My introduction to word processing early in the 1 980s was hardly ideal. The computer was actually an unfriendly terminal connected to the University's mainframe. The keyboard included a key labeled RUBOUT, which (I thought) threatened to unleash the power of an assassin if I mistakenly pressed it. The word- processing program was a line editor, better suited to programming computer code than to writing and revising sentences and paragraphs. The manual? Let me just say that in retrospect it makes today's manuals look clear and helpful. More disappointing still was the teacher, who was just as opaque. A technical whiz, she managed to confuse me every step of the way and revealed little of what a powerful instrument the computer could be in the writing process.
Since that time, computer equipment and word-processing programs have improved and so has most training. Most graduate students and faculty in English departments have taken eagerly to word processing as a tool for their own writing. But what about training in the use of computers for teaching writing and literature? There is some evidence (Wresch, 1987a) that a significant percentage of elementary and secondary English teachers are receiving some training in their education courses. For the most part, though, college English instructors are receiving little if any training in what is an increasingly important part of composition teaching.
Clearly, as the use of computers in writing instruction continues to grow, there will be an increasing need for training teachers, both graduate students just beginning to teach and experienced colleagues. The literature on computers and composition instruction is filled with advice about ways to use computers in teaching writing, but the literature has included little about training teachers. This article offers some suggestions for what such training should include: basic pedagogical principles, analysis of types of software, advice on evaluating software, and some suggested readings. As much as possible, I offer advice general enough to be adapted to different lengths of training. I try to convey the same basic principles in a semester-long course about computer-aided composition instruction as I do in a one-day faculty development or teaching assistant training session. Obviously, longer training provides opportunities to flesh out these principles, to read, to discuss, and to practice. Shorter training mandates more prescription and less practice and exploration, despite their importance.
Good training in computer-aided composition instruction should,
first of all, provide teachers with information-about possible
uses of computers in writing instruction and about different types
of computer programs. This information needs to be manageable
in size and systematically organized. Second, teachers need practice
using a computer and the programs they will use in their teaching.
Although learning how to operate the computer should not be the
focus of teacher training, without adequate knowledge of the computer's
operating system and of file management, teachers encounter unnecessary
frustrations when something goes wrong, as something always will.
Teachers also need practice with programs in order to determine
how to use them in their teaching. Program demonstrations and
descriptions, without practice, are too ephemeral. Third, and
most important, training needs to instill in teachers a necessary
balance between an unbridled enthusiasm for using computers in
writing instruction and an uncompromising skepticism about them.
Bryan Pfaffenberger argues for such a balanced perspective, a
kind of enthusiasm tempered with healthy skepticism: "[W]e
must bring to computing the same questioning, critical attitude
that we bring to our scholarship. That approach is the only way
to overcome received wisdoms, tacit assumptions, and the other
enemies of clear perception" (1987, p. 187). And as Douglas
Sloan (1985) argues, there does not need to be a binary choice
between being pro- or anticomputer. Instead, teachers need to
choose which uses are appropriate, and which are not.
In order to make intelligent choices, teachers need sound guidance
about using computers in writing instruction. Throughout the training
I conduct, I try to emphasize the following:
In order to use software in writing instruction, teachers need
to see a variety of possible ways to use computers and software
in their classrooms. (I mean "see" literally here; actual
programs should be demonstrated and teachers should have a chance
to practice with them.) To make sense of this variety, teachers
need a classification system for different types of uses. Literature
about software offers numerous possible classification systems,
organized around different principles. What follows is a system
I find helpful in explaining the field to newcomers, some brief
information about each type of program that I try to convey in
training, and references for more information. What matters is
not the particular system as much as having a system of some sort.
The uses are arranged roughly in order of my sense of their importance;
because I do not have time to introduce all of the types of programs,
I start at the top and go as far down as I can. One last point-
when I mention particular programs, I am suggesting examples of
types. Certainly others could be substituted for demonstration
This is of course the most common use of computers in writing instruction, and rightly so. Numerous practitioners, researchers, and theorists argue the advantages of providing students with the opportunity to write using a word processor and to have composition courses meet in computer classrooms. Word processing suits a writing curriculum that emphasizes revision. As Craig Etchison explains, the computer can become a writing tool that "can help foster those writing habits that have proven beneficial to experienced writers-habits such as revision, real revision, not just editing minor surface details." The computer can help "students understand the recursive nature of writing," by making it easy for them to respond to the developing needs of their papers (1985, p. 22). Although it may hardly seem necessary, it is appropriate to remind teachers that the mere use of computers will not foster the habits Etchison describes. Teachers should hear what Carolyn Boiarsky reminds researchers:
Computers do not revise; students do. Computers do not teach revising; teachers do. The word processor can function only as a tool to allow students to revise more easily, not as an instructor to help students acquire better revision techniques. (1988, p. 51)
Contrary to the expectation that writing classes meeting in a
computer lab are sterile or mechanical in some way, such a setting
seems to encourage a workshop atmosphere, one that facilitates
talk about writing among students and the instructor. Teachers
should be prepared for such a change in their classroom, and they
should be encouraged to take full advantage of the computer as
a teaching tool. They can, for example, quickly make multiple
copies of a sentence or paragraph from a student's paper, have
the student(s) experiment with possible revisions, and then compare
the effectiveness of each version. In a classroom with a video
network, it is easy to do such a demonstration for all students
to see; without such a network, the same thing can be done on
an individual computer for one student or a small group. Ronald
Sudol (1985) and Barbara Waxman (1987) provide good advice about
managing a writing course taught in a computer classroom and about
teaching students to use a word-processing program to explore
rhetorical options. Barbara Hutson and Diane Thompson explain
the powerful effect computers and collaboration can have in a
If it is true that we learn about physical aspects of the world through handling objects, moving them around, it may also be true that we learn about language as a system in part by acting upon it, moving elements around and observing the effects upon meaning. When we write alone, the intuitions about choices of words and structure are private, ephemeral, and often below the level of consciousness. But when we compose and revise with others, linguistic awareness and strategies for problem solving in language are likely to be made public and relatively explicit. (1985, p. 57)
There is a wide variety of these programs, ranging from simple outliners to interactive tutorials (such as SEEN, discussed by its author in this collection). These programs guide a student through generating and organizing ideas for a particular kind of paper, and they can include thinking, invention, planning, and organizing systems. Sometimes, several prewriting programs are bundled together with text analysis and revision tools in an integrated package, such as HBJ WRITER or WRITER'S HELPER STAGE II. The latter makes available to students a variety of means, from formal to fanciful, to generate and organize ideas. Teachers should also know that it is possible to create prewriting tutorials without doing any programming at all; instructors can write questions in standard word-processing files and then copy them to student disks as instructional files or computer exercises. Timothy Weiss describes such a teaching technique in a recent article (1989).
Revision Tools and Text Analysis
Revision tools and text-analysis programs are designed to help writers revise prose written on a word processor. Charles Smith (1989) and William Wresch (1989) distinguish between those revision tools which help writers see their text in new ways (by collapsing an essay around key sentences, for example) and those which identify possible problems with spelling, word choice, grammar, and style. The most commonly used text-analysis program, and probably the most valuable, is a spelling checker. When they go beyond checking spelling, all text-analysis programs have serious limitations, limitations teachers should see first-hand during their training (there are, of course, limitations in spelling checkers as well). Al though there have been significant improvements in the newest versions, text-analysis programs frequently miss problems they are designed to find, identify errors where none exist, and offer inappropriate advice because the programs obviously cannot understand the text they are analyzing. Teachers should be cautioned to think carefully about whether their students will benefit from the analysis offered by these programs, especially whether their students are mature enough as writers to distinguish between those responses which are accurate and helpful and those which are not.
Communication programs offer exciting new possibilities for writing instruction. They use the computer as a type of mailbox and telephone to allow writers to do such things as brainstorm collaboratively, share drafts for comment, and engage in a written discussion on a course-related issue. Such programs are of two general types. The first, an electronic messaging system, is akin to regular mail-a writer posts a message for others to read and reply to at a later time. Composition instructors and their students have found effective ways to use such systems in their composition classes to distribute assignments, to pose questions, and more generally to extend class discussion beyond the boundaries of regular class meetings (Kinkead, 1987). Some writing instructors are using Bitnet, a wide-area electronic mail network, to allow students to exchange drafts for review with peers on other campuses in other states, thus trying to broaden the response students get to their writing. Another use of this electronic message capability can be found in the SEEN program's electronic bulletin board on which students post their responses to tutorial questions for other students to read and comment on.
The second type of communication program used in writing instruction
is more like a telephone conference call, with students participating
at the same time, although communication is through writing, not
speech. Participants compose messages to each other on one half
of a computer screen; completed messages appear as part of a running
dialogue among participants on the other half of the screen. Such
programs as ENFI (developed at Gallaudet University) and INTERCHANGE
(developed at The University of Texas) are used as alternatives
to oral discussion at various stages of the writing process, from
brainstorming to revision. Teachers who use such programs find
that they equalize student participation; that they encourage
the precision in response that writing, as opposed to speech,
demands; and that they create a new form of written discussion,
which students enjoy.
Tutorials, Drill and Practice
This is a broad category, encompassing programs designed to teach skills ranging from semicolon usage to prosodic analysis. Although the computer may provide an efficient means to deliver tutorials and exercises on grammar and punctuation, having exercises on the computer rather than in a workbook does not change the fact that these types of exercises are of questionable pedagogical value. Teachers need to be reminded of this fact when they are introduced to these programs. If instructors want to use tutorial and drill programs, they should search for those which have clear pedagogical aims and accurate content; programs that give students immediate feedback on their work and that provide instruction as well as practice; programs that allow the instructor to change questions and answers; and programs that take advantage of the computer's graphic capabilities and its ability to tailor instruction to individual students through branching. Unfortunately, too few of these programs have such features.
Computers can open up worlds of information to students through electronic databases on all sorts of subjects, and composition teachers can bring this information into their classroom to help students learn about the process of doing research. Teachers can also have students create their own databases on subjects the students are researching, an excellent means for students to learn about selecting, sorting, and classifying information.
Authoring programs allow composition instructors who are not programmers to develop their own tutorials. Although these programs are still far from being as flexible and easy to use as English teachers would like, these programs make it possible for nonprogrammers to design much more sophisticated instructional programs than they could a few years ago. Teachers should be warned, though, that no matter how good the authoring programs, designing and developing instructional programs consume enormous amounts of time.
Once teachers determine what type of programs they want to use
in their writing courses, they need to be able to evaluate particular
programs. To help teachers choose programs and to influence program
developers, the National Council of Teachers of English has published
guidelines for evaluating programs. In addition, numerous books
offer criteria for evaluating instructional computing programs
in general and writing programs in particular. These criteria
tend to be very specific and often do not indicate which items
are most important. What follows is a brief and simple list of
what I consider the most useful questions to ask about programs.
For the most part, the questions apply to programs other than
word processing packages. Most of the questions are self-explanatory,
so I will present them without much elaboration. As was the case
with classification systems, what is important is not so much
which particular list of criteria teachers use to evaluate programs,
but that they know that evaluation is necessary and that they
have some means to do it. Obviously, instructors are often constrained
in what programs they can use by budgets and by prior departmental
selections. Nonetheless, they ought to ask tough, critical questions
about the programs available to them, and they should feel comfortable
choosing not to use certain programs.
Is the whole thing worth the bother? If a program is easy to use, is accepted by students, and covers a concept you intend to teach, then it will be used. If the program keeps breaking down, is rejected by students, or teaches a concept no one has taught since 1957, it won't be used. (1987a, p. 112)
Obviously the time available for training teachers in computer-aided composition instruction will determine how much reading about the field they can do. There are now, fortunately, a number of good books and articles to recommend. To warn teachers of some dangers and to calm their fears, all teachers using computers in a writing course for the first time should read Barbara Waxman's delightful essay "Catching the Runaway Train" (1987), which describes her experience teaching her first computer-aided composition class. For an overview of the types of programs available and of ways they can be used in teaching composition and literature, Wresch's The Computer in Composition Instruction: A Writer's Tool (1984) remains valuable. Wresch's Practical Guide to Computer Uses in the English/Language Arts Classroom (1987b), though designed for elementary and secondary teachers, offers much of value to college faculty as well. Hawisher's articles (1986, 1987, 1988) as well as Bridwell-Bowles' survey in this issue, reporting on research about the effects of word processing on writing, help make sense of a complicated subject that demands attention in teacher training. Within the past two years, a number of books have been published that offer a more critical perspective on the field, all of these readings can generate lively discussion in training sessions. Among them are Davis (1988), Dobrin (1989), and Hawisher and Selfe (1989).
I purposely do not provide a prescription or detailed syllabus
for training, because the amount of time available for computer
training and the user needs vary so much from one English department
to another. Regardless of the time available for training, I would
argue that writing teachers should learn about the kinds of programs
available, the possibilities for instruction in computer-aided
composition instruction, and the principles for using this instruction
suggested here. Those of us involved in computer-aided instruction
must work to develop effective training programs as part of professional
development activities for faculty and graduate students. Like
other pedagogical training, this training should be carefully
planned and well-taught. This training should also be ongoing,
in order to provide teachers with a chance to share their problems
and successes with colleagues. The goal of this training should
be to create knowledgeable instructors who have a critical perspective
on what they do. Stephen Marcus points to the importance of informed
instructors as we move forward in using computers in writing instruction:
If anything can be predicted about computers and literacy with much assurance, it is that some people will oversell the technology as a positive force and that others will decry it as an abomination. Perhaps the most we can hope for (and it has always served us well) is a continued reliance on talented teachers acquiring an informed exuberance. As always, they will be a major force in making the most of whatever the technology and their students offer. (1985, p. 116)
Bradley T. Hughes is Director of the Writing Lab
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