Enhanced Digital Text for English 201
by Kenneth C. Thompson


In 1998, the College of Arts and Sciences at George Mason University began a program to promote the use of Information Technology in the College curriculum. The purpose of the initiative was to identify IT skills that would "enhance the learning objectives" of existing courses and to develop teaching strategies that would complement, rather than replace, traditional classroom activities. Associate Dean Holisky's account of the principles that guide the program, Information Technology Goals for Liberal Arts Students, specifically warns against teaching technology or software as an end in itself. 

In response to this initiative, a committee from the English Department started meeting in the Fall of 1998 to design a course that would enhance the Department's existing offerings and integrate technology into the curriculum. After a year of research and planning, our group--Steven Weinberger, Winnie Keaney, Ken Thompson, Dean Taciuch, and Lisa Koch--developed a pilot course for a technology intensive plug-in that can be linked to other courses in the Department. In the Fall of 1999, Steven Weinberger taught two sections of CAS 101 linked to sections of ENGL 201 (Reading Texts) taught by Ken Thompson and Dean Taciuch. Winnie Keaney taught an unlinked section of 201 for purposes of comparison.

Student evaluations of CAS 101 were quite positive. Particularly noteworthy was the fact that 83% of the students thought the skills they learned in the plug-in helped them better understand the readings in ENGL 201. When we compared papers from linked and unlinked sections of the course, we found that the plug-in had indeed fostered a greater appreciation and understanding of literature. Student writing in the special sections was less general and demonstrated greater engagement with textual details like word meaning, imagery, and point of view. Although preliminary, these results indicate that information technology can make a significant contribution to the teaching of literature and promote the Department's goals for ENGL 201. Consequently, we see CAS 101 as a model for a new course in the English Department called EDiT (Enhanced Digital Text) linked to 201.   

ENGL 201 introduces students to the reading and analysis of literary texts. Course requirements are designed to promote careful reading and clear writing in addition to the acquisition of specialized literary knowledge. Because 201 is part of the College's General Education requirement, as well as a prerequisite for other 200 level courses in the English Department, all undergraduates, with the exception of those who transfer in with 200-level credits, must take the course. Departmental guidelines require that students in the course learn to "read for comprehension, detail and nuance, do a close reading of a text, analyze the ways specific literary devices contribute to the meaning of a text, and write critical papers that use these skills to support a claim about a text." Although individual 201 instructors assign different texts and structure their courses around varying themes, all 201 students must read, analyze and create text.

The EDiT plug-in (CAS 101 in its current form) extends the meaning of text from the conventional to the digital. Based on our belief that technological literacy complements and enhances more traditional forms of literacy, we have taught our students the skills necessary to read, interpret and produce enhanced digital text. The English Department isalready committed to teaching its students the skills necessary to engage in thoughtful web-based research and many of our classes already include a technological component. But as technology advances, new skills are required of our students just as the faculty has to develop new teaching strategies. Equally important, as our student body becomes more diverse as well as more media centered, we need to supplement traditional pedagogy with new tools. That is why we want our students--as well as our faculty--to have the skills they need to find, evaluate, use, and exchange enhanced digital texts.

The skills necessary for creating and exchanging enhanced digital texts are not trivial. In addition to the IT skills necessary to produce and exchange such texts, students need to develop the critical knowledge necessary to treat links, images and other multimedia add-ins as literary devices. Because we cannot expect or require instructors in 201 to have the full set of technical skills nor the class time to teach them, we have developed a one-credit course that can be linked to 201. The EDiT plug-in will equip 201 students with the skills necessary to create and exchange enhanced digital texts. They will learn not only the technical skills--digitizing and editing images, sounds, and video--but also begin to develop the rhetorical and aesthetic judgment necessary for creating effective digital texts. Teaching these skills will foster technological as well as traditional literacy and enhance the work of the Department. Because their mastery is not dependent on the subject matter of any particular class, however, there is no need to include a IT plug-in in every course we offer. We therefore propose meeting the technological needs of our students in one centralized class linked to ENGL 201.