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The Effects of a Full-Service Computer Room on Student Writing

Richard Stracke

Last year my department decided to introduce word-processing into first-year composition classes, starting with an experimental quarter in which half of our English 101 sections would have word processing and the other half would not. In the experimental quarter, we wanted to identify and solve any problems involved before going into full-scale use and to compare the performance of word-processing students to that of their peers in the common examination taken by all students in the course. The experiment taught us even more than we thought it would and brought us a number of benefits. Some of these benefits flowed from happy choices that were made at the beginning, so in this essay I will explain the choices first, then the effects, and then the results of the common examination.

The first choice was where the computers should be, and it had already been made for us. The college's Computer Services office had recently installed a computer room on the top floor of the college library. A network linked thirty Zenith PCs and a printer.

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The PCs were on long tables along the walls, so that the center of the room was open for instructor movement. The Computer Services people were willing to schedule as many class hours as we wanted, and the open arrangement of the room seemed attractive, so we were glad to accept their offer. As director of the program, I had envisioned eventually making a case for a computer room of our own in the building where English classes are taught, but it soon became clear that the library was the best place for a word-processing room, and that the continued support of the Computer Services staff would be vital to the success of the endeavor. The software that ran the network did give us some trouble for a while because it had never been used so heavily before, but networking gave us a number of advantages. We had fewer problems with lost files and wrecked diskettes than is usually the case when students use "stand alones."

The second choice was which word-processing program to adopt. Computer Services was eager for us to use WORDSTAR, which was already installed on the network and being used in some School of Business courses. We thought that the first-year students might need something a little easier than WORDSTAR, so we ran two word-processing sections in the summer preceding our experimental quarter. Students in the two sections were equally enthusiastic about their experiences, and on the evaluation instrument none of the WORDSTAR students reported finding it particularly hard to learn. Since WORDSTAR had passed the ease-of-learning test and had a number of other advantages, we decided to go with it.

Some readers may be surprised at this result, since WORDSTAR is known as a difficult program. We had been able to reduce the difficulty of both programs on the basis of insights into the nature of word-processing instruction which we and the Computer Services people had been developing for some time. Perhaps the most important insight is that students will be most receptive to instruction in a given word-processing technique when they see that technique as the solution to a problem that needs to be solved right away. If students feel they ought to have their second paragraph closer to the end of their essay, it will be easy to teach them how to move the paragraph; if they don't, they won't. For this reason, in the initial lesson it is far more important to work on motive than to explain technical concepts. We work on motive by assigning a topic

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that is easy and personal: "Tell who you are, where you live, what your favorite place is in your home town, and why it's your favorite." Then, we explain the steps the students need to take in order to write their first sentence, telling them nothing more than they need.

WORDSTAR may seem difficult when looked at as a whole, but writing "I am Sue Stein" on the monitor is not, and once Sue writes that first sentence about herself the rest of the assignment becomes so attractive that she is motivated to do it all and to attend to the rest of the instructions. Given this approach, almost all students can learn enough about WORDSTAR in the first hour to complete the assignment. Those who can touch-type have an advantage, of course, but those who cannot also find it possible to get a good deal written about their favorite place. Their success in this first assignment makes them want to write more, and in their own good time they start asking questions about specialized techniques, which we handle as they arise.

This approach assumes, of course, that someone will always be on hand to answer the questions, and this is why Computer Services proved so important to us. They maintain an office down the hall from the computer room, with at least one person on duty at all hours when the library is open. Between the Computer Services people and the information-sharing that students do by themselves, there was always some way for a student to get answers to questions as they arose, so that the program could be mastered in sure, intermittent steps, paced by the student's own perceived needs. One information source that was hardly used at all was the set of tutorial programs provided by MicroPro, WORDSTAR's publisher. The trouble with tutorials is that they do not teach on a "need to know" basis that seems to be so important in word-processing instruction.

The third choice that had to be made as we entered into the experiment was what role the computer was to play in the syllabus. Should we just tell students to get themselves over to the library, where the Computer Services people would show them how to run the machines? Or should we take them over for a few introductory classes and then let them use the room on their own for the rest of the quarter? Or should we use the computer room as a writing classroom and have as many class meetings there as possible? We

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chose the latter. Instructors scheduled anywhere from twenty to fifty percent of their class meetings in the computer room and used it regularly throughout the quarter. In addition, several of them used the room for night or weekend conference hours.

The decision to use the room primarily as a writing lab, together with the room's openness, its library location, and the support of our Computer Services friends, led to some gratifying results. As predicted by the literature and our own experiences with word-processing, the painlessness of computerized revision did stimulate more frequent revision and, thereby, improve the final product. For this, we had been prepared. What we had not expected was the extraordinary effect of the new dispensation on the way in which students understood the writing process. W. C. Fields once said, "Start each morning with a smile and get it over with." Over the years, all of us had become familiar with the "get it over with" school of essay writing. We use Heffernan and Lincoln's Writing: A College Handbook, which has strong material on writing as a process, but it is not until we went into word processing that students began to remark spontaneously about how right the textbook was. In class and in their journals, they spoke enthusiastically about freewriting, about thinking in terms of drafts, and about the heady work of reconsidering not just semicolons but ideas and organization and even goals.

We were changed, too. We found it possible to teach the writing process far more effectively when we were right there in the room where it was occurring, moving freely from one student question to the next-thanks in part to the openness of the room but also to the students' own openness to suggestion in this new situation where suggestions could be acted on with ease. As with the mastering of the software, learning the writing process could proceed by means of questions asked and answered on a "need to know" basis. None of this would have been possible if we had simply told students to go to the library on their own.

Consequently, of all the recommendations we would make on the basis of this experimental quarter, the warmest one would be to think of the computer room as a writing classroom and to schedule it for at least a third of the class meetings. Some classroom time will always be necessary, of course, particularly for group discussions. I found it useful to schedule "debriefings" on the days when essays

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were due, so that students could translate what they had learned on the run into specific councils for future writing. But much of what instructors tend to introduce by direct instruction seems to be learned well enough through the combination of "need to know" exchanges and parallel reading in the textbook.

One area that needs special comment is invention. We were aware of a wide range of heuristics programs that were supposed to help students find ideas, and we bought one of them. But students hardly ever used it. I think the reason is that the best source of ideas is a social environment where people can toss ideas around freely, and that is what the library's computer room turned out to be.

A further stimulus to invention was the library itself, which seems to be the ideal setting for a computer room. Our English 101 is followed by a course which includes a library research paper, so we never require library work in English 101 assignments. Yet it turned out that the propinquity of library resources led many students to put them to use. Some would ask permission to go off during class and would come back with notes that they would then type into their drafts. Others would bring back books and magazines and type in their notes and quotations directly. These were students who had never had any other experience using a college library.

One of these students was a woman who during class discussion denounced the "coddling" of prison inmates. She searched the library for facts and figures that would show what she meant, but instead discovered Karl Menninger's The Crime of Punishment, a shocking book which changed her mind and led her to write a paper with an argument precisely the opposite of what she had planned. Students who have come this far no longer need their textbook to tell them the writing process is a learning process or to run the concept "prison" through a tangle of grids and pentads. I shall continue to review heuristics programs, but these experiences suggest that, for good invention, what students need most is good tools, a good environment, and motive.

At the end of the quarter, we were able to assess the effectiveness of the new program by looking at the results of our final examination. In the English 101 final, each student wrote two impromptu essays, which were graded holistically and anony-

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mously by members of the department trained in holistic scoring. All essays were hand written, so there was no way for a grader to know whether a given essay was written by a word-processing student. In evaluating the essays, we used a four-point scale where 1 was a failure, 2 was a pass, 3 was good, and 4 was extraordinary. The student's final score was the sum of the six ratings, so that the highest possible score was 24 and the lowest 6. To pass the exam, a student needed a total of at least 9 points (for example, three ones on the first essay and three twos on the second).

As the schedule for the quarter turned out, our division of the sections was a bit lopsided, though not enough to cause any statistical uncertainties: there were ten word-processing sections, with 228 students; and five sections without word-processing, with 132 students. The instructors were about evenly matched in terms of previous pass rates in the exam. The word-processing students had an average SAT verbal score ten points lower than that of the other students. Previous studies have established that SATV predicts success on this exam better than any other factor; yet even with the their lower SATVs, the word-processing students had an 80% pass rate, while the pass rate for the others was 71%-a rather convincing nine-point difference. It is our conclusion that the word-processing room did lead to a substantial improvement in the quality of student writing.

When the project began, I thought of hardware and software in terms that now seem too narrow. To make word processing work in first-year composition, one needs more than WORDSTAR and a truckload of PCs. The use of long tables rather than separate carrels, the physical location of the room-these and many other "hardware" decisions have an important bearing on the final result. Likewise, the most important "software" is the system that one provides to assure that students can learn about the program and the writing process on a "need to know" basis. In a computer-supported writing classroom, it is important to conceive of what is happening as a functioning system, a "full service" operation, rather than to limit our thinking simply to hardware and software issues.

Richard Stracke teaches at Augusta College in Augusta, Georgia.