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Coordinator, Language Development Centre
At the Brampton Campus of Sheridan College in Ontario, three English instructors have taken on the challenge of using computers and creating CAI for composition classes. We are in the midst of developing a curriculum that will use the computer for prewriting, word processing, and editing. This developmental process began four years ago with the addition of one Pet to the classroom and has grown to include a larger Pet Network of 13 terminals and a UNIX-based system which can support 12 student users and one technician.
When you walk into the Language Development Centre on a typical Monday morning, what you will notice first is the activity centering around our two computer systems. From 9-11 o'clock second year Secretarial English--a service course for Business--and Electric English--a technical writing course--are run in adjacent rooms so that both classes have access to the computers. Students are doing a variety of activities such as fixing up proof reading exercises using the word processors, typing in reports to be processed through the WRITER'S WORKBENCH, working through grammar tutorials, trying to master the mysteries of subject-verb agreement, or perhaps doing spelling drills before a final test. Teachers are busy helping students with individual problems and going over tests while the technician makes sure that students are logged on properly.
The one Pet multiplied and grew into a network supporting 13 4032 terminals, two dual disk drives, two printers with a MUPET network controller, and two black and white TV monitors. As a result of Research and Development funding in 1983, we have created over 45 grammar, spelling, and vocabulary tutorials, dealing with individual grammar and spelling problems.
For the first-year basic student, these tutorials are non-threatening and fun, motivating students in a traditionally unpopular area. As a writing apprehension questionnaire given to students at the beginning of semester underlines, these students lack confidence in their ability to express themselves in writing and actually request help in grammar and spelling. Researchers like Mina Shaughnessy point out that students need to feel as though they have some control over their mechanical errors. We have discovered that computer tutorials are excellent tools for motivating and individualizing instruction.
As well as developing tutorials, we have written our own simplified word processor for the Pets. Students use Sheridanwriter for journal writing, letters, drafts of essays, and proofreading exorcises. Students can use this word processor with less than 10 minutes' instruction and as the need comes up, can receive more explanation of the functions from the teacher or the technician or from the built-in Help facility. Students do not have to change modes, and instead of a complex series of keystrokes for moving text around, we have the cursor gobble and spit the words to be switched.
This December, funded again in part by Research and Development, we began to design computer prewriting dialogues for the rhetorical strategies of description, directions, comparison/contrast, and persuasion. All four of these dialogues
will begin with a series of questions deigned to assist the student in being the audience for an essay. Next will come a series of open-ended queries to encourage the discovery of content and ideas. Each of the four programs then helps the user to create an outline or structure for a subsequent essay. When the student has completed the dialogue, the program prints out a summary of the specific rhetorical strategy, the student brainstorming notes, the student's outline notes, and suggestions for how to proceed with writing the follow-up essay.
These student computer dialogues will be coded in C for the Spectrix, a multitasking, high speed mini-computer that runs UNIX. We plan to design elements common to all the dialogues such as audience analysis and brainstorming. However, since three different "subject specialists" will be authoring the dialogues, we should be able to offer the students four quite' different prewriting conversations. An additional design feature we will incorporate is student control. At all times, the students will be able to start, stop, review and repeat what they are doing. The computer must become an intimate, private space where students can experiment in whatever way seems to work for the creative process.
The chief reason for our Language Centre acquiring a UNIX microcomputer in 1984 was to allow us to run THE WRITER'S WORKBENCH. Students have access to WWB through the Spectrix Word Processor, Lex--a specially designed student version with fewer editing features to reduce accidental editing. Students compose on Lex, which is linked to WWB by a single menu command, and send their files to a technician's queue during class time. When there is less demand on the system from the classes, the technician will batch process the queue, and students can pick up their output later in the day or before their next class. From the menu, students can pick "draft," "readability," "sentence variety," or "active/passive" for WWB feedback on their writing.
We had very specific needs when we set about to design a user interface for the Spectrix. Our students are first-and second-year community college students enrolled in basic language skills courses. As tested with the Gates-McGinitie reading test (McGinitie, 1978), these students are reading at a skills level between grades 9.00 and l0.00. The system design took this into consideration and consequently all displayed text maintains a grade 10 level of readability. To avoid `cognitive overloading' of students already struggling with subject matter and to maximize the student's ability to use the machine as a stand-alone aid, a menu-driven interface was developed. Enough Help screens were included to allow students to use the system with minimum aid. The interface is a hierarchical menu series, headed by a master menu, which greets the student on login. Each major use of the system is represented by a sub-menu; sub-topics are found below each sub-menu. The student may move through the sub-menus as necessary, returning to the master menu to logout. Each menu has a banner line, with the menu title at the upper left where the student's eyes should fall first. Also, help is available at all stages.
Though we've come a long way from the days of the single Pet computer in the Centre, the route has not been without its potholes. Here are some of the problems we have encountered and some of the solutions we have found.
1. Computer access problem
With two second year classes (total 50 students) in adjacent rooms, vying for 24 terminals we often faced chaotic traffic jams, disgruntled students and harried teachers. To deal with this problem, the two teachers involved have had to get involved in creative time and computer scheduling, working out timetables for computer access.
Another English teacher interested in as a word processor for entering and editing student writing. Students type a rough draft into the computer and then edit and revise their work, utilizing various Writing Aids programs developed jointly by Weber State College and the Automated Language Processing Systems, Provo, Utah (ALPS). The programs include the "Style Review," "Structural Review," "Spelling Checker," and "Document Analysis."
The "Style Review" helps students find potential usage errors and correct them before submitting their papers for evaluation by peers or instructor. This program identifies words mistaken or confused (affect/effect: all ready/already; etc.); trite, clichéd, or overworked words; vague, ambiguous, or wordy expressions; sexist/racist words; restricted terms (jargon, technical words, profanity); "be" verbs; and nominalizations.
The "Structure Review" lets students print out their essays in a series of numbered sentences, double-spaced, so that they can check their sentences for structure, variation, length, and cohesion. Students may also display on the screen and/or print out a condensed essay version, consisting of first and last sentences of each paragraph, allowing examination of the overall organization of the essay, the unity of the paragraphs, the adequacy and relevance of supporting sentences, and the transitions between paragraphs.
The "Spelling Checker" helps students find misspelled words in their papers, which can then be easily corrected using the "Search and Replace" capability of the system.
The "Document Analysis" provides readability indexes (FRY, SMOG, and FLESCH) and a chart of counts and averages--total number of words in the essay, number of syllables per word, number of three-syllable words in the essay, number of sentences, number of paragraphs, letters per word, syllables per sentence, words per sentence, and words per paragraph.
In addition, students may call up on the screen six different tutorial lessons on using our word processors for his class of technical illustrators has scheduled word processing in the Centre from 8-8:30 in the morning before normal class time at 9.
2. Access to WWB from the Pets
With only l2 terminals accessing WWB, we needed to try to get the Pet and the Spectrix talking to each other so that students using Sheridanwriter on the Pets could also use WWB. One of the programmers for Sheridanwriter is working on this problem and has written a utility for the Pet, using the MUPET network controller's output. So far the communication is limited, but at least the two systems have started talking.
Trying to meet the computer challenge has been exciting, nerve wracking and fruitful. Many times we found ourselves frustrated and fed-up with the whole developmental process. However, the question: "Was it worth it?" must be answered with a "Yes." We are discovering that integrating prewriting, writing and editing is enhancing our writing instruction and motivating our students.