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Technology and the Classroom I: “Changing the Boundaries of Student Communication with Classroom Technology”

by Nancy MacKenzie

In this session, Jessica Benjamin, Luke Daly, Michael MacBride and Phil MacKenzie, all teachers of freshman composition at Minnesota State University, Mankato, discussed their implementations of technology in the first-year composition classroom and the resulting changes in teacher-student communication.

First, Benjamin discussed how classroom technology affects student to student and student to teacher communication, particularly in terms of information disclosure. Benjamin focused on one course component, assessment (e.g. students’ assessment of course activities and students’ assessments of each other’s writing), in terms of how assessment was impacted by using two technology media—email and discussion boards. Benjamin identified several benefits and several problems associated with the technological media. Benefits included students bearing increased responsibility for directing their own work, students who tended to be quiet and shy in a face to face class were less inhibited and participated more online, and students interacted with other students who they would not have communicated with directly in a face to face class. The problems tended to be the flip side of some of the benefits; for example, some students felt free to be silly, rude, and hard to get along with. Even though there are difficulties connected with using technology in the writing classroom, Benjamin concluded that the benefits make it worthwhile.

Second, Daly explained that he first assigned blogs in his composition class with two purposes in mind: to have students engage in intellectual networking outside of class and to articulate ideas and insights without concern of being penalized for poor editing. Unfortunately, the class blogs did not work out as planned; students tended to simply use the blogs as a place to record their personal experiences like they do on social networking websites. Daly concluded that blogs are more likely to be worthwhile when students are provided with specific prompts and examples. Daly also suggested that the instructor needs to respond to the students’ blogs throughout the term, so that students do not forget their responsibility to continue participating.

Third, MacBride discussed the shortcomings of using the hybrid approach to teaching composition. On the whole, MacBride’s students preferred the online class meetings and participated well; however, alternating the online sessions with face to face class sessions tended to negatively impact the more traditional classroom work. By comparison to the online classes, students in the face-to-face class seemed inattentive and disinclined to participate. Therefore, McBride has planned to try alternating online class with face to face week by week, rather than every alternate class session, as staying with one medium for a longer period of time before switching to another medium might reinforce the benefits of both approaches.

Finally, MacKenzie described how he uses online workshops and computer-assisted writing workshops in his composition classes to teach peer review. For these computer-assisted writing workshops to be productive, MacKenzie noted three elements are key: students need to understand that being critical of another person’s writing calls for them to be observant and helpful rather than just picky or argumentative; students must be held accountable for their comments on other students’ writing; and students need to understand that the instructor approaches student writing in this same critical way when grading. When setting up an online writing workshop, whether in a chat space or on a bulletin board, MacKenzie suggested three actions the instructor should take: make certain all your students are able to manipulate the technology; be creative in arranging the assignment; and comment on the students’ comments to each other.

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