Richard B. Larsen
"The rich get richer; the poor get by." --Anonymous
All who teach English have been reading with interest about the application of computers to writing, and many have been experiencing it themselves at the keyboards of Tandys, IBMs, and other microcomputers. The Apple Writing is on the wall: word processing is here to stay. Whether, like Gollan, we believe that computers should be "as welcome around school buildings as a dope dealer" (1984, p. 20), or, like Schwartz, we see in word-processor use a means to "end the so-called `crisis' in basic writing skills (1983, p. 33), we must now adjust our attitudes and actions to the settling in of this new technology.
The figures and statistics that have been trickling out of computer-assisted writing programs do in fact support the notion of a substantial new influence on composition, one that, over the long run, will probably be more profound and lasting than any of us realize.
For one thing, writing at computer keyboards is already so firmly entrenched "out there" that it would be hard to imagine a successful modern workplace not substantially computer-dependent for everything from casual memos to formal reports. For another, the hardest research done on the subject, readouts from closely tracked projects such as those ongoing at Colorado State University and the University of Minnesota, almost invariably commends campus implementation of computer-assisted writing.
For a variety of reasons, computers have proven to be a help to writers in virtually everything from invention to idea-processing to final editing. A typically positive note is sounded by the student writers themselves, as cited, for instance, in Smith and Kiefer's pioneering work: they feel good about this electronic mode of processing ideas into words, and thus they write more willingly and revise more thoroughly. Most studies, moreover, contradict those now-familiar complaints of such word-processing naysayers as Hertz: the equipment gets between writer and ideas, word processing tends to produce uniformly bland composition, data-crunching devices lead naturally to an emphasis on quantity over quality. Quite the opposite. As Daiute reports, as a result of her work with first-year writing classes at Columbia University, computers help students overcome various psychological and physical barriers to writing, allowing them as writers to "free themselves for thinking" (p. 144).
Most of us are only too glad to hear of a tool that helps in such basic ways with thinking and writing. "Bring on the computers and their
word-processing software," we have learned or are learning to say, "and we will use them to the fullest." Some of us have experienced that breaking down of barriers in our own work and that quality of freedom which the computer seems to bring to innermost thinking processes: we would no more go back to pen or even typewriter than an Eskimo hunter would trade a new rifle for an old harpoon. And we have wanted our students to experience the speed, agility, and adaptability that thought assumes under the aegis of the electronic pen. For many of us, classroom use is the proverbial bottom line. As things stand now, though, few have had even a single opportunity to heed Harris's admonition to "be cautious in accepting claims that word processing can improve our students' writing" (p. 330), our students don't have any word processors.
We have, thus, been seeking ways to bring this new technical assistant into class, some of us in fantasies of The Ideal Writing Room, others very pragmatically in the offices of chairs and deans. But reality has continued to confront us in the form of a huge, immutable dollar sign: for all but a very few in select institutions or under unique administrative circumstances, outfitting our composition classes with state-of-the-art writing equipment is simply too expensive. The spirit has been willing, but the wallet is chronically weak. We are finding out that to equip just one such room takes more money than many faculty earn in a year. Moreover, under the headlong press by grade schools for computers, the tax breaks and grant moneys for colleges have been disappearing, e.g., Apple Corporation's granting agency
no longer considers equipment-funding requests from post-secondary institutions. The proverbial bottom line reads, quite clearly, "no more easy money for CAI."
And this is where most of us linger today, in limbo, having glimpsed paradise but have been forbidden entry there.
Or so it would seem. Fortunately, there is at least one way around the present financial black hole. It employs a technology that is gaining wide acceptance in other areas of CAI, and is in fact used rather routinely in computer science classes; yet it remains virtually unheard of in composition classes. It is not cheap technology, by any means, but compared to the cost of equipping a composition classroom (not to mention an entire program) at a one-student/one-computer level, it is downright reasonable--so reasonable, in fact, that commanding the attention of an administrator with talk of English department computerization may no longer be such a Sisyphian task. The technology is, simply, our old classroom tool the projector, dressed out high-tech and ready to do a twenty-first century job.
I refer in particular to the video (or computer) projector, sold in several configurations by various manufacturers. For example, Vivid Systems makes a popular monochrome type called the Limelight Projector, while Spectrum Data offers Electrochrome Computer Projection Systems for color or monochrome monitor projection; there are others. The one that we settled on at my institution is
somewhat more expensive, offering, as it does, several extra features that we sought. The Sony Videoscope Color Video Projector retails for close to $6000 but is available at a $1000-plus discount to educational institutions. Adding the cost of the microcomputer itself plus several peripheral devices brings the total outlay back up to the $6000 figure. This may seem like a lot of money to administrators habituated to pinching pennies, but they can be convinced that it is good to buy through comparisons to the $20-30,000 minimum it takes to create a one student/one computer environment--assuming, of course, that they have been led to grasp the notion of computer-assisted writing for students in the first place. (Some have yet to be convinced.)
It may be pointed out further that a projection system has enduring value of its own, since it operates also with on-air television broadcasts and videotape/laser-disk presentations. Still, the truth of the matter is that, in relation to student computer use, it is basically an intermediary stage on the way to an ideal one/one environment: each student at his or her own keyboard. It is by far the most cost-effective step in that direction, substantially more desirable than opting for, say, 4 to 6 microcomputers that everyone will be clamoring to use but no one will wind up having sufficient hands-on time with. It is best simply because it provides the greatest exposure to the most students for the least per-student investment--which is in itself a thumbnail definition of cost-effectiveness as it is known in academia.
Computer projection can be used for a larger variety of computer-specific purposes than a small quantity of microcomputers can, even if the micros are linked with a local-area network. For one thing, LANs remain a developing technology, still fraught with glitches in any configuration beyond mere monitor-image (as opposed to true-data) sharing; for another, LANs will not serve as many students at the same time as a projector will; for yet another, they are far from being cost effective, running in some cases up to $6500-8000 for just the networking equipment and software. Comparing the two technologies, Burrows writes that some institutions
set up computer labs with networks that include a demonstration system hooked to individual student stations. I prefer using a single computer system with a large display screen because the students seem to focus better on the material being presented. (p. 47)
She describes other large-display applications for both writing and literature courses, as does Rorie, who advises instructors to have, for instance, a secretary type lecture notes into a computer file. "Then," he says,
the instructor can go to class and use the equipment to call up any page of notes for large screen video display to the class. This system allows the instructor to later
recall sections of earlier presentations, at will, in subsequent classes, when questions arise concerning previous lectures.
The large display acts as an immediately and infinitely manipulable "electronic blackboard" (p. 122).
Computer projectors are a relatively simple and reliable technology. Units consist of microelectronic circuitry, a projection lens device, adjustment controls, and cabling. The biggest headache that they pose is proper installation, and, thus, it is wise to specify in any potential contract that set-up and initial operation be satisfactory or delivery will not be accepted. In my configuration, the computer (a 128K dual-drive Apple IIe) sits to one side of the classroom front, with a Panasonic KXP-1091 printer beside it. A Spikebar peripheral device set above the disk drives controls the connections, and from its switches all equipment, including the projector, can be turned on or off. The projector itself sits upon a three-foot cart, facing the room-front 72" curved foil screen at a distance of about ten feet. A single video cable links it to the computer through the Spikebar. While all computer and printer controls are at the computer/Spikebar site, all projector controls are on a panel at the rear of the projector. This placement presents no problem, for, once properly installed, the device needs little if any adjustment.
Whatever display happens to be on the monitor is simultaneously projected on the screen and can be seen from any seat in the 35' x 20' room since the projector fills the six-foot screen with its image. Resolution is good enough to accommodate the 80-character display common to applications software. Speakers built into the projector for its tv-videotape uses allow for any audio amplification necessary to accompany a computer presentation, including simple microphone. A very quiet fan, furthermore, virtually eliminates noise distraction. The room, of course, must be darkened, but not completely, given the high-gain screen surface. A low-wattage fluorescent lamp directly over the computer provides illumination as needed.
Set up this way, the system is perfect for the variety of large-display lessons possible in small- to medium-enrollment (15-40 student) writing and communication courses.
The three multi-session lessons that I have used in Advanced Composition and Technical Communication with the greatest success to date are (a) the comprehensive demonstration of writing-as-process, (b) the software-based grammar and style analysis, and (c) the software-created "graphics" display plus printout. Anyone who is familiar with (or can envision) the technology of which I speak knows that this list is far from exhaustive. For one thing, it represents uses in only two of many English department courses to which the technology can be applied; for another, it is only a point of departure for a rapidly evolving classroom tool
that will eventually incorporate, among other things, laser-disk equipment. At this point the potential seems, if not limitless, then at the very least quite encouraging.
And encouraged I have been by the main application, projected writing-as-process lessons in which the writer is usually the instructor but individual students often take turns at the keyboard. It ought to be mentioned that keyboarding is not as big a problem as it may seem, since so many students in upper-level courses, such as the two mentioned above, enter the course with some typing skill; for them, learning a computer keyboard is relatively easy. For first-year students it might be a different story, of course, and I do get students--some 10 to 15%--who never quite get the knack of it and are thus directed to continue using pen. For those in between, the skilled hunter-peckers, there are several quick software-based introductions to keyboarding, including the perennial bestseller MASTERTYPE.
With the keyboarding issue resolved by either skilled students or keyboard practice, at the end of the first week instructor and class are ready to begin consistent classroom use of the computer, projector, and printer. By "consistent" I mean that roughly half the class time each week is spent doing something with the equipment in this, our self-styled computerized English classroom. After the fourth or fifth week, most of the microelectronics neophytes have become acclimated to hardware and software use, and by mid-term just about everybody in both courses has had the benefit of several hands-on sessions; one of the requirements of Technical Communication is, in fact, the cre-
ation, with the computer and printer, of at least two short reports replete with visual aids.
So exactly how is large-screen technology employed in a writing-as-process demonstration? To approach that question, the reader is invited to imagine all the possible ways in which students could see text--either their own or their instructor's--created, revised, and finalized step-by-step before their collective eyes. There are not many ways at all, not if we are speaking of more than the handful who could gather around and no doubt fidget or fuss over a desk or small monitor. Local-area networking has the severe drawbacks cited above, and Rube Goldbergish simultaneous-handwriting machines went out a century ago. No, the only feasible answer is projected roomfront display--students at their desks, all eyes focused on the large screen as the writer works at the computer to one side.
For that is how it works, give or take the oral accompaniment that usually occurs as the text is going up. It is a collaborative process, room-front computer writing, replete with collective encouragement and disparagement--suggestions, laughter, queries, and, if the writer is hitting all the cylinders, chorused affirmation. When the teacher composes, he or she supplies a running commentary, openly verbalized protocol to which are invited equally open suggestions for emendation. Usually, as in advanced composition courses, he or she writes an essay of the type that is due as the next assignment: classical argumentation, response to a proposed case, etc. When the student (or students, in sequence) composes, it is sometimes
an original paragraph or two, like the teacher's original essay; sometimes revision of an in-progress essay that a secretary has transferred to a disk; and sometimes in response to an exercise devised by the instructor. Whatever the case, it is all up there in front of everybody, incrementing along in real time: invention, scratch-outlining, lead-paragraphing, recursion, revision--thought-by-thought, word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence. Now that's teaching composition as process. Moreover, techniques learned at the large screen can be carried over to the students' individual compositions at their desks, to be used by them as they write, or by the teacher in one-to-one instruction. Ideas and partial texts can be saved for future modification or other classroom use, and end-products can be printed out in multiple copies for take-alongs. O Brave New World, that has such hardware in it!
As for style and grammar analyses, I prefer to use available software from among the ever-growing number of worthwhile programs available. The one that I have used with the greatest success to date is WRITER'S HELPER (from Conduit), developed by William Wresch, University of Wisconsin-Marinette; one of a new and growing breed of computer-aware English instructors, Wresch has both developed his own courseware and written extensively on computer-assisted writing. WRITER'S HELPER is an integrated collection of 22 separate programs that assist in a variety of ways with the creation, analysis, and revision of compositions. The first half of these 22, with names like BRAINSTORMS and COMPARING AND CONTRASTING, help the writer to find and develop topics; the
other 11 (READABILITY INDEX, CHECK FOR USAGE ERRORS, etc.) help with revision and future improvement. Texts that I have displayed and worked with have been both instructor- and student-created (out of class), and I have had secretaries create files with professional writing samples for analysis only. These latter have been surprises; perhaps there is something intrinsically interesting (humorous, incredible, whatever) about a Hemingway story or a Tom Wolfe magazine piece being subjected to "impartial" computer analysis that judge them unreadable-- although most such samples fare quite well, of course.
Finally, large-display use of EASY GRAPH software (from Grolier) is ideal for teaching the creation and purpose of visual aids in technical communication courses. It is extremely simple to use--a learning program, in fact. All instructor or student need to do is menu-select the type of illustration desired (pictograph, bar chart, etc.), enter the data, type a control sequence or two, and there it is on the roomfront screen in either monochrome or five-color display. Although such "graphics" cannot be saved to files with EASY GRAPH, they can be printed out and placed as needed in various documents. Such lessons and tasks enable students to understand how a well-conceived and executed visual aid can enhance a text. Lately I have been developing an extension of these text-illustration sessions, using Grolier's learning program EDUCALC, to work out applications of spreadsheet
displays and printouts to technical and scientific communication. Not left out of this lesson sequence is the large-display visually aided oral presentation.
Students love generating computer graphics as much as seeing text analyzed for grammar and style, and almost as much having the opportunity to see and comment upon the in-progress writing of instructor or fellow student. Each of these applications of computer and projector technology can add its own important and unique angle to composition and communication courses. The equipment does require capital outlay, but, in terms of cost-effectiveness, nothing else comes close to it. As an introduction primarily to the uses and benefits of word processing, and secondarily to visual-aid implementation, it is of immense value to today's student, whom Newsweek describes as having almost