CHWP A.18 Reed, Pett & Rigg, "Pedagogy in the Electronic English Classroom: A Cluster"

1. The Electronic University Community: Lessons in Pedagogy

Patricia Rigg

When I presented this paper at the Congress of Learned Societies in 1998, I called it "Strategies of Pedagogy in the Wired Classroom". Having entered a new pedagogical world in 1996 when the university at which I teach, Acadia University, became Canada's first "laptop" university, I wanted to talk about the issues of pedagogy that I felt needed to be addressed. Since then, I have had another year of teaching – and learning – in an electronic environment, and so the paper I write now is not quite the same paper I delivered. What I have learned to do with a great deal of impressive machinery is still related to the exploration outlined in my original paper, but I begin this paper with the knowledge that there is no point at all in struggling to make this new technology suit my teaching style. Rather, I have made changes in what I do in the university classroom and in how I do it. The focus of my delivered paper was on how I use the technology in the classroom. The focus of this paper is determined by a realization I made this past year: the essential difference in my new teaching environment and my old teaching environment is related to a very different sense students and I have of how we fit into the "community" of the classroom.

Classrooms at Acadia are wired for complete internet access for each student and instructor. There are also wired lounges, wired stopping places for students in foyers and hallways, wired library alcoves, and wired residence rooms. The old campus is gone forever in every sense – physical and ideological. In my classroom, for example, students sit in what is called a studio format, so they are seated eight to a table and there are four tables in the room. The physical arrangement encourages collaboration, and, as was recognized nearly a decade ago now, "enfranchises" the student "by emphasizing the student text itself instead of the instructor's evaluation" (Barker and  Kemp 1990: 24). I have given much thought to this premise over the past year, and I realize now that although the proportional erosion of my "authority" in the classroom was something I understood and embraced in theory, I had not in practice made a corresponding shift in my pedagogy. My students are now on a level playing field, not only with each other but, to a certain extent, with me as well. We each have a laptop computer upon which we take notes, maintain files, and use fairly sophisticated software. An immediate advantage for the students, of course, is the fact that they are adding computer literacy to whatever degree they are pursuing. An immediate advantage for me is something along the same lines. I currently teach not only freshman composition and literature but also upper level literature courses as Acadia Advantage (laptop) courses. Non-Advantage courses are called "blended courses" because they include traditional students as well as those in the laptop program, but in those courses as well, including graduate courses, I make use of a great deal of sophisticated electronics in the classroom. I have had a great deal of pedagogical strategy to work out, and, not surprisingly, not all of it has been as successful as I would have liked.

I will limit my discussion here to my experiences in my composition classroom simply because it is in my writing courses that the changing nature of the classroom community has been most noticeable. Enfranchisement is an important issue in any writing program, I think, because it has long been recognized that students learn to write not only by reading and writing according to an academic curriculum but by, as Chris Anson has said recently, "reading and writing with each other, responding to each other's drafts, negotiating revisions, discussing ideas, sharing perspectives, and finding some level of trust as collaborators in their mutual development" (Anson 1999: 269). I have found that it behoves me to take advantage of one important aspect of my electronic classroom that is related precisely to this idea of the students' sense of "sharing" and of existing as members of a community of peers. Using an interactive software program called NortonTextra Connect, I frequently let the students have a discussion before we consider a work as a class. Then I might join the electronic discussion or project their discussion up on the screen so that I move quite smoothly from a silent chat to a public forum they have initiated. I can take my record of the whole discussion away from class, extrapolate pertinent comments, and present the students with those comments as the basis of the next class. There are important consequences of this process: first, the students themselves are responsible for the level of sophistication of the discussion, and they welcome this challenge eagerly; second, many students who find speaking up in class difficult have surprisingly strong critical voices online.[2]

Certainly there are some negative aspects of this one person/one machine arrangement, and quite frankly, although I have been teaching writing in an electronic classroom for three years now, the "distractions" that seem to come with the computer continue to be a challenge for me. Too often vigorous typing seems to be a preoccupying end in itself rather than a means to an end: I still have the uncomfortable feeling that the "busy work" of this tapping is a substitute for serious thought. The computer in those moments both usurps my authority and undermines any enfranchising of the student that has been taking place. I think that this whole aspect of teaching in an electronic environment is one that needs to be acknowledged and addressed as quickly as possible. "The primary challenge for teachers and students", write Mayers and Swafford "is to discover ways in which computers might be used in the classroom to increase critical awareness of the ideologies bound up with technology and, when possible, to subvert those ideologies" (Mayers and Swafford 1998: 146). At Acadia, those ideologies have indeed insinuated themselves into many aspects of the "community", not only in terms of seduction by the technology but also in terms of physical problems, such as classrooms with stadium seating, an arrangement that gives students a clear view of screens in front of them. E-mail and ICQ are temptations that ultimately only the user can keep under control, but the truth is that these issues of self-restraint can be serious impediments to making the classroom a learning environment. The change in the dynamics of this environment if the instructor has to pause to ask students in class to stop playing around threatens to upset the fragile balance of enfranchisement and responsibility.

Despite these very serious issues, it is clear to me that we should not waste time wondering whether all this technology is a good idea. Not only is it here to stay, but it is a good idea. Nor do I want to focus on the difficulties in becoming a "techie" or laud the merits of what for me was a considerable metamorphosis, although I must say that a transition like the one we have made at Acadia has had its price as well as its rewards. Realistically, it took most of us a year to learn the system, prepare course materials, and develop enough familiarity with all the machinery to use it to anything close to its potential. Nevertheless, the issues that preoccupied us all during the first two years in the electronic classroom have been replaced by a whole new set of problems.

When I delivered this paper, I identified my basic problem as the disconcerting fact that I felt myself to be involved in a new pedagogy that I had not then defined. Actually, I now think I had defined this pedagogy more than I realized. It still seems to me that there are two general, very abstract aspects of what I do as a scholar and teacher of scholarship that need to be reconsidered. First, the fact that information is literally at one's fingertips has changed the parameters of knowledge. This change is as profound as Anne Keating suggests in The Wired Professor when she claims that "the new intellectual technologies offer new and better ways to expand human capacity, multiply human reasoning, and compensate for human limitations" (Keating and Hargiti 1999: 220). As a result of this systemic alteration in working with information, my role, both inside and outside the classroom, has moved away from the more conventional paradigm of "professor" – one who professes or speaks knowledge – to, for lack of a better word, "facilitator" – one who makes the learning process easier.[3] Furthermore, the nature of academic integrity, our philosophy of educational process, needs to be rethought to reflect this change in classroom activity. In practical terms, I said last year, I need to find ways to shift to the students some duties and obligations that I once assumed defined me, for they have the ways and means now of assuming more responsibility for what goes on in the classroom. If attaining information itself is no longer the challenge it used to be, I decided, I need to find ways to challenge this new student.

Now, one might argue, a good teacher has always found ways to teach the student to synthesize, think critically, and construct for himself or herself new knowledge. Realistically, "our use of communications technology is [only] an extension of the development of speech, reading and writing" (Keating and Hargiti 1999: 13). We have long said that we view the classroom as a place in which we can exchange ideas and that we bring our expertise and scholarship to that exchange. Good pedagogy has always meant teaching students to think, to find their critical voices. But let's face it, ten years ago, those critical voices tended to be far more consistently echoes of our own voices because we understood our primary duty to be that of exposing students to new ideas that would allow us to nudge them into the activity of producing a critical essay or contributing to the general body of ideas. To that end, I think that we have always tended to do the synthesizing. During the course of this year, I made an effort to incorporate into my teaching materials a number of excellent academic web sites; unfortunately, although these sites gather and synthesize information, they take a visitor to the end without taking him or her through the means. Furthermore, there is still a great big body of disorganized, out-of-context, adulterated material on the web. More distressing to those of us who routinely assign essays as a means of evaluation is the sad reality that the sites that sell student essays not only proliferate, but they – and the essays they supply – are becoming frighteningly sophisticated at meeting quite deviously the requirements of any assignment.

I tried to address some of these issues, really with mixed results, I think. I made all my assignments as original and as current as possible, once or twice so current that students who did not read newspapers had no idea what I was talking about. More to the point, though, I found myself changing the format of my evaluative exercises in an even more drastic way. This change arose quite naturally out of the fact that my students over the past few years have changed the way they perform in the classroom. So much material is only a click away, so perhaps it makes sense, I thought, that the clicking itself, metaphorically speaking, is what I should evaluate. In all my Acadia Advantage courses, I shifted the focus of my grading and assessment from outside to inside the classroom. This shift is a little odd, I admit, given the newly formed euphemisms of "extending the walls of the classroom" or the "classroom without walls", but placing more emphasis on classroom performance promoted a more lively and productive hour, at any rate. It is important in evaluating the "clicks" to put more emphasis on discussions as they evolve. Students in all my classes are routinely responsible for bringing materials into class and for disseminating them through power point presentations as well as through world wide web access. I think that in a writing course these activities enhance a sense of classroom community and make academic collaboration easier. In this respect, I realized an important goal I set for myself last year: I set the parameters of the course, but the students shaded in much of the rest of the course. We used our interactive software to initiate discussion, to perform collaborative work, and yes, to extend the course beyond the classroom time slot, particularly when we were working on collaborative assignments.

From the beginning of my life in the electronic classroom, I have considered my role to be to ensure that research and scholarship levels stay high. In the 1990s, this has become a challenging task, for, as Barry Silverman complained in 1995, we live in a time not only of "information proliferation" but also of "knowledge decay" (Silverman 1995: 82). The sad truth is that "knowledge" has become trivialized as it has become digitalized, and I see now that the sense in which I do "teach" is that of getting students to sift through so much nonsense to get to the heart of the matter. When I was a student, I went to the library and read a range of critical works – some better than others – but my professors did not have to debunk myths rising daily out of an unmanaged all-too-accessible mass. We have a professional obligation to help students to contribute to the general process of reclaiming scholarship that we all face as academics.

I worried last year that balancing student initiative with the depth of firm scholarship would be a very difficult process. Citing Henry Newman and his concept of academic community in the "Idea of a University", I assumed that students and professors are brought together for the purpose of extending knowledge and that during this process of extending what we most value, we "learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other" (Newman 1852: 180). I thought then that my job description should read something like this, and now I am even more determined to live by these humanizing principles. We must continue to view the classroom as a place of exchange of knowledge. However, the nature of the exchange in an electronic classroom is different from that in the conventional classroom, so it stands to reason that mutual respect and intellectual reciprocity now arise out of very different assumptions. Coming to terms with those assumptions has been a very difficult process because there are connotations of the words "power", "point" and "presentation" that are fairly good indicators of the general line of thinking one falls into when one turns from chalk to power point. Ironically, a good class becomes contingent on everything working well rather than on the disruption and questioning associated with a productive discussion. There is an insidious consequence of these altered classroom dynamics that I am making it my daily business to address.

When I began to teach in an electronic setting, I found that it was rather like starting my teaching career all over again. Each class had to be prepared from scratch. Power point slide shows and innovative assignments suited to my new interactive software all needed to be developed three times a week. Not surprisingly, once I managed to get the electronics in place, I tended to focus on keeping them in place. When delivering a class with power point, for example, I found myself becoming quite protective about material I had put up on a screen in big bold type. I had dropped a tool I had always found indispensable – the eraser. Once a point comes up on the screen, it can only be edited, modified, or recanted with some difficulty. So, a certain inflexibility crept into my classes. In like manner, I found it more difficult to take control when an electronic discussion had quite obviously derailed than it used to be to interject a quick and timely remark. I, someone who takes life from the written word, was becoming increasingly bound by the written word. My students slipped into this inflexibility as well, for during the first two years of the program, I noticed that written debates rarely resulted in a change of view or an "I see now" or an "I get it". Rather, we all fought quite adamantly to "stand by" what we had already put into writing. I spent the first years of the Acadia Advantage Initiative mastering the technology; I spent this past academic year fighting to remain its master by building flexibility back into the "structure" of my classes.

To this end, I have made collaborative writing and fostering a sense of community through collaboration the focus of my composition course, and the gains of this focus for both me and my students have been tangible. For the past two years, my students have collaborated for a term not only among themselves but with Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Wake Forest, one of the first American universities to introduce a laptop program, has been a model of sorts for Acadia. My counterpart at Wake Forest and I met at a conference in May 1997. We devised a group-driven writing project in which our students are asked to describe various places on their campuses and in their towns that are important to them (IMEJ). The students correspond through an uploads Notes program via the internet in groups, each group composed of some Acadia and some Wake Forest students. They have to work at finding the right connotative words to describe their special places, and they have to peer review each other's writing. They gain much from these exchanges. In fact, they form their own cross-border community, bearing out a basic premise of education articulated in many ways over the years but too frequently forgotten in practice: "Society exists in communication, but just as surely, education exists only in a communicative society" (Bruce and Rubin 1993: 10). My students have to find their critical voices, and they strive for a level of perfection in their writing that seems to me to be directly related to their awareness of audience. Once we have had several exchanges, we return to our respective classrooms and work in our own groups to produce a collaborative essay with our interactive software. This collaboration seems to me to be an aspect of the writing process to which the technology makes a significant contribution. Finally, both university groups put essays and photos of place on a web page (Acadia/Wake Forest 1998; Acadia Wake Forest 1997). Having to write for publication and readers other than one professor makes a significant difference in the pride the students take in their work, and ultimately, in the quality of the finished product.

This project underscores as well the fact that students, like most of us, tend to value most what costs them the most. They worry about responding well to Wake Forest and about Wake Forest's responses; they worry about publishing on the web; they worry that our photos are not as attractive as Wake Forest's photos. My students encourage criticism and are disappointed when it is slow in coming from their American peers. They worry as a community of writers, and all of these worries are good because they result in good work. Ultimately, the technology worries the students into a level of performance I have not previously seen in the classroom. All of this seems to me to be a significant move toward Newman's "Idea".

More than ever before, students have to be taught to resist passive learning; they must not slip into the mere passive processing of knowledge that the metaphor of the computer implies. In a classroom with no walls, motivation should be a crucial concern. We must be quite aggressive about teaching the students that technology should not direct the thinking process. We need to help students not only to hone their skills of retrieving and processing information, but also to develop the integrity and commitment to scholarship that have always defined the good student. They are part of an academic community that, on the surface at least, seems at times to have little in common with the community that we as instructors call "home". In many ways, academic life has never been so complex. The information highway can be daunting, an overwhelming volume of material at one's fingertips. What, we all ask ourselves, could we possibly contribute to this volume? Well, the answer, I suggest, might be found in the electronic classroom as the place to seize on the immediacy of these resources. We have an opportunity now to teach critical thinking in process by instilling in the students a sense of obligation to make the internet a useful scholarly tool. We need strategies of pedagogy that keep the "Idea" of a university in sight and that will bring us full circle back to Newman's premise that true education is a collaborative process.

[Return to table of contents] [Continue]


[2] The issue of student voice has recently been discussed more often in terms of empowering minority and female voices than in any other context. Barker and Kemp, for instance, write that in their own use of computers for peer critiquing, "the dominating person has a much more difficult time dominating text exchanges than oral exchanges..." (Barker and Kemp 1990: 21). See also "Computer Conferencing: Composing a Feminist Community of Writers" and "Technology in the English Classroom: Computers through the Lens of Feminist Theory" (Handa 1990: 106-117, 118-139).

[3] The implications of the term "facilitator" are interesting. The word has connotative assumptions of "ease" and is the term used now in computer training programs such as the growing Information Technology Institute, for example. As I write this, I know that this is not the word I want to apply to myself in the classroom.