6(2), April 1989, pages 23-32

Computers and Commuters:
A Computer-Intensive Writing Program for Adults

Linda J. Stine

A few years ago, I was faced with the task of designing a writing program for adult students who needed to raise their writing skills to an acceptable college level in the shortest possible period of time. I knew my students would have to write more than ever before if their fluency in writing was to begin to approach their fluency in speaking. I knew, too, that I would somehow have to create a learning environment that would free students from fear of error, a fear often brought on by past failures and humiliation at the hands of writing teachers (Shaughnessy, 1977).

Computers seemed to offer some solutions. Students writing their essays on disks could reasonably be asked to write and revise more, with less worry about error, partly because they would not have to devote needless time to reproducing good sections they had already written. It also seemed possible that their sense of mastery over a new technology might extend to a feeling of mastery over the process of writing.

At this point, however, I came up against the dilemma facing many working adult students: The very people who most need access to the advantages computers can offer are least likely to have such access because of limitations in time and money.

The following article describes the program we developed to address this dilemma, its effects on a pilot group of students, and some preliminary conclusions about the effects--positive and negative--of computer availability on teaching methodology.

The Physical Environment

Although we had an available microlab on campus, equipped with 18 Apple IIe's, my students--all of whom worked full time and could be on campus only on Saturdays--would have no access to these computers other than during Saturday class hours. I was well aware of Cynthia Selfe's warning in Writing On-Line (1985):

. . . if we ask students to learn to use computers as a part of their composing processes, we have to provide adequate facilities. . . . Without [this] we may be generating more frustration than enthusiasm about the new medium of the electronic pen. (p. 66)

Clearly, I could not expect anything other than frustration to result if computer use were confined to the class period, while the majority of the students' composing took place outside of class.

Requiring students to purchase a computer, or to lease one for the semester so that they could have the access they would need, was not an option. Almost all of our students pay for school with a guaranteed student loan, and any cost beyond tuition and travel expenses would put the program out of reach for most.

Our eventual solution to this dilemma was a modern version of the typewriter-giveaway program Shaughnessy describes at City College in the '60s (1977, p.16). The university purchased 16 Apple IIc's (for compatibility with our microlab equipment) and 16 copies of APPLEWORKS word-processing software at a cost, in 1986, of about $14,000. These computers and the software were then given to all students for home use, free of charge, for the semester in which they were enrolled in our writing course. Participants were required to put down a $706 security deposit covering the full cost of the machine; but this deposit, which most financed through their student loan, was refunded in full when the computers were returned. Moreover, the company from which we purchased the computers agreed to sell students a new Apple IIc for the same cost it had charged the school; when students returned their computers at the end of the semester and received the refund, they could use that money to purchase new equipment if they wished.

With the access problem solved, I structured the class as follows. For ease of record-keeping, students sign up for two separate three-credit courses, one in writing and one in technical applications; in practice, the two merge into one unit. Classes met Saturdays in the microlab from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. for 12 weeks. Each week as homework, students were required to complete a chapter of grammar exercises in a workbook, keep an electronic journal five days a week for 15 minutes a day, and write a short (two to three page) essay often based on a brief reading assignment. Students were encouraged to revise and resubmit graded essays as many times as they wanted; each new version received a new grade, with the "final" grade for any essay being the average of all grades received. Students brought all homework essays to class on disks; and we spent the day creating, editing, and proofreading text, using computers for all stages of the writing process. In addition, students reviewed grammar both by working on exercises I had prepared and put on a lab disk, and by checking their own or their peers' homework essays for possible problems with the grammar topic under discussion.

I've taught four semesters of this program so far, with a total enrollment of 48 students. All students have returned their computers on time and in good working order. My fears about potential logistical disasters somewhat allayed, I've begun to look at the more important academic question: Does this course effectively and efficiently help my particular student population become better writers? Or, to put it in terms that any university or grants administrator can easily understand, are the results worth $14,000?

The Students and Their Progress

As I began this new course, I was interested in collecting data to supplement my own subjective impressions in two areas: Did the course improve student writing, and did it help students feel more positive about their academic abilities? In addition, I wanted to determine, if possible, what role the computer had played in any change. During the semester, I looked at data from five sources. A class profile was developed from student records supplemented by a questionnaire completed the first day of class to determine students' typing ability, previous computer experience, and attitude toward computers. Writing improvement was measured by pre- and post-in-class writing samples that were then retyped and given to an independent rater who evaluated them on a 10-point analytic scale adapted from King, Birnbaum, and Wageman. (1984). Attitude change was measured by the Daly/Miller (1975) writing apprehension test administered during the first and last class meeting. Finally, I tried to determine the role the computer might have played in any ability or attitude change (1) by analyzing homework essays assigned in the tenth week of the semester in which students wrote about the effect computer use had on their writing and (2) by scrutinizing student course evaluations.

The students in my first class were typical of our overall student population. Of the 12 students who completed the course, 11 were black and I Hispanic; 4 students were male. Ages ranged from 27 to 55, with an average age of 44.9. The majority reported some typing ability, but only 2 students characterized themselves as good typists. None had any experience with word processing, though most worked in agencies where computers were in use, primarily for record keeping. The majority said they were nervous about using computers but were looking forward to the experience.

Examining the pre- and post-test writing samples, I found the typical inconclusive results most researchers have discovered when trying to measure short-term improvement in writing quality. Content/style scores on the post-test essay declined slightly, while grammar and mechanics scores showed a slight improvement. (This result corresponds with Hawisher's [1988] findings that many studies report improvement in students' mechanical proficiency, although it contradicts the results of King et al. [1984], who found less improvement in usage for students working at computers.) An interesting question for future research is whether there are any particular aspects of writing that computer use alone would be likely to improve, regardless of the focus of intervening instruction.

Writing apprehension as measured by the Daly/Miller test decreased over the course of the semester. A t-test confirmed the 13.7 drop in writing apprehension to be significant at the 0.05 level. This agrees with Dawn Rodrigues's (1985) observations that even if writing shows no significant increase in quality, students' experience with word processing helps them internalize the writing process and gain confidence as writers.

In the absence of a control group, of course, it was impossible to isolate the effect of any one factor such as computer use from the effect of the experience as a whole. Like many students using computers for their writing, however, these students reported that they considered the computer to be an integral and positive part of the course. An analysis of the content of student essays, in which the class was asked to describe the effect the computer had on their writing habits, showed students reporting three main effects:

  1. Computers helped make the emerging text more visible;
  2. Computers made editing easier;
  3. Computers motivated the students to write.

The first two advantages mentioned were expected, but the third surprised and encouraged me. While research has shown that writing students generally have positive attitudes about word processing (Barker, 1987), I had not been sure whether computer use would enhance or interfere with the learning experience of my particular students, all of whom were older than average and less technologically sophisticated than younger students. The fact that these students reported computers to be a motivating factor is encouraging. Consider a typical comment from one student's essay: "The words leap out at me when I sit down at the computer. . . . I . . . feel more freedom in my writing and the computer has helped me remove the cobwebs from my mind." Reading through essay after essay in which formerly reluctant writers spoke in terms of "confidence," "relaxed," "takes the worry out," "sense of mastery," "solved my problem," "instrument of pleasure," "enjoyment," and "freedom," I felt my initial apprehensions put to rest.

When the class ended, course evaluations found students unanimous in their praise of the computer as a writing aid. Asked what the most useful aspect of the computer had been, 10 students mentioned that the computer helped them see errors, emphasizing the same increased visibility described in their essays. Nine of the 12 claimed they used computers for every stage of the writing process or for everything except the initial idea generation. (This latter was, incidentally, the stage where as many students rated computers "somewhat useful" or "of little use" as rated it "extremely useful.")

When asked what disadvantages they found in computer use, most students answered "none." At best, they were willing to say that giving back the machine that had become their friend was a problem. Looking back over my instructional experiences, however, I would be more critical about the students' computer experience in relation to my teaching.

When I started my first semester of computer-assisted instruction, I quickly came to understand what Sommers (1985) meant when she said, "Plug in the computer and all our hard work gets harder, not easier" (p.8). One of the greatest difficulties was trying to plan the amount of time that students would need to complete in-class exercises, such as short writing assignments or grammar practice. Although planning effective time-use always presents a problem when students have varying levels of writing fluency, I found that the computer factor seemed to increase the disparity. Students with weaker writing skills often tended to be the same students who took longer to catch on to computers, so while 15 minutes might have allowed one student enough time to produce a substantial paragraph, another was able to produce only one sentence because of the struggle over what words to choose coupled with the struggle to remember how to delete an unwanted letter. In the semester that followed, I dealt with this problem by making most in-class writing assignments group efforts during the first six or eight weeks and by assigning at least one good typist to each group.

A second disadvantage was a need for more patience than I--and the students--normally had. It seems to take longer to see improvement in the students' written work in my computer-assisted class than it did in my traditional writing class. The upturn in the learning curve, which I normally expect to see around midterm time, does not occur until about two-thirds of the way through the semester. Especially during the first six weeks of the class, some students seem to be spending all their energy figuring out how to get to the point where they can actually type something into the computer at home, save it, and be sure to retrieve it in time for class. I kept agonizing, during my first semester with this new course, that my methods weren't working; I had envisioned students being magically transformed into accomplished writers merely by virtue of carrying the computer over their threshold. Even though I've found again and again that the time and frustration pay off by the end of the semester, I still worry about the students' problem of not being able to see more immediate improvement in their writing. Does the motivating factor of the computer offset the demoralizing effect of not seeing grades and writing skills improve as rapidly as one might otherwise?

A third problem arose from my underestimating the importance of hard copy. I had read the article by Haas and Hayes (1986) that pointed out the difficulty of reading from the terminal screen and discussed the problem of losing the "intimacy" that writers have developed with pen and paper as well as losing the ability of seeing the whole text. However, I believed that my students were ones who had not yet developed much intimacy with writing or writing tools. Further, I assumed we would be working mainly on word and sentence revisions, so limitation in screen size would not present a problem. The students and I soon realized, however, that the paperless classroom was not effective, and my daily lesson plans had to be revised to allow more time for editing and proofing from hard copy. How much hard copy use is appropriate, and whether lack of home access to printers is a serious drawback for students, remain problems for the course.

Despite such unforeseen problems, and despite many others I had foreseen (how many times did I hear a student with a blank disk protest, "But I know my essay's in here somewhere. . ."?), my experiences over the last two years have led me to believe that the advantages computers offer to the teachers of adult basic writers far outweigh the disadvantages.


As the research cautions, computers alone do not improve student writing; they may even reinforce bad habits. They are effective only when integrated into sound teaching practice. (See, among others, Strickland, 1987; Sommers, 1985; and Hult, 1988.) But ease of integration and the development of new teaching strategies are the computer's main advantages. Because each teacher must determine just what "sound teaching practice" is, computers offer the teacher as well as the student a chance for "revision." Over the last two years, I have been forced to re-examine all aspects of my teaching and to determine when computers are most successful in helping non-traditional students learn to write.

The most obvious change was the number of new "tricks" suddenly available. When working with the third person singular verb endings, for instance, I could now give the students, on disk, a paragraph in the first person, show them the "find and replace" command, have them, with a few keystrokes, substitute their name for every "I," and then let them go back through the paragraph to make any verb ending changes that were necessary. Moreover, introducing a computer command during a grammar exercise, and then discussing how that same command could be used later as students composed essays, helped to bring all the elements of writing closer together around the central focus of the computer.

A less obvious change, but one that I've come to feel is more important than an expanded arsenal of exercises, was the change in classroom atmosphere. More than before, students were the center of activity, and I was a coach and resource person. I gave them the equipment and structure for learning, then trusted them to use them appropriately. This did not mean that I was no longer involved in the classroom activity. As I looked around the class at screens full of text, I suddenly had more access to students' composing habits and more chance to intervene. The intervention, however, did not seem to be as intrusive as before. Writing was not "finished" as early. The very fluidity of the text on the screen seemed to make it more acceptable for me--and others--to suggest changes while still respecting the writer's text.

According to Malcolm Knowles (1980), the ideal environment for adult learning is one in which learning takes place in a spirit of mutual inquiry and respect, through a self-directed process with students motivated by internal incentives to solve problems. Access to home and classroom use of computers encourages such an environment. One student wrote the following:

The inventor of the word processor must of had me in mind when he/she thought of the idea. He probably said to himself, 'my good friend Elbert needs help with writing, I think I'll invent the word processor.'. . . With the ability to structure, punctuate and proof read what I have written and be able to move it around to suit my style, the computer/word processor gives me a sense of mastery over the written word.

Many students echoed Elbert's estimation of word processing.

There is a new spirit of collaboration, a new feeling of professionalism, empowerment, and self-directed learning among my basic writing students as they work at their terminals. Despite our early struggles and the continued worries that plague any new program, I believe our $14,000 bought quite a bargain.

Linda J. Stine is a professor at Lincoln University in Lincoln University, Pennsylvania.


This article is based on a paper presented at the November 1987 National Council of Teachers of English Conference in Los Angeles.

I thank my colleagues Cynthia Horgan and Tony Applegate for their assistance in evaluating student data and tabulating results.


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Haas, C., & Hayes, J. (1986). What did I just say? Reading problems in writing with a machine. Research in the Teaching of English, 20(1), 22-35.

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