The Semi-Virtual Composition Classroom: A Model for Techno-Amphibians

Richard Holeton

Lecturer, Department of English
Coordinator, WCT Computers & Writing Project, Program in Writing and Critical Thinking
Stanford University

Writing teachers and students increasingly find themselves in an "amphibious" condition between paper text and electronic literacy. This article presents a model for combining traditional and face-to-face techniques for teaching writing with new electronic tools. Which medium is best at doing which activities? In a semi-virtual classroom, most text-related activities are carried out on-line, in order to increase critical dialogue among students, de-center the teacher's role, and focus more energy on individual and small-group interaction.

Increasingly, everywhere, students have begun arriving at college level classes with technical knowledge, experience, and expectations exceeding those of their teachers. Whereas a few students still have never touched a computer, a significant number have helped create networks or design Web pages for schools or businesses, and a majority communicate with widespread friends and family by e-mail and electronic chat programs. Stanford freshmen now create home pages on the Web as part of their one-unit Introduction to Macintosh courses in the dorms.

Teachers feel the pressure to keep up from all sides. As scholars increasingly perform research, converse, collaborate, and publish their work electronically, composition teachers must help students learn academic writing and research conventions while those conventions themselves are in flux. Composition teachers are charged with increasing literacy and fluency at a time when literacy itself seems to be undergoing a paradigm shift.

Charles Moran (1992) has called this period the "amphibious condition" between the page-text conventions that have dominated literacy and academia for several hundred years and new, evolving virtual-text conventions. While this condition can be confusing, it also offers tremendous opportunities to look freshly at our teaching practices and our subject matter.

Teaching Goals for Cyber-Times

"What are students to do with this [electronic, networked] access to information and people?" asks John Keeling (1996, p. 10).

In my work with the WCT Computers and Writing Project, I have questioned:

  1. What teaching and learning activities are best done (or only done) using electronic tools, and which are best done (or only done) face-to-face or using conventional techniques?
  2. Which particular electronic and face-to-face tools and techniques are most useful for which specific teaching and learning activities?

Answers to these questions address our current amphibious state. My model reverses the usual emphasis, in which instructional technologies are seen as supplements to the "main action" of the course. If we define the main action of a writing course as its various forms of critical dialogue (e.g., student texts, course texts, and commentary and discussion about these texts by students and teacher), that action can take place mostly in virtual spaces using computer network technologies. Large-group, face-to-face class meetings are still important, but they are supplementary to that main critical dialogue.

The particular technological balance that thoughtfully-amphibious teachers might strike depends, of course, on their instructional goals. New instructional technologies--word processing, e-mail, electronic conferencing and other computer-mediated communication, and the hypertextual World Wide Web (WWW)--are writing technologies that co-exist and compete with book and print technology. Therefore, I think that students who are exposed to these technologies have the best chance to examine critically what they read and write at this precise historical point of rhetorical tensions. They can be sharing, self-consciously and with eyes open wide, in the exciting process of creating new conventions for electronic discourses, on-line research, and virtual forms of community.

My more specific instructional goals in breaking down or transcending the physical classroom walls are to:

  1. Increase among my students the quantity and quality of critical dialogue (including the quality of the traditional product of writing courses, the academic essay)
  2. De-center my classroom roles as discussion leader and rhetoric teacher
  3. Focus more of my teaching energy on individuals and small groups.

The Semi-Virtual Classroom: A Composition Model for the Electronic Age

I've organized my model around four major activities of writing classes: rhetorical exercises and lessons, class discussion, essay writing, and peer and instructor response. Most of the electronic techniques discussed employ widely-available tools such as e-mail, our campus Appleshare network, and the WWW. In 1996, only a few of these techniques require specialized software or hardware in an electronic classroom like the WCT Computer Classroom; shortly, however, even real- time electronic discussion will be possible and practical directly on the Web. Other more exotic tools, such as MOOs and MUDs (real-time, text-based virtual reality spaces), have much classroom potential and are already being used by many composition and literature teachers, but they require more extensive technical knowledge to set up.

Rhetorical exercises and lessons. Studies have long questioned the value of teaching grammar or rhetorical principles out of the context of individual student writing. File-sharing and data display technologies make it possible for students to do exercises together, share and discuss results, and immediately apply lessons to their own (electronically stored) writing.

Exercises that emphasize the dynamic or visual aspects of text--such as revision work or paragraphing--are more effective on computer monitors than on paper. For example, students can try out and compare several versions of a sentence or paragraph, on an individual or shared computer monitor. Inserting paragraph-breaks in a text, students can instantly see and compare visual-cognitive effects of various paragraphing decisions, something not possible using paper. In the WCT Computer Classroom, students remove paragraph breaks from their own essay drafts, have a classmate re-paragraph a portion of their essay for them, and then compare and discuss their results. In the Meyer Flexible Classroom, Marjorie Ford's students write collaboratively in small groups using Powerbook laptop computers, then share their work on the room's large display screen.

Students working actively on their writing, especially in groups, already present a de-centered model of the composition classroom. In a computer classroom or lab, this work is easier to do, easier to share, and potentially more valuable because the "liquid," dynamic nature of electronic text encourages a general openness to revision, a resistance to final forms. With computers available right in the classroom, teachers have the most possible flexibility as techno-amphibians: they can integrate electronic techniques directly with more conventional face-to-face group work, as in these previous examples, or they can experiment with new techniques made possible only with network technology.

Class discussion. Conventional face-to-face discussions of course-readings are too often characterized by superficiality, dominated by a few (usually male) participants, and impeded by socialized nonverbal cues based on gender, appearance, race, class, and so forth. Comments tend to be directed towards the teacher. It is difficult, if not impossible, to mitigate these tendencies. Electronic discussions assure that: (a) participation is much more widespread, because everyone can "talk" at the same time and students are enthusiastic about using the electronic medium; (b) participation is more democratic, because nonverbal cues are eliminated; (c)ideas are emphasized more than personalities, because the medium is text-based; (d) discussion can be deeper and more complex, because participants can develop ideas more fully, follow and return from digressions, and carry on several different side discussions simultaneously.

We can see in electronic discussions the potential for what Lester Faigley calls a "reconfiguration of discursive relations"(1992, p. 180) or Mikhail Bakhtin's "dialogic understanding"(1973, p. 944). For example, in a face-to-face discussion, it's unlikely that a student would voice a minority, anti-PC opinion, nor would he or she have had the time to test and develop it against a series of thoughtful challengers. Meanwhile, the other students would miss the chance to understand such positions deeply and on a personal level, or to modify their own counter-arguments accordingly. In "live" discussions of sensitive issues, it's all too easy for differing viewpoints to ossify into oversimplified oppositions and stereotypes. Students in my electronic discussion groups "talk" directly to one another, and even though they are aware that I review their comments at a later time, the dialogue is still highly de-centered.

The depth and thoughtfulness about complex matters these students approach in discussion is what we encourage them to achieve in their essay writing. Because electronic discussion is already in the form of text, it can be translated more directly into formal writing. Discussion software such as Aspects or Daedalus InterChange allows us to record transcripts of each session. These transcripts can be used as additional course texts, texts that are obviously constructed collaboratively.

My classes hold several electronic discussions simultaneously, dividing into groups, each led by a student facilitator. Thus each day's discussion is actually three or four discussions, each with its own transcript. When students download these transcripts across the network after class, as I ask them to do, they benefit by reviewing several other, different discussions as well as the one they participated in. Further, I ask them to incorporate ideas from their classmates, by quoting, paraphrasing, and citing comments from the discussion transcripts into their formal essays. In a process that Fred Kemp (1992) calls "privileging the student text," the connection between informal and formal texts is made concrete and students truly become collaborative scholars and knowledge-makers.

Electronic tools make possible the continuation of class discussion outside the physical classroom--in asynchronous (not simultaneous) media such as e-mail or a class newsgroup. Newsgroups are superior for this purpose because they offer a separate, dedicated "space" for discussion, instead of mixing course-related messages in with people's other e-mail, and they allow the discussion to be "threaded" (organized by topics and replies). Newsgroup participants can take the time to reflect and compose their responses more carefully and thoughtfully than when they're under pressure of a real-time discussion, whether electronic or face-to-face. Especially as a follow-up to in-class discussion, a class newsgroup gives students the chance to develop their ideas. Like other types of electronic discussion, newsgroups create a de-centered dialogue with classmates that can be saved as text for future reference or use in formal writing. A newsgroup can also increase the sense of class community, because the class continues all week long in virtual meetings.

All forms of electronic discussion are most effective when the class also develops rapport in some of the usual face-to-face ways, in both small and large group meetings. For example, my students face each other in a small group to agree on some interesting questions, before engaging each other on-line. In the semi-virtual classroom, students can also supplement electronic discussion with follow-up face-to-face discussion and debriefing about the process. Students quickly perceive the relative advantages and disadvantages of these various media, and they're more than ready to discuss their experiences with classmates. With opportunities for such meta-discussion, students become increasingly self-aware about the ways in which their writing and thinking and collaborating in these media are interrelated. One freshman in my fall quarter class who vigorously argued his preference for face-to-face class discussion in opposition to computer-mediated communication eventually transcended his either-or construction of the issue, realizing the irony in the fact that he had developed his strongest arguments in writing, on-line, in dialogue with others.

Essay writing. Electronic dialogue constitutes a significant amount of prewriting for formal essays. But these electronic texts need not be precursors to anything; rather they can be seen as valid forms of writing in their own right. Many of my students have composed and posted to the class newsgroups what are essentially mini-essays, complete with references. Some of these postings are meaningful only in the highly-interactive context of the newsgroup (to the extent that they are inseparable from the history of previous messages and responses); others translate directly into more formal academic work.

Students e-mail me their ideas for an essay, well in advance of the initial draft; this gives me time to respond with questions or suggestions, sometimes several times, as students hone their ideas. Some students write paragraphs or even pages as they work out an argument. E-mail is ideal for this prewriting, because of its informality; students are generally quite comfortable brainstorming in this medium without worrying about mechanics or grammatical constraints.

For longer research projects, e-mail offers amphibious teachers the chance to intervene in the process earlier and more often than would face-to-face conferences. Students submit initial topics by e-mail, then revised topics and tentative thesis statements. Students also e-mail the reference librarian who will conduct our library workshop. The librarian can then reply directly to each student with individualized suggestions for research. Because one can automatically and selectively quote from the original, e-mail is also ideal for responding to detailed research plans or outlines.

For essay drafts themselves, e-mail is not ideal. Some e-mail programs, such as Eudora, allow users to attach documents (e.g., an essay in Microsoft Word) in a way that preserves their paper-text formatting, but many don't, including the e-mail systems used by most Stanford students. Documents can be preserved in their original form and shared, however, using a file server on a local area network. "Until most text is read on-screen," Elizabeth Klem and Charles Moran (1991, p. 138) suggest, "some alternation between screen and paper will have to be managed" in composition classes. File servers allow us to manage as amphibians, working on-line with the page-text conventions students still need for much of their other academic work. For class publication of revised work or portfolios, file servers can increase students' sense of audience. Printing is optional. With electronic publication, students can create their own customized class anthology.

Peer and instructor response. When all students can read all their classmates' work, the class potentially becomes a real community of writers. Using a file server, students can electronically annotate and exchange essay drafts from remote locations. This can take place during class if computers are available, although "live" annotation has no particular advantage; remote annotation is probably most useful when contact time with students is limited.

Text annotations in Microsoft Word are represented by unobtrusive icons; when the icons are double-clicked, comments appear in separate windows on the computer screen. The advantages of this form of peer response over traditional margin scribbling include: (a) respect for and preservation of the original text; (b) convenience (annotators can work across the network); (c) legibility; (d) potential interaction of several readers. Subsequent annotators can comment on previous annotations, establishing a dialogue about the work in progress. Instructors can comment in terms of the existing annotations, joining an ongoing conversation.

At their home or dorm computer, writers can download and review their annotated drafts on-line by placing comment windows adjacent to the relevant place in their own text (monitor size permitting). Writers control the way they view the responses; they can read annotations as they appear inserted in the original text; and they can read through just the annotations in linear order. Writers can follow through a single reader's responses, or they can print everything out to read on paper.

In the semi-virtual classroom, students still meet in small-group, face-to-face workshops to discuss their essay drafts. If they've already electronically annotated one another's drafts, the live workshops become a supplementary form of feedback; writers can ask their readers specific follow-up questions or seek clarification of confusing or contradictory responses.

For individual conferences, however, face-to-face meeting should be the "main action" and electronic techniques supplementary. The teacher-student conference has long been considered one of the most effective ways to teach writing (e.g., Freedman, 1987;Sperling, 1993). Teachers who are less skilled or are uncomfortable with face-to-face conferencing can take advantage of electronic tools such as e-mail. A recent special issue of Computers and Composition guest-edited by Joyce Kinkead and Christine Hult (1995) includes several articles about this kind of cyber-tutoring.

But even teachers whose styles and skills are well-suited for face-to-face conferencing can enhance these meetings with electronic tools. E-mail, again because of its informality, can be very useful in preparing for or following up on a conference meeting. During the conference, instructors and students can work more effectively on individual problem areas, from essay structure to dangling modifiers, by using a computer to try alternatives.

Although electronic tools haven't freed more of my time for conferences, I have been able to redirect some of my teaching energy to individual students. I spend less time preparing lectures or other teacher-directed activities and more time answering e-mail from students, reading their newsgroup postings, and poring over transcripts of their electronic discussions. I get to know them individually much better than when our only contact, besides conferences, was in large-group class-time settings. In class, too, I spend less time talking and more time listening. Conferencing face-to-face, therefore, is now in a richer context of an ongoing dialogue. Much of that dialogue has a written record (e.g., in e-mail files) to which we can refer. We have more to build on, so we can achieve better results.


With so much class business conducted on-line, one might expect a decline in the sense of class community and associated benefits in student interest and motivation. The opposite has occurred in my experience. My Fall 1995 course was the most on-line-intensive I've taught to date, yet a majority of the students came to class as much as a half hour to talk and work together face-to-face--not to see me, as in a teacher-centered cult of personality, but to see one another. On-line they made plans to bring cameras for the last meeting and take class portraits. The sense of closeness they developed from working together and communicating so much outside of class was clearly reflected in their in-class behavior.

To make what Melanie Sperling (1993) and others refer to as "the social nature of written text" concrete for students--to make the audience for their ideas, their writing, real and meaningful--we should encourage them to have as much dialogue as possible, both on-line and in person. Likewise, as Sperling suggests, teacher-student writing conferences work best as "critical dialogic events" in courses based on a social view of learning (pp. 23-30). In network terms, face-to-face communication has a very high "bandwidth"(measure of the amount or range of information a signal can carry),so surely it will always be useful in teaching anything, including writing. Personal interaction allows teachers to apply all their human and professional experience to make judgments about how to help individual students.

If, like individual conferences, large-group face-to-face meetings are still necessary and useful, what happens in the physical classroom can change dramatically with the thoughtful use of technology. If text-centered work is largely shifted to virtual spaces, physical meetings can focus more on supporting and augmenting that work: formulating goals, planning criteria for evaluating texts, practicing electronic tools, sharing common problems, and discussing the whole process on a meta-level. Whenever students talk in class, in the model presented, they are continuing a discussion already in progress and they know that the conversation won't stop at the end of the class period.

Partly as a result of using electronic tools, we can reconceptualize our roles as teachers. We can be less information-givers, more information managers; we can be less the center of knowledge, more a facilitator for knowledge-making; we can be less a director, more an organizer. Working together in the semi-virtual classroom, our students have the opportunity to think more critically and complexly about what they read and write, and we have the chance to get to know and help them better as individual writers. We techno-amphibians can make the best of both worlds.


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Faigley, L. (1992). Fragments of rationality: Postmodernity and the subject of composition. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Freedman, S. W. (1987). Response to student writing. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Holeton, R. Notes in the Margin. Program in Writing and Critical Thinking, Stanford University. Available on-line at

Keeling, J. (1996, Winter). Writing in the Information Age. Notes in the margin. Program in Writing and Critical Thinking, Stanford University. Available HTTP:

Kemp, F. (1996). Using computer networks to privilege the student text [Presentation]. Conference on College Composition and Communication Winter Workshop, Clearwater Beach, FL.

Kinkead, J. & Hult, C. (Vol. Eds.). (1995). In Hawisher, G. E. & Selfe, C. L. (Series. Eds.), Computers and composition: Vol. 12, No. 2. Writing Centers Online. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Klem, E. & Moran, C. (1991). Computers and instructional strategies in the teaching of writing. In Hawisher, G. E. & Selfe, C. L., (Eds.), Evolving perspectives on computers and composition studies: Questions for the 1990s. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Moran, C. (1992). Computers and the writing classroom: A look to the future. In Hawisher, G.E. & LeBlanc, P. (Eds.), Re-imagining computers and composition: Teaching and research in the Virtual Age. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Heinemann.

Sperling, M. (1993). The social nature of written text: A research-Based review and summary of conceptual issues in the teaching of writing. (NCTE Concept Paper Series, No. 8.) Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

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