49ff.), Ferrara, Brunner, and Whittemore (1991, pp. 13-14), Forman (1991, p. 79), Murray (1988a, pp. 5-6, 1988b, pp. 353-354), Rice (1987, p. 69) and Spitzer (1990, pp. 59-62).

  2. Copyright by Gallaudet University.

  3. The Daedalus Group.

  4. RealTime Learning Systems.

  5. Descriptions of synchronous networking can be found in Biel (1989), Egbert, Jessup, and Valacich (1991), Faigley (1990), Markley (1992), Moran (1991a), Sirc (1988, 1989, pp. 202-203), and Thompson (1987).

  6. Trademarked by the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

  7. For examples see Hiltz (1986, 1990a, 1990b), Kremers (1992), Kremers and Haile (1986-87), Phillips and Santoro (1989), and Quigley (1992).

  8. On telecommunications, see Kurshan (1990a, 1990b), Mulligan and Gore (1989), O'Shea, Kimmel, and Novemsky (1990), Roberts, Blakeslee, Brown, and Lenk (1990), Schrum (1989), and Weintraub (1988).

  9. Many of these projects are facilitated by educational networks such as BreadNet (Holvig, 1989; Wright, 1991), Computer Pals Across the World Project (Beazley, 1988, 1989), (Pinney, 1992), and the Long Distance Learning Network (Golub, 1991; Lake, 1988-89; Riel, 1992; Riel & Levin, 1990, pp. 166-168).

  10. Hawisher's (1992) study of networking gives an excellent survey of advantages and disadvantages; see also Duin (1991, pp. 138-144).

  11. This section covers problems of pedagogy. Other problems of networked classrooms include their expense, the increased danger of system failures that discourage students (Skubikowski & Elder, 1990, pp. 103-104; Troll, 1987, p. 29), and the need for technical support and much staff training time (Klem & Moran, 1991, pp. 141-143).

  12. Research results on this are contradictory. Esling (1991) has shown that "communicating via network exchanges introduces certain constraints on discourse. . . . Even 'real-time' networking is constrained by principles of transactional discourse because of the time delay incurred as the message is written to the screen" (p. 124). Heyman (1990), on the other hand, found that there are features of computer conferencing that "serve to make explicit what in normal face-to-face talk is often only implicit" (p. 221) and consequently "increase the chances for successful and meaningful talk" (p. 222).

  13. Bump (1990) points out that the differences between Daedalus INTERCHANGE and REALTIME WRITER have influenced the research on synchronous classrooms: REALTIME WRITER requires extra hardware and "allows the teacher to control the screens and hence the discussion in the classroom" (p. 53); he cites several proponents of the REALTIME WRITER-type network who stress teacher intervention and control (p. 63, n. 3), and argues that Daedalus INTERCHANGE lacks such hardware and "thus promotes more power sharing" (p. 53). The use of video switching systems by teachers, often called "snooping" by its opponents, is praised by Batson (1989b, pp. 249ff.) and Langston and Batson (1990, p. 143) and criticized by Handa (1990, p. 173), Janangelo (1991, pp. 51-53), Kaplan (1991, p. 33), and Moran (1990, p. 67).

  14. For details of this class and the equipment used, see Susser (1990) and Susser, Edasawa, Sugino, & Teele (1992).

  15. Even a "minimalist" approach to computer writing classrooms considers that a file server is "essential" (Schroeder & Boe, 1990, p. 44).


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