6(3), August 1989, pages 35-45

Developing Connections:

Computers and Literacy

Ellen Barton and Ruth Ray

Universities nationwide are altering their curricula in response to a perceived literacy crisis in higher education. Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, is a typical example: Beginning in the fall of 1988, all students must demonstrate, by passing a test or a designated course, that they are literate in the areas of math, critical thinking, writing, and computing. Though Wayne State has had a writing requirement for nearly 30 years, the other areas are new general education requirements designed to ensure that all students have achieved a functional level of literacy which ostensibly prepares them for academic work as well as social and professional life beyond the university. The troubling assumption behind this curriculum reform is that literacy is a set of unrelated basic skills, ones that can be tested and certified. We argue here against this fractured view of literacy and propose that students and faculty must take responsibility for developing a more integrated view of literacy in the university. We also suggest ways in which learning about computers could play a significant role in learning about literacy.

It is unfortunate, but understandable, that universities have not developed a coherent view of literacy. The diversity of today's student body is one of the major factors in the university's dilemma over literacy; student populations are growing increasingly nontraditional in age, social class, financial need, ethnic background and academic preparedness. At Wayne State, for example, where the students are three times as likely as the national norm to be first-generation college students and 26% of the average parental income of dependent students is below the state-wide norm; 95% of the students are commuters; 75% are employed; 34% are over age 25; and 30% are minority students (University Counseling Services, 1987). These figures not only describe a diverse group of learners, but also foreshadow students' futures, for these figures are the demographic factors that have been shown to correlate highly with academic failure, particularly in the first year of college. The first-year attrition rate at Wayne State, which is 28% and rising, is not unusual; nationwide, the largest number of college students drop out during their first year (Hodgkinson, 1985). Universities such as Wayne State are in the difficult position of wanting to provide educational opportunities to nontraditional students and to keep these students in school, yet needing to uphold traditional standards of academic excellence. The awkward juxtaposition of the two missions becomes obvious in university deliberations about literacy requirements.

Another major reason universities lack a coherent, integrated view of literacy is because students, faculty, and administrators often have a discipline-specific concept of education, one that regards literacy, if at all, simply as a set of basic skills. Students in college typically do not regard literacy as a broad concern central to their lives, and they often do not see university requirements in relation to any concept of literacy. Students in science and engineering, for instance, accept math and computing requirements, seeing them as important and relevant to their work, but they object to requirements in critical thinking and writing, not seeing these areas as essentially connected to their academic interests. Similarly, students in humanities support requirements in critical thinking and writing, but object to those in math and computing, also not seeing any relationships among thinking, writing, calculating, and computing. Faculty within academic departments are discipline-specific as well; they teach and test within their particular subjects, mostly unaware of efforts in other departments and often unconcerned with broader concepts that can connect fields. Most faculty in the English Department, for example, have no idea and little interest in what the university requirements in math and computing should include; similarly, members of the Math and Computer Science Departments have little interest in what the university requirement in English should include beyond basic grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Administrators, too, while they may identify literacy as an umbrella concept uniting different areas and types of requirements, still typically see it as the responsibility of the separate departments. The general tendency among students, faculty, and administrators is to view math, critical thinking, writing, and computing as basic skills, static entities that students must prove they have mastered by taking a test or passing a course. As a result of this discipline-specific, skills-oriented perspective, literacy is not one literacy but multiple literacies which appear to have little theoretical or pedagogical relationship to one another.

Unfortunately, many of the ways in which computers are brought into most university curricula reinforce this fractured concept of literacy. Lacking a coherent, university-wide concept of the relation between thinking, writing, calculating, and computing, faculty in each department debate among themselves about the place of computers within their particular discipline. Ultimately, each department implements its own form of computer-assisted instruction or incorporates its own uses of computers, largely unaware of the ways in which computers have been implemented in other departments. Again, efforts at our own institution exemplify this discipline-specific method of computer implementation. The Math Department at Wayne State has committed its computer resources entirely to remediation: Students in the department's CAI lab progress through electronic workbook modules to prepare them to pass the university requirement in mathematics. In contrast, the English Department has for the most part rejected CAI and has committed its computer resources entirely to the development of a writing center directing their efforts toward students in first-year English and in upper-level writing courses, rather than remedial learners. Faculty in Math and English know little about how computers are used in each others' departments and even less about how students' learning in various disciplines is affected by computers. As a result of discipline-specific teaching, the use of computers reinforces the current concept of literacy as a set of separate skills. Computer literacy is merely added to the list of basic requirements, none of which are viewed in terms of one another.

To replace the current fractured concept, universities need to require an integrated concept of literacy, one that encompasses both the cognitive and social dimensions and that views literacy as an enabling strategy necessary to succeed within an increasingly complicated society. From this perspective, literacy is not merely the cognitive processes of reading, writing, calculating and so on but also the social processes of demonstrating in appropriate ways that one is knowledgeable in these areas (Cook-Gumperz, 1986; Chafe & Tannen, 1987; Kintgen, Kroll, & Rose, 1988). A recent Carnegie Foundation report presciently entitled "A Nation Prepared" (1986) makes specific some aspects of an integrated view of literacy. Arguing from the premise that the nation needs people who will be the foundation of a thriving economy and an effective democracy, the report presents a view of literacy that is based on critical and social abilities rather than basic skills, citing the following as crucial to students' success in the 1990s and beyond:

In more general terms, the Carnegie Report calls for abilities in problem solving, analysis, information management, and social cooperation, all of which add up to a definition of literacy that is dynamic rather than static, and whose characteristic feature is a creativity that enables full participation in academic and social life rather than a mastery that merely certifies compliance with school requirements.

However, the Carnegie Report does not indicate what place, if any, writing, and in particular, writing with and about computers, might play in literacy education. We propose that writing could play a significant part in moving faculty and students toward a broader-based literacy oriented toward creativity problem solving, analysis, and life-long learning. The cumulative research in composing over the past 20 years provides overwhelming evidence that writing is both a cognitive and social activity, one which fosters the creative and critical abilities central to an integrated view of literacy (Emig, 1977; Berthoff, 1981; Bartholomae, 1986; Bizzell, 1982). In addition, research in writing-across-the-curriculum indicates that there is a symbiotic relationship between writing and the discipline in which it is practiced; in other words, writing requires a certain kind of thinking about a discipline and improves one's understanding of that discipline through the articulation of that thinking (Fulwiler & Young, 1986; Stock, 1983). We suggest that thinking and writing about computers could provide a means for students to see literacy from a broad-based interdisciplinary perspective and to become aware of a responsibility for developing their own literacy.

In an initial attempt to incorporate our theory of literacy into our own teaching, we recently designed a graduate course which explored the connections between computers and literacy using the focus on computers to lead into a consideration of literacy in general . In the class, students read research in artificial intelligence, philosophy, psychology, sociology, education, and composition studies, and they wrote journal entries and critiques evaluating the research and developing their perspectives on the relationships among thinking, computing, and writing.

To learn how computer systems work and to discover what computer thinking can reveal about human thinking, students read Margaret Boden's Artificial Intelligence and Natural Man (1987). Students debated and critiqued Boden's claim that research in artificial intelligence leads to a theory of mind, and, in the process, discovered the complexities in their own thinking and learning revealed through the achievements in and limitations of artificial intelligence. Students also read philosophical arguments against artificial intelligence by H. L. Dreyfus (What Computers Can't Do, 1979) and H. L. Dreyfus and S. E. Dreyfus (Mind over Machine, 1986) responding to the claim that computers cannot replicate essential kinds of human thinking, specifically types of nonformal reasoning. From their discussion of these readings, students came to understand the formal and nonformal characteristics of human thought by articulating their positions within the major controversies in the field of artificial intelligence. They also came to see the importance of this understanding in a technological world; those who know about the state of artificial intelligence can evaluate the realistic potentials and limitations of computers in society.

To examine broader psychological and social perspectives on computers, students read Turkle's The Second Self (1984) considering both negative and positive ways in which people interact with computers and discussing Turkle's claim that the use of computers changes one' s sense of self. Students also read from Naisbitt's Megatrends (1982) and Waldrop's Man-Made Minds (1987) discussing the role computers play in contemporary social life. They wrote about the ways computers affect different parts of their lives, including their classes, their jobs, and their relationships with other people. Students discussed, for example, how other students and co-workers view computers in school and on the job. They also discussed how computerized communications have altered the ways in which people interact with one another, creating new social concepts of etiquette and privacy.

To consider the uses of computers in education, students read Papert's Mindstorms (1980) discussing the potential of computers for internalizing mathematical concepts and methods of analytical thought in children. They debated the value of computers as problem-solving tools, discussing the ways in which computers might enhance or inhibit learning not only in mathematics, but also in many different fields.

Finally, to explore the connections between computers and writing, students read extensively in composition research, considering a variety of perspectives including Heim's philosophical critique in Electric Language: Philosophical Perspectives on Word Processing (1987), Aronowitz and Giroux's political critique in Education Under Siege (1985), and Selfe's feminist argument in "Technology in the English Classroom" (1988). They also reviewed research studies on the advantages and disadvantages of computers in the writing classroom (Bridwell, Nancarrow, & Ross, 1984; Collins & Sommers, 1985; Gerrard, 1987; Halpern & Liggett, 1984; Hawisher, 1986; Wresch, 1984). Students experimented with a variety of software for writing including word-processing, text-analysis, bibliographic, and hypertext programs discussing the assumptions about writing that underlie the development of writing software.

As a final project for the course, students conducted their own research studies most of which were based on interviews and case studies of the ways people use computers in various academic and non-academic settings. Projects included descriptions of the uses of text-analysis programs in a local law firm; debates about the meaning of computer literacy among Ph.D. students in computer science; the use of computers to teach writing at a local community college; the limitations of computers in the teaching of second languages; the negative reactions of one group of junior high teachers to a school mandate for computer literacy; the arguments for and against hypertext in the teaching of reading and writing; the ways in which computer-assisted poetry raises issues about the nature of poetry and the poet; and the characteristic ways in which students use computers for writing. These projects were specific investigations of the uses of computers, as well as more general explorations of the relations between computers and issues of writing, thinking, learning, and literacy.

We designed this course as a means of encouraging students, many of them future high school teachers and college faculty members, to analyze the ways in which computing, thinking, learning, and writing might be interrelated. Throughout the course, we found that thinking about computers led to thinking about the nature of human thought, the ways we learn, the ways we manage information, the ways we communicate, and the ways we relate to machines and to people, all of which comprise literacy as described in the Carnegie Report. In the course, we certainly asked more questions than we answered about the relationship between computers and literacy, but we accomplished the major objectives of the course: Our students came to debate the meaning of literacy and came to see the debate as central to their lives. Further, they learned to take a critical perspective on computers and the computers effect on both schools and society. Rather than viewing literacy as a set of basic skills or a body of discrete knowledge, our students developed a view of literacy as a way of thinking in a variety of academic and social contexts.

Encouraged by the success of our graduate course, we are planning ways in which we can use computers to create a broader understanding of literacy among our undergraduate students, who, after all, are the ones most affected by literacy requirements at the university. We suggest that students could fulfill these requirements through courses which reflect an interdisciplinary perspective on literacy, specifically in the introductory courses that many students take when they enter the university. At Wayne State, for example, students are required to enroll in a one-credit course entitled "Undergraduate Education: The University and Its Libraries," the objective of which is to "develop in students an awareness of the traditions, goals, and structures of universities" (Wayne State University Undergraduate Bulletin, 1987-89). The course is taught by faculty members from different departments. One means of introducing students to the university is to teach the course as an interdisciplinary exploration of the connections between computers and literacy. Students could learn how a computer can be a tool to help them think and learn in all subject areas: It is a text-making tool, which makes language more flexible; a research tool, which makes collecting information more efficient; a thinking tool, which makes certain formal operations explicit; and a communication tool, which makes other people within and beyond the university immediately accessible. Based on other introductory work with computers, students could discuss how these different capabilities of the computer affect their capabilities as students. We hope that using computers will make our students aware of the ways in which literacy consists not only of gathering specific information but also of thinking about information and using it in ways that are relevant to their lives. We also hope that asking students to reflect on literacy requirements will respond to the needs of our diverse student body, which includes many students who do not see the reasons for university requirement and who need to develop their individual perspectives on learning. Such individual perspectives might provide the basis for a successful integration of students into the university.

We believe that the courses we have described are a good alternative to the more typical skills-based class or the increasingly popular literacy exam. Skills-based classes and literacy exams are equally problematic: faculty and administration spend more time deliberating the logistics of administering the exam and teaching the course than in arguing the philosophical issues of teaching for literacy; and students spend more effort worrying about what is needed to pass the class or the exam than thinking about the importance of thinking, writing, and computing in their lives. For many faculty, such classes and exams are merely added responsibilities rather than integral elements of their teaching and research; for most students, skills-based classes and exams are arbitrary requirements, isolated from other course work and from any practical uses in life. The approach we propose attempts to make literacy education challenging and relevant for faculty as well as students. It also represents an attempt to develop connections between computers and literacy. This approach addresses the real basis of the literacy crisis in the university. The crisis, as we see it, is not so much a matter of what students know but a matter of how they take responsibility for their learning and how they use that learning in their lives.

Ellen Barton and Ruth Ray teach in the English Department at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.


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