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Computers, Writing, & Distance Learning


A Response to Joel's Foreman's Interview
By Virginia Montecino

  Joel's theory that students be provided with assignments that limit the ways things can "go wrong" can be a safe and helpful for some assignments, such as a proposal with specific required components. But my goal as a writing teacher is to also expose students to assignments that allow them to take risks and explore their capabilities as thinkers and writers.

If students get comfortable with formulaic as well as more inventive writing, they will be more able to be confident writers who can express their ideas and devise their own strategies to deal with writing challenges that may come up in the future, outside the bounds of the requirements for a few papers in a particular class.

Though I want them to pay attention to guidelines and become disciplined enough to follow appropriate formats documentation styles for papers with specific purposes, I also want them to gain experience in positioning themselves in new writing experiences so that they can have the flexibility to produce writing for different audiences and purposes as they grow and change, personally and professionally.

Joel said that one of the biggest hurdles is the technology - file transfers, etc. In my distance education classes, students sign a form stating they understand the technology skills and equipment requirements, and I have few problems with students understanding or gaining the expertise to do the mechanical things, like file transfer, using an online discussion medium, etc. Students post their work on their course Web pages, and they catch on quickly how to do this. Having extensive documentation available on my web site for such tasks helps.

I consider the issues of guiding students how to do productive research and forming a cohesive learning community the two most challenging aspects of a composition class, and the challenge is more difficult in an online course.

For example, all 302 sections are expected to become competent with using online databases for library and Internet research. In a real time class I can catch them in the act of doing research and help guide their efforts. For the on-line class, it is a bigger challenge to try and give them as close to the same experience as possible. To that end, I created Web-based guides for using databases and search engines, plus instructions on how to evaluate Web and non-Web based sources. The need to post a variety of guidelines on line for dis ed students has benefited my non dis ed students (and I might add students and faculty across the university).

So one benefit from teaching dis Ed classes is the production of a large body of resources, some of which I might have ended up either lecturing about or passing out handouts on. Now they can access these resources wherever they can connect to the Web and can print them out. But teaching research strategies online is still not the same as being there. Submitting proposals on what they want to do their research reports on, with a tentative biblio, gives me a chance to monitor their research. But this is the same technique I use with students in real time classes. However, student work in the dis Ed class is as good, and sometimes better, than that from non dis Ed classes - perhaps because the dis Ed students tend to be more mature, self disciplined and self motivated.

Building a learning/writing community is a big challenge in any class, and the dynamics of a dis Ed writing course compound the task. The asynchronous aspect of discussion and email do not provide for the spontaneity of a real time discussion in which ideas can be reinforced and misconceptions can be cleared up on the spot. Yet there is also value to having an archived discussion which students can revisit and expand upon. Also, the archived "discussion" is produced by using their writing skills, another good thing in a composition class. Working at achieving cohesive peer groups involves creative approaches for community building in cyberspace. Expecting peer evaluation from groups, providing activities which help bond the group, and periodic reports on group progress help.