The Effects of Electronic Classrooms on Learning English Composition: A Middle Ground

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Before the general use of computers in colleges and universities to teach writing, and in particular the creation of "writing labs" (a group of networked computers able to share files) in the 1980s, a traditional approach to English composition was the rule. Students met in a traditional classroom and were taught to write the standard essay. Instruction was "most commonly personified by the teacher standing behind a lectern or by the teacher marking errors on student text" (Blair 1997). With the rapid proliferation of the personal computer, many institutions of higher education created "computerized writing courses" emphasizing word processing skills and collaborative critiquing, believing that using the technology "democratizes the classroom discussion, allowing students to transcend the limits of the ‘traditional’ writing classroom" (Eckman 1996).

With technology redefining what it means to be literate — not just the ability to read and write, but to understand music, video, hypertext and networked communications — it is obvious that traditional writing pedagogy is a thing of the past. Sitting students down before a computer in a lab stresses the technology use over the substance and content of the writing and becomes like a movie that is all special effects and no plot. A middle ground of incorporating technology into teaching writing that sees "technology as something to expand human potential rather than substitute for it," and "which enhances the thought process rather than cripples it" is what we have striven for at Florida International University (Whitaker 1995).

In the fall of 1998, the university established three multimedia classrooms on the first floor of the newly expanded and renovated library. These rooms were specifically designed and outfitted to give instructors and students opportunities to explore and experience the latest in educational technologies incorporated into a classroom. Faculty already using slide projectors, computer data display, and videotapes in their instruction were invited to use these new rooms first. The instructor of three Freshman Composition classes (ENC-1101) was invited to use the new classrooms during the fall 1998. The instructor was given a tour of the facilities, lessons on the use of each piece of equipment, and some simple pedagogy for integrating technology into his classes.

Compared to similar classes taught by the same instructor in traditional classrooms, students attending class in an electronic classroom had much lower absenteeism, fewer tardy arrivals, higher overall grades, fewer late assignments, rated the instructor higher, and had a better overall attitude toward taking a required course. The look and feel of the electronic classroom as compared to a traditional classroom acts to enhance both the quality of instruction and the learning experience. Using the built-in computer equipment and other digital electronics establishes a creative atmosphere, giving students and the instructor new opportunities to collaborate and express themselves spontaneously, and providing students with a physical environment conducive to authentic student-centered learning.

Located in Miami, Florida International University has an enrollment of 32,000 students. Most students are commuting to campus and work 20 or more hours per week. The average course load for undergraduates, especially freshmen and sophomores, is 9-12 credits a term. The university qualifies as a minority institution with 52% of its students, faculty and staff speaking Spanish. Students represent all the major American ethnic groups as well as a large number of international students who are classified as "speaking English as a second language" or ESOL. SAT scores of incoming students are not remarkable; students are admitted with scores in the 800 — 1,000 point range.

The university has a rigorous freshman core curriculum that insures overall grounding in the college disciplines and in preparation for major course work. Many sections of most core courses are offered every semester, and with classroom space in short supply, often classes are held in temporary classrooms or in small traditional classrooms. In the fall term of 1998, 88 sections of Freshman Composition, ENC-1101, were offered. Two sections of ENC-1101 taught by the same instructor were held in electronic classrooms. A third section taught by the same instructor was held in a temporary classroom.

Electronic Classrooms Create a Learning Atmosphere

The electronic classroom setting differs greatly from the traditional classroom. Traditional classrooms have the seats in rows and a chalkboard in the front. In the electronic classroom, students sit at wide tables in comfortable chairs and have plenty of room to spread work. They also have the opportunity to move the furniture around for group discussions. A large teaching station is located at the front and to one side of the room. Inside the station cabinetry are controls for the room’s built-in equipment.

Each room has a stereo sound system with CD player, inputs for other devices like microphones, tape players, and laptops, a high resolution video/data projector mounted in the ceiling, and a networked Pentium II PC with Internet access, Zip drive and wireless mouse. A 17" monitor is sunk into the counter top of the teaching station, covered over with non-glare glass and angled upward, allowing the instructor to see what is being projected, but not blocking the view of students or instructor. Also included in the teaching station is a document camera that projects transparent, opaque, and three-dimensional objects. A motorized screen, three lighting zones for optimizing each projection method, and a house phone connected directly to the audio-visual department are standard equipment for these rooms as well.

During the fall, 1998, this instructor also taught the same course in a traditional classroom. Teaching techniques in the electronic classroom and the traditional classroom varied because of the availability of the necessary equipment. Unlike in the traditional classroom, in the electronic classroom the instructor began every class session with music that covered a wide range of styles and tastes including the Beach Boys, rap, heavy metal, classical and even Scots Guards bagpipe music. Students responded in an extraordinary way. When the instructor would forget CDs to begin the class, the mood change was noticeable. Students liked the class "prep." They said it got them in the mood for paying attention and the music gave them "energy." When music was also used occasionally in the traditional classroom, it did not appear to have the same impact.

Writing assignments and class discussions centered on viewing the video novels Tom Jones (the new six part A&E version) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour). After viewing a segment of the videotape, the class asked questions about the movie and the assigned essay topics, then divided into brainstorming groups. The students used these groups to develop ideas for their essays. They then prepared rough drafts, and returned to class to criticize their work. To aid with this process, an instructor from the Learning Center offered multimedia presentations to help students learn how to brainstorm, how to use groups for rough draft writing, and how to critique colleagues’ papers.

From the multimedia presentations to listening to music and watching videotapes in the electronic classrooms, all of these procedures were facilitated by the room’s design. Viewing multimedia in the traditional classroom was painfully slow and complicated. A portable data projector had to be brought to each location by the instructor. Time was taken during class for setting up and testing the equipment. The sound and picture were not of the highest quality due to the limitations of the portable equipment. Video monitors were small and difficult to see. A sound system was not available, so portable devices and the monitor’s speakers were employed.

In the traditional classroom, students were immediately put into the passive TV viewing mode, and not engaged in the videotapes. Class discussion after each video segment was more difficult to start and sustain. It appeared as though these students were less engaged in the learning process.

In the traditional classroom, lecture notes were projected with an overhead projector. Quizzes were administered on paper. All materials were prepared in advance and there was little opportunity for spontaneous testing or note sharing. In the electronic classroom, notes were projected from the computer and were updated and edited on the fly. Anyone bringing in work on diskette could share with the entire class and edit the document immediately from class feedback. Quizzes were administered in real time with the instructor typing out relevant questions on the computer as they pertained to the discussion or videotape.

A Quality Classroom Experience

The quality of the experience of attending Freshman Composition in an electronic or multimedia classroom, though hard to measure by purely quantitative means, was reflected in many ways. Attendance was an indicator. Each class had 24 or 25 students. Though three "cuts" were allowed for all sections, electronic room and traditional room, it was noted that almost no student took advantage of these in the electronic room. Attendance was consistent at about 98% in the electronic classrooms and in the traditional classroom fluctuated between 85% and 90%.

Dropouts were non-existent after the first two class sessions in the electronic rooms. In the traditional classroom setting, dropout rates averaged a little over 10%. With rare exceptions, students in the electronic rooms always handed in papers on time. In the other classrooms, 20% of papers were habitually turned in late.

The instructor noticed after the first essays were submitted that the majority of students in all classrooms had below average skills in composition. The average class grade for the first essay assignment was in the "C" (70%) range. By the end of the semester, as a final grade, students enrolled in the electronic rooms had on average one half a letter grade higher than the students in the traditional settings.

The instructor’s evaluations (which have always been good) were exceptionally high. Of the 54 instructors teaching 88 sections of Freshman Composition, five received an overall assessment above 90% in the "excellent" category. The instructor using the electronic classroom received the highest two single ratings for that term, 94.7% and 95% respectively. It should also be noted that this instructor was only one of three faculty members who taught three sections that term. Most taught two sections. Three of the other four instructors rated above 90% taught one section, and the fourth instructor taught two sections and the second section was rated at 61.5% in the "excellent" category. The overall assessment from the section taught in the traditional classroom was 80% in the "excellent" category and this is not significantly different from past student evaluations of this instructor in a traditional setting.

In written comments, students were very positive about the classroom environment and the way the instructor used it to motivate students and keep interest high. One student said,"I liked the way he used a multimedia classroom for us to learn about a classic story and to write essays about it." The electronic classrooms created a positive atmosphere that enticed students to come to class, get there on time, and stay enrolled. Another student commented that "The room we used in the library was great, too. I think it helped us a lot because we were in a comfortable environment with an excellent professor." Work was turned in on time, establishing a positive attitude and relationship between the instructor and the students. The built-in media options allowed the instructor to use many different types of input to teach students: music, videos, multimedia, Internet, and data projection. All of these options added dimension, flexibility and spontaneity to the class, empowering the students to learn in a more self-directed manner.

For both the students and the instructor it is clear that the multimedia classroom and the opportunities such a room presents had a profound effect on teaching and learning English composition. Using technology to incorporate the elements of modern literacy (music, video, hypertext and networked communication) into instruction, combined with the sense of being in an authentic classroom, creates a successful middle ground between traditional teaching methods and computer-based instruction for English composition.

 

Beth MacNeil Stinson is a doctoral student at Florida International University, studying Higher Ed Administration. She holds a BA and MA from the State University of New York at Albany. She has 15 years’ experience developing, coordinating, and implementing plans to incorporate advanced instructional technology into the classroom and on the Internet.

E-mail: stinsonb@fiu.edu

Dr. Kenneth Claus is an adjunct professor specializing in undergraduate writing skills. He holds a BA from Dickinson College, a M.Div from Union Theological Seminary (New York), and a doctorate in theology from Boston University. After a successful career as a large church pastor, he began teaching college four years ago.

E-mail: ivanh'etoo@aol.com

 

References

Blair, Kristine L. 1997. "Technology, Teacher Training and Postmodern Literacies." ERIC (Education Resources Information Center) document ED 413597.

Eckman, John. 1996. "Don’t Believe the Hype: Electronic Textuality and the Compostition Classroom." ERIC (Education Resources Information Center) document ED 402605.

Whitaker, George. 1995. "Freshman Composition and the Computer — Total Immersion." ERIC (Education Resources Information Center) document ED 388350.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.

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