Saturday, April 26, 2008

Computers and Technology in the University Writing Classroom

Liza Winkel

As technology continues to improve and progress, it carries profound implications for the university composition classroom. While research extends back to the 1970s, technology has changed so quickly that much of this research is insignificant when examining the impact of computers and technology in the writing classroom today. In more recent research, many scholars have studied and questioned the impact of technology on students’ critical thinking abilities in composition. While much research has supported the use of computers and web-based discussion as a positive pedagogical approach that empowers students, others question how technology affects students’ perceptions of knowledge and success. Because of the repercussions of technology use on students of varying technological capabilities, some researchers have observed how technology as a topic can be used as a catalyst for students’ critical thinking as they examine its impact on society and their own individual writing.

Peer Review and Web-based Discussion
In the last ten years, there has been considerable research into web-based classroom discussion and peer review (Anderson, Hudson, Latchaw, Samuels). When students reviewed each other’s essays through email, researchers found that they were more likely to respond to one another in a more conversational manner, turning the process into a more informal discussion rather than formal critique (Anderson 186). In these informal discussions through email, students offered suggestions about “higher-order writing concerns,” such as another student’s choice in content and main ideas rather than “surface-level writing concerns,” such as spelling and grammar errors (Anderson 185). In computer-supported classrooms, students working on paper drafts in class on computers were able to informally discuss their work with their professor and classmates as it was being written which often gave them more confidence in their writing abilities (Palmquist 33).

Researchers have sought to learn whether using computers for online discussion and peer review sessions helps improve students writing and critical thinking abilities, as well as their willingness to participate in discussion. Using online discussion forums, such as WebCT or listserv, students were more comfortable expressing their opinions in shorter arguments that also demonstrated more consideration for “evidence and reasoning” than they showed in writing a full-length essay (Latchaw 114). Web-based discussion allows students more of an opportunity to have a voice in a social environment in which they may feel undervalued (Samuels 108). From these “mini-arguments” in online discussions, students are able to develop more confidence in their critical thinking abilities, and can also use their short discussion as “an intermediate phase of the writing/thinking process” to develop a full-length essay (Latchaw 111). Because of its more informal structure, students are sometimes more comfortable expressing honest opinions and asking more challenging questions through online discussion mediums. This comfort can empower students to question the academic discourse in their writing, as well as allow them to think critically on their own without an authority figure, such as a professor, influencing their thinking process (Samuels 108). However, Robert Samuels argues that in order for students to truly feel empowered in online discussions, there should be an “absence of a unifying traditional authority or belief system” (119). Then, when placed in a traditional classroom discussion, students may feel more inclined to participate in class discussion when they do not feel they might have the “wrong” answer (Samuels 125).

Negative Impact of Technology on Critical Thinking
While web-based discussion may improve students’ critical thinking abilities in some cases, the quickness and convenience of technology can sometimes thwart students’ desire to think on their own (Kimme Hea, Reid). In one study, an instructor asked her students to write a short opinion piece in their web discussion. Instead of writing their opinions, the students immediately turned to Internet search engines to find answers because they have become accustomed to finding the right answer on the Internet (Kimme Hea 339). As technology continues to evolve and improve, students have access to the Internet through their personal computers and cell phones at anytime of the day, allowing them to constantly encounter new ideas that influence what they choose to write about or use in the classroom (Reid 72) . As they browse websites, power points, blogs, etc. over the Internet, their composition becomes “shaped by a network of interactions that lie beyond the scope of the conventional authorial narrative” (Reid 72). Professors “cannot control the flow of information into the course community” which raises questions as to what ideas students are truly thinking about on their own (Reid 73).

Critical Thought on Technology, Knowledge, and Power
As students become more accustomed to using technology and the Internet as necessary tools in their academic lives, researchers question how students view technology in terms of truth and knowledge (Duffelmeyer, Hudson, Kimme Hea). If students are in the habit of turning to the Web for answers, what do they believe about knowledge? And if technology is imperative in students’ lives, what do technologically-sound students think about students who do not have technological skills? Because of the heightened use of technology in the classroom and the workplace, literacy now includes one’s proficiency in technology; without computer knowledge, a person cannot function in many academic and workplace environments (Hudson 93). Oftentimes the people who are ahead in mastering technology view the groups who are behind as “unable to master the Web and deploy it as it should be deployed—to achieve economic gain and intellectual freedom” (Kimme Hea 334). For many students and workers, the Internet is knowledge, and having access to computers and the Internet means more access to knowledge, as they depend on it for their academic and workplace activities. For composition theorists and researchers, the idea of the Internet as absolute knowledge is one that poses a serious threat to critical thinking in composition, and also causes disparities among students of different technological backgrounds.

Several researchers have focused on having students critically think and write about the Internet and how it affects their views on knowledge and technological differences (Duffelmeyer, Hudson, Kimme Hea, Samuels). After asking students to write technology narratives, one researcher found that students “buy merchandise according to what our culture tells [them their] needs are” (Duffelmeyer 364). In order to challenge these cultural values, researchers have asked students to write more about the Internet and how it affects their society, linking technology with critical pedagogy. By asking students to read and write about technology, several studies found that students questioned the use of technology as a purely positive force, often realizing the disparities it causes among people, especially other students (Duffelmeyer, Hudson, Kimme Hea, Samuels). Other students, however, still supported the idea that people must learn how to use technology in order to succeed. While studying several first-year composition teachers as they implemented this critical pedagogy about technology in their classrooms, Amy C. Kimme Hea found that students’ conceptions of technology “went unchallenged because many could only see the benefits of technology, the Web, and Internet in their daily lives, and even students sensitive to the technology disparities saw the technologies as an either/or proposition—either you have access, or you do not” (336). While writing about technology changed the viewpoints of some students, for many, using technology to write about technology only reaffirmed their beliefs in the importance of technology (Kimme Hea 336).

Although much research has been conducted on students’ critical thinking and technology use, I question whether asking students to write about technology truly forces them to think critically, or whether students simply write what they think the instructor wants to hear. Is using technology to empower students to think critically about technology only reinforcing the power structures of technology use?

For works cited, see annotated bib.

No comments: