Currents in Electronic Literacy

Converting to the Computer Classroom: Technology, Anxiety, and Web-based Autobiography Assignments

by Miriam Schacht

  1. When I checked the "computer-assisted classroom" box on the teaching request form, I didn't really have any conception of what teaching in a computer classroom meant; it just seemed like something I might like to know how to do. Four months later, as the semester began and I tried frantically to learn the various technologies available to me in my classroom, it no longer seemed like such a great idea. How the heck was I ever going to learn how to use all of the new programs and technology myself, let alone become familiar enough with them to teach them to someone else? And even if I managed to gain that kind of familiarity, how in the world could I teach this stuff without compromising the course's focus on representations of Native Americans in popular culture?

  2. These two anxieties are by no means unique among teachers. I have heard similar concerns about computers in the classroom from many of my colleagues. And the questions behind them are vital: How do you teach something you've only just learned? And, more importantly, how do you balance content with technology?

  3. For the first weeks of the semester, I deftly handled my anxieties by ignoring the computers in my classroom almost entirely. This is not a course of action I would recommend, and I did eventually decide that it wasn't the way I wanted to use the computer classroom. But I still didn't quite know how I wanted to use the technology available to me.

  4. I tried for some time to come up with an assignment that allowed students to learn more about the course topic through technology, or to use technology to express their knowledge in new ways. I had originally planned a traditional essay for the final course project, but in class, I told my students that the format of this assignment was negotiable and asked them if they wanted to incorporate web-based technologies, and if so, how?

  5. One of them wrote me the following e-mail: "We have learned a lot since August, and if we could somehow sum up how our feelings towards the portrayal of Native Americans has changed since then, and express that to those who view our Web pages, I think that would be terrific."

  6. I thought that would be terrific too--a way to combine Web design and course content, and also provide a type of learning record for the students in my class. And so I asked students to design an autobiographical Web site that narrated what they had learned in the course. This not only linked the assignment closely to our topic but also had the added bonus of asking students to engage with the entire body of learning they had been exposed to in the class rather than just some small part of it. Because I had no examples of what the result of this assignment might look like, I tried to make the assignment Web page itself a partial model of how their assignments might appear.

  7. So far, so good, but I still had to teach my students how to create a Web page. I preferred coding to Dreamweaver when doing my own Web pages, but I wasn't convinced that I could explain HTML in a way that would make sense to all my students. With the wide variation in computer literacy among students--one had already created his own Web page, for instance, and one didn't even known how to open a program--it seemed key to explain everything in a way that would get even the most computer-phobic student involved. For that reason, I opted for Dreamweaver. It's similar enough to a word-processing program to be very easy to learn, but it's complex enough that the quick learners or those with more experience can find a lot with which to experiment.

  8. CWRL Assistant Director Todd Onderdonk's handout on Dreamweaver (which I've put online in a slightly revised form) provided an invaluable step-by-step guide to teaching the program and fit perfectly into an hour-and-fifteen-minute class period. And, to my surprise, my relative lack of expertise with the program was pedagogically quite useful. When a dismayed student asked, "You mean we have to do a Web page? But I don't know how to do a Web page!" I told her I knew exactly how she felt--that's how I'd felt at the beginning of the semester too. The fact that I was a beginner helped them feel considerably more at ease.

  9. The assignment itself turned out to be one of the most rewarding ones I've taught, for a variety of reasons:

    • One of the most important aspects of this assignment was that it reinforced students' analytic skills, and especially the application of these skills to daily life. The autobiographical format of the assignment compelled students to turn a critical eye to their own lives and development, with some really interesting results (see below for other examples of student projects).

    • Students developed a sense of intellectual authorship and pride that was key to their development as scholars and writers. Several of them wanted to know as soon as the Web pages went online, so that they could tell friends and family where to find them, and their overall attachment and commitment to what they created went far beyond what I had seen in previous composition classes or experienced with previous assignments.

    • The issue of audience also helped improve the quality of their writing. Knowing that what they were writing would be available to their peers and anyone else on the Web, they were far more aware of having an audience with this assignment than they were with the semester's other, paper-based assignments, and they spent more time making sure they would not disappoint that audience.

    • Presumably because of their awareness of audience, the overall quality of the writing was good to excellent. Students spent more time on their Web pages than they had on their essays during the semester.

    • The Web assignment was also a different kind of writing than that with which they were familiar; their relative lack of preconceptions about the medium helped them work more creatively.

    • Finally, the assignment provided a kind of quality control for me--I learned first-hand what students felt they'd learned in my class, and this allowed me to see whether the course was working the way I had planned it.

  10. In the end, both my students and I not only profited from but actually enjoyed the assignment. And while the topic of my course--representations of American Indians in popular culture--is perhaps particularly well suited to such an assignment, a similar project would work in most classes. For example, an autobiographical account of a student's development as a writer or as a critical thinker could work in a number of courses. The key to the assignment's success is not only to have students learn how to design a Web page but also for students to use the critical thinking and reading skills they've learned in class when they examine their own lives.

  11. Some other sample student assignments:
    Lauren Black, Angela Centeno, Luke Fuszard, Ryan Parker, Austin Powers (yes, that really is his name), Lauren Travis.

Please cite this article as Currents in Electronic Literacy Spring 2002 (6),