7(1), November 1989, pages 13-25

How Word Processing is Changing our Teaching:
New Technologies, New Approaches, New Challenges

Dawn Rodrigues and Raymond Rodrigues

We would like to begin with an anecdote. Last fall, a conscientious graduate student walked into the new computer classroom at Colorado State, thinking it was just another computer lab. He sat down at the only available computer (which happened to be connected to the only available printer) and began working on a project. The teacher, who did not appreciate his rude entry into the middle of her composition class, immediately walked over to him and quietly explained that a class was in session. "It won't bother me," he said. Realizing that he needed to be addressed more directly, the teacher continued, "You'll have to leave the room." Incredulous, the student dutifully complied. Later that day, he complained to the lab director about the rude treatment he had been forced to endure. When the lab director reminded him that he had interrupted a teacher's class, he responded, "But the teacher wasn't teaching." The lab director asked how he knew that no teaching was taking place. The student replied, "All the students were doing was typing."

All the students were doing was typing. Hardly. For when teachers teach writing with computers, their teaching changes--in ways that most casual observers probably cannot appreciate, in ways that teachers themselves can't always predict, and in ways that early researchers (focusing on the effects of word processing on the quality of written products) were unable to imagine. In this paper, we would like to explore a few of the diverse ways teachers have responded with ingenuity and vision to the challenges of technology.

We will begin with some background about teachers' early experiences with computer software. Then, we will move to a presentation of some variations on teaching with a word processing package and related tools that have made it possible for teachers to develop different computer-writing pedagogies for their distinct contexts: traditional classroom, computer lab, or some combination. The point we want to make is that, regardless of their contexts, as long as students have access to a word-processing program, teachers who re-envision their teaching as a result of the available technology can create dynamic classroom environments for writing.

From Supplemental to Integrative Roles for Computers

Word processing is now regarded as an invaluable tool for teaching writing. It was not always so highly rated. Initially, most teachers sought elaborate software, not word-processing programs, for their computer-assisted classrooms and labs; in the early part of the 1980s, teachers flocked to sessions focusing on computers and composition at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, listening in amazement as the speakers described what computers could do: Prewriting programs like Hugh Burns' TOPOI (1984) and our own CREATIVE PROBLEM-SOLVING (1984) could engage students in dialogue; style analysis programs like the WRITER'S WORKBENCH (Kiefer & Smith, 1983) could analyze students' text for possible usage errors; and commenting programs like RSVP, developed at Miami-Dade Community College (Anandam, 1980), could help teachers grade papers.

Teachers were fascinated primarily by the instructional features of these early programs--the way the computer software could, purportedly, handle a variety of onerous chores and thus free teachers for other tasks. Reflecting this interest, William Wresch's essay, "Computers in English Class: Finally Beyond Grammar and Spelling Drills" (1982), focuses on only the mentoring features of computer software. Similarly, our "Computer-Assisted Invention: Its Place and Potential" (Rodrigues & Rodrigues, 1984) indicates that a primary benefit of prewriting and invention programs is their ability to function as supplemental tutoring systems. We, too, were dazzled by the software and-- in envisioning the role of pre-writing software as an out-of-class teaching supplement--failed to consider ways students might use these programs in a computer classroom. With teachers present, pre-writing programs can become writing tools rather than teaching machines. With a teacher present, students are more likely to judiciously use prewriting programs, selecting programs appropriate for their individual writing needs and suitable to their varying writing tasks.

Teachers' first attempts to integrate word processing into their classes were similarly shortsighted. Teachers viewed word processing as a possible solution to current pedagogical problems instead of as a teaching tool. For instance, in their hope that students would revise and edit more extensively if they typed their drafts at a computer terminal, teachers willingly and eagerly sent students to the new computer labs being established in their schools. Sending students to a computer for help was, they soon discovered, unproductive. Word-processing packages themselves do not teach students how to revise. The results of early research are disappointing: Students revised no more using a word-processing program on a computer than they did using pencil and paper (Kurland, 1982). Subsequent research has confirmed these results: Other than two reports of slight improvement in the quality of basic writers' texts (King, Birnbaum, & Wageman, 1984; Pivarnik, 1985), there has not been any evidence to suggest that the word processing alone makes a significant difference in writing quality (Hawisher, 1988). And why should it? Word-processing packages themselves do not teach students how to write and revise--but teachers can.

By focusing on the idea that computer programs can replace teachers in their ability to handle certain subtasks of teaching--what Fred Kemp has called the "replacement fallacy" (1987)--teachers had temporarily failed to grasp a more powerful aspect of computers: their capacity to expand human understanding "much like telescopes can extend human vision" (Kemp, 1987). With experience, however, teachers recognized the limitations of their early use of computers and software, and they began to view their teaching through technological lenses. As a result, teachers have learned how to create exciting computer environments in their classes, environments that are beginning to have a powerful impact on their teaching.

Different Contexts, Different Pedagogies

Anyone who has the opportunity to look closely at a variety of classrooms across the country will see that teachers have developed a variety of ways to respond to the availability of word processing. Their responses vary depending on their individual contexts: the number of computers teachers have available to them, the placement of their computers, and the frequency with which their students can gain access to the computers. And, of course, their teaching strategies vary according to the ability of the teacher to continue learning and adjusting to both the changing students and the changing technology.

As teachers experience the effect word processing has on their students' writing behaviors, they tend to make significant changes in their teaching strategies. For example, instead of having students complete pre-writing activities individually, teachers frequently encourage students to generate ideas in pairs or in small groups. Instead of recommending that all students use the word processing in the same way, teachers now are inclined to encourage students to develop their own combinations of pencil and paper and computer-writing strategies. Teachers are finding Bridwell's early observations (1984-1985) to be accurate: Writers do indeed react to word processing in vastly different ways. Not only do students who are accustomed to doing a lot of pre-planning on paper have difficulty when they attempt to compose at the monitor, students with limited access to computers rarely learn how to compose freely and comfortably at the computer monitor. Even the notion of what constitutes a computer-composer has changed. As Hawisher (1988) notes:

Whereas at one time computer composing tended to demand that every task or subprocess entailed in the activity of writing be performed at a computer, there seems to be growing agreement that writers who use some combination of strategies involving both hard copy and on-line composing are indeed computer composers. (p. 9)

Paul LeBlanc's recent essay in Computers and Composition (1988) emphasizes the need for teachers to acknowledge students' different computer-writing processes in their teaching. LeBlanc explains that writers with different writing processes have distinct kinds of problems when they become computer composers; thus, teachers need to develop an assortment of pedagogies to "maximize the computer's helpfulness" (p. 30). For example, if a teacher notices that a student revises excessively, the teacher needs to know when to intervene and help the student writer overcome the writing problem caused by the ease of revising with a word-processing program. If another student does not revise enough, the teacher needs to be certain that the student can indeed use the commands for moving and copying text.

Because the contexts in which teachers teach with computers vary and because those contexts determine much of how and what they teach, the strategies teachers use and the innovations they develop differ. We have grouped those primary contexts for teaching with computers in three categories: teaching in a traditional classroom while students have some access to computers in other contexts; teaching in a traditional classroom with regular or occasional use of a computer lab; and teaching in a computerized classroom.

The Traditional Classroom Context
This is probably the most common context that composition instructors find themselves in, and, given the financial constraints of most institutions, it may be the model for the near future. In this context, the instructor teaches in a room without computers, but the students have access to computers outside the classroom. In some schools, they can go to a campus-wide or department computer laboratory, or they can write on their personal computers in their rooms or in residence hall computer labs.

Many instructors in these contexts continue teaching in traditional ways. But instructors can--and many do--modify their traditional classrooms. They bring computers into the room to demonstrate composing techniques, hooking the computer to a large-screen monitor or video-data display, or they bring in a videotape of different writers' emerging text. (The instructor easily can create the latter by hooking a computer to a videotape machine and recording while someone is writing.) Then, the instructor plays the tape in class, demonstrating how the writer on each segment of the tape actually writes--with false starts, deletions, insertions, paragraph moves, or any other writing techniques that the students should be aware of. An excellent use for this technique is in demonstrating revision strategies: As a segment of text appears on the screen, the instructor can stop the videotape and ask the students to suggest ways the text might be improved. Then, the instructor can start the tape and let the students see how the text was moved and re-shaped by the writer in the process of revising.

Teachers make other changes in their traditional classroom approaches. Because they know that students have access to word processing outside of class, they frequently assume that all drafts used in class will be printed drafts. The ease of reading these means that students will be able to work collaboratively--and more rapidly--as they offer revision suggestions. Realizing that their peers all have entered their drafts at a word processor encourages students to suggest substantive changes, knowing that their advice will be received more willingly by their partners, who will not have to recopy their texts to revise.

As students work on a given assignment, the instructor can ask different students to bring in printed copies of their drafts in a variety of stages. Drafts now take on a new meaning for writers, who can save each successive "draft" with a new name and thus chart the movement of their text through a cycle of revisions. Teachers either can photocopy the computer printouts, make overhead projector transparencies of them, or both. The ease by which these multiple drafts can be produced and duplicated means that writing becomes more immediate and, therefore, more meaningful for students.

In discussing writing with the entire class, many instructors relate specific writing strategies to the word-processing capabilities. The language of the instructor changes accordingly. Instead of speaking only about "revising," "adding details," or "reorganizing," the instructor also speaks of "deleting," "inserting," or "moving." Brainstorming moves from being a classroom exercise that many students do not actually do when they work independently with pencil and paper to an activity teachers can choreograph with an assignment such as the following:

List all the things you want to write about at the bottom of your file. Then start writing and move back and forth from your list of ideas to your draft. Bring along your printed list and your draft to class next time.

Technical advice, especially necessary when some students are new to word processing, also enters the discussions: "Be sure to save your files as often as possible"; "If you write in the computer lab, be sure to print a hard copy before you leave"; or even, "Make sure you protect your floppy disk when you carry it out of the lab."

In short, when students have access to word processing, teaching in a traditional classroom need not be traditional teaching. Instructors can adjust their teaching if they are aware of the possibilities offered by word processing. When writing tasks are completed at the computer, expectations for what students will bring to class change, and the nature of classroom interactions changes, too.

The Traditional Classroom Supplemented by Computer Laboratories
Even though most composition classrooms may not have computers within them, many instructors now have the option of reserving the computer laboratory--either regularly or occasionally--as an extension of the classroom. The laboratory can be used by students either individually or as a class. If an entire class is to use the computer laboratory, and if other instructors also use the laboratory, scheduling must be correlated with the pedagogical intent of the laboratory sessions. Some instructors schedule the class into the laboratory for one session a week. In such a case, instructors often use the laboratory for a specific phase of writing, such as drafting the initial draft or revising after peer critiques. The original laboratory at Colorado State, for example, was used for style analysis but now has multiple uses. Some English Departments reschedule laboratory times every two or three weeks, allowing instructors to vary their purposes for taking classes to the laboratories. And other laboratories are scheduled on a first-come, first-serve basis, with appropriate controls to accommodate any instructor who desires to use the laboratory.

If the lab that students have available to them outside of class is "networked" with an electronic mail system, students may be able to collaborate on common writing projects without needing to be present at the same time. Asynchronous systems do not require that the intended recipient of the message be present at the time the message is sent, but the systems allow students to check their computer mailboxes whenever their schedules permit. And if students can communicate with the laboratory through a modem, either by reaching the laboratory through a campus-wide network from anywhere on campus or by phoning from off-campus, the use of the laboratory is multiplied. Teachers at New Jersey Institute of Technology have conducted entire courses in what they describe as a "virtual classroom"--a classroom that "meets" only when students access their mail and respond to teacher or peer questions.

At Colorado State, instructors in the English Department have used electronic mail capabilities for a variety of purposes. After students have read a common reading, they respond to the writing in free-response entries or in specifically cued responses, posting their responses in a mail file that others can access only in "read-only" mode. In their next electronic assignment, teachers might ask students to respond to or comment on the responses of the other writers. In one instructor's class, students have used mail in a less-structured way, carrying on extensive conversations debating issues through the mail system. In all of these examples, electronic mail functions as an electronic double-entry notebook, a computer arena for collaborative reflection.

Although each class can converse in written messages with all members in the class or even with members of other classes, some instructors prefer, at times, to divide their classes into small groups so that these students collaborate more efficiently with one another on specialized projects. In short, the computer laboratory has allowed instructors to continue their instruction beyond the traditional classroom, even when the instructor cannot be present.

The Computerized Classroom
We first envisioned the computerized classroom as the ideal context for teaching writing, but economics have not allowed that to materialize for many English departments, and some instructors have decided that they prefer to have at least one class period per week in a context away from the computers. Nevertheless, the ability to teach writing in a classroom in which writers can compose and revise at their own computers provides new variations. As Ronald Sudol (1985) has remarked, teaching writing in a computer classroom "offers an opportunity to reinvent the workshop classroom model in the context of the new technology" (p. 331). We will discuss computer laboratories that are not networked and those that are networked.

Both networked and non-networked classrooms allow the instructor to observe, coach, and monitor students as they write. In a non-networked lab, an instructor maybe able to use a large monitor or a data view projector (a device that is used in conjunction with a computer and an overhead projector) to allow everyone to view the writing on one computer. Students can be asked to come up to that computer and demonstrate specific writing techniques that others might want to emulate. By being able to monitor students as they write, teachers can be alert for "model ways" that students use to generate or revise text. They can then ask students to re-play that strategy for all to see.

Guiding the work of students in such a lab requires a flexible instructor capable of shifting from a student who is still generating ideas to a student who is revising a draft. The workshop environment that evolves when writers work on essays in a computer classroom has little resemblance to a traditional classroom. A computer classroom is noisy, seemingly chaotic, and demands new teaching strategies. Students in various stages of writing challenge the instructor to find or schedule specific times to work with students on common writing experiences. In this particular computer-classroom context, teachers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst found a need for in-service training on how to read and respond quickly to student writing on-line rather than on paper (Moran & LeBlanc, 1989).

How the room is physically arranged also influences the way that an instructor teaches. For example, in one writing laboratory at Colorado State with computers arranged around the four walls, inexperienced computer-writing instructors expressed dismay at not having a "front of the room." We are still learning how well and in how many ways they have adjusted to this perceived problem. But it does serve to symbolize the influence of the computer upon instructors. Should the monitors all be visible from the center of the room (and students, therefore, be facing the walls) so that the instructor can easily read what each person is writing? Or should the monitors face toward the walls (with students facing the center of the room) so that the instructor can observe the faces of the students and respond to facial cues? Personal preferences may have to yield to the will of the majority within a department.

If the computers are networked, a new set of possibilities influences the instructor. If the laboratory is capable of video data switching (the capability of displaying the text on any screen or on any other screen or screens), for example, the instructor can enable all students in the class to observe another student's writing by switching that student's input to all terminals in the room. The other students can observe the writing as it evolves or can critique it at a particular moment. If students are grouped on different "channels," the instructor can effectively promote collaborative activities within those groups, can enable the groups to work on common writing tasks, and can develop a wide variety of peer writing tasks.

With video-switching and CB-chat utilities (a feature that allows students to send messages to one another, to small groups, or to the entire class in "real-time"), students can carry out actual dialogues in writing. By using such written dialogues, students can learn how written "talk" can be used for inventing ideas (Batson, 1989). This experience may help students develop the ability to sustain a line of discussion for amazingly long stretches of time, not only in casual written conversations, but, eventually, in their own drafts.

A potential problem that instructors may experience when they teach with this "chat mode" occurs when student responses to one another's questions do not appear in sequence on the screen but are interspersed by other students' responses to still other students' questions. For example, a student may respond to one particular comment only to find eight other responses interspersed before his or hers and to discover that the topic shifted. Thus, a continuous, meaningful interchange may be destroyed. As with other networked approaches, having small groups or pairs of students on separate channels will overcome this problem. The Annenberg Corporation has funded the ENFI project (Electronic Networks for Interaction), a consortium of several universities who are doing research in the benefits, methods, and potential problems of this use of synchronous networked conversations.

As these varied situations demonstrate, computer classrooms allow teachers to create new kinds of writing environments, and, as S. Bailey Shurbutt (1987) has noted, when students learn how to use the computer in such settings, they develop control over their writing. By creating powerful environments for writers, teachers discover that word processing presents opportunities for them to help students in ways that traditional techniques simply did not allow.

Conclusion: New Approaches, New Challenges

As we have prepared to teach with computers, our concept of our teaching roles has changed. And as our view of computers and computer software has broadened in scope, we have learned how to orchestrate our students' learning experiences. Instead of searching for software to solve our teaching problems, we have begun actively to re-invent classroom teaching. Thus, neither research findings, nor computer contexts, nor our limited understanding of computers and software stand in the way of our teaching students to write.

Teachers now realize that the activities of students as they write both on and off the computer have to flow smoothly, or else the computer-writing experiences can lead to improved motivation without improved writing. Researchers now realize that they are unlikely to document actual improvement in the quality of student writing as a result of students' using the computer if the teacher and students have not tapped the full potential of the computer. Accordingly, researchers have begun to re-examine their research designs (see Bridwell-Bowles in this issue).

In short, teachers who integrate computers into their writing classes really are teaching more than just what they would teach if they did not use computers, or if they relied only on fancy software. They are teaching a new way of thinking about and working with writing--a way of thinking of text as fluid and movable, a way of thinking about communication as dynamic and purposeful.

When visitors observe what is happening in computer classrooms across the country, what do they see? Are the students typing, revising, or writing? Are the teachers teaching? When we teach writing with computers, our teaching and our students' writing behaviors change

in ways that a casual observer might not appreciate.

Raymond Rodrigues and Dawn Rodrigues teach at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, Colorado.


Some of these strategies for teaching writing with computers are described in more detail in a forthcoming NCTE publication: Computers in English and the Language Arts: The Challenge of Teacher Education (Selfe, Rodrigues, & Oates, NCTE, 1989).


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