[conclusion of Farrell article at top of this page]
Indiana college faculty want to know whether computers aren't just going to cost a lot of money and then gather dust, another example of educational technology that failed. Amid some skepticism and cyberphobia, 75 faculty attended the COMPUTERS FOR COMPOSITION conference choosing from among nine sessions, three of which offered a hands-on computer experience.
Those who had never worked with a computer were fascinated by (and some converted to) the use of computers for writing. Since persuading faculty to use computers may be one of the most difficult problems facing a department seeking to introduce computers in composition, a first step could be to sit faculty down at keyboards with an easy-to-use word processor and let them write. The conversion is not guaranteed, but hands-on experience is by far the best introduction anyone can have. Reading all the articles in all the journals on the joys of computer composition cannot compare to the direct involvement with one machine.
Besides the hands-on experience, two questions dominated the conference: Can computers teach people how to write? and Are we just tying up expensive hardware for problems the pen can solve readily? Neither was answered, but at the end of the day, participants had a clearer idea of the ways in which computers can be used and a better understanding of the computer as another tool for helping students learn to write.
The session on planning the computer classroom revealed that budgets might well determine how computers are used in a composition program. For example, if only one computer and a monitor can be provided, the computer might be used as an electronic blackboard on which text is entered so that classes can work together for revision and editing. The instructor could use the computer to model writing strategies and individual students could use it for grammar review. Students would probably not be able to use the machine for complete writing assignments.
A somewhat larger budget might allow several computers in a lab where students could sign up to use machines, perhaps on a tutorial basis. Obvious uses here include grammar drill, help with editing,
and an aid to students with writing blocks. If an entire classroom can be equipped, then careful planning is called for since the dynamics of a classroom change when computers come in. In addition to a text on the large class monitor, each student might have the text on-screen, and work independently to revise or edit, sharing the results via the classroom monitor. In addition, students could work in groups or alone, using the classroom as a writing room where peers and teacher are available for advice or audience reaction.
Some classroom layouts are more likely to promote interaction than others. Careful thought must be given to the activities desirable for a writing class, and machines must be arranged to accommodate them. One successful arrangement has four tables (arranged in two rows) each containing six machines. Three students sit on each row, facing each other. The teacher can address students from the area between the tables; students can move chairs to this central point, and monitors can be swiveled so that others can see what a student is doing.
The session on choosing hardware pointed out that planners must consider how soon particular computer configurations may become obsolete. For example, the tiny computers referred to as notebooks are so completely portable that students might well do their primary writing on them (inside or outside class), then feed their texts into a larger computer for text analysis. In that case, fewer large expensive computers would be needed than if every student needed access to a large machine for all writing phases. A more traditional classroom can, thus, be converted to a computer classroom by providing electrical outlets for student machines and one large machine (which might actually be a micro-computer!) for networking or instructional purposes.
My reaction to the conference is that it was very helpful for people with cyberphobia and skepticism. However, people looking for new ways to use computers for composition were disappointed. Perhaps if we had been aware of some new software (THE IDEA PROCESSOR for IBM PC and APPLE WORKS for Apple IIe and IIc), we might have begun thinking about some of the truly creative aspects of writing with a computer. Word processors are being merged with file programs (data base managers) and other data organizers which allow writers to gain access to stored materials in new ways, allowing even more flexible cut-and-paste practices. When combined with a graphics program (such as SYMPHONY for the IBM PC), the computer can be used for discovering, organizing, and jotting down ideas using mind maps and other non-linear methods. The challenge is for writing instructors to discover these new writing strategies and to pass them on to their students.
If seeing immediately how suggestions change a text and sharing writing can help teach people how to write, then computers can help teach writing in a way that a pen cannot. The consensus of the conference seems to be that computers will never replace teachers; they may, however, replace some of the mechanical work of the teacher (and the writer!), freeing both for the more creative aspects of teaching and writing.