Wired On a Shoestring: A Site and Some Insights
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It seems as though the whole world is being wired through computer technology and Internet access, and as Todd Taylor and Irene Ward note, "most of the information suddenly flying back and forth [is] not just data; it [is] electronic discourse: digitized written words" (1998, xv). This new medium of discourse has had a profound effect on the definition of literacy and what it means to be a literate person, as well as what a literacy classroom might look like. According to Richard Lanham, this "electronic text will create 'not only new writing space, but a new educational space as well. Not only the humanities curriculum, but school and university structures, administrative and physical, are affected at every point' (xii)" (qtd. in Taylor and Ward 1998, xvi).
Moreover, because "literacy is always a political act as well as an educational effort" (Selfe 1999, 137), all of us become part of the technological-literacy movement as citizens and taxpayers. Incredible resources are being poured into technological literacy initiatives, from both the private and public sectors, with sometimes questionable results. Cynthia Selfe, longtime technological-literacy pioneer, proponent, and educator, claims that "Literate citizens should be able to carefully analyze, to pay attention to, the technology-literacy link at fundamental levels of both conception and social practice" (148). In addition to being informed citizens, we must all "pay attention" to technological literacy, because some level of mastery of computer skills is becoming increasingly critical to one's success in the workplace, from the clerk behind the fast food counter to the professor of engineering. If we don't critically analyze and support worthwhile technological-literacy initiatives at local, institutional, and national levels, we are shirking our own responsibilities as literate citizens.
Directing her comments more specifically at literacy educators, Selfe writes, "Technology has become part of our responsibility, whether we like it or not" (5). Acknowledging this same responsibility, several discipline-specific organizations have begun to discuss various technological issues as they affect the academic environment. In May 2000, the Modern Language Association Executive Council, "[i]n recognition that information technology is critical to fulfilling the educational and research missions of modern language departments, . . . [approved] guidelines for faculty and student access to and institutional support for digital media and other information technologies" (Modern Language Association 2000). And the National Council of Teachers of English's college division has formed the Committee on Computers in Composition and Communication, which "works on issues related to computers and writing in composition and communication, especially as they relate to teaching, access, promotion and tenure, and program administration" (NCTE, CCCC 2000). Basically, whether one views the rapid infusion of technology as a positive or a negative condition, literacy specialists like Selfe and professional organizations like the Modern Language Association and the National Council of Teachers of English have recognized technology's overwhelming presence, and have begun to support the need of educators to prepare students to be technologically literate in this wired environment.
However, what such literacy means varies across contexts and cultures. Like literacy itself, technological literacy is viewed both as mastery of a discrete set of skills and more broadly as a "cultural phenomenon" (Selfe 1999, 11). For Selfe, "technological literacy refers to a complex set of socially and culturally situated values, practices, and skills involved in operating linguistically within the context of electronic environments, including reading, writing, and communicating" (11). Technological literacy involves skills like reading or retrieving a text on line and word processing a document; but the concept also refers to culturally acceptable patterns of literate behavior, and these behavior patterns, like electronic communication, are situationally defined and regulated. It is quite possible to be technologically literate in one setting, and be technologically illiterate in another setting. For example, I can participate literately in an electronic list discussion on rhetoric; however, I would be wholly illiterate on an electronic list discussing quantum physics. Moreover, not only is literacy (technological or otherwise) communally defined, it is also facilitated, if not constructed, by social interaction.
As an educator, I believe strongly in the responsibility to foster technological literacy that Selfe assigns to literacy educators, but I would claim it as a responsibility for educators across the academy, not just literacy educators. Moreover, although technological literacy is a worthwhile end in itself, as Fred Kemp (2000) notes, using technology can also bring about a powerful change toward a collaborative pedagogy "in a way that nothing else can." Because I believe that the information-sharing capability of computer technology supports and enhances the development of a learning community, described by "Tierney and O'Flahaven . . . as a literate environment, where 'members facilitate their own and each others learning by sharing, offering support, suggesting possibilities, and evaluating ideas in a social context'" (cited in Maring, Wiseman, and Myers 1997, 202), I wanted something that would allow my first-year writing students to share their work with one another in and outside of class in order to extend the classroom walls beyond our computer lab. Because of this responsibility and these benefits, I began searching for ways to integrate technology into my college writing classes.
"Placing students in front of computers does not make them technologically literate"
For my effort to foster technological literacy — its skill acquisition and social/pedagogical benefits — I offer my writing classes in a classroom with twenty-six computers; however, placing students in front of computers does not make them technologically literate, any more than placing books in the hands of preschoolers makes them readers. One need not look far to find articles, journals, books, e-lists, and a wide variety of software, from low tech (by today's standards) CD-ROM textbook supplements to high-tech (and high cost) university-wide server-supported networking systems (like WebCT, Daedalus, or Blackboard) that inform and support the pedagogical adaptations necessary to integrate technology into the classroom. Anxious to give my students greater, inexpensive, "shoestring" access , not only to computer technology and the enhancements it affords pedagogy, but to class materials and to the learning community I try to establish in every class, I wanted to find something that was not bound to a computer lab or to any purchased software program. In order to do so, I turned to the World Wide Web, where I found a great Web site, (formerly corp.visto.com/index.html) where my classes can have a group space complete with asynchronous threaded discussion page, folders for sharing and storing files, and even a group calendar where they can access the class's Web schedule or schedule virtual or real-time conferences with me.
While I will briefly share the types of activities this group account, and other sites like it, are allowing us to do free, I also want to explore some of the problems of the free, unmediated use of computer technology in our classrooms. Unfortunately, this flood of information and technical gadgetry does more than inform and support pedagogical changes, it has the potential to lure instructors in to less-than-judicious use of technology. As enthusiastic as I am about how technology can help us foster technological literacy and facilitate what Kemp (2000) calls "peer-to-peer, interactive, text-sharing pedagogy," I don't believe we always need to use the available technology in our teaching. Even if the problems of cost and access are minimized and justified, I believe that as educators we need to evaluate each situation as to whether technology is the best path to achieve our goals.
Benefits of a Computer-Enhanced Teaching Environment
Using a site like Visto (or similar Web-based applications) does not just teach technological literacy skills like uploading/downloading files and Web-based calendar usage, it enhances community building, which is one of the greatest assets of using a site like Visto. Social interaction is integral to literacy, and developing a sense of community in the classroom is a critical component of learning, and particularly of writing, so community building has become an important goal in my teaching. In her work on invention, Karen Burke LeFevre claims that, "Too often an 'invention' (unacknowledged, and hence, incomplete) dies or disappears because social links are not provided" (1987, 75). She continues, "In order to develop new ideas, Lewis Coser has suggested, intellectuals need two things: contact with an audience whom they can address and by whom they can be acknowledged; and regular contact with others with whom they can debate ideas and evolve common standards" (75-6). This is precisely the kind of community that I seek to foster in my classes. Our group space, and its connection to our Web schedule, has become the locus of our class meetings. We begin nearly every class by visiting our Web space to see what's happened since the last class meeting. Students are also encouraged to visit the space between class meetings to read announcements, participate in threaded discussions, check the calendar for conference times, and review others' projects; in short, to address and be acknowledged by one another, and even to debate one another from time to time.
"We may not always need to use computer technology"
Among these activities, the ability to share files with others has been the single greatest community builder in my classes. I encourage my students to share drafts of their work with one another, and the group's shared file folders provide them a Web-based place to do so. I occasionally ask students to share their drafts with the entire group to serve as a model , but more often these shared folders are a forum where students can easily share drafts with one another — even outside class. While it's true that in the classroom, students can simply exchange paper drafts with one another, our Web folders allow us access to others' drafts outside of class, which is particularly useful on days when a student must be absent or when class is canceled. As students work on individual research projects, they can read others' drafts as well as their research reports, annotated bibliographies, discoveries, and other documents about their work. And, by having real readers — their peers — students seem to write better because they have a greater sense of audience.
As a result, these folders become a space for online publication, not only for text drafts but for hypertextual documents as well. This fall I will assign a collaborative Web-page project, http://www.personal.psu.edu/bjj6/ENGL_030_Web_Project.htm [link no linger active], in my honors first-year writing class. Each of the collaborative groups will be able to create their own 25 MB group space at the Visto site, where they can store the files — text, images, sound — with which to jointly construct their Web pages.
Is Computer-Based Technology for Every Class?
While I believe in the types of activities our Visto group accounts are allowing us to do to nurture technological literacy, I'd like to suggest that we may not always need to use computer technology. Most of us are aware of the seductive powers of technology, and we must make sure that our motives in engaging that seducer or seductress are rooted in pedagogical benefit. We must remember, as Dona Hickey and Donna Reiss (2000) note, "We're teachers first, technology enthusiasts second."
"As a writing instructor, my primary goal is to prepare my students to write in other academic situations"
We need to guard not only against being seduced by the "wow-ness" of technology, but against institutional initiatives that pull unwilling, unprepared, or under-prepared faculty into the tide pool of technological change. As institutions rush to employ technology into their programs, some priorities may become skewed. This year, my institution has begun "strongly recommending" that incoming students have access to a computer and the Internet in their campus residences. In response to that initiative, I heard a fellow member of the technology-planning committee warn several times that if we "strongly recommend" that students have computers, more faculty must begin to use computer technology in their classrooms. Requiring, or even recommending, that students purchase computers before a clear need has been identified seems to me like the tail wagging the dog. About a similar concern, Hickey and Reiss ask, "Who's driving the bus: the pedagogy or the Pentium?" (2000) Before we start up that bus, or boot that Pentium, I believe we have to ask ourselves if technology is the best approach for the students and their situations.
A Test for Appropriateness
What follows is a list of questions to consider before implementing computer technology in our classes:
What are the goals/objectives for the course/lesson?
A precursor to an evaluation of the appropriateness of implementing computer technology in the classroom, of course, is to determine those goals. As a writing instructor, my primary goal is to prepare my students to write in other academic situations. Of course I have other goals, such as teaching critical thinking and argument construction, but ultimately I am teaching survival skills; consequently, promoting technological literacy is a goal for my classes.
Is this use of computer technology the best means to achieve those goals/objectives, or do I do what I do just because I can?
This question came to mind as I spent five hours setting up the group calendar and another half hour instructing students on how to schedule a conference, an activity that used to take 15 minutes and a tablet. Again, this activity can work toward developing a technological skill, but I doubt that it fostered community any more than passing the tablet had (except for the common feeling of frustration expressed by some students after using the Web calendar). Gaining experience with a Web-based calendar made the activity worthwhile, but can I say the same for conducting class from my conference hotel in England via our synchronous "Volano" chat room? That, I believe, is an instance of doing something just because the technology exists; my students could have been directed to utilize my absence in far less technologically wizardly ways. Pamela Mack (2000) analogizes this overuse of technology by noting, "If you give a four-year-old a hammer, suddenly everything looks like a nail." My laptop had become my hammer, and everything looked like it needed a tap; to avoid this, I believe that we need to guard against treating every situation, every goal as being best addressed through the use of technology.
Mack voices more questions to consider:
"What are the computer skills of the students and how much should this course teach them new computer skills? . . . [and] How much is the goal of the course to push students beyond their comfort zone?" (Mack 2000)
As I mentioned earlier, one benefit for using a site like Visto, or similar technology, is that it helps to bolster students' technological literacy skills; however, learning to use the various functions of the user-friendly Visto site, is daunting to some students. One student last semester, frustrated at a failed attempt to schedule a conference appointment, insisted, "I don't need computers anyway. My uncle is a bank president, and he doesn't know anything about computers." Resistance like this is not uncommon to any new skill; however, I think we should consider how much resistance born of discomfort we should raise in our students. We must strike a balance of healthy discomfiture, something between allowing students to languish complacently at their current ability level, and stressing students so much and so often that coming to class fills them with dread.
Related to those questions is this final one:
Do I limit student access, or make my course more accessible through those technological means?
Although I looked for a Web-based site in order to eliminate problems with cost and student access, not every student has easy access to the Web (even those who are "strongly recommended" to do so), and still others, like the frustrated students I referred to earlier, don't feel comfortable in that environment. Although I want to encourage my students to stretch their intellectual access to computer technology, I must not do so at the loss of students' physical access to class materials. As educators, we must remember that technological literacy is defined not only by the communities for which we are preparing our students, but also by their communities of the here and now.
Some Closing Thoughts
"Wiring" a class "on a shoestring" by using a Web site like Visto (or a similar although more expensive Web-based application), has positive and negative effects on the students, the instructor, the pedagogy, and the classroom environment in general. The students, of course, have ample opportunities to develop technological literacy skills, but not without adding to the discomfort of some students. The instructor, too, is usually actively learning along with her or his students, but this may lead to her or his discomfort at the loss of power that being a learner sometimes causes. Part of that discomfort may also come from the changes necessitated by the new, and yet not so new, pedagogy that computer-enhanced environments require. Kenneth Bruffee notes that those who work with cooperative or collaborative learning are using "some educational ideas that are after all pretty encrusted with age: helping students learn by working together on substantive issues" (my emphasis, Bruffee 1995, 12). Although the technology may be new, the principles of collaborative and cooperative pedagogy are not all that new. The resulting classroom environment can be one of a collegial, collaborative, learning community, but it takes work and willingness, from students and instructors alike, to stretch themselves. Given these potential positive and negative effects, technologically enhanced pedagogy should be used thoughtfully.
Our group's Web space provided us with a place to practice technologically literate behaviors; however, the Web space's various features must be used judiciously, just as other technologies should be. Sometimes, a tablet and a pencil may be the best way for students to achieve a particular goal, and there are times when a face-to-face discussion is more appropriate than online dialogues. The responsibility for technology, and technological literacy that Selfe assigns to literacy educators is then more a responsibility to critically analyze when and how our students would best be inducted into a community of technologically literate people, rather than simply inundating them with as much technology as physical access allows. Technology is not necessarily the great teacher and bond builder that naturally forges a class of disparate personalities into a single community of technologically literate people singing "We are the World." However, used with care and a clear sense of purpose, Web sites (and programs) like Visto, which afford students opportunities to share their ideas, their work, and sometimes even their lives with one another, can facilitate technological literacy in powerful ways.
Billie Jones is Assistant Professor of Humanities and Writing at Pennsylvania State University-Capital College, where she is also English Program Coordinator. She teaches a range of courses, including Rhetoric and Composition, Basic Writing, Writing in the Social Sciences, English Composition: Theory and Practice, and Literacy Studies. Jones' publications include articles in BWe: Basic Writing e-Journal, Composition Chronicle, and Semiotics 1999. Her current projects include editing a book on the rhetoric of memorials and an article-length examination of Cynthia Ozick's The Shawl. According to her Web page, she believes that "one of the most important things for students to learn, not only in expository writing classes but throughout the university, is the value of their own ideas." Jones' e-mail address is email@example.com, and her home page is at http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/b/j/bjj6 [link no longer active].
Access means different things to different people; for some it is availability of computer hardware and software (of course, even specifications of these vary widely), and others would add Internet connection to the definition. For some, this availability could be in a local computer lab, library, or classroom, while for others availability constitutes ownership. However, computer access is more complex than machine availability; for example, if a student has a computer, but she or he is apprehensive about its use or doesn't know how to operate it, that student doesn't really have access to computer technology. Rebecca Rickly and Fred Kemp (2000) talk about access in terms of "physical and intellectual access." The student above had physical access to computer technology, but did not have "intellectual access" to that technology. Intellectual access refers not only to ability, but also to one's perception about the benefits of becoming technologically literate. Patricia Fitzsimmons-Hunter and Charles Moran have proposed an expanded definition of access, which considers students' and teachers' attitudes about technology and its possible impact in their own lives in addition to the traditional ratio of computers to students and teachers (1998, 160). In their proposal, they claim that access increases when students and teachers see advantages to technology in their lives and are therefore willing to work, and sometimes even fight, for it.
Bruffee, Kenneth A. 1995. Sharing our toys: Cooperative learning versus collaborative learning. Change 27:1. 12-8.
The CCCC Committee on Computers in Composition and Communication. 1999. Committee FAQ. 20 May. NCTE. 28 Jul. 2000. http://www.ncte.org/cccc/gov/committees/7cs
Fitzsimmons-Hunter, Patricia, and Charles Moran. 1998 Writing Teachers, Schools, Access, and Change. Literacy Theory in the Age of the Internet. Ed. Todd Taylor and Irene Ward. New York: Columbia University Press. 158-69.
MLA Committee on Computers and Emerging Technologies in Teaching and Research. 2000. Guidelines for Institutional Support of and Access to Information Technology for Faculty Members and Students in the Modern Languages. April.MLA. 28 Jul. 2000 [formerly http://www.mla.org/reports/ccet/ccet_support.htm].
Hickey, Dona and Donna Reiss. 2000. Cybersimulations: Low-Tech Variations of High-Tech Applications for Learning Communities: The Pedagogy. 1 August 1999. 9 April 2000. http://wordsworth2.net/resource/cybersimulations.htm
Kemp, Fred, and Rebecca Rickly. 2000. Technology in Writing Programs: Responsible Development, Responsible Development, Responsible Implementation, Responsible Assessment. WPA Conference. Charlotte, NC. 15 July.
LeFevre, Karen Burke. 1987. Invention as a Social Act. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Mack, Pamela. 2000. Presentation. New Information Technologies and Liberal Education. Furman University. Greenville, SC. 8 May.
Maring, Gerald H., Beau J. Wiseman, and Kurt S. Myers. 1997. Using the World Wide Web to Build' Learning Communities: Writing for Genuine Purposes. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 41:3. 196-207.
Selfe, Cynthia L. 1999. Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Paying Attention. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Taylor, Todd and Irene Ward. 1998. Introduction. Literacy Theory in the Age of the Internet. Ed. Todd Taylor and Irene Ward. New York: Columbia University Press. xv-xxi.
Links from this article
Collaborative Web Page Design [formerly http://www.personal.psu.edu/bjj6/ENGL_030_Web_Project.htm]
Visto [formerly http://www.visto.com]