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Vol. 7, No. 8: April 17, 2001

 

E-learning is Work(ing)

 

by Linda H. Straubel, Ph.D.

Department of English

University of Wisconsin – Rock County

 

Even the most cursory review of articles on writing and e-learning reveals that, despite its enormous momentum, computer-enhanced teaching still has its naysayers.  Consider, for instance, a few complaints from Wendy Leibowitz’s article "Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing" (Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 26, 1999).  Included are claims by some educators that composing outlines and first drafts on a computer robs students of the sensory connections between mind and hand, the tactile sense of pressing pen to paper. To some, the speed and ease of keyboard composition is purportedly why students produce "lazy" writing.  Others believe that computers cause their students to “tinker endlessly with the text and forget their paper doesn’t have a thesis,” or succumb to keyboard speed to produce mass quantities of ill-written prose. According to one teacher, the “pruning” and “winnowing” needed to “give [writing] texture and depth...can’t be done by machine." Although I disagree with these complaints, there are two points I do agree with:  “The new technology presents both perils and possibilities,” and “the possibilities are exciting, but their effectiveness is largely unproved” (Leibowitz 67-8).

 

Indeed, while there are massive amounts of anecdotal evidence attesting to both the perils and the possibilities, there is precious little quantitative evidence that e-learning is worth all the bother and expense.  It was this lack of substantive evidence that induced me to begin compiling my own statistics comparing my computer-enhanced to non-computer-enhanced English Composition I courses in the fall of 1999.  I’ll go into that in more detail later; for now, let me just say that I’m more than a little encouraged to press on, despite the difficulties.  What’s more, I believe that there must be others like me compiling “proof positive” of e-learning’s efficacy.

 

But before reviewing some of the positive claims for e-learning, I’d like to respond to some of the above critiques.  As a long-time “keyboard-dependent” writer, I find typing on a keyboard and its instant production of words on a screen just as sensually gratifying and thought-enhancing as putting pen to paper ever was.  What’s more, the sheer speed of word processing helps me to keep up with my thoughts, which aids brainstorming.  The ease with which I can spell-check and revise helps me to outline and compose my first draft.  While it’s inarguably true that a computer can’t winnow and prune prose, neither can the typewriter, the pen or the quill do that work.  It’s up to the writer, whatever technological level has been attained.  Beyond that, there are obvious advantages to being able to “skate” from word processing to Internet search engine windows, cutting and pasting research into your own documents as needed.  Besides, my own experience has not revealed any student tendency to produce more prose because of the keyboard.  On the contrary, lazy is lazy:  if they’re too lazy to construct a thesis and follow it, they’re also too lazy to fiddle endlessly with the text or to run on for page after page.

 

I know that some of my more “techno-phobic” colleagues do tend to blame technology for their students’ increased laziness, especially in writing classes.  However, I believe they do so because they associate the rising use of computers, with their informal e-mail and chat room writing, with their newer students’ inability to make the simple distinction between a sentence and a sentence fragment or their failure to follow any logical order in their essays, for instance. But we must also consider that inadequate reading and writing preparation before college may be having an effect on students' writing skills.  For example, when pressed about the rising use of technology, such naysayers may also admit that their students routinely disclose that they did little to no writing in high school and may never have read a book in its entirety. My basic goal here is not to blame high school teachers, but to point out how dicey causal claims are to support.  E-learning and its effects are no exception.  Even the following claims that computers help are largely anecdotal in nature.  They explain the technology’s possibilities, however, and that is worth doing.


Paradoxically, technology seems to promise both a greater sense of individuality and a closer sense of community for both teachers and students.  David Brown, vice-president and dean of the International Center for Computer Enhanced Learning at Wake Forest University finds great hope for improved teaching in “technology-the-enabler.”  He promises that, ironically, its promotion of e-mail communication, “learning teams,” Internet links, and “hyper-linked assignments” will help us return to the “highly customized, individualized” dialogic educational paradigm of Plato and Aristotle.  “Aware of more learning styles and learning materials,” he speculates, “teachers will no longer act as if one size fits all...Likewise, the one-size-fits-all textbook will be replaced by ‘learning components,’ chosen to meet specific needs of specific students by professors with specific educational approaches” (21).  While I’m not ready to jettison my textbooks entirely, my web site is full of supplemental lessons that present the same principles in a different manner, including animations and graphics to help those with different learning styles understand the main text.

 

At the same time, the technology allows a greater sense of community between student and instructor and among the students themselves.  Communication is encouraged because launching an e-mail or posting to a discussion forum is far less threatening, especially in the beginning, than questioning or disagreeing with someone face to face.  In other words, “e-distance” can eventually bring us closer, since after breaking the ice through e-mails to me or postings to each other, students become far more likely to question, correct, and candidly critique each other during in-class discussion as well.

 

Although direct causal claims between individual participation, enhanced community, and the quality of a student’s writing haven’t yet been quantified, participation remains a hot topic.  What’s more, it seems almost inarguable that online discussion is working to enhance participation.  “Many empirical studies,” according to Xiaoxing Han’s 1999 article in Teaching with Technology Today, “confirm that students other than the most outspoken ones have better incentives and opportunities to participate in an online environment as opposed to a conventional classroom” and that “student-instructor...and student-student interactions...become more intensive and timely (2)."  I also don’t need to remind anyone of the many claims that e-learning techniques such as online discussion forums deflate the “sage on the stage” teacher/student hierarchy, while constructing a more collaborative and student-centered paradigm.  In my own classes, I see students taking more responsibility for their own and their group members’ learning experiences.

 

And the writing itself?   I agree with those who claim online course lessons and discussion forums enhance all three writing stages: prewriting, writing, and revising.  Discussion forums, besides encouraging more specific and careful reading and re-reading of texts, aid in the sort of critical reading crucial to compiling evidence for essays in the prewriting stage.  They also provide a “permanent written record of their dialogues with their peers” (Smith 1) for students to use as evidence in supporting their essays’ claims.  According to Sven Birkerts of Mount Holyoke College, e-aids to writing seem “to reduce the initial intimidation factor in writing itself” (qtd. in Leibowitz 2). What’s more, the “anonymity that encourages candor” (Prentice 1) promotes more honest peer critique and fosters a better sense of a writer’s audience than the instructor alone can supply, all of which enhances the ever-crucial and oft-neglected revision stage of good writing.

 

Finally, there are plenty of wider-ranging reasons for using and teaching our students to use more technology in their education.  If higher education is about “preparation for life and the cultivation of citizenship,” as Smith suggests in her TTT article “Broadening the Dialogue” (1), then what better way can we do this than by helping our students to re-examine articles and argument of all sorts through Internet connections to our websites, with their rich sources of cultural argument and propaganda, courtroom drama, book reviews, demagogic rhetoric and critique of demagogic rhetoric?

 

On a more practical level, the genie cannot be stuffed back into its bottle.  One professor argues that “the nature of discourse is being formed and modified by computers, and that students need to be familiar with these forms and to have an opportunity to shape the discourse. Students who have grown up in the computer age expect to learn the technology and to use the technology to learn...” (Prentice 1).   Whether “the move to the Web has been a major success,” as the associate dean of M.I.T. claims (Perelman qtd. in Leibowitz 2) or not, one of our goals as teachers must be to teach our students how to write according to the expectations of other colleges and the professional world they will enter thereafter. Computer literacy is expected; it must be our job to help them learn it.

 

Admittedly, you must "make room" in your syllabus for e-learning assignments and, fortunately, there are many ways to do so. For instance, students in my non-computer-enhanced sections prepare for their longer essays by writing many hand-written assignments which I call "summary/critiques"--short, critical responses to the essays they’ve read.  While my e-learning students begin with the same sort of assignment, once they’ve mastered the basics of navigating the website, that summary/critique function switches from hand-written paragraphs to discussion board postings.  First, however, teachers need to acquaint students with navigating the website and its resources.  As does Prentice, I dedicate three entire classes to this task (1).  To compensate for this “lost” lecture time, I incorporate my “concept-front-loading” introductory lectures into my on-screen presentation in the computer lab on web-site navigating and discussion posting.  I present this same material to my other, non-computer English Composition II as lectures and Q&A sessions.

 

To give a bit of background, I started my own two-year experiment with e-learning as a bit of a “technoskeptic” myself.  In the beginning came an invitation to participate in a collaborative project with Alan Aycock and other UW-Milwaukee and UW Colleges faculty and staff.  As UWC teachers, we worked with UWM faculty and TA’s to create websites to supplement class assignments and lectures.  We met for workshops on the Web Course in a Box (WCB) platform, Internet surfing, creation of hypertext, and other web skills.  The project was perfectly timed to permit us to learn and practice in the summer and have our websites ready for the next fall.

 

During that summer, I learned WCB, PowerPoint, Netscape Composer, Internet search engines and directories and some of the finer points of Word (which I still hate, by the way).  Admittedly, it was frustrating at first, but in retrospect the summer weeks I spent mastering these applications have proven to be among the most valuable time of my professional development.  At the very least, my involvement in the project required that the college update my clunker 486 to something a lot quicker and more versatile.

 

The hybrid project which followed introduced us to the BlackBoard platform and to the idea that we could switch enough of the teaching burden to the website to justify reduced class time.  For this reason, hybrid courses can be seen to occupy a space about halfway between pure in-class, face-to-face instruction and entirely DE classes.

 

In the fall of 1999 and in each of the following semesters, I taught one e-learning course through either WCB or Blackboard.  The first three computer-enhanced classes still met twice a week, but this semester’s computer section is a true hybrid course, and therefore meets only once a week.  In three of those four semesters, including this semester’s hybrid course, the computer-enhanced (or hybrid) sections outscored the other in quiz, essay, participation, exam, and overall grades.  Although I was concerned that shifting more of the learning from class time to out-of-class time might diminish the computer students’ advantage, this has not happened.

I try to use the capacity of the websites as fully as possible to enhance the students’ learning and take into account their different learning styles.  Following my own instincts, I added as much "eye appeal" as I could with colors, graphics, and animated PowerPoint presentations.  I focus on argument, using Aristotle's logos, ethos, and pathos approach extensively, which is rather abstract.  For this reason, I'm always looking for something more concrete, more graphic, more down-to-earth to help them understand the relevance of these rhetorical appeals.  Noodling around on the net one day, I happened upon the Star Trek site.  Maybe, I thought, Mr. Spock could help me explain logos, since he always was the compulsively logical one.  Remembering William Shatner’s over-the-top, emotional delivery reminded me how representative of pathos his character was.  From that play came a PowerPoint presentation on all three of Aristotle’s rhetorical appeals through dialogues with as many Star Trek characters as I could use.  It was fun; I loved importing the graphics and adding animation and sound bites to the slide show.  I’ve even heard students refer to my "show" as “way cool.”  What more can one ask?

 

Of course, I have far more compelling reasons than that rapturous student praise to believe that e-learning is working for me.  From the beginning, students in my computer-enhanced sections seemed both more enthusiastic and more responsible.  Students seemed to appreciate the variety of learning modes and the liveliness of the web site.  At the same time, the classes seemed to manifest David Brown's idea of technology as "the enabler," enhancing both the students' sense of individual responsibility and achievement and their sense of community and responsibility toward each other.  They did better on in-class quizzes because of the online practice quizzes.  Class participation as a whole was more lively and informed.  Admittedly, it's a learning process, but small changes can yield huge results.  For instance, switching from optional to mandatory practice quizzes improved quiz scores immediately.  One other effective change was providing more guidance for my discussion boards.  The students need to know exactly what you are asking them to look for in the reading or they're apt to settle for "I liked it," or "It sucked," which is not enough to base an essay on.

 

The only semester which did not demonstrate a clear advantage of computer-enhanced learning was the spring of 2000.  I agonized over these results for some time before realizing that during this semester, the WCB section was a day class comprised almost exclusively of young, traditional-age students, while the non-WCB section was a night class filled with returning adults.  The "responsibility gap" was great enough to overcome the technology gap.  This confirms my previous impression of night class students as more mature and responsible for their own learning experiences.

 

A quite unexpected and interesting pattern that emerged during my statistical analysis is one I call the "disappearance factor." For some reason, students seem far less likely to simply "vanish" from computer-enhanced courses without dropping. I can only speculate about the reasons for this pattern. Some might assume that, given a choice, the more responsible students tend to choose computer classes to begin with. However, in two of those four semesters students did not know beforehand that one section would be computer-enhanced and the other would not. I think it's possible, moreover, that being in the computer-enhanced classes helps them to become more responsible about their own learning experience. Admittedly, I studied only eight English Composition II sections over four semesters. Obviously, my small study is neither exhaustive nor even statistically significant. However, these results are suggestive, since they do show that in three of those four semesters, computer-enhanced learning seemed to help, and that, at the very least, our experiments with e-learning are well worth pursuing.

 


 

Works Cited

 

Brown, David G.  “The Teaching Profession in 2020.”  Syllabus: New Dimensions in Education Technology. April 2001: 21.

 

Gilbert, Steven W.  “Missing the Boat?”  Syllabus:  New Dimensions in Education Technology. April 2001: 22.

 

Han, Xiaoxing (Peter).  “Exploring an Effective and Efficient Online Course Management Model.”  Teaching with Technology Today 5.2.  (15 Nov. 1999):  9 pp.  Online.  Internet. 2 Apr. 2001.  Available http://www.uwsa.edu/olit/ttt/han.htm

 

Leibowitz, Wendy R.  “Technology Transforms Writing and the Teaching of Writing." Chronicle of Higher Education26 Nov. 1999.  Online. EBSCOhost. 2 Apr. 2001.

 

Prentice, Cheryl.  “English in the Computer Classroom.”  Teaching with Technology Today 1.3.  2 pp.  Online.  Internet.  2 Apr. 2001.  Available  http://www.uwsa.edu/olit/ttt/tttv1n3.htm

 

Smith, Jennifer.  “UW-Stout’s Diversity Connections Project uses Technology to Expand Students’ Experiences.”  Teaching with Technology Today 6.1 (15  June 2000):  Online.  Internet. 2 Apr. 2001.  Available http://www.uwsa.edu/olit/ttt/fitchkir.htm

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