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English in the Computer Classroom

Cheryl Prentice
Professor of English at UW-Superior

At UW-Superior, all of the English 099 classes (Developmental English) meet in a networked computer classroom. As coordinator of the developmental English program, Professor Prentice decided to teach in the computer classroom after exploring its possibilities and considering how they related to current theory and practice in the teaching of composition. She discussed the issues with colleagues and visited computer classrooms at other institutions. Finally, she drew on her own experience of writing with word processors and on several years' observation of her own students as they used computers to learn.

Professor Prentice believes 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 help shape the discourse. Students who have grown up in the computer age expect to learn the technology and to use the technology to learn, and she believes the institution has some obligation to meet those expectations. Employers and graduate schools across disciplines expect college-educated people to be computer literate. Also, very few of her students come from affluent families where computer availability is taken for granted. The developmental English class is one way these "Have-Not" students can equalize with the Have/Have-Not disparity.

Computer skills for specific disciplines are best taught within those disciplines and integrated with meaningful "content." In composition classes, word processors allow students to concentrate on the more complex cognitive tasks of composition by easing the burden of mechanical tasks such as proofreading, formatting, and printing multiple revisions. For example, spell checkers may teach students to spell better.

Computers greatly expand literary and other resources available to students, if students know how to maneuver through the access maze. Just as importantly, they must learn to evaluate the scholarly worth of the information they find there. Students can develop research and evaluation skills by trial and error exploration, but they also need the structured guidance provided in the classrooms.

Also, computers expand communication opportunities beyond the classroom time and location. In writing classrooms, online discussions can offer the anonymity that encourages candor. They can provide an interruption-free forum that allows reticent students to participate equally with assertive ones. Networking helps ensure more frequent and thorough reading of classmates' writing.

Professor Prentice devotes three entire class sessions to introducing students to the rudiments of word processing and email. It is important to note that students in her class begin word processing in order to complete a writing assignment. As a result, the students' introduction to computers has meaningful application within the traditional course content of English composition. Furthermore, using the computer facilitates the writing and learning processes to such a degree that the class is still able to cover the same amount of material as was covered before the "loss" of three class sessions. Professor Prentice has not had to eliminate a single writing "skill" in order to incorporate computers.

Below is a summary of how computers are used in English 099:

1. Students use the word processor both in and out of class for revising, proofreading and printing all compositions.
2. Students use email on the computer network to communicate with each other, with tutors, and with Professor Prentice outside of class hours.
3. All practice exercises are on the computer. Neither Prentice nor the students make paper copies; work is saved in computer accounts to be checked later by the tutor or the professor. Students make corrections more easily and save paper.
4. Students are required to "publish" papers in a shared class folder or a Web page.
5. Through the exciting computer project "Net Pals," Prentice's classes exchange email with students in Finland and Romania who are learning English as a second language. This project gives them a meaningful context for discussing the nature of language and the importance of clarity and correctness. Further, students are stimulated to learn about geographical and cultural differences.

If you have any comments or questions for Professor Cheryl Prentice, please feel free to contact her at