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

Introduction: A Context for the Cluster's Pieces

Sabrina Reed

In the past decade educational institutions have been pressured to be more economically accountable. Students focus on whether their education will give them tangible skills for entering the job market, while industry insists that students leave college and university with specific "training" for their future careers. As Ruth Ray and Ellen Barton have pointed out, one major area for such training is computer literacy: "Rightly or wrongly, technology is touted as the crucial connection between schools and society, the classroom and the workplace" (Ray and Barton 1991: 281). For instance, Acadia University in Nova Scotia has introduced the "Acadia Advantage",[1] a policy that gives every student in the program a laptop computer and encourages extensive use of online resources. The assumption behind the use of the word "advantage" is that students will benefit from being exposed to a range of computer technologies as they learn their primary subject area. Computer literacy has become a skill which few jobs can do without, and the public expects educational institutions to provide this training.

While institutions search for ways to trim budgets and stretch instructor resources, computers also seem like a viable means to cut costs. In a recent article, for example, Chris M. Anson envisions students in a technologically enhanced future. Anson's imaginary student spends her days moving from lab to lab, hooking up electronically to lectures delivered by experts in distant places and handing in her work by e-mail, her trusty laptop at the ready to download messages, research materials, and information. Yet the pace of change with which computers are being adopted by educational institutions suggests that Anson's vision of the college environment is happening now. As institutions strive to cut costs and appeal to the demands of the business community, technology can be seen as a way of replacing face-to-face teaching with theoretically less expensive online hours. Anson, for instance, envisions such job descriptions as "a non-tenure-track education specialist" (Anson 1999: 266) and "part-time instructor/tutors hired by the semester to 'telecommute' to the institution from their homes" (Anson 1999: 267).

It is no wonder, then, that Anson titles his article, "Distant Voices: Teaching and Writing in a Culture of Technology". Anson's vision indeed distances student from instructor, and student from student as well. For as Anson's student moves through her day, face-to-face contact with either her instructors or her fellow students is noticeably lacking. Linked to the rest of the world through the Internet, the computer literate student has the potential to join a vast network of people and information. But the ability to connect with people at far off Internet sites has a disturbing corollary: the stereotype of the antisocial cyber-surfer with no flesh and blood friends has developed at the same time as the media extol the potential of computer-linked communications.

In fact, the term "classroom" itself becomes problematic when the model of "four walls and a teacher" is augmented or displaced by access to the Internet and e-mail. The "classroom" many encounter today goes beyond walls, entering chat rooms and research spaces miles away from the student's physical space. Similarly, the synchronous arrangement of "real time" lectures and tutorials can become asynchronous, with learning taking place far away from the designated classroom hour. While the traditional classroom works on a model of proximity, the "wired classroom" works with a model of intimate distance. Students are potentially further away from teachers and fellow students; yet the metaphors of online communication suggest otherwise. Metaphors such as "chat room", "Web", "Net", "network" and "links" all suggest connection, even when that connection takes place between people in different countries.

In the following cluster of papers, Alexandra Pett and Sabrina Reed from Mount Royal College and Patricia Rigg from Acadia University discuss their experiences with using technology in the "classroom". All three papers are primarily concerned with pedagogy – how classes changed when computers became an integral part of the course. All raise issues related to how computers change classroom dynamics and, most importantly, how the use of computers changes the structures of authority which exist in the traditional classroom. Rigg, for example, observes how the "new pedagogical world" of Acadia University "erodes" the ability of the instructor to keep control in the classroom, forcing both instructor and student to explore new avenues for teaching and learning.

In their essay, "Reading and Writing on Computer Networks as Social Construction and Social Interaction", Ann Hill Duin and Craig Hansen note that "In a typical classroom situation, the discourse community is subsumed in the person of the instructor, as assessor and arbiter. The work created in the class does not move [beyond the class]. The students are not part of a larger dialogue" (Duin and Hansen 1994: 96). Admittedly, this model presents a worst case scenario, and many instructors would argue that their "typical" classrooms have always encompassed other dialogues: the voices of the students who themselves are part of communities which stretch far beyond the immediate physical space. The authors in this cluster argue, however, that the presence of computers can broaden the discourse of the classroom with both positive and negative results. On the positive side, technologies such as the Internet can expose students to a range of opinion and information. On the negative side, the information can be superficial or sometimes even mistaken. While this is also true of books and journal articles, the problems of evaluating sources seem greater when dealing with the Internet. Paper sources, after all, are usually vetted by informed evaluators, but the Internet allows anyone to publish his or her thoughts. Raised to believe in the authority of the printed text, the public can be seduced by the fact that the information is printed on the screen, ignoring the fact that the person who printed it could be a novice in the field or a representative of a special interest group. More needs to be done to educate students in what is or is not a reputable source.

One of the primary characteristics of electronic forms of information is hypertextuality, a non-linear array of information, where points of access and the hierarchical organization of ideas lose shape and order. George P. Landow, for instance, discusses how "Hypertext ... embodies or instantiates Roland Barthes's notions of the individual text as the center of a network" (Landow 1992: 71). He quotes Barthes's S/Z to make his point:

Literature itself is never anything but a single text: the one text is not an (inductive) access to a Model, but entrance into a network with a thousand entrances; to take this entrance is to aim, ultimately, not at a legal structure of norms and departures, a narrative or poetic Law, but at a perspective (of fragments, of voices from other texts, other codes), whose vanishing point is nonetheless ceaselessly pushed back, mysteriously opened. (qtd. in Landow 1992: 71)
In a wired learning environment, access to information and access to people are no longer subject to traditional spatial and temporal limitations – a radical shift in perspective! As Rigg, Reed, and Pett find in their experiences teaching with computers, Landow's comments indeed have merit. Teachers find themselves becoming one voice in an ever changing online discussion rather than the central focus of the classroom. Rigg, for instance, writes of the "proportional erosion of [her] 'authority'" in the Acadia classroom, while Alexandra Pett writes that technology produced changes in "students' reading patterns" and a consequent shift in critical perspectives. Sabrina Reed notes that e-mail can empower students who would not usually speak and give them new powers of expression.

Yet each of the writers in this cluster also voices concerns about the limitations of the wired classroom. Billie J. Wahlstrom and others assert that the vision of the computer as a device which brings freedom, gives disempowered students a voice, and breaks down hierarchies is at best a partial one. She notes that "the more technology is brought into our systems, the more chances exist for financial, cultural, and social exigencies to limit access" (Wahlstrom 1994: 175). At every level of the educational system, computers are the purview of the financially secure. Tenured faculty are more likely to receive new technology, while part-time faculty often share computers or receive "hand-me-down" technology tenured faculty no longer want. Students' associations have resisted mandatory laptops by pointing out that the expense of buying computers adds an additional financial burden to the already overtaxed student.

Selfe and Selfe also note that the paradigms built into the computer interface contribute to who is outside or inside the core cultural group. "Primary interfaces, for example, also generally serve to reproduce the privileged position of standard English as the language of choice or default, and, in this way, contribute to the tendency to ignore, or even erase, the cultures of non-English language background speakers in this country" (Selfe and Selfe 1994: 488). Moreover, the computer interface has its own linear structure, and thus validates "hierarchy, rationality, and logic" (492); "The objects represented within this world are those familiar primarily to the white-collar inhabitants of that corporate culture: manila folders, files, documents, telephones, fax machines, clocks and watches, and desk calendars" (486). Even the white hand which points the way to the text is one of "a series of semiotic messages that support this alignment along the axes of class, race, and gender" (487). Canadian users might also wonder about how their own spelling system loses its authority when fed through American-based spell checkers.

More importantly for the papers at hand, Patricia Rigg mentions that while authority shifts away from the instructor in the wired classroom, this lack of authority is not always empowering. She encounters students more interested in ICQ chat rooms than in the online discussion groups formed for the class. In fact, Rigg goes so far as to say that the "busy work" of tapping out messages sometimes becomes "a substitute for serious thought". As Keith Lawson puts it in an article about his experiences at Acadia, the computer terminal can be "dangerous, addictive, and dissipating" (Lawson 1999).

As the metaphor of hypertext opening multiple entrances and exits for its users suggests, we need to look more closely at the effects of too much choice. In the hierarchical model of classroom instruction, students receive information channelled through the authority of the instructor. They are given one door into the information presented in class. The Internet, by contrast, provides multiple perspectives but often lacks direction. Beginning students may receive too much information without the proper skills to judge and categorize it. Thus, one role for the instructor in the computerized classroom is to help students to learn how to judge and process knowledge. As well, students need to learn the self-discipline to turn off ICQ, Hotmail and tempting recreational websites in favour of more directed reading. The instructor of the future will teach less content and more strategies to access and evaluate content.

Each of the following papers outlines personal experiences with computers and discusses aspects of the issues raised above. Sabrina Reed and Alexandra Pett document their experiences with a project where composition was taught to groups of seventy-five students. Alexandra Pett uses the metaphor of the journey "out of control" to indicate the changes in pedagogy she sees happening in the computerized classroom. For her, the introduction of computers leads to greater pluralism and encourages instructors and students to journey beyond traditional approaches to question their own assumptions. She explains that her use of technology meshed with her focus on a postmodern curriculum. Sabrina Reed goes on to discuss a practical implication of the seventy-five seat classroom augmented by the introduction of markers. As she points out, the use of markers is in itself a deeply political issue, and one which we should consider when we think of the impact of technology on all aspects of our jobs as educators. She also discusses how the perceived lack of instructor contact which markers and large class sizes can entail is offset by the use of e-mail. Both Pett and Reed find e-mail to be an essential technology for maintaining student contact. In fact, it empowers normally silent students to make their voices known.

Patricia Rigg documents her experiences with another project, the "Acadia Advantage", and illustrates the extent to which her pedagogy changed when she encountered the "wired classroom". Perhaps a starting point for reading the following papers is Rigg's comment: "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 three authors in this cluster would agree with Janis Forman's comment: "Once technology is introduced into [the classroom] environment, the complexity only increases. An 'add technology and stir' model does not work" (Forman 1994: 131). When technology is made a part of the "classroom" experience, profound changes occur at all levels.

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[1] The following cluster of papers includes an article by Patricia Rigg about her experiences teaching at Acadia University. Individuals interested in an additional perspective on the Acadia Advantage may wish to read also Keith Lawson's paper, "Teaching the Wired Student" (Lawson 1999).  Lawson discusses how technology impacted on his teaching of first year composition at Acadia University. Like Rigg, he comments on how his teaching changed in more radical ways than he first expected, with "the real action of the class ... taking place more and more in virtual space". Lawson discusses the challenges to traditional models of authority which take place in a "wired" classroom, pointing out that his "students had to learn to bring their reactions from the anarchic realm of the virtual into the ordered and (somewhat) hierarchical world of class discussion". Lawson suggests ways to help focus students in the often distracting world of the Internet.