Currents in Electronic Literacy

Comparing Traditional and Computer-assisted Composition Classrooms

by Sarah R. Wakefield

  1. When my department offered me a second section of the course I was to teach, I was delighted. When the secretary warned me that, unlike my first section, this addition would not be in a computer classroom, I thought nothing of it. Only later, when I began designing my syllabi, did I realize that I might be facing some dilemmas. How was I going to teach the same content in such dissimilar environments? Would my students get the same education and skills if I were not extremely careful in setting up the courses?

  2. I confronted these concerns when, in Spring 2001, I taught two sections of the same advanced composition course, one meeting early in the morning in a traditional classroom (TC) and the other meeting in the mid-afternoon in a computer-assisted (CA) environment. The populations were approximately 96% and 86% female respectively, perhaps due to the course topic: The Rhetoric of Fairy Tales. To enroll in this class, which required at least 16 pages of written work, students had to have taken or received credit for a basic rhetoric and composition course. Pupils from a diverse mix of majors took my class as an elective to fulfill graduation requirements.

  3. I should note that, when I set up the courses, I had no intention of using them as research subjects. Thus I write this essay in hindsight, wishing I had gathered more "data" over the semester, and I ask myself several questions. First, what did I do differently in terms of constructing the two classes? Second, did the computer environment affect the quality of students' experience as evidenced by course-instructor evaluations? Finally, did final course grades vary significantly between the sections? Here I present a narrative both ethnographic and statistical to determine differences, if any, between a traditional and a computer-assisted composition class.

    Class Construction

  4. In an effort to simplify my own life as well as to give pupils roughly equivalent experiences, no matter which section they took, I decided to use the same course packet and content. Differences stemmed from the ways in which I delivered that content. For example, pages on the TC Web site were almost identical to, or at least comparable in wording to, those on the CA Web site. Each included a policy statement, links to Internet resources, the common syllabus, assignments, and grading criteria. In-class exercises and guidelines for assignments such as presentations, quizzes, topic proposals, and papers often took dissimilar forms due to the method of information delivery.

  5. All students received much of their information, whether from me or their peers, in the form of hard-copy handouts. Instead of utilizing transparencies on an overhead projector, however, the CA class viewed and created Microsoft PowerPoint presentations on an InFocus LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) projector. This hardware allows an individual to project a digital image from a computer monitor onto a wall screen for the entire room to see. I set aside part of one CA class meeting to go over the PowerPoint program (for example, the use of backgrounds and how to insert text and graphics). The PowerPoint medium was appropriate, especially during the course's final unit on visual rhetoric, since it allowed for easy display of color images found on the Web.

  6. I always gave quizzes in the traditional classroom on paper, whereas on some occasions my CA quizzes were on paper and at other times were given in electronic format: In the case of the latter, students typed answers to quiz prompts into an email message to me. When giving students an "electronic" quiz, I did allow them slightly more time than their pen-and-paper counterparts, since several had expressed outright terror that their slow keyboarding would destroy their grades.

  7. In terms of essay assignments, I handed out hard copies of these to TC students, so we could go through the details together; I asked CA students, however, to log onto a classroom computer and access the appropriate page on the course Web site in order to follow along. Finally, students in the CA section had the option of turning in their essays in hard copy or electronically, the latter by bringing a file copy of the paper to class on disk and transferring it to a local server. As a matter of fact, I asked that they turn in at least one of the three essays electronically, to have the experience of doing so, but I did not make it an absolute requirement.

  8. That, in summary, was my course construction. For further investigation of the impact of traditional vs. computer-aided classrooms, I decided to look first at the course evaluations, for signs of student (dis)satisfaction with one environment more than with the other.

    Course-Instructor Evaluations

  9. The University of Texas at Austin offers a variety of anonymous, Scantron questionnaires. The expanded form (E) (View with Adobe Reader), which was used by students in both my sections, consists of 17 statements about the instructor and the course, asking participants to rate their responses on a Likert scale of (1) strongly disagree, (2) disagree, (3) neutral, (4) agree, or (5) strongly agree. Averages are then generated according to the response's weight on the 5-point scale. An additional two questions ask for overall course and instructor ratings respectively, and the final three items cover workload, approximate overall grade-point average, and the student's estimate of his/her grade for the course.

  10. On the day of my course evaluations, several students in each section were absent. Furthermore, not all of those present elected to fill out the questionnaire, and some students replied to some but not every item. In the TC class (total enrollment 24), 18 of the 19 students present returned evaluations, while in the CA class (total enrollment 21), 16 of 17 of those present participated in the evaluation. The table below gives mathematical results for 19 of the course-instructor survey items, including the means, standard deviations (sd), and calculated t-values, which determine whether the difference in means is statistically significant and due to something other than chance.

    Table 1
    Course evaluation means and t-values
    Evaluation category TC mean (sd) CA mean (sd) t-value
    Course well-organized 4.7 (0.57)
    4.6 (0.50)
    Communicated effectively 4.7 (0.49) 4.6 (0.81)
    Showed interest in progress  4.5 (0.86)
    4.6 (0.50)
    Assignments returned promptly 4.8 (0.38)
    4.8 (0.45)
    Freedom of expression 4.7 (0.46)
    4.5 (0.92)
    Assignments clearly stated 4.6 (0.51)
    4.3 (0.87)
    Instructor well-prepared 4.7 (0.46)
    4.4 (0.63)
    Instructor had thorough knowledge 4.9 (0.32)
    4.8 (0.45)
    Genuinely interested in teaching course 4.8 (0.38) 4.8 (0.45)
    Availability outside class 4.6 (0.50)
    4.4 (0.63)
    Student performance evaluated fairly 4.1 (0.83)
    4.2 (0.75)
    Adequate instructions for assignments 4.6 (0.50)
    4.4 (0.72)
    Course made educationally valuable 4.3 (0.67)
    4.4 (0.81)
    Increased student knowledge 4.6 (0.62)
    4.4 (0.81)
    Intellectually stimulating 4.3 (0.91)
    4.2 (0.94)
    Assignments usually worthwhile 4.2 (0.88)
    4.1 (1.02)
    Course of value to date 4.3 (0.83)
    4.0 (0.97)
    Overall instructor rating 4.3 (0.67)
    4.3 (0.77)
    Overall course rating 4.0 (0.77)
    3.9 (0.89)
    adf=31 instead of 32 (18-1 plus 16-1) because a respondent elected not to answer the prompt

  11. The table above indicates a definite trend, with TC section means 0.1 to 0.3 higher than the averages for the CA section in 13 categories. To determine significance, however, I must take into account the degrees of freedom (df), or the sum of all students in both sections minus two, and the t values for this data set. I checked these numbers in a standard statistical reference table and found that at a confidence level of 95% (that is, 5 times out of 100, any difference in means would be due to chance), the variances between my computer-aided and traditional class evaluations showed no statistical significance. In other words, my results would be expected more than 5 times out of every 100 such samples, and the fractional differences in response means cannot be attributed to the difference in classroom setting.


  12. Student evaluations of my course (and me) showed no statistically sound variance, but what about my evaluations of their work? The table below gives the mean grades, out of 100, for the three major papers as well as for the course, across the sections.

    Table 2
    Mean grades across sections

    Paper 1
    Paper 2
    Paper 3
    Course Grade




    The means for TC students ranged from 2.8 to 8.7 points higher than those for the CA section, with the largest margin of difference on the first paper. Mean final course grades of a "B" for the TC and "C+" for the CA were calculated. Just as their evaluation means were slightly higher, the TC pupils made higher grades across the board. When I calculated significance following the same procedure outlined above for course evaluations, again I found no statistically significant variation. The differences in mean grades could be due to chance.

  13. Yet when I looked more closely at the breakdown of final grades, I discovered that 37.5% of TC students earned an "A" whereas only 9.5% of the CA class made that grade, a difference that is not just chance mathematically. I used the same grading rubric for all pupils, although admittedly assigning marks can be a subjective enterprise. In retrospect I wonder if I should have employed modified grading criteria in the computer-assisted classroom, since these students had another hurdle in completing assignments: familiarizing themselves with the electronic formats. Instructors who use the Learning Record Online (LRO), a Web-based, developmental portfolio model, frequently include a category about improvement in technology usage in the grading scheme, for example. At the time, because I went over computer and Internet use step by step, because I marked assignments on content more than anything else, and because I was unsure of how to modify evaluation standards, both classes had the same criteria.

  14. Especially since a "B" is much different than a "C" both in students' minds and in my grading criteria, I must wonder about the differences in the grades students received. A first impulse might be to attribute the non-significantly higher evaluation means to non-significantly higher grades, but a recent literature survey by Aleamoni argues that grades correlate weakly, if at all, with course evaluations (158). What about the learning environment? Might the CA students have made slightly lower marks and found it harder to earn an "A" because of the computer-assisted classroom?

  15. To answer this question, at least in part, I turned again to the official university course-instructor survey. Because it asks students to locate their approximate overall GPAs within specified ranges, such as 3.00 to 3.49 or 3.50 to 4.00, it is possible to compare performance in my course with broader academic achievement. In the TC section, 76% of the respondents reported a GPA of 3.00 and above, and 74% of the entire class earned grades of "B" or better in my course. Among the CA pupils, 56% of the survey participants reported 3.00 and higher as their cumulative GPA, and 57% of the students received at least a "B" in my class. In other words, students earned grades for my course that correspond to their general performance at the university. A computer-assisted environment, at least as I used it, gave pupils neither a discernible advantage nor a disadvantage. As an interesting side note, the university-wide results for the expanded form in Spring 2001 show 74% of respondents claiming an overall GPA of 3.00 or higher. This figure suggests that, for whatever reason, the TC population may have been more representative of the entire student body than the CA class.


  16. I taught composition exclusively in computer-aided classrooms for three semesters before Spring 2001 and had loved the multimedia capabilities afforded by such environments. When I taught TC and CA sections at the same time, however, I found myself examining my computer-assisted tactics (and student responses to them) much more critically.

  17. In terms of the different delivery of course content and assignments, I had mixed feelings about using PowerPoint, email quizzes, and online submission of topic proposals. Learning to design presentations using PowerPoint software, increasingly in demand by employers in many fields, had, and likely will have, its value for students. But as a means of conveying information, it seemed to fall a little flat. I observed TC students furiously copying down information when overhead transparencies went up, but CA pupils watched more passively the same content in PowerPoint presentations, perhaps more distracting with their colors and sounds. It might have been different note-taking habits that I saw in action, but then again, it might have been the technology.

  18. On the plus side of email quizzes, I had a tidy record of all responses in my email inbox. On the downside, it seemed that the format, an onscreen window that vanishes once the user hits "send," introduced a sense of informality and caused the quiz to be taken less seriously by some students. I found this true also of topic proposals, which CA students posted to a threaded, Web discussion forum. Even though I told the CA students that they "might consider" typing up their proposals in a word-processing application, checking spelling and grammar, and then cutting and pasting the text into our Web forum, especially since their brief paragraphs would be accessible to me, to their peers, and to anyone with a modem and browser, they tended to submit writing full of typos and errors in spelling and mechanics. Despite my opinion of the quality of work on the discussion forum, CA students pointed to the topic proposal system as something they liked best. They could see everyone else's ideas, have the opportunity to comment on everyone's, and enjoy the convenience of submitting an assignment at any time before the due date, as well as my quick response, usually within a few hours. The online format certainly promoted peer review and exchange of ideas, both in and out of class, to a greater extent than the class listserv, which was shared among all 45 pupils. Although I asked students to post short response papers to the mailing list and to read replies from both sections and also encouraged them to test ideas, I saw little evidence of cross-section interaction.

  19. One might be tempted to look at computers as tools that distract from the business of the writing process, and certainly I still wonder whether or not students who were exposed to similar content through disparate methods of delivery (overhead transparencies vs. PowerPoint) learned the material to different degrees. Many of my students seemed more comfortable in the overhead/blackboard/pen-and-paper environment, with hard-copy assignments. Most members of the CA section had never before taken a computer-aided course, and at the first meeting many actually thought they were in the wrong place, since they had signed up for an "English" class, not a computer science lab. Although CA students may have had initial misgivings about the classroom set-up and did much more of their coursework electronically, there were few significant statistical variations between their course evaluations and course grades and those of their TC counterparts. The single exception, "A"s handed out across sections, may have been explained by finer breakdown of overall pupil GPA -- ideally an exact figure from each respondent -- but these data were not available for comparison. On the whole, my findings about this small sample are in keeping with other studies about technology-enhanced courses, such as the one by Spooner et al, who found no overall differences in evaluations of the same courses conducted either by traditional or distance learning.

    Works Cited

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