On the Horizon: High-tech Help

44(3) p. 77

Computers & Controversy

On the Horizon: High-tech Help

Richard B. Larsen

Back in 1963, his finger on the button of the latest of the V-2 descendant, Werner von Braun prophesied that those who ignored technological change were likely to be steamrolled by it--geflattent was his choice of words. Now that computerization has come to virtually every comer of American life, those still indifferent to it may indeed become its victims, the crunched numbers of contemporary society. The Law of the High-tech Jungle reads not "eat or be eaten" but "BYTE or be BITten," and it applies as much to composition teachers as to accountants. For those who have yet to climb aboard the bandwagon, this article offers a last chance before it steamrolls by. The technology reviewed below may at first intimidate, then perhaps overwhelm, but ultimately it will persuade the unconvinced that the art of writing has come as far in the last five or six years as it had in all the decades from Gutenberg to Steve Jobs. Born of solid tradition and the mercurial microprocessor, rhetoric has been reborn.

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The eight state-of-the-art, but nevertheless representative, products described and rated (on a 1-10 scale) here are capable of taking students and teachers afresh through each stage of the writing process. Used with care both in and outside the computerized classroom, they could render the composition instructor's work more effective and rewarding, and, in fact, renovate the profession top to bottom.

Read on, and let the Ned Ludds among us speak now or forever hold their pitchforks.

I. BEGUN (Profitable Software, $195)
Developed with public funding by a professor of computer science, who then sold the program to Profitable, BEGUN (Beginners Essay-Generating UNtracker) is an idea-processor whose time has come. It not only asks a student topic-specific questions but answers them as well. The program is never at a loss for words on screen, for once a topic (capital punishment, nuclear winter wrestling, etc.) is typed in, an exhaustive question-answer sequence begins. If the student has the time and the patience to wait, within fifteen minutes BEGUN has scrolled out enough information for a 5000-word report, not to mention a 500-word theme. All the student has to do then is delete the questions and merge the answers into some semblance of order, a step that can be accomplished with the help of another type of software: idea-organizers such as ORG/IT.

RATING: 4 (invention is only invention; i.e., well-BEGUN is still only half done)

II. ORG/IT (Pineapple Programs, $99.95)
Students who can count to five in Roman numerals should be able to use the Outline Response Guide/Idea-Trainer (from the Hawaiian subsidiary of Apple, Inc.) to organize any five-paragraph theme. In fact, all they need do is overtype the numbers onto the material they have "invented" for their essays--brainstorm results, for instance--and the program does the rest, providing an outline, rearranging sentences into paragraphs, even ordering paragraphs into entire essays if the student has taken care to provide a keyword title and a thesis statement. Already in use at several institutions with large sports programs, ORG/IT has solved athletes' problems

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ranging from simple lack of organizing skill to severe pattern recognition disability. Pineapple claims that this software is also used by many students to organize class notes, even those taken from chaotically disorganized lecturers.

RATING: 7 (great for departments in NCAA-1 schools)

III. MAGIC MODEM (Re-Rising Sun, $395)
Hooked up to any touch-tone telephone, this peripheral device from Japan enables students to tap into a variety of data banks in order to gather information for research reports and term papers. Although most students use it to access the campus library or specialized information sources, a few students have reported remarkably efficient results with Term Papers, Inc., an obscure database not on any of the lists supplied to this reviewer by college and community libraries. Efficiency is a real issue with modems, since "on-line" in their case means "on-telephone-line": a typical keyboard session can cost as much as a short call to Katmandu. The potential buyer is thus advised that modem-use be planned; the device is not really to be used to compile information for, say, a diagnostic writing sample.

RATING: 2-8 (depending on the database in use)

IV. PLAIG-O-MATIC (Tinselware)
This relatively cheap program is reputed to have been developed from software released by the CIA into public domain. Adapted by Tinselware to the purposes of higher education, it can load an existing textfile from any disk to the student's disk, erase the original file title and provide a new one, and then slightly rearrange word order throughout. Currently marketed on a black-market basis only, PLAIG-O-MATIC's use is both discouraged by professors and disavowed by students. Sales are, nevertheless, reported to be brisk.

RATING: 1 (no comment)

V. NEW BOTTLE (Hill-McGraw Pub. Co., $69.95)
Hailed by one reviewer as "the 21st century Handbook," this program does everything that typical present-day grammar and

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style handbooks do--only automatically. Basically, students enter from their essays the instructor's alphanumeric symbol (14g, awk, dev, etc.), and within nanoseconds the screen feeds back advice such as "Restrict use of present perfect infinitives to actions temporarily preceding that expressed by the main-clause verb." In a process familiar to all, the student then attempts the appropriate revision. Also, entering the word EXAMPLE yields color-coded "correct-incorrect versions of material, while the entry EXERCISE produces a 20-item set for students to correct or rewrite on screen. NEW BOTTLE is marketed, incidentally, with supplement.

RATING: 9 (why wait till 2000 A.D.?)

VI. ROBOT RITER (Skool Robotix, $9995; workstation included)
Billed as "the Ultimate Writing Aid," this item (also Japanese) is not a piece of software at all, but a 48-inch-high automaton resembling in one light C3PO, in another a diminutive Sumo. The designers apparently did their homework on one-to-one instruction, for this metal-and-silicon peripheral makes an ideal tutor, skilled in everything from semicolon-use to oral encouragement (on tape). Actually tutor may be the wrong word, for ROBOT RITER is programmed not just to provide help for the student but, in cases of duress (as when its owner has both a paper and a party due), to compose typed reports and authentically handwritten essays as well. "Seat ROBOT RITER at its workstation, punch up a few of the keys on its tummy, stick a pencil in its claw, and the work will be done long before you return at four a.m. in shape to do little more than vomit and collapse." So says Robotix' advertising brochure, and at this point along the road to the 21st century what can cavil amount to? The handwriting, or clawwriting is already on the wall.

RATING: 9 (but only if you've got an idle ten thou)

VII. SHEEP (Scam Software, $19.95 and up)
With SHEEP (Self-Help Education-Ending Program), the student who is in serious trouble not just with composition but with academics in general enters data from a transcript, real or imaginary, and the computer prints out a degree on the manufacturer's special SHEEPskin bond (included). Written into the program are the

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mottoes of over 1000 North American colleges and universities; Latin phrases can be output in a variety of ornate typefaces. Used in combination with a peripheral like MAGIC MODEM, above, SHEEP can also download appropriate graduating-senior data directly into the administrative records of the college of the student's choice. Problems have been encountered by some users, as when in spring 1986 Harvard's administrative mainframe refused to validate the records of some 20,000 graduating seniors, but Scam has announced a software update: forthcoming sets of access codes for West Coast institutions, priced from $19.95 (selection of junior colleges) to $119.95 (Stanford, Caltech, etc.).

RATING: 3 (ingenious solution to some students' problems, but could cause general FTE decline)

VIII. GOTCHA! (Byproduct Products, around $95)
Although not yet on the market, this device, designed for teachers, is rumored to be able to strategically plot and print red-ink comments on any 8.5" x 11" page of writing. The instructor simply feeds each sheet (typed or handwritten) through a special scanner/printer that is connected to a three-gigabyte mainframe program for parsing, analyzing, deconstructing, and otherwise thoroughly crunching student work. The student's work emerges, replete with grade, a moment later. GOTCHA! is reputed to have gone through a first-draft master's thesis (on Colley Cibber) in six minutes without blowing a circuit. Unfortunately, the printout wore through four $12 printer ribbons, but developers say the solution there is only a matter of adjusting the program to ignore everything but such essentials as misspelled words and comma splices.

RATING: Line forms on the left!

It would seem, then, that in the very near future the work of the writing teacher is going to become fully automated and thus markedly easier. Some administrators speculate, in fact, that it may disappear altogether.

Richard B. Larsen teaches at Francis Marion College in Valhalla, New York.