The Electronic Labyrinth

Computers, Pedagogy, and Composition

The many issues surrounding this topic can only be touched upon here. The following discussion draws heavily on two anthologies--Holdstein and Selfe's Computers and Writing and Carolyn Handa's Computers and Community--which should be consulted for further readings.

The effects of computerization on composition have been studied since the days of WANDAH (Writing aid AND Author's Helper) at the University of California. (For a description of this software, see Friedman and Rand.) A descendant of this package, HBJ Writer, along with Bell Laboratory's Writer's Workbench, introduced word processors, idea generators, grammar checkers, and collaborative environments to college English courses. As personal computers and LANs replaced mainframe networks, off-the-shelf software (WordPerfect, Grammatik) substituted for solutions designed specifically for classrooms.

A number of studies emphasize the new role of the teacher in a collaborative writing environment; no longer the central authoritarian evaluator, the pedagogue now becomes consultant, co-writer, coach, and editor. Boiarsky has drawn upon her journalism experience to structure the classroom as a newsroom, the desks arranged in discrete pods of workstations scattered about the room. Barker and Kemp reinforce this idea with the argument that the traditional proscenium classroom layout cannot effectively support group work. Barker emphasizes the breakdown in authority and hierarchy which results from the changing roles of the teacher.

If we see the teacher as the author or shaper of the classroom narrative and the student as reader or consumer, then this argument for an upturning of these roles has its parallels in our discussions of hypertext.

Other research has focussed directly on the collaborative composition process. These studies can be instructive in light of the lack of published results, involving hypertext systems such as Intermedia. Barker shows how collaboration supports the transactional writing model. Software can aid all stages of composition: planning and drafting, editing and review, revision. The primary advantage of accessing work at each stage is that the process itself is revealed for examination. Spitzer notes that the very immediacy of response and feedback is important--if nothing else, it adds to the excitement of writing.

A common claim in this area is that just as word processors have made revision effortless in comparison with typewriters, so too shall collaborative groupware make teaching composition effortless in comparison with paper methods. However, this optimistic assertion assumes that the technology itself is neutral. Some fledgling steps have been made to counter this naive position. Dubrin warns against the adoption of software which attempts to legislate meaning (style analyzers, idea processors, invention aids) as opposed to form (word processors, spelling checkers). Schwartz notes that access to computers is not equal for students of differing economic backgrounds. For this and other reasons (reduced learning curve, less distractions), Schroeder and Boe advocate a minimal approach to hardware and software.

The topic of pedagogy did not escape the attention of Ted Nelson, who defined school, in Literary Machines, as "a mapping of the world of ideas into a sequential bureaucratic presentational system, with generally awful results" (1/20). He bemoans the hierarchical classroom structure and the artificial division of knowledge into subjects. The extensive interlinking of knowledge in the docuverse is seen as a curative.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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