Technology in English 015:

Building Low-Cost, High-Powered Writing Communities

Claudine Keenan

Lecturer in English
Penn State Allentown Campus

Today, the exponential growth of the Internet has enticed us to reach well past the limitations that commercial software writing tools have imposed on our use of computers in the classroom. It is possible to create low-cost, high-tech writing communities using only the desktop software found in most campus labs, along with an Internet conferencing centerpiece, a MOO. In this paper I describe how my students used the MOO to participate in a global on-line writing community during the summer of 1996.

Before deciding to use technology in an English composition course, most instructors would pose questions like these: How can we promote active learning in writing classes without spending a fortune (in both time and money) on commercial groupware? How can we create collaborative writing communities among our students using practical tools they can use beyond the first-year composition course? How can we increase our students' contact with a global community of writers that extends far past the walls of our own local writing labs? How can we access this global community seamlessly, regardless of distant platforms or software constraints?

The answer to all of the above is that we can use the popular desktop software that already resides in most campus computer labs and businesses, combined with the Internet, to create our own customized collaborative writing environments. Using technology in this way has enabled us to achieve both of our pedagogical goals in first-year composition at Penn State Allentown both to encourage writing as a collaborative process within the local classroom an to encourage students to interact with distant members of a global community.

A Typical First Year Writing Course

Throughout the Penn State system, English 015 resembles most major universities' first-year composition courses: exploring writing as a process, engaging in collaborative writing activities, and using portfolio assessment techniques. Instructors at campuses throughout the state use a variety of approaches to promote critical thinking and collaborative writing, from classical literature to popular culture. But in my English 015 courses at Penn State Allentown, students use the Internet in addition to traditional classroom approaches so that we gain much more than an intriguing new source of information--we get access to writers around the world. And when we use the text-based, virtual reality database called a MOO (Multi-User Dimension,Object Oriented) to collaborate on our writing assignments, we form a community of writers who view ourselves as part of the ongoing, cross-cultural conversation of rhetoric.

At Penn State Allentown, our local community branch, our first goal in English 015 is to establish a community of writers among students who, like most other freshmen across the nation, may not be accustomed to working with one another. They are in transition from their closed-community high school lives to diverse academic and professional lives. Penn State Allentown students are mostly local residents who come to our campus for the first one or two years of study and then transfer to the main campus at University Park to complete their degrees.

Demographics. Allentown students represent the Lehigh Valley population of Eastern Pennsylvania: predominantly white, middle class students with an increasingly rich blend of multicultural diversity that reflects the shifting identity of this region. Typically, the first year composition class includes up to 24 students, 17-20 years old; one quarter of the class consists of students of Asian, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern backgrounds. The students come from nearby high schools in rural areas surrounded by farmlands, suburbs crowded by shopping malls, and urban settings under the shadows of rusting, abandoned steel mills. Although many are prepared for the mechanical (grammatical) demands of English 015, many have not been exposed to writing as a process at all. More important, many have not been exposed to each other, or to many other culturally diverse populations; creating new writers' communities presents for us the familiar challenge that most first-year composition instructors face--a challenge that technology has helped us to meet.

Tools. Because technological tools are expensive, we use what popular commercial software we already have in our labs and we download freeware applications. On our Windows-based network, we use: Microsoft Word to draft papers; Eudora to e-mail assignments to one another for comments and response; Netscape to browse the Web for materials, syllabi, and for posting our own finished essays; and MudWin to communicate in real time with guest instructors and distant peer-writing classes in a MOO.

This economically feasible potpourri approach to applications allows us to connect with distant writing partners, regardless of the platform or software package they are using. Exchanging texts in a MOO, we are free to compose and revise on whatever software we like, and our distant collaborative partners enjoy the same luxury. The MOO is a common database that connects us--Macs, IBMs, Word or WordPerfect. Additionally, our broad-spectrum approach to technology increases students' exposure to multiple applications, building their confidence in mastering technology and in applying their skills to any package they confront in the future, not just "the one we learned in English class." By their second visit to the lab, students are multi-tasking comfortably in a Windows environment.

Activities. A typical writing assignment engages students in all of these activities:

When I read, respond to, grade, and return the papers, I often post excerpts or entire papers to our Web site so that everyone, including our distant peers, can share our writing and provide even more feedback. Obviously, students' awareness of the entire global community as a potential audience affects the value they place on their papers. In their peer groups, my students frequently discuss the importance of defining key terms and broadening their appeals to reach this expanded audience.

Every one of these technology-assisted activities in English 015 is an enhanced version of a familiar composition classroom practice that many writing instructors will recognize instantly. We participate in collaborative invention exercises, free-draft independently and with writing partners, conduct peer-revision sessions for content, logic, organization, and edit our papers for grammar, style, and punctuation accuracy. Although these activities are common to process-oriented composition classrooms throughout the nation, the technological enhancement makes them more accessible and more tangible for students in my English 015. Because we can log our conversations in the MOO, we produce written texts that document each stage of our writing processes. We can easily refer back to logfiles to find ideas, to cut and paste them into new files for drafting, and to refine them in a subsequent MOO session. In this way, we reinforce writing-as-a-process through our use of writing-as-technology.

Technology skills. We never begin by studying technology. To begin using MOOs, we start off in a very traditional, low-tech manner: on the chalkboard, we diagram the Internet as a map of the world, with insets that detail the configuration of local and wide area networks. We discuss the notion that behind each of the keyboards, wired into these networks, there is another human being, a writer, who may be logged on to the MOO database in, say, California, or from their own terminals in Maine, New York, Florida, Australia, or even the United Kingdom. Any of these remote users may become our writing partners, and they frequently have done so.

A Summer Session

Interacting. In a six-week period during the summer session of 1996, our small group of eight students formed a true writing community, primarily using MudWin as our synchronous conferencing software in several MOOs. We obtained characters on DaMOO, Diversity University, and Athena, and we began using the MOO as a conferencing tool within our own classroom, exchanging ideas as most composition classes will do in discussion form, with the advantage of logging what we said for future reference. Using the MOO within our own small group strengthened students' awareness of the absence of non-verbal communication cues when we rely upon straight text to make meaning clear. Students learned on their own how important precise word choice becomes in a fast-paced, text-based environment devoid of audible tone and visible facial expression. They taught each other. The MOO allows students to "emote" gestures to one another to express their misunderstandings clearly. They worked collaboratively on an Internet censorship paper and on their final exam. By the end of the semester, they were writing as much to each other as they were to their instructor.

Among themselves in the MOO, English 015 students established their own personas, their own identities as writers. They had visible proof of their ability to generate text, and lots of it, when we printed out the logged transcripts of our discussions. And they had recorded evidence of just who said what about which idea, a luxury that most collaborative classes do not have once the verbal discussion has ended. For instance, after their discussion on cyberporn, based on the subtopics they discussed during the session, English015 students decided how to approach writing the actual essay:

KellyP says "how are we going to do this paper?"

ClaudineK asks, "well, we know that Fahim wants to investigate the censorship programs. anyone else wanna take that angle with him?"

ScottE says, "i'm in"

ClaudineK says [to WillB [Guest]], "you wanna evaluate the cash/profit aspect?" FahimE says, "no I want to take the same angle everyone else takes I'm not a leader i'm a follower"

WillB [Guest] sure, after break?

ClaudineK says [to FahimE], "we should work individually or in teams."

TaraP says, "teams"

FahimE says, "teams"

JulieD says, "teams are good"

ClaudineK asks, "so fahim and scott are doing the software censors, right?" TaraP exclaims, "someone take Fahim's arrow keys!"

ClaudineK asks, "and will, you're gonna discuss profit?"

ClaudineK says [to val_ [Guest]], "do you wanna try to define decency for us?" val_ [Guest] says, "how would i do that? i dont know anything about it really? can someone help me?"

KellyP says "i'll work with val if you want"

ClaudineK says [to TaraP], "you wanna look at the first amendment?"

TaraP says, "sure"

FahimE says, "I'll work with tara"

Together, they pored over logs to find kernels of meaning that grew into their papers. Together they refined ideas and reshaped them until they became comfortable with each other, joking casually about writing effective argument, or curtailing paragraph sprawl, or even choosing pronoun point-of-view.

They became a community of writers, overcoming and adjusting to one anothers' differences. By the end of the summer session, in just six weeks, they were working together without me, incorporating what they had learned from their text, from the Web, from my guidance, and from the other collaborators they met on-line, as a unified team of writers. Using the MOO, we had achieved our first goal: mastering writing as a collaborative process within our local classroom.

Global interaction. In addition, we had already begun to lay the groundwork for our second goal, joining a larger, ongoing community of writers from across the nation and the world. Working together in our computer lab on Cyberporn: An Internet Controversy, English 015 students also collaborated with a graduate student at the University of Northumbria's Photovoltaic (Solar Power) research facility in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England, and with distant instructors from Presque Isle, Maine, and Chico, California.

By the time they wrote the cyberporn/censorship paper, English 015 students worked easily and comfortably with distant collaborators, appreciating not only their individualized assistance while I worked with smaller groups of students, but also the places where our teaching styles converged, or, more importantly, diverged. During one of our earliest MOO sessions, we met writing instructor Mick Doherty from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to discuss evaluating Web page design. The students enjoyed working with a distant instructor whose viewpoints about the Web differed from mine. English 015 students also discovered the importance of audience awareness and of specific word choices during that session.

After our success with one guest instructor, the English 015 students wanted more, so we enjoyed the assistance of several guest instructors: Eric Crump from the University of Missouri, Peter Sands from the University of Maine, Barry Maid from the University of Arkansas, and Janet Cross from California State University, Northridge. We discussed plagiarism on the World Wide Web (WWW). That discussion focused on the controversial Web site, where raw and often terribly written papers are posted for college students to copy. The class discussion itself began as a thread on one of our professional listservs, ACW-L, so that students had a real sense of how immediate and how fluid conversations about writing have become in this digital age. English 015 students discussed plagiarism with the distant instructors just prior to beginning work on our own research assignments.

Schoolrocks. The conversation eventually led to a collective decision (teachers and students alike) to create a student paper resource site with integrity, known as "Schoolrocks." Although the summer course ended in August 1996, many of us are still actively planning this project. Anyone interested in joining this community of student writers may send e-mail to (that's MACjordomo, not majordomo), leave the subject line blank, and in the first line, put: subscribe schoolrocks-l yourfirstnameyourlastname. The schoolsucks site that inspired us to launch our own project garnered national attention on one of our professional listservs. ACW-L and Newsweek magazine eventually mentioned its existence as well, which gave my students a keen awareness of their own active role in a widely-diverse rapidly-moving ongoing conversation about academic writing.

A Collaborative Final Exam

In their own words, my students summed up their experiences with the MOO for their collaborative final exam. Their mutual conclusion to that essay is perhaps the most succinct summation of using MOO in classrooms that I have seen so far:

The MOO sessions taught the class how to use Computer Mediated Communication to express their ideas and opinions in discussions that, in the traditional classroom, may have stifled or repressed students' thoughts and feelings. These new classroom environments allow students to interact with teachers from other states, so that different points of view from other experts broaden students' exposure to the critical thinking experience. Since the MOO provides a neutral forum for a heated debate, the students can relay their ideas as they occur, in real time, rather than waiting to be called on or waiting for other students to finish their points first. The MOO also provides a way to refer back to a class discussion, the details of which might otherwise be forgotten if they transpired in a traditional setting. For a writing class, the MOO is more beneficial than the conventional lecture or the open verbal discussion because MOO is writing.

What I Have Learned

When my students finished meeting in the MOO to get the paper organized and then separated into teams to draft each section of it in Word, they all reconvened in a more casual setting to write the conclusion, with printouts in hand, away from the computers. I sat apart from them, recording my own observations, as they drafted, revised, argued, edited, and finally agreed upon the words, all, from start to finish, in under three hours. I learned that day what collaborative writing is all about, and what it means to become a "facilitator" rather than a "lecturer." I listened as they wondered aloud whether the professors from Maine or from New York or Missouri would also be reading and evaluating their final essay. And I smiled as they agreed that, depending on which instructor read the essay, their grade could vary wildly from an A to a C. As they began to articulate the reasons that each audience would grade the essay differently, I decided to grant them all an A on that final, for knowing the most important concerns of their craft as writers.

I also learned some more practical information, to improve my future use of MOOs in the classroom. Relaxing and conversing with colleagues, I have met and arranged MOO sessions with many, and we frequently reconvene to discuss and reflect on our experiences in the classroom. We exchange teaching tips with each other, we arrange to visit each others' classes, and we help each other plan writing assignments, syllaWebs, and even professional writing projects of our own on-line.

I have also discovered Jeff Galin's MOOcentral resources and the Composition in Cyberspace Project, where Leslie Harris has posted a wealth of information on his use of MOO in the classroom. Many on-line instructors who are interested in teaching together post their schedules and course descriptions to the Composition in Cyberspace database. From this database, I have already begun planning for my next exciting venture with English 015.

Recommendations and Plans for the Future

Cross-cultural collaboration will be the highlight of the fall semester as MOO technology allows us to continue transcending time and distance constraints in our study of writing. I found Hawaiian writing instructor Linda Dehnad, who posted her course information to the Composition in Cyberspace database. She will be teaching English as a Second Language to a group of Japanese students in Hawaii through the Malcolm X Autobiography text, excerpts of which my Eastern Pennsylvanians are also reading. We have already exchanged many lengthy e-mail messages to plan our collaborative endeavor, and we are all looking forward to it eagerly because of the many layers of cross-cultural richness it portends. Our classes will meet in real time on a MOO to discuss the text together, as our students shape their own writing assignments, based on how our cultural identities influence the way we write.

This fall, with a full-sized class of 20 students, I am adapting our plans to create several smaller writing communities within the classroom. Once again, my students seem willing and eager to pass through some special MOO doors. They recognize the importance of technology to assist them with their learning, and they express excitement at the prospect of making connections with writing partners throughout the world. I recommend the MOO as a centerpiece to a low-cost writing environment to any instructor who is willing to put in the time it takes to become a better teacher. I feel so strongly about its value that I have begun to write and speak about it whenever I have the opportunity. I wrote some of my earliest MOO-work while I was still actually learning myself, and I marvel at how quickly information technology has transformed what I do in my composition classroom. As I finish writing this piece, perhaps the one thought that invokes greater enthusiasm and delight than reflecting on what we did with information technology only yesterday is looking forward to what we will do with it tomorrow.

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