The Future of Secondary Education CLOUDS AND SUN

Students as Producers: Using the World Wide Web as Publishing House

Richard Smyth
Hamline University


The use of new technologies of communication, like the World Wide Web, can allow teachers to assign collaborative writing assignments incorporating hypertextual principles of composition that require students to prepare texts to publish on the Web. Two such assignments are considered as examples of a class-wide collaborative composition project allowing students to be the producers of a text that reflects their concerns with issues that directly affect them.

Editor's Note: Richard Smyth has developed a hyperessay to illustrate the use of the technique discussed below.

The presence of new technologies of communication affords opportunities for buttressing the progressive tendencies of much current practice in English pedagogy or reinstating traditional practices that reduce learning to a series of technical acts and the teacher to the role of technician. The real danger, according to Seymour Papert (1993) lies in replicating this proclivity to technicality in classroom uses of computers. The phrase "Computer-aided instruction" brings visions of computer labs filled with two to three times regular classroom cap sizes, with one teacher circulating to "facilitate." The issue vis-a-vis the future of secondary education is "whether technology will strengthen or undermine the technicality of what has became the theoretical model, and to a large extent the reality, of School" (Papert, p. 56).

I hope to provide in this essay some examples of how to use technology in such a way as to undermine the "technicality" of school. These examples demonstrate one possibility of using the Web as "publishing house," as Andrew Carvin writes in his essay "More Than Just Hype: The World Wide Web as a Tool for Education." A student-centered climate of textual production must be at the center of the reform Papert calls for, a climate emphasizing collaborative writing, the process approach, and intertextuality. This approach will empower students while enabling them to publish their writing in a medium that promises no less than a global audience.

This essay is based on my experience of having taught two courses that integrated class-wide collaborative writing assignments, one a freshman-level composition course and the other an upper-level English literature course. I began each course by informing students that they would be required to produce a collaborative intertext; the freshman text was to be based on the Pied Piper (Hamline University's mascot is the "Fighting Piper") and the upper-level literature course was to be based on the Arthurian legends. There would be no class time devoted to discussion of this project, thereby requiring all students to use an e-mail discussion list established for that purpose. They would have to decide as a class the text's purpose, its content, and how each class member would contribute to the overall project. Having introduced them to the World-Wide Web and its hypertextual principles of organization and connectivity, I also told students that part of their task was to find and establish links among their contributions to the class project.

The goal in each class was to write a collaborative hypertext that would be published on the World-Wide Web. Despite the similarity of the goals, the conditions under which each carried out the assignment was to vary. The freshman writing class, for instance, was assigned Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars (1988) as its model for writing hypertextually, and their assignment asked them to write a paper of 500-1,000 words, specifying what words linked to the texts of other class members. No electronic text was the outcome, but they were to write as though they were publishing the text on the Web. I would subsequently type the texts in; they are now accessible via the Web. The upper-level students, on the other hand, learned HTML coding and were responsible themselves for displaying the texts on the Web. The end-product of this class was a hypertext on the Web, whereas the end-product of the freshman class was a stack of papers. I point this distinction out to emphasize that knowledge of electronic publication is unnecessary to implement the progressive pedagogy underlying this assignment. Publishing on the Web, while significant in terms of providing a real-world audience for the students' writing, is secondary to the experience of working together to produce a literary text; I would add, however, that the pressure of writing for a global audience can make quite a difference in the level of student engagement.

The two assignments described above, requiring students to re-write a prior well-known text, take steps toward a curriculum of "textual studies" as Robert Scholes theorizes it (1990). Given that "[r]ecent theory has demonstrated to an unprecedented extent how new texts are in fact made out of old ones" (Scholes, 1990, p. 104), a course of textual studies would allow students to make the same kinds of intertextual intrusions that the authors under study had made in the process of producing their texts. Such exercises allow students to experience the "pleasure of the creative process" which is "the real issue of our material" (Ulmer, 1985, p. 56), thereby providing the opportunity to realize the power one can wield as a writer. Sharon Crowley (1985) also affirms this effect of the textual approach if it is practiced in a classroom emphasizing process pedagogy: "

Contemporary composition theorists have devised a pedagogy that attempts to impart this sense of power to student writers. The point of 'process pedagogy' is to provide students with writing experiences that will permit them to share more than once, and in a controlled environment, the exhilaration that results from mastering the flow of textuality" (emphasis mine, p. 98). The ultimate model for this approach, according to Gregory Ulmer, is that of the sciences; he bases his "experimental humanities" upon the pedagogy of the sciences: "The textshop is a laboratory in which the students attempt to re-produce the experiments of the humanities. . . . In learning science, students not only read about a given idea, they are expected to be able to reproduce the experiments themselves, finally reaching a point when they face a problem without solution (yet)" (1990, p. 117). Students come to realize that the texts they read can become a source of instructions or a springboard for an intervention into the textual network to which they, as language users, belong.

The theories of Scholes (1990), Comley (1985, 1990) and Ulmer (1985. 1990) are helpful in that they provide examples of assignments that a textual studies curriculum would generate. The writing of a "ghost chapter" (a form of filling in a narrative gap), for instance, demonstrates the activity of reading that we carry out all the time but that is often taken for granted. Letting students imagine what transpired within the gap requires that they extrapolate from the narrative the implications contained therein. This exercise can represent a shift in point of view, telling the story from another character's perspective, as in John Gardner's Grendel (1971) or Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). Rewriting an ending, or adding an additional chapter to the end of a completed story, are also suggestions for intervening intertextually. Any activity in which students write with literature rather than about literature, as in the above examples, would fall in the realm of textual studies. Such activities become ways for students to experience that pleasure of creating, of becoming an author(ity) of the text, of appropriating an original text for their own purpose.

Given the consistency of Scholes, Comley, and Ulmer's pedagogical vision, it should come as no surprise that they collaborated on a text book (1988) whose packaging invokes a generic product, with a plain white cover with the product title and contents bluntly stated in black and white (or sometimes bright yellow). This book contains text; it is a text book that is about the common denominator of all texts-the network of language and its cultural axioms in which we are all bound. The preface to the second edition reads,

    By substituting the concept of text for the traditional concept of literature, we accomplish a number of things. We allow for the presentation of a wider range of material and a broader spectrum of approaches to literary study. And we close or reduce the gaps that have separated reading from writing, creative from critical work, and literature from ordinary language (Scholes, Comley, & Ulmer, 1995, p. v).

And when one has read the various essays that each has written and published individually, one can see that this "text" book grows directly out of these publications. Chapter three, for instance, on "texts and other texts," has a section on intertextuality that allows students themselves to do the exercise of transforming a text (a fairy tale, modeled after Robert Coover's transformation of "Hansel and Gretel"). There is also a section titled "Completing Texts: The Reader's Work," which asks students to "fill in the gap" in James Joyce's story "The Boarding House" and to rewrite Dorothy Parker's story "You Were Perfectly Fine" from three different points of view.

The assignments described above, asking students to create intertextual transformations of the Pied Piper and the Arthurian Legends, fit within the theoretical framework that Scholes, Comley, and Ulmer provide. Asking students to publish their work for a global audience, however, transforms this assignment, for it provides that sense of audience that writing teachers have always wanted students to have. The World-Wide Web, a hypermedia interface to the Internet, can be viewed as a medium directed to the global community, in-as-much as anyone with access to the Internet and a Web browser becomes the audience for their work. As such, publishing on the World-Wide Web provides the kind of potential real-world exposure that can motivate students to engage with issues that concern them directly: for such a writing assignment; the teacher is not the only one who is going to read their writing. And since hypertexts are composed of interconnected fragments, a teacher can assign collaborative projects that require students to contribute parts of a greater whole the purpose and audience of which can be determined by the student group, or even the whole class, itself.

In this way, a teacher can use hypertextual principles of composition to mobilize a student-centered curriculum. In the classes that I taught, mentioned above, students were told to discuss via e-mail what the purpose of their intertext would be, to determine how each would contribute, and to establish whose text would link to whose and at what points. Workshop days were granted at various points throughout the semester to allow for face-to-face discussion and re-orientation, but these were meant to supplement and not substitute for the e-mail discussion. This component of the e-mail "discussion list" is not necessary; it was simply one of my goals in the courses to familiarize students with the advantages of such a list. But the requirement for them to work together is necessary and is meant to provide them with the experience of creating a text within a community in an assignment that overtly manifests "communal writing."

The only constraint involved their having to use an intertext-the story of the Pied Piper in the case of the freshman class and the Arthurian legends in the case of the upper-level course. This constraint turned out to be liberating, however, especially for the freshmen. In a second freshman writing course the students had the same assignment but did not have a designated intertext to employ; as a result, they spent much of their discussion time trying to determine what to write about, whereas the class writing with the Pied Piper tale had only to make decisions about how to shape and change the text to fulfill their purposes. The story was a framework within which they could work, the boundaries of a playpen within which they could play.

In each course students were introduced to the concept of intertextuality, reading examples of intertextual transformations that served as models for their own project. Assigned the "Hansel and Gretel" sequence in Text Book (1988), the first-year students adopted the Keillor model of shifting point of view and exploited the fragmented format of hypertext to represent the points of view of four different groups in the Pied Piper tale: the businessmen and town leaders of Hamelin, the children whom they exploited in their sweatshops, an organized group of criminals called the R.A.T.S. ("Realization of an Accustomed Tendency to Sin"), and the Pied Piper himself. Each student created a different character that fell into one of these groups (or, in the case of the Piper, a different period of his life), collaborating among fellow group members to coordinate their stories. Group leaders from each of the four groups then reported to each other so that everybody knew what each member of the class was doing, which facilitated the establishment of hypertextual links between students. Much of the work toward conceptualizing this project occurred while I was absent at a conference. Upon return, and upon telling students that the workshop days remaining were theirs to use as they might, the room started to buzz with activity. They were motivated and excited because they had owned this project from the beginning, because the Pied Piper story had become a vehicle for their views and concerns, and because the final product would be made public via the World-Wide Web.

And one point I tried to emphasize the potential to change the text's instability as a finished product. If they noticed a spelling error or typo, I asked them to tell me about it because it could be changed. Unlike print, the nature of the electronic medium is change; the fluid nature of the medium itself manifests a process pedagogy that does not end. That writing is a process becomes wholly apparent in the very ease with which one can edit a Web text. This underscores Howard Gardner's concept of the "processfolio" that Carvin (1995) mentions in his discussion of the Web as a publishing house.

Because the first-year students were not trained to publish the texts themselves, they had to channel any changes through me, as I typed in the text and therefore had final control over its presentation. But when students are trained to do the HTML coding necessary for publishing their own work on their own, as was the case in the upper-level course, the process and product are ultimately in their hands. I have no control over the contents of their text, nor do I control whether or not they permit the public to see their work; they decide when to make their texts public and what it is that the public sees.

The upper-level course, having read excerpts from various Arthurian intertexts (Malory, Spenser, Tennyson, and Eliot, for example), worked with the legends in a much more allegorical fashion, incorporating various pre-existing Web sites into it via external links as a commentary on the contemporary wasteland that our society has become. The backbone of the collaboration was a list of questions the answers to which directed readers to become involved in changing the world for the better. Taking the world as the wounded Fisher-King, the focus was upon what question needed to be asked (of the Grail) to heal the wound, the central problem of Percival in one of the legends. In answering the question "What is wrong with the land?" one sequence of screens shows various social problems, such as war, racism, the neglect of the elderly, the objectification of sexism, and violence, and the sequence links pictures that represent these problems to appropriate (or inappropriate) sites on the Web. For instance, one picture that showed a child playing with a gun linked directly to the NRA homepage, and another showing images of provocative women linked to the Playboy homepage. This strategy of linking their text to the Web in such effective ways demonstrates not only the students' awareness that their text exists among other texts and in relation to those texts but also the students' faith in language to work positive change, having been given the chance to employ the language to their own ends in a public forum.

These student texts can be viewed through my home page, the address to which is It is important to note that, while the classes I discuss here are college classes, the premises underlying the assignment can be employed at any level. I am currently working with a group of sixth graders who will be collaborating to produce a similar project of their own choosing, for publication on the Web. The principles in Text Book, too, are transportable; the beauty of this assignment is that one need not wait for college-level students to implement it. I gave Garrison Keillor's transformation of "Hansel and Gretel" (included in the first edition of Text Book ) to a fourth grader, and she applied the exercise to the Paul Bunyan story, shifting the point of view to Babe the blue ox, and thoroughly enjoyed doing so.

Ben Shneiderman (1992) calls for both "engagement," which he defines as "interaction with people" (p. 18), and "construction," which occurs when "students create a product from their collaboration" (p. 20). The assignments I have described above and the progressive pedagogy that underlies them both reinforce each of these elements in an initiative that started as early as Freire's call to abandon a "banking concept" of education (1970). Only if the new technologies are used as forms of "sociomedia," which suggests, as Edward Barrett writes, "that computer media exist for 'social' purposes" (1992, p. 1), will they participate in the current trends to overhaul educational practice from a teacher-centered to a student-centered curriculum that is relevant and responsive to student needs and desires.


Barrett, E. (1992). Sociomedia: An introduction. In E. Barrett (Ed.), Sociomedia: Multimedia, hypermedia, and the social donstruction of knowledge (pp. 1-10). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Carvin, A. (1995). More than just hype: The world wide web as a tool for education. The High School Journal, 79 (1).

Comley, N. (1990). Reading and writing genders. In B. Hendricksen & T. E. Morgan (Eds.), Reorientations: Critical theories and pedagogies (pp. 179-192). Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Crowley, S. (1985). Writing and writing. In G. D. Atkins and M. Jackson (Eds.), Writing and reading differently: Deconstruction and the teaching of composition and literature (pp. 93-100). Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Crowley, S. (1989). A teacher's introduction to deconstruction. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. M. B. Ramos (Trans.). New York: Herder and Herder.

Gardner, J. (1971). Grendel . New York: Ballantine Books.

Papert, S. (1993). The children's machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer. New York: Basic Books.

Pavic, M. (1988). Dictionary of the Khazars: A lexicon novel. C. Pribicevic-Zoric (Trans.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Rhys, J. (1966). Wide Sargasso Sea. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Scholes, R. (1990). Toward a curriculum in textual studies. In B. Hendricksen & T. E. Morgan (Eds.), Reorientations: Critical theories and pedagogies (pp. 95-112). Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Scholes, R., Comley, N. & Ulmer, G. L. (1988). Text book: An introduction to literary language. First Edition. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Scholes, R., Comley, N. & Ulmer, G.L. (1995). Text book: An introduction to literary language. Second Edition. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Shneiderman, B. (1992). Education by engagement and construction: Astrategic education initiative for a multimedia renewal of American education. In E. Barrett (Ed.), Sociomedia: Multimedia, hypermedia, and the social construction of knowledge (pp. 1-10). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Ulmer, G. L. (1985). Textshop for post(e)-pedagogy. In G. D. Atkins and M. Jackson (Eds.), Writing and reading differently: Deconstruction and the teaching of composition and literature (pp. 38-64). Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Ulmer, G. L. (1990). Textshop for an experimental humanities. In B. Hendricksen & T. E. Morgan (Eds.), Reorientations: Critical theories and pedagogies (pp. 113-131). Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Editor's Note: Richard Smyth has developed a hyperessay to illustrate the use of this technique. Click here to view it.

All material within the HORIZON site, unless otherwise noted, may be distributed freely for educational purposes. If you do redistribute any of this material, it must retain this copyright notice and you must use appropriate citation including the URL. Also, we would appreciate your sending James L. Morrison a note as to how you are using it. HTML and design by Noel Fiser, ©2006. Page last modified: 2/25/1999 6:51:17 PM. 21945 visitors since February 2000.