Pedagogy in the Electronic English Classroom:  A Cluster


Technology, classroom, pedagogy, classroom dynamics, authority, technologie, salle de classe, pédagogie, dynamique de groupe, autorité

How to Cite

Reed, S., Pett, A., & Rigg, P. (2000). Pedagogy in the Electronic English Classroom: A Cluster. Digital Studies/le Champ Numérique, (7). DOI:


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Introduction: A Context for the Cluster's Pieces

Sabrina Reed

In the past decade educational institutions have been pressured to be more economically accountable. Students focus on whether their education will give them tangible skills for entering the job market, while industry insists that students leave college and university with specific "training" for their future careers. As Ruth Ray and Ellen Barton have pointed out, one major area for such training is computer literacy: "Rightly or wrongly, technology is touted as the crucial connection between schools and society, the classroom and the workplace" (Ray and Barton 1991: 281). For instance, Acadia University in Nova Scotia has introduced the "Acadia Advantage",[1] a policy that gives every student in the program a laptop computer and encourages extensive use of online resources. The assumption behind the use of the word "advantage" is that students will benefit from being exposed to a range of computer technologies as they learn their primary subject area. Computer literacy has become a skill which few jobs can do without, and the public expects educational institutions to provide this training.

While institutions search for ways to trim budgets and stretch instructor resources, computers also seem like a viable means to cut costs. In a recent article, for example, Chris M. Anson envisions students in a technologically enhanced future. Anson's imaginary student spends her days moving from lab to lab, hooking up electronically to lectures delivered by experts in distant places and handing in her work by e-mail, her trusty laptop at the ready to download messages, research materials, and information. Yet the pace of change with which computers are being adopted by educational institutions suggests that Anson's vision of the college environment is happening now. As institutions strive to cut costs and appeal to the demands of the business community, technology can be seen as a way of replacing face-to-face teaching with theoretically less expensive online hours. Anson, for instance, envisions such job descriptions as "a non-tenure-track education specialist" (Anson 1999: 266) and "part-time instructor/tutors hired by the semester to 'telecommute' to the institution from their homes" (Anson 1999: 267).

It is no wonder, then, that Anson titles his article, "Distant Voices: Teaching and Writing in a Culture of Technology". Anson's vision indeed distances student from instructor, and student from student as well. For as Anson's student moves through her day, face-to-face contact with either her instructors or her fellow students is noticeably lacking. Linked to the rest of the world through the Internet, the computer literate student has the potential to join a vast network of people and information. But the ability to connect with people at far off Internet sites has a disturbing corollary: the stereotype of the antisocial cyber-surfer with no flesh and blood friends has developed at the same time as the media extol the potential of computer-linked communications.

In fact, the term "classroom" itself becomes problematic when the model of "four walls and a teacher" is augmented or displaced by access to the Internet and e-mail. The "classroom" many encounter today goes beyond walls, entering chat rooms and research spaces miles away from the student's physical space. Similarly, the synchronous arrangement of "real time" lectures and tutorials can become asynchronous, with learning taking place far away from the designated classroom hour. While the traditional classroom works on a model of proximity, the "wired classroom" works with a model of intimate distance. Students are potentially further away from teachers and fellow students; yet the metaphors of online communication suggest otherwise. Metaphors such as "chat room", "Web", "Net", "network" and "links" all suggest connection, even when that connection takes place between people in different countries.

In the following cluster of papers, Alexandra Pett and Sabrina Reed from Mount Royal College and Patricia Rigg from Acadia University discuss their experiences with using technology in the "classroom". All three papers are primarily concerned with pedagogy – how classes changed when computers became an integral part of the course. All raise issues related to how computers change classroom dynamics and, most importantly, how the use of computers changes the structures of authority which exist in the traditional classroom. Rigg, for example, observes how the "new pedagogical world" of Acadia University "erodes" the ability of the instructor to keep control in the classroom, forcing both instructor and student to explore new avenues for teaching and learning.

In their essay, "Reading and Writing on Computer Networks as Social Construction and Social Interaction", Ann Hill Duin and Craig Hansen note that "In a typical classroom situation, the discourse community is subsumed in the person of the instructor, as assessor and arbiter. The work created in the class does not move [beyond the class]. The students are not part of a larger dialogue" (Duin and Hansen 1994: 96). Admittedly, this model presents a worst case scenario, and many instructors would argue that their "typical" classrooms have always encompassed other dialogues: the voices of the students who themselves are part of communities which stretch far beyond the immediate physical space. The authors in this cluster argue, however, that the presence of computers can broaden the discourse of the classroom with both positive and negative results. On the positive side, technologies such as the Internet can expose students to a range of opinion and information. On the negative side, the information can be superficial or sometimes even mistaken. While this is also true of books and journal articles, the problems of evaluating sources seem greater when dealing with the Internet. Paper sources, after all, are usually vetted by informed evaluators, but the Internet allows anyone to publish his or her thoughts. Raised to believe in the authority of the printed text, the public can be seduced by the fact that the information is printed on the screen, ignoring the fact that the person who printed it could be a novice in the field or a representative of a special interest group. More needs to be done to educate students in what is or is not a reputable source.

One of the primary characteristics of electronic forms of information is hypertextuality, a non-linear array of information, where points of access and the hierarchical organization of ideas lose shape and order. George P. Landow, for instance, discusses how "Hypertext ... embodies or instantiates Roland Barthes's notions of the individual text as the center of a network" (Landow 1992: 71). He quotes Barthes's S/Z to make his point:

Literature itself is never anything but a single text: the one text is not an (inductive) access to a Model, but entrance into a network with a thousand entrances; to take this entrance is to aim, ultimately, not at a legal structure of norms and departures, a narrative or poetic Law, but at a perspective (of fragments, of voices from other texts, other codes), whose vanishing point is nonetheless ceaselessly pushed back, mysteriously opened. (qtd. in Landow 1992: 71)

In a wired learning environment, access to information and access to people are no longer subject to traditional spatial and temporal limitations – a radical shift in perspective! As Rigg, Reed, and Pett find in their experiences teaching with computers, Landow's comments indeed have merit. Teachers find themselves becoming one voice in an ever changing online discussion rather than the central focus of the classroom. Rigg, for instance, writes of the "proportional erosion of [her] 'authority'" in the Acadia classroom, while Alexandra Pett writes that technology produced changes in "students' reading patterns" and a consequent shift in critical perspectives. Sabrina Reed notes that e-mail can empower students who would not usually speak and give them new powers of expression.

Yet each of the writers in this cluster also voices concerns about the limitations of the wired classroom. Billie J. Wahlstrom and others assert that the vision of the computer as a device which brings freedom, gives disempowered students a voice, and breaks down hierarchies is at best a partial one. She notes that "the more technology is brought into our systems, the more chances exist for financial, cultural, and social exigencies to limit access" (Wahlstrom 1994: 175). At every level of the educational system, computers are the purview of the financially secure. Tenured faculty are more likely to receive new technology, while part-time faculty often share computers or receive "hand-me-down" technology tenured faculty no longer want. Students' associations have resisted mandatory laptops by pointing out that the expense of buying computers adds an additional financial burden to the already overtaxed student.

Selfe and Selfe also note that the paradigms built into the computer interface contribute to who is outside or inside the core cultural group. "Primary interfaces, for example, also generally serve to reproduce the privileged position of standard English as the language of choice or default, and, in this way, contribute to the tendency to ignore, or even erase, the cultures of non-English language background speakers in this country" (Selfe and Selfe 1994: 488). Moreover, the computer interface has its own linear structure, and thus validates "hierarchy, rationality, and logic" (492); "The objects represented within this world are those familiar primarily to the white-collar inhabitants of that corporate culture: manila folders, files, documents, telephones, fax machines, clocks and watches, and desk calendars" (486). Even the white hand which points the way to the text is one of "a series of semiotic messages that support this alignment along the axes of class, race, and gender" (487). Canadian users might also wonder about how their own spelling system loses its authority when fed through American-based spell checkers.

More importantly for the papers at hand, Patricia Rigg mentions that while authority shifts away from the instructor in the wired classroom, this lack of authority is not always empowering. She encounters students more interested in ICQ chat rooms than in the online discussion groups formed for the class. In fact, Rigg goes so far as to say that the "busy work" of tapping out messages sometimes becomes "a substitute for serious thought". As Keith Lawson puts it in an article about his experiences at Acadia, the computer terminal can be "dangerous, addictive, and dissipating" (Lawson 1999).

As the metaphor of hypertext opening multiple entrances and exits for its users suggests, we need to look more closely at the effects of too much choice. In the hierarchical model of classroom instruction, students receive information channelled through the authority of the instructor. They are given one door into the information presented in class. The Internet, by contrast, provides multiple perspectives but often lacks direction. Beginning students may receive too much information without the proper skills to judge and categorize it. Thus, one role for the instructor in the computerized classroom is to help students to learn how to judge and process knowledge. As well, students need to learn the self-discipline to turn off ICQ, Hotmail and tempting recreational websites in favour of more directed reading. The instructor of the future will teach less content and more strategies to access and evaluate content.

Each of the following papers outlines personal experiences with computers and discusses aspects of the issues raised above. Sabrina Reed and Alexandra Pett document their experiences with a project where composition was taught to groups of seventy-five students. Alexandra Pett uses the metaphor of the journey "out of control" to indicate the changes in pedagogy she sees happening in the computerized classroom. For her, the introduction of computers leads to greater pluralism and encourages instructors and students to journey beyond traditional approaches to question their own assumptions. She explains that her use of technology meshed with her focus on a postmodern curriculum. Sabrina Reed goes on to discuss a practical implication of the seventy-five seat classroom augmented by the introduction of markers. As she points out, the use of markers is in itself a deeply political issue, and one which we should consider when we think of the impact of technology on all aspects of our jobs as educators. She also discusses how the perceived lack of instructor contact which markers and large class sizes can entail is offset by the use of e-mail. Both Pett and Reed find e-mail to be an essential technology for maintaining student contact. In fact, it empowers normally silent students to make their voices known.

Patricia Rigg documents her experiences with another project, the "Acadia Advantage", and illustrates the extent to which her pedagogy changed when she encountered the "wired classroom". Perhaps a starting point for reading the following papers is Rigg's comment: "there is no point at all in struggling to make this new technology suit my teaching style. Rather, I have made changes in what I do in the university classroom and in how I do it." The three authors in this cluster would agree with Janis Forman's comment: "Once technology is introduced into [the classroom] environment, the complexity only increases. An 'add technology and stir' model does not work" (Forman 1994: 131). When technology is made a part of the "classroom" experience, profound changes occur at all levels.

1. The Electronic University Community: Lessons in Pedagogy

Patricia Rigg

When I presented this paper at the Congress of Learned Societies in 1998, I called it "Strategies of Pedagogy in the Wired Classroom". Having entered a new pedagogical world in 1996 when the university at which I teach, Acadia University, became Canada's first "laptop" university, I wanted to talk about the issues of pedagogy that I felt needed to be addressed. Since then, I have had another year of teaching – and learning – in an electronic environment, and so the paper I write now is not quite the same paper I delivered. What I have learned to do with a great deal of impressive machinery is still related to the exploration outlined in my original paper, but I begin this paper with the knowledge that there is no point at all in struggling to make this new technology suit my teaching style. Rather, I have made changes in what I do in the university classroom and in how I do it. The focus of my delivered paper was on how I use the technology in the classroom. The focus of this paper is determined by a realization I made this past year: the essential difference in my new teaching environment and my old teaching environment is related to a very different sense students and I have of how we fit into the "community" of the classroom.

Classrooms at Acadia are wired for complete internet access for each student and instructor. There are also wired lounges, wired stopping places for students in foyers and hallways, wired library alcoves, and wired residence rooms. The old campus is gone forever in every sense – physical and ideological. In my classroom, for example, students sit in what is called a studio format, so they are seated eight to a table and there are four tables in the room. The physical arrangement encourages collaboration, and, as was recognized nearly a decade ago now, "enfranchises" the student "by emphasizing the student text itself instead of the instructor's evaluation" (Barker & Kemp 1990: 24). I have given much thought to this premise over the past year, and I realize now that although the proportional erosion of my "authority" in the classroom was something I understood and embraced in theory, I had not in practice made a corresponding shift in my pedagogy. My students are now on a level playing field, not only with each other but, to a certain extent, with me as well. We each have a laptop computer upon which we take notes, maintain files, and use fairly sophisticated software. An immediate advantage for the students, of course, is the fact that they are adding computer literacy to whatever degree they are pursuing. An immediate advantage for me is something along the same lines. I currently teach not only freshman composition and literature but also upper level literature courses as Acadia Advantage (laptop) courses. Non-Advantage courses are called "blended courses" because they include traditional students as well as those in the laptop program, but in those courses as well, including graduate courses, I make use of a great deal of sophisticated electronics in the classroom. I have had a great deal of pedagogical strategy to work out, and, not surprisingly, not all of it has been as successful as I would have liked.

I will limit my discussion here to my experiences in my composition classroom simply because it is in my writing courses that the changing nature of the classroom community has been most noticeable. Enfranchisement is an important issue in any writing program, I think, because it has long been recognized that students learn to write not only by reading and writing according to an academic curriculum but by, as Chris Anson has said recently, "reading and writing with each other, responding to each other's drafts, negotiating revisions, discussing ideas, sharing perspectives, and finding some level of trust as collaborators in their mutual development" (Anson 1999: 269). I have found that it behoves me to take advantage of one important aspect of my electronic classroom that is related precisely to this idea of the students' sense of "sharing" and of existing as members of a community of peers. Using an interactive software program called NortonTextra Connect, I frequently let the students have a discussion before we consider a work as a class. Then I might join the electronic discussion or project their discussion up on the screen so that I move quite smoothly from a silent chat to a public forum they have initiated. I can take my record of the whole discussion away from class, extrapolate pertinent comments, and present the students with those comments as the basis of the next class. There are important consequences of this process: first, the students themselves are responsible for the level of sophistication of the discussion, and they welcome this challenge eagerly; second, many students who find speaking up in class difficult have surprisingly strong critical voices online.[2]

Certainly there are some negative aspects of this one person/one machine arrangement, and quite frankly, although I have been teaching writing in an electronic classroom for three years now, the "distractions" that seem to come with the computer continue to be a challenge for me. Too often vigorous typing seems to be a preoccupying end in itself rather than a means to an end: I still have the uncomfortable feeling that the "busy work" of this tapping is a substitute for serious thought. The computer in those moments both usurps my authority and undermines any enfranchising of the student that has been taking place. I think that this whole aspect of teaching in an electronic environment is one that needs to be acknowledged and addressed as quickly as possible. "The primary challenge for teachers and students", write Mayers and Swafford "is to discover ways in which computers might be used in the classroom to increase critical awareness of the ideologies bound up with technology and, when possible, to subvert those ideologies" (Mayers and Swafford 1998: 146). At Acadia, those ideologies have indeed insinuated themselves into many aspects of the "community", not only in terms of seduction by the technology but also in terms of physical problems, such as classrooms with stadium seating, an arrangement that gives students a clear view of screens in front of them. E-mail and ICQ are temptations that ultimately only the user can keep under control, but the truth is that these issues of self-restraint can be serious impediments to making the classroom a learning environment. The change in the dynamics of this environment if the instructor has to pause to ask students in class to stop playing around threatens to upset the fragile balance of enfranchisement and responsibility.

Despite these very serious issues, it is clear to me that we should not waste time wondering whether all this technology is a good idea. Not only is it here to stay, but it is a good idea. Nor do I want to focus on the difficulties in becoming a "techie" or laud the merits of what for me was a considerable metamorphosis, although I must say that a transition like the one we have made at Acadia has had its price as well as its rewards. Realistically, it took most of us a year to learn the system, prepare course materials, and develop enough familiarity with all the machinery to use it to anything close to its potential. Nevertheless, the issues that preoccupied us all during the first two years in the electronic classroom have been replaced by a whole new set of problems.

When I delivered this paper, I identified my basic problem as the disconcerting fact that I felt myself to be involved in a new pedagogy that I had not then defined. Actually, I now think I had defined this pedagogy more than I realized. It still seems to me that there are two general, very abstract aspects of what I do as a scholar and teacher of scholarship that need to be reconsidered. First, the fact that information is literally at one's fingertips has changed the parameters of knowledge. This change is as profound as Anne Keating suggests in The Wired Professor when she claims that "the new intellectual technologies offer new and better ways to expand human capacity, multiply human reasoning, and compensate for human limitations" (Keating and Hargiti 1999: 220). As a result of this systemic alteration in working with information, my role, both inside and outside the classroom, has moved away from the more conventional paradigm of "professor" – one who professes or speaks knowledge – to, for lack of a better word, "facilitator" – one who makes the learning process easier.[3] Furthermore, the nature of academic integrity, our philosophy of educational process, needs to be rethought to reflect this change in classroom activity. In practical terms, I said last year, I need to find ways to shift to the students some duties and obligations that I once assumed defined me, for they have the ways and means now of assuming more responsibility for what goes on in the classroom. If attaining information itself is no longer the challenge it used to be, I decided, I need to find ways to challenge this new student.

Now, one might argue, a good teacher has always found ways to teach the student to synthesize, think critically, and construct for himself or herself new knowledge. Realistically, "our use of communications technology is [only] an extension of the development of speech, reading and writing" (Keating and Hargiti 1999: 13). We have long said that we view the classroom as a place in which we can exchange ideas and that we bring our expertise and scholarship to that exchange. Good pedagogy has always meant teaching students to think, to find their critical voices. But let's face it, ten years ago, those critical voices tended to be far more consistently echoes of our own voices because we understood our primary duty to be that of exposing students to new ideas that would allow us to nudge them into the activity of producing a critical essay or contributing to the general body of ideas. To that end, I think that we have always tended to do the synthesizing. During the course of this year, I made an effort to incorporate into my teaching materials a number of excellent academic web sites; unfortunately, although these sites gather and synthesize information, they take a visitor to the end without taking him or her through the means. Furthermore, there is still a great big body of disorganized, out-of-context, adulterated material on the web. More distressing to those of us who routinely assign essays as a means of evaluation is the sad reality that the sites that sell student essays not only proliferate, but they – and the essays they supply – are becoming frighteningly sophisticated at meeting quite deviously the requirements of any assignment.

I tried to address some of these issues, really with mixed results, I think. I made all my assignments as original and as current as possible, once or twice so current that students who did not read newspapers had no idea what I was talking about. More to the point, though, I found myself changing the format of my evaluative exercises in an even more drastic way. This change arose quite naturally out of the fact that my students over the past few years have changed the way they perform in the classroom. So much material is only a click away, so perhaps it makes sense, I thought, that the clicking itself, metaphorically speaking, is what I should evaluate. In all my Acadia Advantage courses, I shifted the focus of my grading and assessment from outside to inside the classroom. This shift is a little odd, I admit, given the newly formed euphemisms of "extending the walls of the classroom" or the "classroom without walls", but placing more emphasis on classroom performance promoted a more lively and productive hour, at any rate. It is important in evaluating the "clicks" to put more emphasis on discussions as they evolve. Students in all my classes are routinely responsible for bringing materials into class and for disseminating them through power point presentations as well as through world wide web access. I think that in a writing course these activities enhance a sense of classroom community and make academic collaboration easier. In this respect, I realized an important goal I set for myself last year: I set the parameters of the course, but the students shaded in much of the rest of the course. We used our interactive software to initiate discussion, to perform collaborative work, and yes, to extend the course beyond the classroom time slot, particularly when we were working on collaborative assignments.

From the beginning of my life in the electronic classroom, I have considered my role to be to ensure that research and scholarship levels stay high. In the 1990s, this has become a challenging task, for, as Barry Silverman complained in 1995, we live in a time not only of "information proliferation" but also of "knowledge decay" (Silverman 1995: 82). The sad truth is that "knowledge" has become trivialized as it has become digitalized, and I see now that the sense in which I do "teach" is that of getting students to sift through so much nonsense to get to the heart of the matter. When I was a student, I went to the library and read a range of critical works – some better than others – but my professors did not have to debunk myths rising daily out of an unmanaged all-too-accessible mass. We have a professional obligation to help students to contribute to the general process of reclaiming scholarship that we all face as academics.

I worried last year that balancing student initiative with the depth of firm scholarship would be a very difficult process. Citing Henry Newman and his concept of academic community in the "Idea of a University", I assumed that students and professors are brought together for the purpose of extending knowledge and that during this process of extending what we most value, we "learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other" (Newman 1852: 180). I thought then that my job description should read something like this, and now I am even more determined to live by these humanizing principles. We must continue to view the classroom as a place of exchange of knowledge. However, the nature of the exchange in an electronic classroom is different from that in the conventional classroom, so it stands to reason that mutual respect and intellectual reciprocity now arise out of very different assumptions. Coming to terms with those assumptions has been a very difficult process because there are connotations of the words "power", "point" and "presentation" that are fairly good indicators of the general line of thinking one falls into when one turns from chalk to power point. Ironically, a good class becomes contingent on everything working well rather than on the disruption and questioning associated with a productive discussion. There is an insidious consequence of these altered classroom dynamics that I am making it my daily business to address.

When I began to teach in an electronic setting, I found that it was rather like starting my teaching career all over again. Each class had to be prepared from scratch. Power point slide shows and innovative assignments suited to my new interactive software all needed to be developed three times a week. Not surprisingly, once I managed to get the electronics in place, I tended to focus on keeping them in place. When delivering a class with power point, for example, I found myself becoming quite protective about material I had put up on a screen in big bold type. I had dropped a tool I had always found indispensable – the eraser. Once a point comes up on the screen, it can only be edited, modified, or recanted with some difficulty. So, a certain inflexibility crept into my classes. In like manner, I found it more difficult to take control when an electronic discussion had quite obviously derailed than it used to be to interject a quick and timely remark. I, someone who takes life from the written word, was becoming increasingly bound by the written word. My students slipped into this inflexibility as well, for during the first two years of the program, I noticed that written debates rarely resulted in a change of view or an "I see now" or an "I get it". Rather, we all fought quite adamantly to "stand by" what we had already put into writing. I spent the first years of the Acadia Advantage Initiative mastering the technology; I spent this past academic year fighting to remain its master by building flexibility back into the "structure" of my classes.

To this end, I have made collaborative writing and fostering a sense of community through collaboration the focus of my composition course, and the gains of this focus for both me and my students have been tangible. For the past two years, my students have collaborated for a term not only among themselves but with Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Wake Forest, one of the first American universities to introduce a laptop program, has been a model of sorts for Acadia. My counterpart at Wake Forest and I met at a conference in May 1997. We devised a group-driven writing project in which our students are asked to describe various places on their campuses and in their towns that are important to them (IMEJ). The students correspond through an uploads Notes program via the internet in groups, each group composed of some Acadia and some Wake Forest students. They have to work at finding the right connotative words to describe their special places, and they have to peer review each other's writing. They gain much from these exchanges. In fact, they form their own cross-border community, bearing out a basic premise of education articulated in many ways over the years but too frequently forgotten in practice: "Society exists in communication, but just as surely, education exists only in a communicative society" (Bruce & Rubin 1993: 10). My students have to find their critical voices, and they strive for a level of perfection in their writing that seems to me to be directly related to their awareness of audience. Once we have had several exchanges, we return to our respective classrooms and work in our own groups to produce a collaborative essay with our interactive software. This collaboration seems to me to be an aspect of the writing process to which the technology makes a significant contribution. Finally, both university groups put essays and photos of place on a web page (Acadia/Wake Forest 1998; Acadia/Wake Forest 1997). Having to write for publication and readers other than one professor makes a significant difference in the pride the students take in their work, and ultimately, in the quality of the finished product.

This project underscores as well the fact that students, like most of us, tend to value most what costs them the most. They worry about responding well to Wake Forest and about Wake Forest's responses; they worry about publishing on the web; they worry that our photos are not as attractive as Wake Forest's photos. My students encourage criticism and are disappointed when it is slow in coming from their American peers. They worry as a community of writers, and all of these worries are good because they result in good work. Ultimately, the technology worries the students into a level of performance I have not previously seen in the classroom. All of this seems to me to be a significant move toward Newman's "Idea".

More than ever before, students have to be taught to resist passive learning; they must not slip into the mere passive processing of knowledge that the metaphor of the computer implies. In a classroom with no walls, motivation should be a crucial concern. We must be quite aggressive about teaching the students that technology should not direct the thinking process. We need to help students not only to hone their skills of retrieving and processing information, but also to develop the integrity and commitment to scholarship that have always defined the good student. They are part of an academic community that, on the surface at least, seems at times to have little in common with the community that we as instructors call "home". In many ways, academic life has never been so complex. The information highway can be daunting, an overwhelming volume of material at one's fingertips. What, we all ask ourselves, could we possibly contribute to this volume? Well, the answer, I suggest, might be found in the electronic classroom as the place to seize on the immediacy of these resources. We have an opportunity now to teach critical thinking in process by instilling in the students a sense of obligation to make the internet a useful scholarly tool. We need strategies of pedagogy that keep the "Idea" of a university in sight and that will bring us full circle back to Newman's premise that true education is a collaborative process.

2. Thresholds: New Ventures in Teaching Composition

Alexandra Pett

Is it possible to teach composition to classes of 75 students? Will students' writing skills and ability to think and write critically improve demonstrably in a fifteen week course that involves large classes, an asynchronous arrangement with an open computer lab, teams of markers and monitors, and collaborations among both students and teachers? In September 1997, after almost a year of software survey, upgrading of an old computer lab, and much departmental debate, six members of the English Department at Mount Royal College set out to challenge a number of assumptions about the teaching and learning of writing. To assess the project, Patricia Harvey, from the College's institutional analysis division, prepared to collect data, adapting an instrument from Stephen Ehrmann's "The Flashlight Toolkit" that tracks students' attitudes to technology (see Ehrmann 1997).

Traditionally, English 2201, Composition, has been taught in a four hours of instruction per week format, with each instructor responsible for all the marking in the course. In order to ensure that students get the individualized attention they require, class size is limited to twenty-five students. We decided to adopt an alternate format for teaching English 2201: students would meet in large lecture sections of seventy-five students for three hours per week of class time. Instead of the instructor doing all the marking, markers would be hired to mark all essays (four per term), with the instructor marking the final examination. The additional one hour of class time would be given to students to use grammar software and to communicate with the instructor and classmates through e-mail. In this configuration, the use of e-mail was designed to compensate for the lessening of individual instructor contact which could occur more readily in the smaller classes. In choosing software, we decided to focus on simplicity, technical support, and ease of access. Though we looked at many designated grammar and writing programs such as Norton Textra Connect, Daedalus, and CoreText, in the end we decided to use Pegasus Mail, Microsoft Word and the Simon and Schuster Workbook for Writers (both paper and disk versions). We reasoned that most students would have at least some knowledge of word processing software and that the learning curve would be less daunting if we used a readily accessible office software package rather than a more specialized system.

The Thresholds Project was designed to solve some departmental contractual and professional problems, but from the beginning it led to the surfacing of important political and pedagogical concerns. Many faculty called the use of markers "exploitive". Others objected to the use of student monitors in the computer lab. Although the monitors were not assigned teaching tasks, inevitably they answered students' questions and demonstrated the use of software. Although the project was termed "grass roots" because it stemmed from the English Department's urgent need for new ways to teach composition as well as new curriculum, many observers both inside and outside the college saw the project as merely self serving and cost saving. From the perspective of faculty, the new alignments on a teaching team did provide some much needed relief from hours spent in the classroom. Overall, however, most evidence suggests the project was not cost saving and faculty ended up spending more time online than the actual saving in classroom hours.

Our venture in teaching writing to large groups exposed us to other uncomfortable yet challenging situations. Perhaps the most serious was the claim that large classes would contradict the mandate of the College for small groups. As one department member stated, "If we make a whole lot of decisions about our key writing course, then we define ourselves in a new way." We knew, moreover, that technological intervention could serve as a point of leverage for other kinds of change.

As Romy Clark and Roz Ivanic underscore in a recent book on composition, The Politics of Writing (1997), collaboration among writers can lead to important questions about the authority of the institutions where writing is taught (Clark and Ivanic 1997: 19). Essentially, as a group of English teachers, we agree with their statement of a kind of pedagogy "that does not merely enable learner writers to take on the dominant practices of a discourse community but rather questions them and opens up the possibility for challenge" (19). Ideologically committed to offering learners more options in modes of delivery and better equalization of opportunity for those with physical and learning disabilities, we imagined a classroom that would be inclusive of learners and allow for different constructions of self and voice, both online and in the communities of the larger classroom groups.

Because of the widespread changes we made, the English Department engaged in debates about the teaching of literary texts not only in literature classes but also in composition classes. As one department member said, "The method of delivery in the kind of environment we have created in the pilot project is not suited to the process approach but to the discussion of literary texts." Mostly, however, we continued to use the process approach to teaching composition, but we began to define process in a wider sense. We drew on some theories about post-modern curriculum as "a process of development, dialogue, inquiry, transformation" (Doll 1993: 13). We expected substantial change in students' thinking and we initiated more elements of metacognition than had previously been used in our courses.

At the beginning of the project, we chose a text, Thresholds: Literature-Based Composition (edited by J. Sterling Warner; Warner 1997), that provided us with a thesis statement for the course. A selection from the writing of Joseph Campbell underscored the importance of new beginnings, new adventures and experiences and archetypal journeys. But what is the arrival and departure of heroic journeys in the context of technology and in the post-modern landscape? The idea of a journey "out of control", to use the phrase of Paul Virilio, became part of the logos of the course. As Virilio suggests, in the world of technology "everything arrives without there being any need either to travel or to leave in the slightest physical sense" (Virilio 1993: 10). Beginnings and endings disappear, creating a new sense of time, space and light: "Currently, with the revolution of instantaneous transmissions, we are witnessing the beginnings of a type of general arrival in which everything arrives so quickly that departure becomes unnecessary" (8). How, then, do students using technology approach the writing of introductions and conclusions? Writing and reading inevitably reflect the altered time sense of technology use.

In many ways, the introduction of technology changed the reading habits as well as the writing of students. In my own case, the use of a variety of literary texts (including poetry, creative non-fiction, essays, short stories, parts of books) combined with reader response strategies. My composition class was thus an introduction to reading and writing about texts. I asked students to begin analysis of a text with their own readers' questions and to take inventory of their lived experiences as a base for both writing and reading. Electronic journals offered opportunities for self-connections. As others have stated, "Reader-centered perspectives on text have significant implications for teaching with technology and researching the effects of technology" (Ray and Barton 1991: 291). In a classroom linked to technology, students' reading patterns change; though only a small portion of the assigned reading was online, students commented in e-mail on what they read. Their reading and writing became multi-layered and self-reflexive. Rhetorical analysis of texts by non-canonical writers such as Isabel Allende, Julio Cortazar, Amiri Baraka, Louise Erdrich, Sandra Cisneros and Junichiro Tanizaki introduced them to the pluralism of international writing communities and led to much discussion of the impact of race, class and gender on writing styles. At the same time, they were experimenting with different constructions of identity as they wrote online and used the internet. E-mail communication indicated their willingness to challenge authorities at the same time as they remained passive in other contexts.

Fragments, cyber commentaries, metafictions, ironic reversals of all kinds intrigued the readers in this composition course. Students seemed to expect arresting and disturbing experiences in their reading. In Allende's short story, "Our Secret", for example, the narrator tells us of the stages of intimacy that develop between a man and woman who discover that what they have most in common is physical and emotional scarring from the torture chambers of another country. Post modern styles (illustrated at the beginning of Thresholds by Loren Eiseley's "The Brown Wasps") connect with the fast moving images and icons of windows formats. Writing about a text can provide an important intervention to restless reading. As much as possible, I tried to balance the "living on the edge" quality in the reading with mind focussing activities in the classroom. Timed free writing, meditative visualizations with writing to follow, written answers to other readers' questions helped students to offset the feeling of visiting rather than owning a text. Since the spatial realities of technology encourage if not demand imaginative re/creation, I suggested self inventory as a way of knowing the self.

In many ways, the shapes on the computer screen and the designs of software impact on the way students construct meaningful selves. The fragmented consciousness of the literary texts we discussed was matched by the visual layouts of the computers and software. The outcome of such dizzying variation in thinking and response was a willingness to introduce many different approaches to literary texts and to their own writing. For one student, Allende's text dealt not so much with torture as with suicidal attempts; the essay on suicide that followed this discussion brought in multiple perspectives as well as different voices (from the student's youthful memories of a brother who committed suicide to an awareness of moral issues and addiction). Since technology itself has the potential to be both positively and negatively addictive, students used the classroom and computer lab contexts as the subject of discourse, arguing both sides of the debate over whether technology is a curse or a freeing power for humankind. Maybe the dominant message of the course was the way in which humans cannot control either themselves or their worlds. I believed further that the learning of new technology and the discovery of a different kind of classroom could encourage "letting go" of the stereotypes about learning which often disable students.

Moreover, learning in all forms involves stepping out of the known world and reaching for new tutelary figures, however strangely presented. The journey shape, with the problematic point of re-entry to the past world now changed, gives students some imaginative vehicles for expressing opinions and ideas. Going into the inner self is like entering the cyberworld; what you return with is knowledge. Words then allow knowledge to be communicated to readers. For example, the moment of realizing that the writer is himself/herself observed is apparent in Julio Cortazar's "Axolotl" when the man who watches axolotls in the zoo in Paris sees himself as an axolotl. He watches and meditates on the strange creatures on the other side of the glass cage until he is not frightened of them even though they devour him. What does it mean to think? The "threshold" themes and inquiries connected well with the technology to suggest to students the transforming power of becoming writers themselves.

The short readings of the composition course are well suited to online reading and to in-class discussion, especially with readers who are only beginning to learn how to read for long periods at a time. Since many new writers and readers are now heavily influenced by the boutique atmosphere of such large bookstores as Chapters, where writers read as shoppers browse, snack on books and chocolates, and wander often aimlessly, the melding of post-modern curriculum with a variety of media provides a familiar environment.

English departments have much to learn about the new markets for both writers and readers. Increasingly, we are aware of collaborative authorship, collaborative readings and collaborative learning spaces where teachers and markers work together. The project assessments prepared by Patricia Harvey further indicated that students want easy access to the software from off campus sites; e-mail was the technology they could least do without and they wanted to be able to make better use of it (Harvey 1998). Having layers of responses to their writing (from instructors, other students and markers) helped them to improve their writing. The more they used e-mail to write, respond and edit, the better their writing became. A final vote of confidence in faculty came from students in the large sections who spoke highly of their teachers. Rather than showing that classroom teachers are redundant, the technology enhanced writing program served to foreground teaching expertise.

In December, 1998, after three semesters, the pilot project using large classes ended. Although I felt regret over the conclusion to the Thresholds experience, I knew that the project's impact on the teaching of writing at Mount Royal College would be long-lasting. I had mixed feelings about the role of markers; overall, however, I concluded that the dedication of the markers to thorough assessment of students' writing was positive. As a teacher, I knew also that the use of visual materials, the public performance of talking with large groups and the multicultural curriculum had extended my competence in composition instruction. The most important aspect of Thresholds, finally, was increased understanding of the importance of linking collaborative learning and teaching to technology.

3. Intervention and Control in the Classroom: Some Concerns

Sabrina Reed

As Alexandra Pett explains in the preceding paper, the English 2201 Pilot Project at Mount Royal College gave instructors an opportunity to consider the impact of technology on issues of pedagogy, workload and instructor authority. The move to classes of seventy-five students, a cumbersome number for a composition class, was predicated on using computers to teach the grammar component of the course, e-mail to connect with students and markers to evaluate student papers. Our experiences at the College highlight Ann Hill Duin and Craig Hansen's assertions that computers exist not on their own but as part of an existing social structure which they both influence and are influenced by. They conclude their essay by asking the question, "How does each network or use of computers promote or inhibit social construction and social interaction between individuals, collaborators, discourse communities, and the larger community?" (Duin and Hansen 1994: 111) In terms of the Mount Royal College Pilot Project, how did the changing configuration of the classroom, made possible by the introduction of technology, change the dynamics of interaction between teacher and student?

The most striking change for instructors and students focussed on the instructor's ability to intervene in student learning. In large classes, the weaker students have more of a tendency to "fall through the cracks" and to become anonymous than they do in classes where the instructor can intervene directly in student progress. The impetus switches to the student's desire to ask for help and away from the instructor's ability to offer it. Because the instructor marks all papers, the instructor of a class of twenty-five students develops a sense of each student's strengths and weaknesses; but in a large class, the instructor relinquishes some of this ability to monitor the student to a marker. This paper will discuss the implications of using markers and how the primary instructors used e-mail to compensate for less face-to-face contact.

Certain aspects of the instructor/marker/student relationship caused difficulties. English 2201 is a fifteen-week course in first year university-level composition. During the term, students must write four essays of 750 to 1,000 words each, with an emphasis on persuasive writing. In the first semester of the Pilot Project, the primary instructors alternated markers for each assignment, an approach which created problems for all concerned. Students complained that each marker had slightly different expectations, while markers and instructors found that consulting with a new person for each assignment added unnecessary work and stress. In the second semester of the Pilot Project, therefore, each instructor worked with one marker for the duration of the course, allowing markers, students and instructors to form more permanent ties. Even with this change, however, many students mistrusted the markers. Evaluations of the Project showed that students wanted direct feedback from the instructor and felt that the marker's comments did not accurately reflect what the instructors said in class. Instructors counteracted these concerns by allowing students to discuss all marks with the instructor (though there were few such grievances in actual practice) and by some instructors reading all papers over quickly to ensure fairness. A quick comment at the end of each paper by the instructor minimized resentment and allowed the students to feel that not one, but two, people agreed on the mark that had been given, perhaps an example of the "positive effect of ... personalization on student achievement or attitudes" (Dwyer and Sullivan 1993: 140) mentioned in one study. Such an approach, did, however, require considerable time and lessened the benefits of having a marker in the first place.

In general, many of the problems students had with markers could stem from problems with the act of marking itself. As Lil Brannon and C.H. Knoblauch have pointed out,

I.A. Richards has said that we begin reading any text with an implicit faith in its coherence, an assumption that its author intended to convey some meaning and made the choices most likely to convey the meaning effectively. As readers, therefore, we tolerate the writer's manipulation of the way we see the subject that is being addressed. Our tolerance derives from a tacit acceptance of the writer's "authority" to make the statements we are reading. (Brannon and Knoblauch 1982: 157)

"In classroom writing situations," however, "the reader assumes primary control of the choices that writers make, feeling perfectly free to 'correct' those choices any time an apprentice deviates from the teacher-reader's conception of what the developing text 'ought' to look like or 'ought' to be doing"(158). Thus, the marking situation takes authority away from the writer and places it on a marker whose standards may be difficult for the student to follow. The writer's creativity is subsumed by the marker's power to judge. As Brannon and Knoblauch put it, "this correcting also tends to show students that the teacher's agenda is more important than their own, that what they wanted to say is less relevant than the teacher's impression of what they should have said" (158). Although the teacher/marker's experience, judgment and taste should benefit the student (and the current academic set-up requires that students receive grades), the marking situation can dampen creativity by instilling fear and feelings of inferiority.

Robert A. Schwegler adds to Knoblauch and Brannon's position by stating that

the paradigms we employ to conceptualize the relations between teacher/readers and student/writers in a composition class are political. First, they guide the distribution and exercise of power in the classroom society. Second, they reproduce in various ways the relationships that characterize the larger societies to which we and our students belong. (Schwegler 1991: 216)

In this context, Schwegler makes the point that "Views of the teacher's role as authoritative, authoritarian, and prescriptive have dominated traditional approaches to composition instruction and have led to an emphasis on form" (216). In a desire to be seen as objective, instructors rely on the measurable aspects of writing such as grammar and structure, and minimize the effect of subjective responses. As Schwegler points out, however, all response to writing has a subjective element, and students can benefit significantly when an instructor acknowledges his or her subjective response to the text.  Richard Straub also looks at the authority of the marker by analysing marking styles ranging from "Directive" to "Facilitative" (Straub 1996: 223). He suggests that "The critical questions have to do with when and to what extent we as individual teachers exert control over student writing through our comments" (247). Similarly, Karen L. Greenberg writes,

all grades, evaluations, and assessments – no matter how naturalistic, contextualized, multidimensional, and richly descriptive – are exercises in power. The 'phenomenology' of grading, evaluating, and assessing always involves asymmetrical attempts to shape experiences and identities, to control others, to establish or maintain authority. When we respond to student writing, we are in control. (Greenberg 1998: 277)

Interestingly, the main benefit instructors in the Pilot Project reported was that the presence of a marker altered this adversarial dynamic. While many instructors would agree with Nancy Sommers' statement that "we comment on student writing to dramatize the presence of a reader, to help our students to become that questioning reader themselves" (Sommers 1982: 148), they might also say that such an optimistic assessment of marking is difficult to achieve in actual practice. An instructor functioning as a marker is not just any reader, but a reader who can fail the student or negatively affect the student's grade point average. While the student/teacher relationship should ideally be one of trust, the tension between the instructor's role as teacher and the instructor's role as judge can cause friction. Anyone with experience of teaching and marking, for instance, has probably experienced the post-paper chill that can descend when the instructor hands back the first set of papers. Often students spend more time thinking about the instructor's power to pass judgement than they do about what the instructor is trying to say.

Because they were using markers for the first time, instructors in the Pilot Project thought a great deal about how the act of marking affects the classroom dynamic. Used to marking all papers themselves, the five Mount Royal College instructors were well aware of the exercise in power involved in evaluating student work. They found, however, that when there is a marker, the instructor can become the student's ally, working with the student to improve his or her writing. Instructors encouraged students to consult with them about their essays and provided help in the formation of ideas and approaches. In addition, when students came with complaints or concerns about their grades, instructors could help them meet the marker's expectations, rather than feeling defensive about the grade they themselves had given. If we go back to Brannon and Knoblauch's comment on the instructor exerting "primary control" (Brannon & Knoblauch 1982: 158) over student texts, the benefit of having markers was that authority over student writing was split. Instructors maintained authority over the information presented in the classroom, but they did not sit in judgment to enforce that authority. Instructors could make suggestions on how to meet the expectations of the marker, thus making themselves advocates for the student's improvement rather than arbiters of success and failure. Many of the instructors in the Pilot Project found this to be a liberating experience.

It is important to note, however, that the instructors in the Pilot Project did not see the use of markers as a way to avoid contact with students. The stereotypical view of classes with markers involves large 300-seat classrooms where the instructor cannot recognize students' faces, let alone know their names. In contrast, teachers and students at the College expect a significant amount of contact and interaction. Thus, while one form of instructor/student contact, the act of marking, was shifted onto the marker, instructors tried hard to maintain student contact and to know what their students were thinking and writing. Instructors used e-mail as a way of commenting on student writing and minimizing the lack of direct student contact caused by having seventy-five students in one class. All sections of the Pilot Project included an e-mail component to the course. Although many students could, and did, e-mail the instructor at any time, all students were required to use e-mail to receive part of their final grade.

For instance, I had students write me progress reports before each essay was due. These reports encouraged the students to begin their papers early, got them writing in a less formal way, and gave me an opportunity to assess their progress and to answer questions. Similarly, when students sent online drafts of their papers as e-mail attachments, I used the "Insert Comment" function of Microsoft Word to send them feedback on their writing. Admittedly, using e-mail did not solve all the difficulties around student/instructor contact. Some students simply ignored the e-mail requirement, and lost a percentage of their grade in the course. Those who habitually did their work at the last minute resented having to write about an essay that they had not started. Others, however, sent detailed notes on what they were planning; indeed, many sent me entire rough drafts of their essays. Thus, while using e-mail did not automatically motivate all students, it provided many with a forum to discuss their work.

David Coogan, in his article, "E-Mail Tutoring, a New Way to Do New Work", has discussed the power of e-mail to "offer new opportunities for collaboration that are not tied to the printed page or the writer's single voice" (Coogan 1995: 175). He continues, "e-mail tutorials place the paper in a continually changing context of communication: A writing tutorial becomes a discussion in writing. The student sends a paper, receives comments, writes a response, receives more comments, and so on" (175). For some, the disembodied space of e-mail allows for an easier interaction between student and instructor, more time to reflect, a finding supported by Janet Eldred's comment: "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" (Eldred 1991: 2).

By far the most interesting result of using e-mail in the course was the way it helped certain students to communicate with their instructors. Perhaps because e-mail is perceived to be more "anonymous" than face-to-face communication and "not subjected to the reflective scrutiny we usually give to the language we inscribe on paper" (Hawisher & Moran 1993: 630), some students told me they felt empowered by the use of e-mail in the course. They felt they could communicate more readily with instructors, often asking questions which they were afraid to ask in class. Many times, I had students who were extremely reluctant to speak up in class send me e-mails which showed that they had been actively considering the class content. As Hawisher and Moran point out, "Research in various fields has suggested that the lack of paralinguistic cues ... invites participation in group e-mail discussions from those who normally refrain from speaking face-to-face" (634).

More importantly, e-mail takes away some of the constraint to be "correct" which can deaden student creativity. In spite of all warnings and evidence to the contrary, many people still see e-mail as a disposable form without lasting consequences. Thus, something written on e-mail has more latitude in terms of content and correctness than a piece of writing committed to paper. While I would not advocate ignoring the rules of correct grammar, attention to these rules in the drafting phase of the writing process often limits the student's ability to generate ideas. E-mail, with its perceived flexibility and lack of "rules", can thus serve as a way to encourage students to write. Certainly, students' comments on the course indicated that they enjoyed expressing themselves in this medium.

To conclude, the 2201 Pilot Project provided instructors with valuable opportunities to question and challenge their pedagogical assumptions. While time savings were minimal, the project allowed instructors to organize their workloads in new ways, which provided more flexibility and, in most cases, increased instructor satisfaction. While students lost some of the one-to-one contact of smaller classes, they gained a different kind of contact through the use of e-mail and the loosening of traditional boundaries which seems to come with this medium. If nothing else, the project provided valuable opportunities for collaboration between colleagues and helped to expand the ways in which faculty approach the teaching of composition.

On the negative side, concerns over whether or not the Department should use markers caused problems from the beginning of the project. The most unsettling aspect of using markers was the creation of a new (to the Department) class of employee and the potential for exploitation. In an environment where sessional instructors were used to teaching their own sections of 2201, the prospect of being "only" a marker created worry about loss of autonomy and the creation of a marking "ghetto". On the other hand, some of the markers preferred the anonymity and lack of constraint of being a marker. They did not want teaching jobs, but rather wanted to work out of their own homes. Still, the job implications for markers remained the most problematic part of the Project. In fact, since the time this paper was presented in 1998, the Project has been put on hold because of this controversy.

The introduction to this cluster quotes Chris M. Anson's vision of the future student and the jobs that technology may force on the Academy. In the end, we must be careful to adopt the positive potential of technology without creating a group of workers who lose status because of it. Instructors from the Pilot Project will continue to experiment with ways to broaden student contact through the use of e-mail but in smaller, more individualized classrooms.


[1] The following cluster of papers includes an article by Patricia Rigg about her experiences teaching at Acadia University. Individuals interested in an additional perspective on the Acadia Advantage may wish to read also Keith Lawson's paper, "Teaching the Wired Student" (Lawson 1999).  Lawson discusses how technology impacted on his teaching of first year composition at Acadia University. Like Rigg, he comments on how his teaching changed in more radical ways than he first expected, with "the real action of the class ... taking place more and more in virtual space". Lawson discusses the challenges to traditional models of authority which take place in a "wired" classroom, pointing out that his "students had to learn to bring their reactions from the anarchic realm of the virtual into the ordered and (somewhat) hierarchical world of class discussion". Lawson suggests ways to help focus students in the often distracting world of the Internet.

[2] The issue of student voice has recently been discussed more often in terms of empowering minority and female voices than in any other context. Barker and Kemp, for instance, write that in their own use of computers for peer critiquing, "the dominating person has a much more difficult time dominating text exchanges than oral exchanges..." (Barker and Kemp 1990: 21). See also "Computer Conferencing: Composing a Feminist Community of Writers" and "Technology in the English Classroom: Computers through the Lens of Feminist Theory" (Handa 1990: 106-117, 118-139).

[3] The implications of the term "facilitator" are interesting. The word has connotative assumptions of "ease" and is the term used now in computer training programs such as the growing Information Technology Institute, for example. As I write this, I know that this is not the word I want to apply to myself in the classroom.


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Sabrina Reed (Mount Royal College)
Alexandra Pett (Mount Royal College)
Patricia Rigg (Acadia University)





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