8(2), April 1991, pages 47-61

Pedagogy in the Computer-Networked Classroom

Janet M. Eldred

If we plot the narrative of computers in the writing classroom, we see events in two areas that have influenced the direction computer technology has taken: one, of course, is the rapidly developing technology itself; the second is composition pedagogy. As I have argued elsewhere, the technology used in our classrooms has reflected changing ideas about teaching writing. With traditional, product-centered teaching came an emphasis on editors, spell-checking features, and the like. Those classrooms that stressed process looked to word processing, to heuristic programs, and to the promise of an artificially intelligent machine that could help students think or "pre-write" more critically. In the past decade, with the introduction of critical theories and with the resurgence of classical rhetoric, we have seen the growth of social pedagogies, pedagogies that stress writing as a dialogic, dialectic act which should at its best "empower" writers. [1] Given that writing classrooms are now stressing composing as a public act, instructors or administrators who want to integrate computer technology into their classrooms should begin with two basics: word-processing packages and networking. Because networking is relatively new to composition classrooms, [2] I will devote this space to a discussion of networking. Networking can work in a writing classroom because it can be used to stress composing as a social, collaborative act, as an act of synthesizing and negotiating knowledge. But networking will work for us only if we plan carefully how we will use it in our classrooms, how we will take advantage of its strengths and downplay its weaknesses.

My purpose here is to stress the importance of planning, of carefully integrating networking technology into class plans. When word-processing packages became widely available, teachers who felt their benefits for their own writing eagerly embraced it as part of their classrooms, believing that students would instantly revise more. But after many studies, [3] researchers discovered that this premise was simply wrong: students did not revise any more than they had in the past. What these studies didn't measure was pedagogy; they focused, as Hawisher (1989) points out, on computers rather than on how students use them. When students were encouraged to revise, when revision was made part of the classroom plan, they revised more on paper as well as on diskette. However, the word-processing packages did make students feel that the task was easier. Teachers using word-processing packages thus discovered the necessity of emphasizing process, of making revisions an integral part of their class plans.

Likewise with networking. Discussing computer communication in business settings, Hiltz (1984) observes that

computer-mediated communication systems are not a technological magic wand that can be waved over an organization to achieve instantaneous transformations.... It takes some time for new users to become comfortable with the medium and realize the potential that it offers. It also takes the right social implementation, from the initial choice of an application that will supply a critical mass for the on-line community, through constant attention to facilitating or managing the group's work on-line. (p. 197)

Though we might balk at the words "social implementation" and claim that, unlike a business, we have no political or economical agenda, some careful reflection might prove the wisdom in Orwell's aphorism, "All issues are political issues." As Trent Batson (1989b) reminds us, "in schools we have different populations, purposes, and economics" (p. 247). Technology is not neutral: as soon as we implement it, we slant it in a certain direction. To hope for it just to "fall in place" is to play Russian roulette with the effectiveness of our classrooms. Management is thus a crucial issue.

When integrating networking into a writing or literature classroom, it's simply not enough to say to students, "you can now send messages and papers to me and to other members of your class any time you want." Given only this introduction, students will see the system as busy work. Networking must be an integral part of the class--this usually means requiring students to use the network, making it part of their assignments. For like any technology, although networking has the possibility to be a fruitful addition to any classroom, it also carries the potential for doing more harm than good. For this reason, I want to stress four areas that must be attended to if the full potential of networking is to be reached: (1) Choice of Technology, (2) Ease of Use, (3) Participation, and (4) Audience Awareness.

Choice of Technology
First, one must decide which of the available technologies electronic mail, file-sharing, bulletin boards, synchronous conferencing or a combination--to incorporate into class plans. Electronic mail can be used to apprise students of daily assignments and class plans, to send them individual comments, and to "chat" with them, making time outside class even more personal than face-to-face contact in the classroom. Although computers have been blamed for their dehumanizing effects, for their reducing of human personalities to numeric codes, many instructors and students alike comment on just the opposite phenomenon, on the computer's ability to make the writing classroom a much more personal space. With mail, writing becomes a way of communicating with others between class sessions; students receive and send personalized letters to both instructors and peers. Instead of an academic exercise, writing in the electronic classroom can become a project which networks individuals into a larger group. [4]

As one might guess, file-sharing is useful to the composition classroom because it facilitates peer editing. Instead of xeroxing and distributing essays to campus mailboxes, students simply send their papers back and forth to each other. In addition, peer editing is enriched by the distinct nature of on-line communication. On-line conversations are usually much more forthright than face-to-face encounters; people of equal status and rank in an organization or classroom tend to do away with the niceties and to offer their opinions more readily. Even when there is a clear hierarchical structure, such as teacher-student or manager-employee, people seem willing to take more "risks" on-line, to express themselves more freely (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). Electronic mail might encourage the reticent editor, the student a bit uncomfortable with the idea of "criticizing" a peer's work. File-sharing also takes the place of xeroxing or mimeographing in the classroom. Rather than reproduce paper assignments, exercises, syllabi, or other materials, one simply sends the appropriate files to the class or to individuals. Students can then choose whether to print the information and keep paper copy or to save the information on-line. This is one area in which the computer saves time when needed: a file can be created just before class, even in class, and be immediately available to all students. All the steps necessary for reproducing materials via photocopying or mimeographing have been eliminated.

Electronic bulletin boards prove useful in a slightly different way. Students and faculty can use the bulletin boards recreationally to buy and sell books, spread news, discuss the merits and drawbacks of programs, share poems and lyrics, or practice their Spanish or French composition. Instead of sending mail to just one person on the network, bulletin boards provide a forum for groups of users: all members of a group can read the posted messages. The bulletin board also fosters a sense of community, gives individuals a stronger sense of their place in a group. Again, the sense of writing as a social, communal act is heightened. In literature and writing classes, bulletin boards can be used to supplement in class discussions. For example, in one unit for our first-year writing sequence, students produce a paper in which they synthesize different viewpoints. Our particular topic was "Defense," specifically issues surrounding nuclear weapons. After reading several articles, I posted a question for students on the bulletin board: "Do or should governments abide by the same ethical code as individuals when it comes to issues of war? (i.e., Do governments need to think of war in terms of murder? Is it more justifiable to kill many people out of state's interest than to kill one person out of self-interest?)" Students in the class were required to respond before the next class session; some of them did so more than once. Students from outside the class also pined our "discussion," thus bringing in perspectives that had not been covered in the reading or introduced by the instructor and class members. Once the forum was strongly under way, students were quick to play devil's advocate with one another, thus relieving me of most--though not all--of the job. I've also used bulletin boards for literature classes in much the same way. In a novels course, for example, each week I would post a question concerning the work we were reading. When we read Billy Budd, I posted the question, "Did Captain Vere make the right decision?" Students answered these questions and posted their responses well in advance of class meetings. Before class meetings, students were expected to read all the responses.

I would like to add here a caveat about using bulletin boards in this way. It has been several years since Toby Fulwiler taught us how useful it could be to begin class discussions with brief five-minute journal entries. When I incorporated on-line assignments, I assumed that these bulletin board responses would work in the same way. I soon discovered that they do not. I could begin class, in fact, by asking the exact question that I had posed on-line, only to receive no response (this after each student had written well over the 250-word minimum). Dawn Rodrigues noticed the same problem, and suggested in her 1989 CCCC presentation that perhaps students considered discussions outside class and those inside class quite separate. I did find that class discussion could be rescued when I played "moderator," reviewing their responses, taking class time to read parts aloud or to outline the positions that emerged from their collective entries. Still, I often found that this moderating worked just as well in encouraging discussion outside of class time. In other words, moderating was an essential part of on-line discussions, [5] but on-line conversations were not the best means of encouraging in-class discussions. Journal entries at the beginning of class, entries based on a question completely different from that which formed the basis of our on-line, out-of-class talks, still produced the best in-class discussions.

The bulletin board served a purpose other than the one I intended, but an important one nonetheless. The students judged the on-line responses an important part of the class. They liked seeing how their peers responded; and though they complained at times about the reading load (they were responsible for reading what turned out to be the equivalent of 20 printed pages before class each week), they did like being able to save the entries and refer to them when studying for the final exam. The responses also seemed to pin them as a class, to increase their sense of identity as part of a group, and to reinforce the idea that they could hold an opinion about the novel that differed from mine. As Sproull and Kiesler (1985) suggest, the "real value" of electronic mail "could be increased sociability and organizational attachment" (p. 1511). The bulletin board thus enhanced our collective understanding of texts, it made available in text form differing ideas and analyses, and it allowed for full and rich critical discussions outside of class time. Though people often fear that new technologies will make the old obsolete, here is an example of how these new technologies exist alongside of and complement our tried and true practices.

In addition to electronic mail, file-sharing, and bulletin boards (asynchronous conferencing), synchronous conferencing (conferencing between individuals all logged on at once) is a promising technology for the writing classroom. Writing classes which use this "real-time" conferencing are often referred to as ~ classrooms. The project received its name from a pilot program at Gallaudet University with deaf students and was quickly put to use with hearing students. During class sessions or in a networked lab, students work at computer screens with two windows: a "composing' window and a "dialog" window. Students compose in the lower half of their screen while reading incoming comments in the top half. [6] All of the class discussion thus takes place on-line and the result is a written record, what Fred Kemp often refers to as a "polylog." [7]

Ease of Use
Because local area networks are sophisticated pieces of software and hardware and because mainframes are machines so complex that they are maintained by system analysts and people with other such titles, they can be intimidating to use--even for those of us who use word-processing packages and other software regularly. In order for networking to be truly effective in our class, we must be able to make the technology as transparent and as easy to use as possible. First and foremost, this means writing clear instructions that students can follow. But this kind of preparation does take time, time that may not be rewarded in tenure or merit decisions.

Perhaps more challengingly, ease of use means choosing software programs that work well together--a task easier said than done--or it means writing programs, or having programs written, that make the whole system more user-friendly. Let me offer a specific example. We use a mainframe system because it can be maintained centrally, because terminals were already in place around campus so that new equipment did not have to be purchased, because it could support many users at once (something our microlab could not do), because technical support--programmers and analysts--were already in place, and because it is accessible at almost all times of the day and night. But mainframes are notoriously user UN-friendly. In order for our computer-mediated classes to work, we had to find a way of surmounting this problem. Our solution was to work together with the Computing Center, which monitors the mainframe. A programmer, who works specifically in instructional computing, wrote menus that I designed. Students now log on and see the following screen:

English Menu
1. Word Process
2. Mail
3. Bulletin Boards
4. Print
5. Quit and Log Out Your Choice: #

If the student chooses 2, Mail, he or she sees another menu

Mail Sub-Menu
1. Read Your Mail
2. Send Mail to Someone
3. Send a Paper to Someone
Your Choice: #

This is not the most sophisticated menu ever produced; because of the constraints of our system, it has no graphics and can be displayed only in black and white. But it does allow students to work without having to memorize several commands, commands that would change with each new system they had to learn. Moreover, students can use the system without having to know the ins and outs of it; they don't need to know, for example, that to send a paper to someone they must first access the mail program, then the word-processing package in order to save the file in ASCII format, and then the mail program again. They simply have to indicate that they want to send a paper with a specific title to a person who has a specific electronic address. The idea is to stress composition functions--collaborative brainstorming, composing texts, mailing texts for review and evaluation--rather than specific hardware or software. It probably goes without saying that the easier the system appears, the likelier students are to use it.

Almost everyone who has worked with the technology notes that networking's main advantage is the egalitarian quality of the participants' discourse, the dissolving of certain inequities--produced by gender, class, ethnicity, and personality differences--that exist in normal classroom discussions. And to a great extent, networks do meet this expectation. [8] But this approach works only as well as we encourage it to work. For the idea of electronic egalitarian discourse depends largely on the absence of visual cues such as the person's age, sex, appearances, on a kind of "white-washing" of the traits which define us visually and aurally and which also, unfortunately, prompt discriminatory responses in others. But this anonymity is not complete and perhaps not even desirable. Even in a system that allows for complete anonymity, verbal cues still exist along with visual cues. As language theorists remind us, language carries with it the places it has been. Language, like technology, is never neutral, always socially charged. And while it is possible that students will practice and try on different voices, I was surprised to discover how many of the students carried their classroom "roles" with them on-line. For example, at least one 19-year-old woman in my class started her entries with phrases like "I don't know very much about that, but I guess ...." In other words, given a situation where she could assume herself to be the intellectual equal of any other user on that network, she chose to recreate herself in or fell into a language that recreates her as someone young, naive, and unreflective. This kind of example is not uncommon and raises questions. Does this mean then that we, as Lester Faigley (1988) suggests, judge that self inappropriate for our academic purposes? And if so, what does that tell us about the extent to which we are willing to accept this "egalitarian effect" of electronic networks?

Computer networks do not automatically solve the empowering/ co-opting dilemma described by scholars such as Patricia Bizzell. [9] Though users on an electronic network are more equally situated, this is not the promised land: social inequities still exist. It is not by accident that highly stratified and hierarchical groups, like large corporations or the military, have found computer networks an effective managerial tool. On networks we can see new hierarchies forming computer users pull rank over novices, tossing out computer jargon as easily as writing teachers pronounce words like "heuristics" or "dialogism"; aggressive personalities overshadow shyer ones. One might argue that the shift from a classroom that depends on speech to one in which students are required to communicate primarily on-line, in writing, privileges the instructor's domain, the arena of the technologically produced word. Moreover, some of the same social relationships that exist in a classroom continue over the network. Many students who are simply more accustomed to listening than to speaking will participate quietly, reading rather than writing. Our classroom dilemmas do not disappear with a computer network; they change. But there maybe ways that we as instructors can foster egalitarian discourse. Our task over the next few years will be to discover appropriate pedagogy and to train teachers to use the technology effectively. The following pedagogies may help foster participation in asynchronous, networked dialog.

Audience is perhaps the most complicated issue facing teachers who are integrating networks into their classrooms. At first glance, it seems that a technology that links single users with others, that provides easy access to knowledge available through libraries or peers, that makes letter-writing almost assume once again the prominent place it had in the 19th-century--that a technology that delivers all of this must by logical extension develop in the user a keen sense of audience.

But some research in the social sciences suggests otherwise. Hiltz together with Turoff (1978) and Kiesler with her colleagues (1984) find that users on electronic conferencing systems become more self-absorbed, producing more writer-based prose than even those of us who are used to reading piles of first-year student papers are accustomed to encountering. Sproull and Kiesler (1986) note that people "focus relatively strongly on themselves and on what they want to say and less strongly on their audience" (p. 1000). In an experiment comparing face-to-face and on-line conversations, the observers note that computer users tend to "talk in parallel with the partner, rather than in response to the partner" (Kiesler, Zubrow, Moser, & Geller, 1985, p. 96). It is perhaps, somewhat ironically, a tendency toward self-expression or self-disclosure that makes users feel themselves a coherent part of a group, a group that permits them to speak their views. All for the good, one might say, but we as teachers of writing have a commitment to the idea of audience awareness and to meaningful; engaging dialog, to help students turn writer-based prose into reader-based prose. As Dawn Rodrigues (1989) continues to point out, this dialog does not happen automatically:

Many students do not know how to discuss ideas with one another. They have had almost no experience in their lives interacting with others in a continual oral discussion--thus attempting to track others ideas, to synthesize what others have said and to attempt to find their own voice. [11]

And indeed, this dialog does not emerge automatically. In fact, the longer the students' responses, the more self-absorbed they may become; sometimes students admit to becoming so self-absorbed that they forget the question with which they started. True dialog emerges with the presence of an effective moderator (in a classroom, usually the teacher, though this by habit rather than necessity perhaps), who negotiates and weds the various voices and perspectives. Again, it is our pedagogy that will determine whether reflective monolog or genuine dialog will occur. Both, it seems, might be the goals of a writing course. But again, we must use our pedagogy to shape the technology, not vice versa. The following tips may prove helpful when dialog and an acute sense of audience are the goals.

Networking in all its forms is a powerful new technology, one that can work to complement social writing pedagogy. And for this reason, those of us introducing it in our classrooms have been optimistic. But if a fear of technology has blinded many to its promises, an overenthusiasm for technology can blind us to the serious problems that might emerge. Networking is not, as Hiltz (1990) reminds us, an electronic magic wand that once having been waved instantly produces benefits such as democratization, audience awareness, and dialog. We cannot expect to put students in classrooms that dabble with networking, that teach computers "on the side," and have them emerge as writers believing in the value of collaboration, the importance of making knowledge together with other people. I have tried to be forthright about problems that arise when integrating computer technology into writing classes, but I hope that I have not stressed the pitfalls over the benefit: the benefits are clearly there. Networking is an exciting and powerful new technology that has much to offer teachers of writing. In order for networking to work for us, we have much work to do.

Janet M. Eldred teaches in the Department of English at the University of Kentucky, Lexington.

  1. I realize that the term "empower" is highly problematic and often discussed in literature surrounding social theories of teaching writing, most notably by Patricia Bizzell. For literature that discusses social theories of writing and computer networks, see articles by Batson (1988a, 1988b), Eldred (1989), Kinkead (1987, 1988), Peyton and Mackinson-Smith (1989), Peyton and Miller (1989), Schriner and Rice (1989), Selfe (1987,1988), Selfe and Wahlstrom (1986), Spitzer (1989), and Thompson (1988a, 1988b, 1987). An excellent overview of networking and its potential and realized social effects is presented in the book by Hiltz, S. R., and Turoff, M., (1978) The network nation: Human communication via computer. Reading, MA: Addision-Wesley.
  2. Though network technology has existed for over a decade (see Hiltz S. R., & Turoff M., 1978, The network nation: Human communication via computer. Reading, MA: Addision-Wesley), only recently has its promise for the composition classroom become an issue. At the 1987 CCCC in Atlanta, 2 of the 20 computer sessions mentioned networking; at both the 1988 CCCC in St. Louis and the 1989 CCCC in Seattle, roughly 8 of 18 presentations concerned themselves with networking; in the 1990 meeting in Chicago, 5 of the 15 computer sessions used networking in the title--even more talks assumed a networked classroom.
  3. See Hawisher, G. E. (1989) Computers and Writing: Where's the Research? English Journal, 78, 89-91 and Hawisher, G. E. (1989) Research and Recommendations for Computers and Composition, in G. E. Hawisher and C. L. Selfe (eds.), Critical Perspectives on Computers and Composition Instruction (pp. 44-69) New York: Teachers College Press.
  4. See Rodrigues (1989) and Kinkead (1987) for descriptions of college writing courses that make use of electronic mail. Schwartz's 1990 article (Using an electronic network to play the scales of discourse. English Journal, 79, 16-24) details a distance learning project that electronically links students from Pennsylvania, Montana, and South Dakota.
  5. Moderators facilitate conversation, summarizing what has previously been written, raising new questions when discussion lags, recasting old questions, etc. As Hiltz (1984) argues, the success of on-line conferences is determined in part by the interest and importance of the topic, but also by the "effort and skill of the group leader" (p.80) or leaders. Moderators may be formally appointed or they may arise naturally; they may shift and share responsibility. A conference in which the moderator is ineffective or in which a moderator is not appointed and does not emerge is most often an inactive one (p. 80.) Thus, the question for a successful active computer network is not "will there be a moderator," but as Arms (1988) suggests, "what will be the moderator's role; how will the moderator be chosen, what authority does the moderator have?" (p. 45).
  6. For a description of how ENFI works, see Thompson, D. P. (1987) Teaching Writing on a Local Area Network. T.H.E. Journal, 15, 92-97. Thompson describes five different teaching methods that can be used in an ENFI networked classroom. The Teacher's Guide to Using Computer Networks for Written Interaction, (1989), D. Beil (ed.), a compilation of articles by ENFI teachers, is an excellent source for those looking to implement synchronous conferencing systems in writing and literature classrooms. A special issue of Computers and Composition, (1984), also a collection of articles by scholars and teachers working with synchronous conferencing, is a must for those using or planning to use computer networks.
  7. Kemp has used the term "polylog" in conversations on Megabyte University, an on-line discussion that he (YKMBU@TTACS) moderates.
  8. See work by Batson (1989a, 1989b), Ehrmann (1988), Eldred (1989), Hiltz and Turoff (1978), Peyton (1989a, 1989b), Schriner and Rice (1989), Selfe (1987, 1988), and Thompson (1987, 1988a, 1988b).
  9. For a discussion of the problem of empowering vs. coopting, see Bartholomae, D. (1986). Inventing the University, Journal of Basic Writing, 5, 4-23; Bizzell, P. (1982). College Composition: Initiation into the Academic Discourse Community, Curriculum Inquiry, 12, 197-207; Bizzell, P. (1986). Foundationalism and Anti- Foundationalism in Composition Studies, Pre/Text, 7, 37-56; and Bizzell, P. (1988). 'Resistance' and Writing Instruction, paper presented at CCCC. Bizzell, in particular, has struggled with the issues of empowerment, assimilation, resistance, and co-optation.
  10. In a draft, " 1 Prefer Not to': Lurkers, Speakers, and Writers," I argue that metaphors for speaking and writing create policies hr participation in our classrooms. Networked discourse, as Thompson, Peyton, Batson and other have suggested, is somewhere between speech and writing and poses special problems. Thompson's (1988) article, Interactive Networking: Creating Bridges Between Speech, Writing, and Composition. Computers and Composition, 5, 17-27, makes a fine argument for using computer networks to close the gap between what a student can say and what he or she might write. But this approach still doesn't solve the speech/writing puzzle. For those who see networked discourse primarily in terms of speech, requiring students to participate in network "conversation" might prove disturbing. As a group, writing teachers are generally not comfortable with the idea of forcing participation in oral discussions. We would, however, respond differently if we assigned a written composition and a student responded "I prefer not to." If we conceive of networked discourse as writing, then we can build assignment that involve electronic networks into our syllabi.
  11. These comments are part of a conversation on Megabyte University. Conversations from this loop are reproduced in the electronic journal, Composition Digest, moderator Robert Royar (COMPO1@ULKYVX).


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