Paper and presentation for

E-Mail, the WEB, and MOOs:

Developing the Writing Skills of University Students in Cyberspace

by the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area -

February 8, 1997 - at George Washington University

Virginia Montecino:
George Mason University


Virginia Montecino is the College of Arts and Sciences Education Technology Specialist for Faculty at GMU. She has taught computer-mediated composition for the English Department for many years.

Mary Lou Crouch:
George Mason University


Mary Lou Crouch has taught computer-mediated composition for the GMU English Department for many years and also teaches a Cyber-Culture class for New Century College.

TITLE: A Learning Community in Cyberspace: Computer-Mediated Distance Learning Composition

ABSTRACT: We, Virginia Montecino and Mary Lou Crouch, have been using computer-mediated communication to teach advanced composition , humanities, social science, and science, for a number of years at George Mason University. In the past few years we have been pioneers in developing computer-mediated distance learning, using e-mail, Internet-based discussion mediums, and a web browser. This presentation is designed to help faculty envision how they might design their distance learning classes to suit their pedagogical needs in a virtual classroom. Our distance learning courses were adapted to suit our teaching styles and course content. We will share what worked well, what we are still fine tuning, and what we see as some of the future direction of teaching in a virtual environment. We will discuss various models for designing hypertext syllabi; using Internet-based assignments and readings; dynamics of a virtual learning community, using whole class and small peer response groups for discussion and text exchange; grading options for work produced and participation; considerations about technology requirements and skills levels; optional real time meetings; copyright and "netiquette" issues.

A Learning Community in Cyberspace:

Computer-Mediated Distance Learning Composition

After teaching composition in a computer classroom for many years, beginning with just word processing, then adding e-mail discussion and conferencing, remote library access, and integrated computer-mediated discussion writing programs, we began to wonder why we needed to meet in the same place at the same time throughout the semester. Often, in our computer lab classroom, our students were either working independently on various aspects of their research and writing, or meeting in small peer response groups. We often felt left out of the conversations and activities. We had set up the framework, designed relevant tasks and assignments and learning was taking place without us being at the center of the class. Hooray! We began to wonder why did we, teachers and students, need to be there at a certain place and time every week? Why couldn't the students engage in whole class discussion over the Internet and electronically exchange texts for peer esponse and teacher response? It became obvious when we started working together, with a grant from the College of Arts and Sciences, that we had a great deal of flexibility in the way we could design our web-based computer-mediated distance learning courses. We share many of the same pedagogical goals, but, like all teachers, have developed our own styles to achieve these goals. We hope that our reflections on our computer-mediated distance learning composition courses will provide ideas and techniques which other faculty can adapt to their own ventures into cyber classes.

The Advanced Composition courses at George Mason University are divided into Humanities, Social Science, Business and Science, with an emphasis on research and writing in the specific majors. Advanced Composition is offered to 3rd and 4th year undergraduate students, many of whom are adult, non-traditional students with full time jobs and families. We discovered that this type of student possesses the self-discipline, motivation, and maturity to take responsibility for their own learning, which in our cyber classes means extensive collaborative work, engaging in class discussion, independent research and effective management of assignments. We tend to specialize in specific discipline-oriented sections; therefore, our courses vary in content, and assignments. Virginia generally teaches the Science sections; Mary Lou generally teaches Business and Humanities.

Our distance learning sections of Advanced Composition use the Internet as our primary classroom. We published our syllabi (syllawebs) on the Internet; we included links to the class assignments, and on-line readings ,and other resources at various web sites (such as the APA and MLA documentation styles).

We tried various mediums of communication such as: e-mail for private discussions, a newsgroup, a listserv. Now we both are using a Web-Forum, a web-based discussion program , using Web Crossing software, for class discussions and a private list for "in-house" business. We expected that everyone enrolled had an e-mail account at GMU. We tried to use readily available electronic media to accommodate class discussion and document exchange. The good news about this approach is that it is cost effective for the university and students. Also students did not have to spend as much time learning the technology. But some students do enter the class without the basic technology skills required.

File transfer and web page publishing are essential to conducting our class work. Students create individual web pages and can use them to share drafts and/or finished compositions and class projects. We give them the option of posting drafts and papers on unpublished web addresses. But we require one or more assignments or class projects be published on the Web to give them the necessary professional skills in today's marketplace. Web publishing assignments emphasize audience awareness, design and style of presentation, Internet copyright issues, and critical analysis of web information. When students conduct Internet research in their majors they discover the influence of the Internet on the way professionals in all fields share information and conduct business.

Though we can debate whether or not a distance learning class should have or not have real time meetings, we find that a couple of meetings or an all day Saturday session in the beginning of the semester helps the students get acquainted and form their small peer response groups. These face-to-face meetings help make a more cohesive group and also give us the opportunity to reinforce goals and expectations and give the students an overview of the technology.

Advantages of this type of course:

An asynchronous medium allows a learning community to conduct business on a flexible schedule:

Many of our students, and, we assume, many throughout the country, work full time and have jobs with schedules that make going to class on a regular schedule inconvenient if not impossible. Our classes are largely asynchronous - students and faculty can join in the web-based or e-mail discussion at their convenience, within a given time frame. They can electronically submit (either through e-mail, publishing on a web page or other medium) their papers to their peer response groups and to the teacher without having to drive to campus. The students and teachers can electronically respond to drafts and send them back.

The skills students use in this type of class will better prepare them for the work world they will enter.

Students of today will be in a workforce in which much ,if not most, of their conferencing, meetings, and document exchange will be done via the Internet, with colleagues across the hall, across the country, and across the world.

Students learn valuable skills in time management, self discipline, responsibility:

The class is more student-centered. Because there isn't a teacher standing in front of them in real time, on a regular basis, they have to assume more responsibility for remembering to engage in class discussions, submitting drafts on time, and other class activities. Because the class is de-centered, the students - in their small peer groups - become very close learning communities. They rely on each other more to reinforce instructions, get guidance on early drafts.

The class discussions are more student-oriented and student-generated:

In cyberspace, everyone is more equal in some ways . The informality of the email and the intimacy/distance paradox inherent in the e-mail environment particularly contribute to the de-centering of authority. When everyone is communicating in cyberspace, the teacher's "voice" becomes one of many, without dominance. It is a balancing act to encourage a de-centered class, while, at the same time, setting standards and expectations. Negotiation, communication, and flexibility are key. Some students, even with marginal writing skills, see e-mail writing as more of a conversation than a composition and feel quite comfortable with this medium On the other hand, students who are fluent in written English, but, for whatever reason, have difficulty with oral expression often find e-mail a great vehicle for expressing themselves. I find that assuring students that their e-mail journals and e-mail discussion are more spontaneous forms of writing allows them more freedom to express themselves without fear of being held accountable in the same way as more formal texts they produce. Some students, however, whose writing skills may be marginal could be hesitant about engaging in on-line discussion of writing and readings for discussion.

Teaching and learning are individualized:

Teaching becomes more individualized because we can communicate directly one-to-one with students in cyberspace more easily than in the classroom. One-to-one work with another person is the easiest way to help an individual develop ideas and produce results. Many students are so in awe of THE TEACHER or are shy about speaking up in class. Many students seldom approach THE AUTHORITY for conversation or for help in a traditional classroom. That distance\intimacy paradox helps some students to become more forthcoming about seeking help or volunteering opinions.

Though the picture we paint above gives a rosy glow to computer-mediated education, there are some issues which need to be addressed to help minimize problems.

Challenges with computer competency:

We advertised the courses as having restricted admission (minimal technical skills such as email, upload/download); we felt by warning students of the need for basic skills we could avoid having technical problems at the beginning. However, students sometimes disregarded the warnings or misunderstood the level of skill they needed. Once in the distance class, students who needed to learn the technology had greater difficulty completing the class work. We found ourselves needing to help students load and configure software in their computers, and to use basic email and file transfer procedures. As a result, we continually emphasize the need to inform students of the basic tech skills needed prior to their enrolling in the course.

Though none of us, faculty and students, can ever know it all, since the technology is ever-changing, students and faculty alike who have to struggle with entry-level technology find that this takes time away from the course work. Ideally, the faculty should be well grounded in the technology to teach a distance education course. The students should also be made aware of the requirements and possibly take a technology "test" for entry.

Of course, it's a given that technology glitches will occur, as all of us know who teach using technology. We have found that having a positive attitude , by taking problems in stride, and by being adaptable and flexible, the students also adjust to the new learning environment and increase their willingness to help each other. Often we find some of the students are highly competent with the technology and we feel quite fortunate when they share their expertise.

Some students have unrealistic expectations about how much technology assistance they will receive. Some expect that the real-time sessions in the beginning will be able to bring them up to speed with the computer technology - an impossible task. But the "real time" technology demos can introduce them to the basic technology requirements for your class. Some students catch on quickly - others may be hopelessly overwhelmed. If they agree to take the course it should be their responsibility to get the necessary support. We recommend, however, that the instructor provide basic documentation and point students to where they can acquire basic instructions for using e-mail, downloading and uploading files, and other skills. When students are communicating electronically, using sources from the Internet, and doing web publishing of research projects, it is crucial to address copyright issues and "netiquette."

As with any course, we are always fine tuning and changing our methods as new technology makes our virtual classes easier to conduct and affords our students a more enriching learning experience. Our students are also coming to class with more awareness of the Internet and an appreciation of its value to their futures.

Grading composition in a virtual class:

What is the text and how do we grade it?

The emphasis, as in any writing class, is on the quality of the texts produced by the students. The technology skills, in themselves, are not graded, but students obviously have to have certain skills to complete the course work. When we assign and grade student publications on the Web, we have to ask "What is the text?" No longer are we just grading paper-based writing and research paper. Now we are looking at a hypermedia (text, graphics, sound, video), ever changing document. A web document is living and subject to change when the author chooses to add new hyperlinks and multimedia elements. As we move more and more into this new media, we find we have to consider technology skills. At this point, given the sometimes wide differences in technology skills, we encourage experimentation with web publishing but we also accept traditional paper-based products. Regardless of the form of the document takes, we still value coherence, clarity, creativity, complexity of thinking skills, sense of audience, thorough research and appropriate documentation.

Two different ways to grade:

Virginia: " I feel that the portfolio system of grading lends itself well to a cyber course because the students have the flexibility to polish their work until the end of the semester and have the responsibility of keeping track of all their own work throughout the semester. At the end of the semester they submit a folder which contain items such as: s a preface discussing their body of work, hard copies of their final drafts, copies of e-mail messages and peer response. The web project is included a part of the portfolio. I see their work throughout the semester so I am not looking at their texts for the first time, but can concentrate on evaluating a body of work, not documents submitting at various times throughout the semester. "

Mary Lou: "I accept hard copy and web publication, for drafts and final projects, throughout the semester. Most of the assignments are graded as they are turned in, with the possibility of revision."

How do we encourage participation and how do we grade it?

In all of our composition classes, in which students respond to each others drafts and are expected to engage in class discourse, participation is graded . Participation in a virtual environment is essential. Without that participation you and the students can become lost in space. We grade participation primarily on participation in peer response. periodic e-mail contact and progress reports, participation in electronic discussions, and timely submission of drafts and final products. Clear guidelines for e-mail response and an end of semester student/student evaluation (for the teacher's eyes only) can stimulate response. I have them evaluate each other on whether or not the student submitted drafts for response, whether or not the student took the time to respond to the writer's questions about his or her own text, etc. Asking students to evaluate the depth of he response or the value of the response is a bit too tricky, and probably not fair. A good effort is certainly expected, however.

Challenges for students taking a cyber course :

Many students may never have engaged in a writing class in which students provide peer response to each other's writing. Many students may not have used e-mail or perhaps used it for personal messages, not to engage in student/student and teacher/student discussions or conferencing with their teacher regarding their writing and classroom discussions. In a computer-mediated composition we have students learning how to respond to drafts, in general, with the added component learning how to respond to drafts over e-mail. Plus we tack on the skills required to upload and download their drafts or post them on web pages of their creation. This technology overlay involves complex and sometimes frustrating dynamics.

Some students find it difficult to discipline themselves to keep up with due dates for drafts of papers. Without the physical presence of a teacher , on a fixed schedule, some students fail to send drafts on time and regularly participate in class discussion. If students didn't read their e-mail regularly , check in on the asynchronous class discussions, and keep in touch with their small groups, this was the equivalent of missing classes. As with missing too many traditional classes, the students get behind.

Asynchronous Anxiety:

In a real-time class setting we can't always be sure if a student is actively engaged in listening to our directions or student presentations, or engaging in assigned small group discussion or assignments. This problem is compounded in a computer-mediated setting. When I sent out a message I wondered when the students would decide to read their e-mail, if the students received it, or if they would respond. To keep engaged with the class activities and to clarify objectives or head off any problem areas, we asked students to send periodic e-mail or buletin board reports about their work-in-progress and reports on their group class-related activities. Occasionally a student would send out an "urgent" message and expect an unrealistic turn around in response.

Since we didn't meet with our students in person on a regular basis, it was important that our e-mail messages be positive and encouraging, especially when there were technology or other glitches. Only sending "teacherly"' reminders and assignments can undermine class morale.

Occasional inquiry messages to individuals and the class, asking how things were going, or sharing some ideas can be helpful.

Web-based syllabi:

There is much discussion going on among those of us who teach on-line about the changing nature of a "syllaweb." There are so many styles of on-line syllabi (syllawebs) that faculty can create. In a linear on-line syllabus information can get "lost" since only portions of the text are visible at any give time on a scrolling text, and links may be deeply embedded in the document. You might want to have a "spot" on your web site, but not in the body of your syllabus, where you post due dates, spontaneous assignments, readings, reminders, etc.

Copyright issues:

The issue of copyright and the Internet, with the ease of copying text and graphics with a click of the mouse button, needs to be addressed with students. Many issues regarding copyright and the Internet are still being worked out. In general, at this time, linking to sites is okay. Copying whole texts and distributing them to students is probably not. Letting students print out their own copies for personal use is okay. Virginia has links on her Web page to sites dealing with copyright issues. Faculty should reinforce the fact that copying a logo or other graphic from another Web site is a form of plagiarism - stealing someone or some company's intellectual property. Some sites give permission if students ask (It can be a form of free advertising - if students include a link to a particular site in their Web pages).

Students also should be given clear guidelines as to what kinds of sites violate acceptable university computing standards and practices. Some students don't always have a clear idea of what constitutes good taste in a particular context, or what is an appropriate site to link to their course related web pages. You can avoid embarrassment if you check to be sure that you are not unknowingly giving sanction to sites that are offensive for various reasons by inadvertently linking your web page to pages that include such links.

Record Keeping:

One way to keep track of student work is to keep all papers for one assignment, and your responses, together to keep tabs on who did or did not send in his or her paper. Filing in your word processor according to assignment, rather than by student's name, can make it easier to keep track of the individual students' work. With so many papers and responses zipping back and forth, it can be easier to lose track of whether or not the teacher sent a document back after she or he responded to it. You may want to keep a record of student work and grades on a spreadsheet or other record system to check off whether or not students completed the work and whether or not you responded and sent the response back. Asking students for confirmation that they got your response back helps keep you and the student from getting "lost in space." E-mail about whether or not documents were sent and received helps with asynchronous anxiety.

Though designing and teaching a computer-mediated distance learning composition course is challenging, many of us will be required to use some of these methods in today's increasingly high-tech education field. And students will be expected to have these skills in the world outside of school. If you are considering teaching using technology we suggest that faculty planning to teach a course using computer-mediated communication and who are relatively new to using the technology, might want to start with adding small components of distance learning to more traditional courses. For example, faculty could add an e-mail discussion component, or have students send one assignment via modem for peer response and teacher response. Then faculty could gradually build a repertoire of technology skills and be more comfortable before going completely distance. All of our classes, including those that meet in a campus lab instead of in virtual space, have some virtual component, such as web-based discussions and Internet projects. We have been building our technology base for some time. We invite you to join us in teaching in a virtual classroom.

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