Networked College Lab Supports Collaborative Writing Instruction

Middlesex County College in Edison, N.J., is one of the largest two-year colleges in the state and has an ESL population of approximately 680 students per semester representing 45 different language groups. Because writing skills can present a formidable barrier to persistence and success in students' major courses, an ongoing effort has been made to enhance the writing program for ESL students.

In the past, writing instruction used a traditional approach. Students wrote papers and submitted them to the instructor, who reviewed them for grammatical and rhetorical accuracy and returned them to students for revision. The final versions, re-written by hand, were then turned in for grading.

Grant Funds Program

Through a grant from the New Jersey Commission of Higher Education, a new multimedia computer-based writing program has been implemented that allows students to compose their papers electronically. What makes this computer lab unique is that it is interactive -- using a control system called Classnet from Minicom Advanced Systems, of Holland, Mich.

The device connects externally to machines in a single daisy chain, completely independent of hardware, network or operating systems. Version 3 supports up to 63 student computers plus one instructor station. In addition, one to four printers can be shared by all users.

Classnet boasts a number of features that make an instructor's job easier and serve as a great motivational force for students. Each student station houses a computer with a headset and microphones. The total system is networked and supports group interaction between instructor and students.

The instructor, meanwhile, has a station from which she can control the 20 student stations. She can relay instructions or demonstrate a particular concept and show it on one, all or a group of screens. While students compose their essays, the instructor can, without leaving her desk, scan any or all student papers at specified intervals. For example, she can look at every paper for 20 seconds and, if a problem is detected, pause the scan and talk to the student privately through the headphones.

She also can display an individual's writing on all the computers to illustrate a certain problem area or highlight a well-written passage. This encourages students to excel because they know that everyone may see their paper.

If students need help, they press a Help button and their station appears on the teacher's Classnet console. She can then talk to the student through her microphone and examine the student's paper on her screen.

Other highlights at the Middlesex County College ESL lab are a document camera, for displaying any item directly onto classroom screens. For example, the instructor can zoom in on a picture, 3D object or passage from a book, the image appearing on each student's computer, eliminating the need for an overhead projector. Similarly, videotapes may be broadcast to student stations via a networked VCR.

An Open Demonstration

The response to Classnet on the part of ESL faculty members and those in other disciplines has been overwhelmingly positive. During an open demonstration of the lab to the college community, several commented that the system "makes the teacher's job easier and saves a lot of time." A computer science professor especially appreciated its interactivity and asked her department chair, "Why don't we have this?" Plus, members of the business and social behavior departments are searching for money to install similar labs.

Students did not mind sharing their papers with classmates and enjoyed the privacy of speaking to the instructor through a headset. Everyone is looking forward to further exploring the Classnet's capabilities to enhance writing and other disciplines.

Dr. M. Eileen Hansen, the author of this piece, is chairperson of the ESL Department at Middlesex County College in Edison, N.J.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.