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  • Dealing with Online Selves:Ethos Issues in Computer-Assisted Teaching and Learning
  • Mary Lenard (bio)

Since the introduction of computers into college English classrooms in the 1980s, members of our profession, dedicated teachers of both literature and writing, have become increasingly excited by their potential. Bulletin boards, e-mail lists, Internet-based electronic forums, and synchronous conferencing programs offer the potential to free classroom discussion from a pattern that, as Marilyn Cooper and Cynthia Selfe (1990: 847) warn, "is all too often dyadic, emphasizing the role of the all-knowing teacher discussing a topic with . . . students who may respond to the teacher but not directly to one another." As Kevin LaGrandeur (1996: 13) contends, this offers students "increased opportunities to learn from each other, rather than just the teacher." Networked classes also encourage more, and more varied, student participation, since students who do not normally speak in class often do contribute to networked discussions. According to Laura Mandell's (1997: 127) article on using an electronic mailing list to teach a literature class, "In virtual reality, it is possible for [a] shy student to speak (write) as if he were as intellectually secure as those who find it easy to speak up in class."

Not surprisingly, such potential to engage and liberate students has led to somewhat utopian expectations for computer pedagogy. As Emily Jessup (1991: 345) points out, many studies of computer-assisted instruction tend to focus on the computer classroom's potential to reform education because of [End Page 77] "the power of computer networks to facilitate interactions among people when standard markers—sex, age, race—are invisible" (345). Some research has suggested that because of this electronically enforced egalitarianism, student populations who traditionally are less likely to speak up in class, such as women and racial minorities, are more likely to assert themselves in a computer-assisted environment. One study, for example, claimed that "CACD [Computer Assisted Class Discussion] restores voices to all such students more effectively, whatever their sex, race, class, or age" (Bump 1990: 55).

Some composition scholars, all coming at the issue from separate perspectives, have interrogated this conclusion. Susan Romano (1993) points out, for example, that the "egalitarian narrative" enforced by the profession's utopian expectations for computer-assisted discussion has too often covered up instructors' and students' negative experiences with the technology. Alison Regan (1994) observes in her article on homophobia in the computer classroom that the more liberated environment of the computer classroom can encourage the release of student perspectives that humiliate and oppress other students: "I was distressed that the discussion of research topics became an opportunity for [students] to articulate their fear and hatred of homosexuals in a way that would not have happened in the traditional classroom, where I would have served as moderator of the discussion." In a conference presentation, Dale Jacobs (1998) noted that his students' postings to class e-mail discussion lists had clearly marked gender characteristics; despite the lack of physical markers, the women's postings were still marked with the same deference and self-depreciation that too often cause women's contributions in traditional classrooms to go unnoticed. Both Regan and Jacobs, therefore, indicate that the computer classroom may not be as egalitarian as previously thought.

On the other hand, even though computer-assisted discussion may not make the classroom egalitarian, it still clearly furthers at least one goal dear to the heart of every teacher: it does encourage increased student participation. My own students' comments have supported the conclusion that computer-assisted discussion makes students more engaged with a course. As a graduate student at the University of Texas, I taught in a networked computer classroom, using the Daedalus Integrated Writing Environment (DIWE) software with its synchronous conferencing program, InterChange. Since then, I have continued to use computer communication in many of my courses. At Alma College, a small, almost wholly residential, liberal arts college, I used Internet-based electronic forums mediated by the programs Interaction and WebCrossing. In my current position, teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, [End Page 78] a branch campus in a large state university system, I have most often used the looser medium of an e...


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