THE EFFECTS OF COMPUTER MEDIATED COMMUNICATIONS IN THE
COLLEGE FRESHMAN COMPOSITION CLASSROOM
B.A., University of Colorado at Denver, 1996
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
This thesis for the Master of Arts
has been approved
Bradford K. Mudge
HalesVass, Traci (M.A., English)
The Effects of Computer Mediated Communications in the College Freshman
Composition Classroom: A Meta-Analysis
Thesis directed by Professor Joanne Addison
Though computer mediated communication (CmC), or networked
technology, is found in more and more college composition classrooms every
day, there is still much to know about its effects. There is little empirical
research completed about this subject, but definite effects are being
recognized. These effects of technology are varied and dependent on
different factors. One component effecting the results on student writing is
the rhetorical theory that is applied to a pedagogy including CmC. A student-
centered pedagogy seems to result in positive changes in how much students
write, the strength of their writing, and the quality of their writing. CmC can
increase audience awareness and liberate students from some of the
confinements of a traditional, authoritarian classroom.
There are several areas of mixed consensus that will require controlled
and long-term research. What remains undisputed is that computers are a
definite addition to the composition classroom and that it is necessary to find
out all the effects related to their use.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
I dedicate this thesis to my family for their continuous support.
I wish to thank Dr. Richard VanDeWeghe and Dr. Joanne Addison for their
mentorship and guidance.
1. A New Era of Learning and Teaching...................1
2. The New Classroom....................................7
3. The New Writing......................................21
4. The New Pedagogy.....................................28
5. Conclusion: Adapting to the New Era..................35
A New Era of Learning and Teaching
We have a much larger and more complicated obligation to
fulfillthat of trying to understand and make sense of, to pay
attention to, how technology is now inextricably linked to literacy
and literacy education in this country.
Cynthia Selfe, 1998 CCCC Keynote Address
We cannot ignore the computer in the English classroom. We have no
choice: if we dont learn about the effects of the computer and acclimatize our
teaching, we can actually inhibit our students education. The computer in the
new millennium will be as much a part of academic life as pen and paper are
now. Whether the computer is used only as an adjunctive form of
communication between students and teachers via email, or the entire class
is conducted online, the computer has radical effects on teaching and
learning English. Computer use has produced so many upheavals of
established standards that we notice the first tremors of a significant
paradigm shift. As Jay David Bolter (1992) describes it, this is a watershed
as important as the shift from manuscript to print in the fifteenth century (p.
Our first step is to wake up and pay attention, the second is to design
and implement appropriate research, but the ultimate goal is to apply this
research to our curriculum. We need to learn how the computer affects our
students and our teaching and adapt accordingly. It is not a coincidence that
the growth of computer awareness correlates with the emergence of social,
student-centered pedagogical theory.
Though computer-mediated communication has been increasingly a
part of the English classroom for over ten years, relatively little empirical
research is available regarding its effects. The existing research is
inconsistent and conflicting.
There are several reasons for this lack of clarity. Computers are
affecting familiar areas in dramatic ways, and their usage is taking us to
entirely new realms that we have never before explored. The old axioms
cannot be applied to research in this field, and former interpretations must be
reconsidered. As Hawisher and LeBlanc (1992) tell us, old assumptions
regarding writing and the teaching of writing may no longer hold true in the
virtual age (p. ix). They remind us that the familiar maxims of print culture
[are] so ingrained in our thinking that understanding virtuality requires a
difficult conceptual leap (p. x).
Therefore, research techniques previously employed in the
composition classroom do not hold up in the computer-mediated environment.
Curtis and Klem (1992) assert that research itself may resist change"
because traditional concepts are applied to new contexts (p. 158). The
narrowly focused research questions of traditional exploration modes are
derived from prestructured research designs and preset assumptionsfrom
previous contextsrather than developing naturally from present data and
their emerging patterns (p. 160).
Despite the lack of empirical data, there are many papers written
discussing observations and speculations. Educators have noticed changes
in the writing classroom. The effects of technology on students are broad and
inclusive of many levels of their academic lives, from classroom relationships
and roles, to their attitudes about writing, and their ability to write. Previous
research does not show enough of the context for the reader or, reflexively,
the writer to assess other factors (Curtis & Klem, 1992, p. 159). The
computer culture, that new community we see in the computer assisted
classroom, has not yet established rules or roles, or shared artifacts to unify
us (p. 168).
Also, as Reynolds and Lewis (1997) explain, most student work is still
done outside of the classroom, and therefore, we may never completely track
the effects of computers. We know too little about access sites and students
habits of using these sites. The ever-changing horizon of computer
accessibility, taking into account economic situations of students, added to
the speedy evolution of different software, makes it difficult to really know how
and when students are using computers. Definitions of access vary as well
as the concept of access itself (p. 270). These elements result in relatively
little empirical research that evaluates the effect of the computer on students
Because research is scanty, pedagogical theories are in a state of flux
while teachers attempt to adapt to the changes caused by computer-mediated
communication. Inquiry needs to be done to ascertain the most effective
means of incorporating the computer into the classroom.
Though there is a lack of empirical data, there exists a body of
literature that discusses and analyzes observations of the use of computer-
mediated communication in the composition classroom. These educators
recognize dramatic effects, and through an analysis of their findings the
consequential needs for research and changes in teaching techniques can be
extrapolated. In this thesis I have gathered and summarized these writings,
illuminating the need for change in pedagogy. This thesis shows important,
undeniable effects of the computerized classroom and why we need to adjust
our pedagogy appropriately.
In discussing these articles, I have used the terms computerized
classroom, computer-mediated communications, CMC, technology,
networked technology, and computers interchangeably. By these terms I
refer to those activities that involve the capability for back-and-forth
exchange, such as computers used to communicate through email,
synchronous or asynchronous chats, on-line discussion groups, bulletin
boards or listservs. These procedures have been conducted on the Internet
or by using appropriate software, and are an aspect of a college classroom.
By classroom, I mean both the physical environment of a college room and
that space, virtual or real, where students and teachers meet to learn and
The articles and chapters that I have included in this review are less
than ten years old; they have been written by instructors of English
composition classes; they relate to a class or classes in which computer-
mediated communication has played a part, either adjunctively or as the sole
medium for the class.
This paper is a step toward paying attention to the computer in the
English classroom, exploring the effects of computer-mediated
communication. I have analyzed research that falls into three main
categories: effects on the classroom, including relationships and community;
effects on writing; and issues of pedagogy. These categories represent the
most poignantly evident areas that computers have affected, and those sites
wherein we need to pay immediate attention. In these classrooms,
relationships inherently exist between teacher and students, and between
student and student. Also in these classrooms, extending from the
relationships, is a particular community. Regarding pedagogy, I have
investigated how traditional pedagogical practices hold up to the
computerized classroom, compared to how postmodern theories apply.
Conclusively, I have found that the computer irrevocably affects the English
composition classroom, and I reaffirm Selfes exhortation that we need to pay
attention, and further, aggressively adapt to the changes.
The New Classroom
One of the most important areas that computer-mediated
communication has affected is the teaching and learning environment. Not
only has the delineation of physical boundaries been removed, but also the
relationships within the classroom have transformed. A new community has
arisen within the classroom. Teacher-student and student-student
relationships have changed. Perhaps most significantly, computer-mediated
communication has disrupted the traditional teacher-centered classroom.
Many educators opine that the computer in English composition has
created an entirely new classroom, both in the physical sense and, in turn, in
the classroom community. Whether each student sits in front of a computer
or the class is conducted entirely on-line, a new learning situation is
produced. Even if interactive computer use is assigned outside of the
classroom, as in requiring email communications or participation in a
discussion group, definite results are evident (see Barker & Kemp, 1990;
Bolter, 1992 &1996; Hawisher, 1992; Hawisher & Moran, 1993; Selfe, 1989 &
This new technology opens the door to teaching situations we havent
even yet imagined. How we recognize and adapt to these changes will mean
the difference between the success of students or their suppression. Charles
Moran (1992) speculates that the computer could allow the classroom of the
future to be conducted entirely outside of the boundaries of the conventional
school building. He extols this change in setting, contrasting it to the current
college classroom. Todays teaching environment is as impersonal as a
motel room, he says (p. 8). But, according to Moran, with computers
introduced into the classroom we have the opportunity to break with the past
and to create interactive writing classrooms (p.12). How we construct these
new spaces and how we utilize them are issues that require serious study.
Additionally we need to recognize the shift in classroom roles and
relationships that the new spaces cause.
The traditional classroom setting, with the teacher standing behind a
lectern facing her students, promotes an atmosphere of hierarchy. Even if we
choose to break the authoritarian rank of teacher and encourage an
environment that welcomes debate and discussion, our physical settings
hamper us. Selfe (1992) agrees that the parameters of our physical space
help determine our effectiveness in teaching and learning. Barker and Kemp
(1990) also suggest that the physical arrangement of traditional classrooms
upholds teacher hegemony. This arrangement is not conducive to group
work or student empowerment, nor consequently, to a successful education.
Many teachers fear that, rather than empowerment, computers in the
classroom will cause students to hide behind the machines and isolate
themselves in cyberspace. But Barker and Kemp (1990) have discovered
that computerized classrooms do not isolate students. As they say,
networked microcomputers dissolve the proscenium classroom by providing
connections from station to station, and not privileging any one controller (p.
16). When the students are connected in this manner, and the teacher no
longer holds a prominent position in front of the students, relationships within
the classroom change.
Because the computers presence in the classroom has the ability to
shatter teacher-governed situations, a shift in the entire structure of
educational relationships results. Cyganowski (1990) has found that the
physical setting of a computer lab .. has changed dynamics within the
classroom (p. 70). The configuration of a classroom with networked
computers automatically sets up small groups and partnerships. With a
computer screen in front of a student, visual focus is removed from the
teacher and channeled onto an interactive writing space, one that the student
When the environment of the classroom is altered, as Carolyn Boiarsky
(1990) discovered, traditional roles of teacher and student are modified,
blur[ing] the line between teacher and student and enhancing] students
active participation in their learning (p. 50). The new computerized
classroom no longer has a front, but becomes a workshop. The teacher
now acts as coach, or as Boiarsky describes her role, an editor" (p. 50). With
students making decisions in their own writing in an interactive medium, they
take more responsibility for their own education.
Much about the changes in the classroom was learned through the use
of ENFI (Electronic Networks for Interaction). ENFl was one of the first
networking systems used for composition classrooms. Langston and Batson
(1998) conducted classes using ENFI. They extrapolated from their
observations that when students discuss issues back and forth through the
written word, the normal social hierarchies . that exist in a regular
classroom are affected . whether the teacher intends such a change (pp.
When students are empowered and the teachers position is
decentralized, a shift in value of student writing occurs. Cooper and Selfe
(1990) believe that CMC can make class sessions more egalitarian, reducing
the dominance of the teacher. . and increasing the importance of the
students discourses (p. 852). When student discourse becomes more
important, and students have more control over what they express, the
classroom changes from teacher- to student-centered.
Cooper and Selfe observed that as students exercised their power and
became used to setting their own agenda .. they resisted any suggestions
the teacher made in class (p. 857). Students challenged formerly instituted
hierarchies. They established the computerized classroom as their own
territory and made their own decisions on what to do in it. This empowerment
allows students to take responsibility for their own learning, strengthening the
educational process. Hawisher and Moran (1997) agree that the new
classroom opens up the possibility for different teacher-student relationships.
The teacher is now another reader (p. 123).
Several authors comment on this change in teachers role, and search
for new descriptions. Richard Lanham (1990) calls the teacher in this setting
a learned coordinator (p. xiv). Langston and Batson (1990) assert that the
computerized classroom changes the teachers role from evaluator to
participant/leader (p. 147). Hawisher (1992a) urges instructors to relinquish
authority and become learners with their students (p. 47).
This shift in position is exhibited even when the computer is not a part
of the physical classroom setting, but used externally. Email used as a
communication device between teachers and students, according to
Hawisher and Moran (1993), breaks down some of the barriers that have
long been established between students and professors . email allows us
to communicate with students in ways that large research institutions often
work against (p. 635). Students can connect with faculty using email to find
ways through an unfriendly bureaucracy, and in turn discover the potential to
develop more confidential relationships (p. 635).
Though it is recognized that CMC produces changes in classroom
relationships, there is debate whether these changes are beneficial or
detrimental. One of the misconceptions about computers, according to
Hawisher and Selfe (1991), reflects the attitude that computers automatically
create ideal learning situations (p. 60). But the computer itself cannot
determine behavior. Unless this new learning tool is introduced with
sensitivity and understanding of its potential, there can be problems and
misuse. Hawisher and Selfe have observed that in a CMC setting there can
be a lack of discussions between teachers and students regarding writing
problems. It seems that when the computers are a physical presence in the
classroom, their use can interfere with the relationship between the students
and teachers. Examples from their classes show how students can still bow
to teachers authority, and "hide behind the computer, deluding the teacher
into believing there is more interaction going on than there is. This is one
reason the proper understanding and instruction are vital to make the
computerized classroom work to its fullest potential.
Without suitable knowledge of the characteristics of networked
technology, Curtis and Klem (1992) caution that hegemonies in traditional
classrooms reappear in network systems (p. 158). Students, not only
teachers, will tend to act in formerly established ways, and unless the
potential for change is acknowledged, old patterns will be maintained.
Furthermore, the use of CMC has the potential to add another aspect
to the teachers function. Hawisher (1992a) discusses the addition of invisible
work (p. 50) that is above and beyond teaching and researching (like
answering email). In her articles with Moran (1993 & 1997) this problem is
also mentioned. Teachers may suffer from a surfeit of communication by
being too well connected, and with too many people (1993, p.635 and 1997,
p. 119). They have tagged this invasion telework and describe how this can
increase the teachers accessibility and add more work (p. 637).
These negative considerations point out that the computer has
changed the classroom. The computers presence in the classroom has
altered the physical setting of the teaching environment, which has produced
a shift in classroom relationships. Especially noteworthy is the
decentralization of the teachers position and the resulting empowerment of
the student. This brings up the necessity for the instructor to be willing to
change his role, relinquish some authority, and learn about the new
communication and its effects. Not only do we need to pay attention, we
need to recognize where and why the computer does not work, and research
areas showing conflicting results. The computer in itself is powerless,
possessing no agency. It cannot, in itself, produce or cause action. So what
produces these different effects? We need to discover the factors that
influence the results.
One result of CMC that stems from the changing relationships is a new
classroom community. A stronger collaborative atmosphere exists, resulting
in more audience awareness and more motivated students.
Computers in the English classroom seem to cause a unique form of
community to arise. From what educators have observed, there is a new,
closer, more familiar type of affiliation that results directly from the use of
technology. This leads to a greater degree of collaboration among peers,
which in turn can lead to a greater sense of audience and more carefully
In a comparative experiment between a computerized classroom and a
traditional classroom, Harris and Wambeam (1996) noticed that CMC adds an
element of play to the students writing activities, referring to the philosophy
that play allows people to overcome feelings related to confusion, doubt, and
fear (p. 357). They also feel that networked communication lends
authenticity and relevance to students and their writing that allows them to
unite in a discourse community which can lead to their realizing the
relevance of writing to participation in this community (p. 357).
Hawisher (1992a) has noticed that this community provides a safe
ground for students to disclose information about themselves that they would
usually not share in class (p. 47). In another article, (1992b), she states that
computer-mediated communication can "foster a sense of belonging among
participants (p. 87). As one of her students says, I am still constantly
amazed at the companionship and warmth one can find on a computer
terminal (p. 87).
As we have seen, the teachers position is changed in the
computerized classroom. Within this new community, students as well as
teachers exercise new roles. Boiarsky (1990) has found that students
change from being passive recipients of a teachers judgement to active
seekers of constructive criticism .. seeking solutions to their problems. (p.
59). A remarkable consequence of this increased sense of community is that,
as students find empowerment, they reach out and take responsibility for their
classmates learning, also. A cooperative circle of support can emanate from
and back to each individual.
Because of the kinship that develops in a computerized classroom,
collaborative learning is enhanced. Several educators discuss a self-
perpetuating group synergy (Moran 1992, p. 20, Cooper & Selfe 1990, p.
857). Hawisher (1992) finds that this synergy is a phenomenon commented
on frequently. In this community "participants perceive themselves as a
closely-knit group of friends who create their own intellectual spaces (p. 94).
The unity of the students sustains itself, often extending beyond the
perimeters of the assignments. There are many reports of classes continuing
their on-line discussions after semesters end.
Contrarily, in the traditional classroom, students often do not have
enough occasions to interact due to standing social structures, and the
outspoken personality quiets the shy one. As Langston and Batson (1990)
have found, in face-to-face situations, social hierarchies in the classroom are
sustained (p. 144).
But computers seem to allow for an informal ambiance to flourish.
Selfe (1992) has found that computers in the classroom provide opportunity
for productive collaboration, connectedness, and equal educational
opportunity (p. 30). There is much evidence that, as Hawisher (1992b)
declares, student participation does seem to increase in electronic
conferences (p. 89).
Networked technology encourages collaboration in a variety of class
work, including invention, revision, and editing, and enhances peer response.
Cyganowski (1990) finds that on-line workshops are more positive than face-
to-face groups because students talk about writing by writing and reading.
Written comments, received privately, erase the negative factor of students
feeling their work is cut up by others (p. 69).
According to Costanzo (1994), technology enhances collaborative
writing and peer review because writing is no longer a solitary act but now
a gesture of communication (p.14). Barker and Kemp (1990) suggest that
networked technology aids in critique and revision in a collaborative setting.
Because students comments to one another are delivered in text, they are
understandable, are more thoughtful, and more easily remembered.
Hawisher and Moran (1993) refer to Barker and Kemps article, agreeing that
CMC lends itself to collaboration by dissolving the temporal and spatial
boundaries of the conventional classroom (p. 633).
The issue of community brings up the question of egalitarianism.
There is a great deal of debate regarding this topic. When the first reports
came out about computer-mediated communication, users were quick to
assume that all manner of marginalization was removed, and that the medium
leveled the field in regard to gender, race, or other biases. But other
observations soon followed that questioned these first utopian reports.
Barker & Kemp (1990) declare that the virtual classroom, without its
walls, has the potential to bring in voices from the margin and might be more
egalitarian than face-to-face discussion (p. 635). Observations at Carnegie
Mellon University caused Langston and Batson (1990) to deduct that students
who dont generally dominate face-to-face interactions are likely to speak
more strongly when communicating on-line" (p. 144). They noticed
indications that groups working on-line will show a more evenly distributed
interactive pattern than face-to-face groups" (p. 144). These conclusions
dispute the concern that, as the loudest and boldest talker dominates a
discussion group, the fastest typist will dominate the on-line conversation (p.
146). Because more than one student can type at once, it becomes more
difficult to shut any one person out.
Hawisher and Moran (1993) believe that lack of paralinguistic cues
such as ones appearance, tone of voice, and facial expression invites
participation in group email discussions from those who normally refrain from
speaking up face-to-face in what has been labeled the equalization
phenomenon (p. 634). In support of this conclusion, Barker and Kemp
(1990) find suggestions that this psychological filtering eliminates
distractions and power plays of dominant personalities (p. 18).
In contrast to this equalizing effect, Sibylle Gruber (1995) describes
some of the problems that her CMC class encountered. In her experience
the absence of social and nonverbal cues . can lead to remarks that
contain swearing, insults, name calling, and hostile comments (p. 61). She
feels that computers do not necessarily facilitate equal participation; instead .
. hierarchical structures, gender prejudices, and racial stereotypes remain
intact (p. 61). In her opinion, domination, miscommunication, and
voicelessness overshadow the positive features of CMC (p. 61). She found
that CMC can encourage dissent and conflict and lead to tensions in and
outside the classroom (p. 62).
Hawisher and Selfe (1991) also recognize the negative side of
technology, warning technology can exacerbate problems ... of American
classrooms (p. 55). They exhort that computers can embody . societys
values . [that] currently dominate within our culture and our educational
system, such as supporting the existing hegemony of the classroom (p. 55).
The prevailing message of their article calls for an awareness of the
possibilities of detrimental effects. If we assume everything about CMC is
beneficial, then we endanger our students education.
In her 1998 Keynote address to CCCC, Cynthia Selfe (1998) reiterates
the danger of this attitude to technology, claiming that technology and
literacy .. have become linked in ways that can exacerbate current
educational and social inequities in the United States (p. 4). A lack of
attention to this phenomenon will continue discrimination. In fact, as Jane
Zeni (1994) proclaims, the gap between privileged and not so privileged can
be widened by technology.
There is disagreement on this issue and, as Barker & Kemp (1990)
suggest, further research is necessary before the democratizing effects of
computer-based classroom interaction are fully understood (p. 146).
The computer can create a new community in the classroom that
produces a greater degree of collaboration. This community exhibits a
confidentiality and cooperation seldom seen in other situations, to the point
that a group synergy perpetuates, often extending beyond the perimeters of
the classroom. Students show increased responsibility for their own and their
classmates learning. One of the strongest points researched is this increase
in collaborative activity. The question of democracy in this forum, which
naturally follows these observations, is still one of great debate. This is an
area that needs much more thorough and controlled research.
The New Writing
Does the computer improve student writing? This is a question of
primary concern for teachers, which is difficult to answer. Finding answers
must first mean redefining what good writing is, and realigning our
expectations of student writing.
We have seen how technology changes relationships in the classroom
and how it has enhanced collaboration. But this does not specifically answer
whether or not the use of the computer improves students writing. For years
the computer has been overlooked in the composition classroom and
considered a tool meant to stay in the science and mathematics departments.
There has been suspicion and disregard for technologys infiltration into the
English class. We question the effects and resent taking time to learn and
teach the technical aspects of the machine. Almost with a reluctant shrug,
English teachers have acquiesced to computer use by their students. But in
our observations we have realized one thing: computers have affected writing
(Bolter, 1992 & 1996; Hawisher & Selfe, 1991; Selfe, 1989 & 1998). This fact
can not be disputed. There are many speculations as to the reasons for this
and as many attempts at analyzing the long-term results.
Whether the computer makes better writers is not a question easily
answered. New definitions need to be formed to fit the new medium. The
computer in itself is innocuous. But certain core aspects of the machine
cause changes in all elements of written language including author, text,
reading and writing. As Tuman (1992) says, computers will reshape not just
how we read and write ... but our very understanding of basic terms such as
reading, writing, and text(p. 8, italics original).
Computers, according to Jay David Bolter (1992), provide a new
writing space, freeing the student of the primary constraint of the page
[because] an electronic text is fluid (p. 20). The screen does not consist of
the familiar two-dimensional black ink on white pages that we read from left to
right, top to bottom. On the computer we look at points of light on a glowing
background; in place of page turning, we now scroll through documents, and
rather than read foot/end notes, we maneuver hypertext links. Tuman (1992)
claims these characteristics are subtly and irrevocably eroding the status of
the independent, unified text (p. 8). Writing on the computer is no longer a
linear event. Therefore, as John Ribar (1998) sums it, computers require
different strategies for navigating and .. composing texts.
Changes in text redefine the meaning of author. Computers change
students understanding of authorship. In Tumans (1992) rather graphic
words, what changes is the image of the deist author, a godlike figure who
embodies meaning in texts that are then sent forth to be received by
compliant readers (p. 9). Bolter (1992) also uses the phrase deist author in
referring to the former role of the writer. But the new writing space challenges
former standards of good writing in the print medium (p. 35). Computerized
writing disputes the sense that every work a student produces is a complete,
separate, and unique expression of its author (p. 22).
The purpose of this new writing is to make connections (Bolter, 1992,
p. 23). Hawisher (1992b) describes how electronic writing is an act of
bringing together multiple perspectives and creating new understandings,
rather than ... producing something that is thought to be original (p. 89).
This makes the weaving together" of different views possible (p. 89).
Langston and Batson (1990) agree, saying that there is now a new focus on
coherence. The networked writer develops perspectives through which
masses of data can be productively viewed, providing coherence (p. 153).
The new computerized author, as a coherent, stable self grounded in a body
(Webb, 1997, p. 86) is challenged, and students experience a change in
boundaries and definitions of ownership of text.
The new author writes in a new language. This is demonstrated
particularly in email, where the language is a mixture of spoken and written
language. Email requires a different language than academic papers,
demanding a new format, structure, and voice. Discussion groups and
synchronous chats consist of short phrases that lack punctuation and
capitalization. Students adapt their writing to the medium, switching between
formulating complete sentences for paper assignments and using the virtual
language for computerized talk.
New language has redefined grammar and literacy. Grammar is very
different in virtual environments. Contextual cues are no longer evident. The
old axioms that allow a reader to predict certain standard approaches in
print are no longer valid (Ribar 1998). The difference in grammar conventions
Cynthia Selfe (1989) asserts that our definition of literacy changes
when communication activities are mediated by computers (p. 3). The non-
linear literacy leads to a new comprehension. Non-linear thinking is
demanded, she writes in 1992 (p. 28). Not only does technology change how
students write, according to Patricia Webb (1997), it radically change[s] what
it means to write (p. 74). Very little discussion is found about this new
comprehension, though the existence of such can be extrapolated. There is a
distinct need to research this phenomenon, and determine its significance
and far-reaching effects.
In the meantime, we are recognizing that the old-fashioned act of
writing is again increasing in importance in the computer age. Charles Moran
(1992) predicts that writing will once again become a universal form of
expression, replacing telephone conversations (p. 18). When ail class work
is done on-line, everything is written. Students writing comments to one
another on-line, or discussing issues in a discussion group use a variety of
writing styles. As Hawisher (1992b) puts it, students who communicate on-
line are totally immersed in writing (p. 84). Through this abundance of
writing, they refine their rhetorical skills of persuasion as well as . sharpen
their mechanical skills. They are in an environment in which they constantly
write and read (p. 85).
Not only do students write more, they seem to enjoy writing. Leslie
Harris and Cynthia Wambeam (1996) conducted an informal experiment
comparing a traditional classroom to an on-line class. The evidence shows
clearly that students using CMC write more often, enjoy writing much more,
and improve in their writing ability. The students in the CMC class wrote
more often in their journals than those who wrote in paper journals. There
was a significant increase in positive attitudes toward writing compared to
the students in the paper class (p. 360). Harris and Wambeam determined by
examining the writing samples of the computerized class that students
distinctly improved when compared to the paper class. Cooper and Selfe
(1990) report one students entry that sums up a new attitude: Im writing
often, because I find it stimulating, and because I enjoy writing without tightly-
specified boundaries and controls" (p. 856).
Not only does computerized writing cause students to write more, the
computer affects the process of writing. For one thing, process is no longer
independent of medium (Hawisher & LeBlanc 1992, p. xv). As Costanzo
(1994) and Bolter (1996) note, computers enliven the process of writing by
creating layers that can be easily manipulated for editing, notetaking, and
organizing text. Because prewriting is easier, it generates associations to
other thoughts. The computer allows the writer to store and sort through
these thoughts more easily than with any previous form of writing.
Additionally, Barker and Kemp (1990) affirm that in the revision aspect of the
writing process, in writing on-line, a student revise[s] in accordance with his
or her own interpretation of the text. . [not] in accordance with his or her
interpretation of the instructors interpretation of the text (p. 6).
The texts that students produce on networked computers are at higher
levels, Boirasky (1990, p. 58) states, though she doesnt clarify what higher
means. One reason for this, according to Langston and Batson (1990), is that
students write better when they write directly to another person than when
responding to assigned writing tasks (p. 148). The aspect of audience
awareness is more acutely genuine when writing on-line. Students do not
consider themselves to be writing, but rather talking," which produces an
energy and fluency not before recognized.
Experts agree that networked technology enhances the viability of
audience awareness. Betsy Bowen (1994) connected her class with a class
of different geographical and cultural circumstances. This exchange provided
real contexts for audience. She found that the students on both sides of the
computer were motivated to produce an effluence of messages. Hawisher
(1992b) agrees that CMC provide[s] real and expanded audiences for
writers (p. 86). In Harris and Wambeams (1990) computer class, they
concluded that frequent contact with an actual audience . helped students
become more competent, comfortable writers (p. 370).
It is clearly evident that computer-mediated communication has
affected writing. The computer is a new writing space, demanding new
definitions of reading, writing and text. Audience awareness is more real, and
students find themselves writing more, enjoying it more, and feeling as if they
are making more real connections. Teachers using CMC must research the
full extent of this new writing space and adapt their methods accordingly. The
singular fact that students enjoy writing more can be a key to making our
teaching methods more effective. How can we more fully take advantage of
the computers appeal?
The New Pedagogy
Computer-mediated communication has irrevocably changed the
English classroom. Not only has it revitalized student writing, it has been
instrumental in creating new relationships within the classroom, which in turn
has forced new roles upon the teacher and students. With the
decentralization of the teachers position, students have been empowered
and have taken on more responsibility for their own and their peers writing.
Students on computers exercise more initiative in their own learning. These
changes require a new pedagogy to ensure students receive the best
education possible. There is evidence that applying traditional pedagogical
theories to the computerized class results in negative consequences.
Teachers who have accepted the postmodern pedagogical theories
have been trying to change conditions in the traditional classroom. Barker
and Kemp (1990) describe postmodern pedagogy as open, inclusive,
nonhierarchical, consensus based, and process oriented (p. 5). This theory
involves urging students to resist and dissent through discourse so that they
may explore their own differences, consequently building self-confidence and
empowerment (Cooper & Selfe, 1990). Postmodern theory is based on the
premise that no one can actually teach another person anything; people
learn on their own (Baron, 1997, p. 20).
Cooper and Selfe (1990) describe how they had tried in previous,
traditional classrooms to engage their students in questioning and objecting,
voicing opinions, and openly discussing ideas. They had been trying to spur
students to resistance and challenge and exploration of students own
concepts. They had almost despaired of achieving this atmosphere of
argumentative discourse. But when their students sat behind computers and
typed out responses to synchronous chats and discussion groups, the
teachers discovered a realization of their hopes, (p. 857). Students showed
initiative, assertive presentation of their own thoughts, and active involvement
in the forum. There was a dramatic difference, to the point that the students
took over the discussions, in many cases, and directed them in ways the
teachers never foresaw.
But, as Barker and Kemp (1990) admonish, simply plugging
computers into classrooms will not automatically transform this instructional
environment (p. 26). The effectiveness of computer use is dependent on the
pedagogy practiced rather than on technology.
Though English teachers recognize this and want to change the old
hierarchies established in teacher-directed classrooms, they maintain the
former situations. New, non-traditional forums must be applied. Cooper and
Selfe (1990) recognize the necessity for patterns of interaction among
students that disrupt teacher dominance (p. 847). CMC enables the kind of
learning through discourse that we know is important but that is often
frustrated by the structures of our educational institutions (p. 849).
Postmodern pedagogy seems to fit the computerized classroom better
than it does the traditional classroom situation. Conversely, old pedagogy
does not work in the computerized classroom. Webb (1997) asserts that
technology without associated critical pedagogy reinforces old axioms.
Though there are many claims that network technologies redefine writing and
the English classroom, the technology itself is not what is causing the change.
She maintains that if we do not actively teach our students to use
technologies critically, they will map their traditional concepts . onto the
new technologies (p. 73). What makes a difference is the pedagogy. We
cannot apply old traditions to new technology and expect a positive change.
A computerized class not properly guided can lead to conflict and
diversity in the classroom. In analyzing why her computer assisted class did
not meet her expectations, Sibylle Gruber reviewed the experience of
Marshall Kremers, from the New York Institute of Technology, who taught an
ENFI class (see page ten). Kremers is a strong traditionalist, according to
Gruber, and tried to apply his teacher-directed pedagogy to a CMC setting.
She extrapolated that Kremers attempt failed partially because he did not
establish an explicit pedagogy that allows for the integration of students
experiences and students voices to inform academic learning (p. 74).
Kremers looked to the technology to make the changes.
As in Kremers class, a response paper was assigned in Grubers
class. The students were required to write long, formal, academic essays and
transmit them via email. The students hated the exercise and reluctantly
carried out the motions. Nevertheless, after an experience with a
synchronous chat, a casual and lively discussion began on email. The
comments were bold in that they addressed issues of gender that normally
would not be discussed face-to-face. The instructor intervened and
reprimanded the students for their remarks. Again, students were backed into
silence or only cursory engagement in the medium. Trying to re-assume the
role of authoritarian squelched student voices and snatched away their
personal power. As Gruber sums it up, technology is innocuous, but the
correct pedagogy is necessary to facilitate positive discourse and learning (p.
The bold comments of the students are examples of what Cooper and
Selfe (1990) call thinking and writing against the grain of convention (p.
850), which is necessary for students to question the authoritarian values of
traditional classrooms (p. 857). Computer-mediated communication provides
a non-traditional forum where students can develop a critical consciousness
(p. 850). This new platform invites students to resist, dissent, and explore
the role that controversy and intellectual divergence play in learning and
thinking (p. 849). When the teachers dominant role is diminished and
consequently students attitudes of accommodation, the importance of
discourse is enhanced. We have seen how, through CMC, students gain
power in their own learning, exercise their own voice in discussions, and
consequently learn through discourse (p. 858).
Computerized composition seems to be custom made for postmodern
theory, or vice versa. Hawisher (1992) correlates networked technology to
social constructivist theory, because CMC is intrinsically communal (p. 82).
Teachers need to adapt pedagogy to technology and endorse a view of
meaning as negotiated, texts as socially constructed, and writing as
knowledge creating (p. 83). Bolter (1992) recognizes this relationship. He
says, postmodern theorists from reader-response critics to deconstructionists
have been talking about text in terms that are strikingly appropriate to
hypertext in the computer (p. 24). This is an echo of Barker and Kemps
(1990) interpretation of postmodern theory, who define it as self-conscious
acknowledgment of the immediate present and an attempt to respond to it in
new ways (p. 1). Todays student requires a pedagogy [that] should be
open, inclusive, nonhierarchical, consensus based, and process oriented (p.
5). CMC contributes to this pedagogy.
A new theory is developing in direct response to the computer-based
pedagogy. Barker and Kemp (1990) term this network theory (p. 15). This
theory is based on the finding that the fundamental activity in composition is
the textual transactions between students. These transactions cause a
group knowledgeto develop, in which every student affects and is affected
by this group knowledge, and that this group knowledge is pliable by each or
all students. The outcome is a deneutralizing of text itself and a greater
emphasis and skill on the part of the [student] in rendering such text (p. 15,
Pedagogy based on network theory must be student-directed, with the
teacher enacting a new role as guide, coach, editor, co-learner, and facilitator.
We must recognize the importance of student empowerment. Collaborative
efforts must be supported, and free expression which leads to synergy must
Several educators have suggested specific techniques in applying this
new theory. Hawisher and Moran (1993) recommend project-oriented and
cross-disciplinary pedagogy. They also believe that CMC instruction should
include tele-apprenticeship (p. 633), or teacher-student collaboration in
Jane Zeni (1994) proposes assigning shorter pieces of writing,
requiring revision, setting up collaborative essays, and asking for informal
publication to utilize computers fully. Learning with computers is a process
of reflection on action; through this philosophy, teachers can bring technology
into the classroom (p. 79).
CMC can open the door to more effective learning, but only if we
present it to students correctly. Webb (1997) believes that students tend to
fall back to the old familiar patterns of learning. The new pedagogy must
include understanding the discomfort with new, strange tools and address
this. Therefore, it is important to give [the students] struggles and their
successes with technology an important place in the class (p. 86). We must
convince the students that all the writing they do in this class counts (p. 87).
Adapting to the New Era
Computers in the college composition classroom have had undeniable
effects. If presented with a postmodern pedagogy, sensitivity to its potential,
and a willingness to be flexible, computer-mediated communication can
enhance and fortify a students education. However, we need to see long-
range, controlled research to uncover any surprises we may, in our
enthusiasm, not see. Is, indeed, this instrument as phenomenal as its
proponents would suggest?
As Cynthia Selfe (1992) warns, if not presented cautiously, CMC can
contribute to intellectual isolation, competitiveness, and the continued
oppression of women and minorities(p. 30). Selfes article is one of the few
that contains empirical research results of differential patterns of access to
technology in our schools for whites and non-whites (p. 31). Her study
showed that middle and upper class students have more computers than their
lower socioeconomic class peers. When poorer students have access to
computers, they tend to use them more for skill and drill exercises than
networked communication. This perpetuation of the marginalization between
socioeconomic classes is probably not intentional, Selfe suggests, but due
more to a lack of thorough research.
If those people who already have the educational advantages are the
ones to have greater access to computers, the gap between the privileged
and not-privileged will widen, thwarting the efforts at equalizing education.
We need to study this issue of access thoroughly, with the goal of
understanding attitudes and opportunities. What are cultural restraints toward
technology, and what issues prohibit its acceptance and usage?
The issue of marginalization can hold hidden problems. On the
surface, it seems as though the anonymity of the computer would level the
field and remove biases, such as the visual biases of gender and race. But
we need to look further, studying more carefully the distinctions in discourse
between people before we make hasty assumptions that can continue
discrimination (see Gruber, 1995; Selfe, 1998).
Definitions of good writing are vague and disputable. Much of the
measure of success of computerized writing hinges on these definitions. The
computer stifles the long, formal academic essays demanded by traditional
pedagogy. Is this positive or negative? If we assert that writing has been
redefined, what, exactly are the new definitions? This must be established in
order to carry out more concise evaluation of the medium.
Another area of controversy is the interpretation of correct pedagogy. I
have shown evidence that traditional pedagogy does not easily coexist with
the computer, but this claim can not stand alone. We must go back and re-
hash the old discussions on pedagogical theory.
As English teachers, can we adapt to the shifts caused by computer-
mediated communication? Are we willing to step back and let the students
take charge of their education? Can we relinquish the role of authority? And,
if so, how do we facilitate the new changes? Are we ready to become
learners with our students, and learn from our students? How do we
restructure the classroom to accommodate technology?
The question what is the effect of the computer on the composing
process? (Curtis & Klem, 1992, p. 158, italics original) is not really answered.
Contextual research must be conducted; that is, the entire context must be
studied, the teacher, students, and technology as they interrelate" (p. 159).
Until new standards are delineated, we cannot be sure of the true
effects of the new computerized classroom. And, as Cynthia Selfe
admonishes in her 1998 Keynote speech for CCCC, it is time we pay
attention. We cannot ignore the computer revolution, or accept it without
proper research, because doing so can exacerbate current educational and
social inequities in the United States.
The computer is a part of our students lives, whether we love it or hate
it. And it is changing the classroom, whether we admit it or not. New
research must be implemented that has clearly defined criteria and situations,
and analyzed critically and thoroughly.
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