[Ken Kifer's Writing Pages]

ARTICLE: How Computers Should Be Used at X College

An explanation of how computers can be used as effective teaching tools in a two-year college English class.

How Computers Should Be Used at X College


Note: The following paper was underwritten to avoid giving offense. I had found myself trying to teach my classes in a large dormitory room with a noisy and inadequate heater/airconditioner that frequently failed altogether. Few of the students were willing to work to pass their classes, and the failure rate was high. Although I originally doubted that computers would help much, after English classes were moved to the computer lab, I saw an immediate change in student behavior. Most would stay in the room and work on the papers, and real writing progress began. Unfortunately, support was minimal. I restored computers to working condition by working late at night and purchased additional computers with my own money. I also purchased a word processor and grammar-checker for each computer plus I wrote a menu program which recorded student use, a program to teach grammar plus all the tests, and programs to compile the statistics of computer use. The work was exhausting, as I was taking care of every class using the computers, including the computer classes, keeping the lab open late at night, having to instruct each class twice as only half could use the lab at one time, and tutoring individual students at every moment. I was proud to see real progress was being made; many students who would have failed anywhere else were learning how to write. For the rest of this year, I provided regular reports of my computer records to the faculty, and I won all my critics to my point of view. The result of all this work? -- the president and the new academic dean decided to cancel my contract at the beginning of the next year. I had pushed a little too hard. Only great courage on the part of the faculty permitted me to finish. During graduation, the faculty lined up according to years of service, and I noticed how, in just four years, I had nearly reached the front of the line.

The paper has been modified only by substituting "X" or "our" for the name of the school and by using "composition class" and "remedial English" for the class titles and numbers.

Every newspaper, radio news program, or TV newscast seems to include a mention of computers these days. As far as sales are concerned, the computer is the hoola-hoop or Walkman of the nineties. However, computers are more than a fad. Computers can improve the quantity, the quality, and the presentation of work output. In addition, the job market is undergoing a violent shift towards the flexible, communicative, self-motivated worker: the worker who can get tasks accomplished. The student who craves success needs to acquire skills in every area but must be computer literate to enhance and implement these skills. For this reason, our college needs to emphasize computer use. Experience at X College shows that the best method to get the students to use computers is by having them use the computers in class.

It may seem odd that English teachers everywhere have jumped on the computer class bandwagon. It does not seem odd to anyone who has taught a computer writing class. Students in these classes take more care in writing their papers and go back to correct errors that they would otherwise ignore. This quarter, with my composition classes divided between the computer lab and a comfortable classroom with broad, flat tables, I have noticed that the students working in the classroom come in late, try to leave early, and work in a desultory fashion while the students working in the computer lab tend to start early, finish late, and stay focused on their tasks.

Before this summer, our writing center and our computer lab were in two separate locations, the former with five, the latter with nine computers, seemly giving the students ample opportunity to work on their papers. However, computer use did not measure up to expectations.

The Writing Center's five computers were inadequate for classroom use with twenty students per class. The students using the computers felt singled out; the students at their desks complained that the desks and room were too uncomfortable for writing. The remote location hampered out-of-class use; using the center required a long and sometimes fruitless walk (the door was locked when no one was on duty), and some women would not enter Patterson Hall (male dormitory) at night. Many students resented being asked to work in the center after regular class. And while the majority of the students using the computers were in my English classes, the majority of my students never used them. Nevertheless, the computers in the Writing Center were used for from three to four hundred hours each quarter, with an increase each quarter. These computers were used from less than 12% of capacity in the fall to more than 16% of capacity in the spring.

The computer lab, on the other hand, was open whenever the science building was open, and students were encouraged to use the computers however they wanted. By March of this year, only two computers were fully operational due to computer viruses and student error. After seven computers were rehabilitated in March and after a menu system was installed to protected the computers and to record use, the students used the lab mainly for solitaire and for only 37 hours (1% of capacity) during the quarter.

The primary lesson to be learned from last year's computer use is that making computers available to the students on their time does not effectively promote computer use. Even students who informed me that they were strongly interested in learning to use the computers did not come in the afternoon or evening to practice keyboarding, DOS, or WordPerfect. Many students would not submit typed work even when offered incentives. And most of the students who failed English or who made low grades in English last year did so due to spending inadequate time and care on their papers. These students would submit hastily scribbled pages, sometimes with two sentences to the paragraph or two paragraphs to the "essay," when they submitted any papers at all.

One group of English students did use the computers effectively last year. The ESL class, with its eleven to thirteen students, had a better student-computer ratio. With sufficient computers for their number, the students took turns and typed most of their work in class. Typing their papers not only taught them computer skills, but also helped them see and correct their mistakes.

Both the successes and failures of last year led the English department to move towards a computer workshop writing class. Since our students were wanting to "run away" from their writing tasks, we felt we needed to engage them in the classroom. However, we needed a more comfortable workplace with more computers. We have also had to rethink composition class. Since homework will be done in class, some class work must be assigned for homework. Last year, I spent at least two days of each week reviewing grammar in class; this year, the students take a diagnostic test and must prepare themselves for the exit grammar exam outside of class using a computer program that teaches, tests, and reviews.

The need for a better location for writing has led the school to combine the Writing Center and the computer lab. The English department needed more computers immediately, and the computer lab needed better supervision. The present Rhodes Writing and Computer Center is an adequate lab for computer use. Ten computers are operational, each with a menu system that includes all the available (and safe) options and that also keeps a record of student use by name, class, program, date, and beginning and finishing time. For the English classes, each of the computers has the Norton Textra word processor, a simple program designed to keep the teacher's life uncomplicated and to keep the students focused on content rather than on fonts and graphics. The students in the composition classes create their own hidden subdirectories, so no one else can access their papers. There are some grammar and writing programs available as well.

Statistics and observations from the summer and from the first half of the fall quarter support the value of the changes we have made so far. During the summer, an English class and a computer class used the center on a daily basis for a total of 428 hours. (The East-West Foundation later used the center for almost 100 hours to familiarize their students with the computer and keyboard.) While the total amount of use and percentage of use were similar to spring results in the old center, these results were obtained mostly from two small classes, so the use per student increased dramatically. During the fall quarter, three composition classes and two computer classes are using the center daily. Classroom use for the fall quarter has been heavy and may exceed all the recorded computer use for the previous year. By mid-term (October 25), the computers had been used 1320 times for over 800 hours; half of that use was by the composition classes. The machines are now being employed at 27% of capacity.

Much more important, the students are working better in the classes than they have been. During the summer, Dr. Phillips taught the computer class and was enthusiastic about the results. This quarter, I see the students working well in class, turning in papers on time, and always writing full essays of the proper length. Grammar and logic are still weak, and the students show all the other faults of last year's students; however, I predict that few of my students will fail. While these differences are probably not entirely due to the computers, the students do work much better in the lab than in the classroom.

We plan to continue to expand computer use in class. For the winter quarter, six English classes and three computer classes are scheduled to use the lab during every hour of the day except twelve, four, and five o'clock. Since two of the computer application classes are two-hour classes, and since the remedial English classes will not use the lab every day, the hours of use per class will probably be somewhat lower, but the total hours should even higher.

While we have been solving one problem, we have been creating another. With only ten computers in the lab, seventeen students in the computer science class have to share ten computers, slowing their work. Worse, each English class must be divided into two halves, one in the lab and one in the classroom. The teacher must try to supervise and instruct two classes in two different rooms at one time. Fortunately, our students are cooperative and well-behaved this quarter, but the situation is vexing and affects the performance of both the instructor and the students. In addition, each of the students gets to use the computer in class only every other day. Our statistics show that we are approaching 50% of computer use capacity already on peak days. As use of the computers climbs above the 50% mark, the availability will drop. During the winter quarter, with the heavy classroom use of the lab, students will have little opportunity to make up uncompleted work. In addition, difficulties in managing students in two separate rooms are likely to get worse.

Some see computers in the residence halls as a solution to our shortage in the lab. This solution will not work. Records from last year suggest that residence hall computers will be used inefficiently. In addition, even when used for homework rather than games, those computers have different programs from those used in the classroom. Finally, having some students refusing to work in class because they have used or intend to use a computer somewhere else just creates more of a problem. Students commonly turn in papers written by other students, and if English instructors get many papers of suspicious ancestry, we will probably require that all work be done in class. However, residence hall computers can be helpful for students not taking a computer class or a computer writing class. Therefore, I favor putting more computers in the halls, but only after meeting classroom needs.

The best solution to the computer shortage is to increase the number of computers in the lab until there is one per student. Not only does this change improve the effectiveness of class time, but it also creates more computer availability. If the lab had twenty computers, a composition class would only need to use it for three days each week, freeing time for other students or classes. The English instructor's time would be used more efficiently because he or she could then supervise, help, or teach the entire class as a unit.

The following steps would be a reasonable route and time-table to acquiring an up-to-date computer lab:

First, we should add six computers to the lab sometimes during this school year; we could get them for about $6,000. We would need, in addition, cables, switch boxes, printers, and software, but the business and English department budgets could pay for these. With our somewhat smaller classes in the winter and spring, sixteen computers may be enough for our needs at that time, and six could be added without changing the benchwork.

Second, we should redesign the computer cabinets during the summer of 1995, add an exhaust vent and fan on the east wall, and purchase five more computers. The present computer benches are 30 inches wide when 20-24 inches would be sufficient, lack space for cords and cables, are too high for comfortable keyboard use, and are equipped with never-used cabinets that severely restrict the students' legroom. Redesigned computer benches would provide space for computer cables, allow a proper keyboard height, and create more foot room and more passage width. The present benches are easily rebuildable because they are made from planks and plywood and have a glued-on counter top and because they were built on top of the carpet. The fan would help keep the room cooler and fresher during hot weather (computers create heat). Some feel that twenty computers are too many for this small room; however, David Wong is currently teaching 17 students every day in this room without the benefit of the above improvements and without using the entire length of the room. Several East-West classes during the summer had similar numbers in the room without difficulty.

Third, we should network our computers together and operate them from a file server by the fall of 1996. Linking the computers will allow them to be used for presentations, will create a paperless English classroom, will let students exchange and comment on each other's work anonymously, will permit the students to sit at any available computer and still reach their files, will provide better security and backup than the present program, and will permit testing and immediate (computer) scoring. Software and hardware costs should come to less than $250 per machine, and a good quality file server can be bought for $3,000 to $5,000.

In making these suggestions, I must fairly point out that at least one person has voiced objections to each of these proposals. To some extent, I must agree with my critic in every case: I also would like for the lab to have a larger room, better computers, and for each teacher to get a new 486 machine. However, we don't seem to have the money at present. And we could easily spend $100,000 to build a lab that doesn't work as well as the present one. The solution I am suggesting is less expensive, less risky, and quicker than others we could try. If we accomplish more than I have suggested above, I will not be disappointed; but if we accomplish less, I will feel we have made a major blunder. The networked computer class has become a reality in most of the surrounding colleges and in many of the local high schools. We can not just sit idly, watch the world go by, and expect students to continue to come to our college.

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