Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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Sherri Winans
English 201
Essay 4
19 November 2002

Why [Not] Write Online in English 201?

Writing online. I am currently discussing the subject with 20 Advanced Composition students at our college. The students, and the writers we’ve read on the subject, have got me rethinking my own views about the technology and my approaches in the classroom. Our class ranges dramatically in age: there are at least three old-timers, like myself, in our 40s, several people in their 30s, and the majority in their 20s. Overall, the group seems rather hesitant with the technology, so the young ones among us don’t fit the stereotype of young adults who have been playing computerized video games all their lives. Maybe they have been, but, in general, they aren’t too excited about this computer age we seem to be in. They have their reservations. And, perhaps ironically, they express them online.

Or partly online. These days, in each class I teach, we use an online environment as a supplement to our face-to-face interactions. The classes meet the usual number of days, moving back and forth between classroom and lab, as we have for years. Now, though, we have a closed-to-the-public Web space in which we write messages to each other. It’s an online "Studio" in the Speakeasy Café, a space very kindly loaned to us by Washington State University. We do some of our correspondence during class time in the lab, and we do some of it, some of us, from our homes—or our friends’ homes. So, this group I’m working with right now meets once or twice a week in a computer lab, and during that time, they spend maybe 10 minutes reading and responding to others’ questions, comments, and ideas as expressed in our "threaded discussions" in this closed online Studio.

As we’ve talked about online writing, in our face-to-face and online discussions—and our papers—the students have expressed concerns. Rachael reports that she much prefers books to computers and worries that computer usage is becoming an addiction in our culture. Charli tells us that when she gets to email, she feels blocked. She can’t get beyond "hi, how’s it going" because she’s too aware of how public writing online is. Even in a "private" email, she’s thinking of an Internet audience. Lisa says that she views the switch from letter-writing to email-writing with sadness because of what’s lost. She values letter-writing more because of the time and effort it takes—and, she says, with more time and effort comes deeper, more significant reflection, which makes for deeper, more significant interactions with loved ones. Most of the students express dismay about the amount of time people spend online doing things like purchasing hiking boots they don’t have time to use and chatting with people they’ll never meet face-to-face. And most of them have said they "don’t care enough about the Internet" or "have enough experience" to write a paper on online writing.

Many of the writers we’ve read have voiced concerns, too: they are lamenting such developments as a loss of privacy and individuality in our culture, the decline and/or demise of the English language, the "flattening of history" because of the "perpetual present" of the Internet (Birkerts, Rothenberg).

Others—writers in the class and those we’ve read—have more minor objections, of course, and there are those who express only enthusiasm. What I’m hearing loudly these days, though, are the dismal predictions and the concerns.

In the midst of these conversations, I’ve been reconsidering my own views and my decision to use and discuss this technology in my classes. In my classes, online writing is part of what we do and discuss: I’m an English instructor who uses an online environment in her face-to-face classes. Why? And what do I make of the concerns being raised?

Why? First, by using an online learning environment, I am hoping to encourage student involvement. As I’ve told this class, I was the kind of student who, in many cases, didn’t feel comfortable speaking up in front of whole classes. I’m still that way during many face-to-face meetings. But online, I participate more freely and easily, at least most of the time. I like having the chance to write and rewrite before "publishing" my remarks. I like having the privacy to make gestures and facial expressions that cannot be "read" by my online audience. In general, I feel more at ease when I’m not being looked at. Not sure why. Not sure it matters why. I assume there are others like me. And I assume that others like me will become more involved in a class that has an online component.

Is this an appropriate assumption to make? In light of students’ concerns, I’m wondering. Some tell me that, yes, they feel more comfortable "speaking up" in our Speakeasy Studio than during class. Others, though, just might be anxious about writing in this environment. Some have said that they are perfectionists and don’t like to put their work out there and then later find typos in it (however, the Speakeasy does allow for revisions). Some have said that the public aspect of the Internet, even with a limited audience, is intimidating and stifling. The environment we use is meant to be upbeat, funny, casual—all text on the site, including my own messages, is designed to be light and to put users at ease. However, some won’t be comfortable with this kind of writing, no matter what. My own response is to remember to value just as highly our face-to-face interactions during class and the papers we write and our one-on-one conferences. I believe that a classroom in which more voices are heard is a richer classroom. Using an online component seems to be encouraging participation from some who might not otherwise get involved. Some.

A second reason I use this technology in the classroom now is that online discussions have some unique benefits. As I’m reading an assignment for the class, for one thing, I can now do something with those ah-ha moments I have while reading and preparing for class. When I have a revelation, I can go to the others with it immediately and am better able to capture it in language that makes it work for others. These revelations communicate more easily online than they do if I wait to describe them later, during class. The students’ epiphanies, too, are more likely to be communicated than they are in a strictly face-to-face class. How many times do people come into a class and say, "The other night? When I was reading the assignment? I realized such-and-which!" Of course, those moments are sometimes reported during a good discussion, and they are often generated, during class, by a good discussion—but the ones that happen individually, outside of class, just might be lost if not communicated online.

In addition, and more significantly, when our revelations are expressed online, others can and do respond with further revelations: "Oh, I thought that too! And here’s what else…." Our spontaneous messages become conversations. Because they have some time between messages, the students can reflect deeply, thoughtfully, and thoroughly.

So how do the students’ concerns reflect on this second reason that we write online in my classes? Some say that their online writing (such as by email and Instant-Message) is stiff and superficial; I suppose, now that I think of it, that some of the writing in the Speakeasy does fit this description. Other writing does not. It is my impression that, while some of the writing is of the how-are-you-I-am-fine variety, and some of it is "purely social" (another good thing, in my opinion), much of it is focused on the material and our writing and seems to be the result of some good thinking on subjects of interest to those in the class. My impression.

Students’ concerns also remind me that those who are more hesitant with the technology—and, of course, those who do not have easy access—will be less likely to instigate these kinds of discussions, to present these kinds of insights to the rest of the class and respond to others’ ideas. To avoid shutting some students out of an online discussion, I can, and do, bring topics to our classroom discussions from the Studio. I read passages and responses and then lead a class discussion on issues raised. I believe that the online discussions augment the face-to-face ones, and vice versa. We are able to go deeper, because we have both. I believe that fewer of our really bright ideas are lost these days, because we have more ways to express them.

Third, and this one is closely related to the other two, I use an online component because of the type of learning community it seems to foster. In his essay called "Growing Up Digital," an enthusiastic piece about changes brought about by the Internet, John Seely Brown writes about the "learning ecologies" created in (by?) cyberspace. "An ecology," he writes, "is basically an open, complex, adaptive system comprising elements that are dynamic and interdependent" (19). An online "learning ecology" is made up of a group of people who have a common interest and want to learn more about it. They all have experiences and resources and ideas to share, and all can add to others’ experiences, resources, ideas. Writes Brown,

With the Web, these virtual communities of niche interests spread around the world as they interweave with local, face-to-face groups, in school or outside. A new, powerful fabric for learning starts to emerge, drawing strength from the local and the global. A cross-pollination of ideas happens as local students, participating in different virtual communities, carry ideas back and forth between those communities and their local ones. (19)

Students in a writing class, I’ve found, can be a group with a common interest. This kind of learning experience that Brown describes, and the excitement with which he writes about it, are what I was going for when I added this technology to my classes. The energy in a "Studio" can work like this, though it doesn’t always, and students can exchange ideas and resources—and excitement—in ways that remind them of how much there is to learn and how much we can learn from each other and how exciting it can be to do so.

But, again, I would imagine that it’s hard to participate in this kind of community if you have reservations about writing online or about the Internet in general. If you are skeptical. If you miss your books! If you are trying to preserve what little free time you have. If you want to protect your privacy. If you are trying to avoid getting addicted to the kind of communication that can happen online. If you don’t want anyone to know how bad your spelling is. There are lots of reasons to hold back, just as there are in any class, and, for that matter, in any endeavor we might take on. My class’s use of the Speakeasy Studio, however, does tend to foster a learning ecology, which is available to all students. Not mandatory. There are ways to avoid total immersion and still experience some of the benefits, I think. I hope.

No approach reaches everyone. I suppose I’m going for a combination that allows those who want to learn to do so. I don’t want any of the approaches we use to intimidate or to stifle, though I don’t suppose I have control over that, do I? Each reacts according to his/her own beliefs and experiences and proclivities. I know this, of course, as an educator. But I think it’s important to be reevaluating my methods and assumptions in light of the experiences, views, proclivities of those around me. And now I’d like to clickety-click the question right back to the class. What are your views on our use of an online Studio and the inclusion in our curriculum of the topic of online writing? And on my ideas presented here? Please post your responses to the Speakeasy.


Works Cited

Birkerts, Sven. "Into the Electronic Millennium." Reflections on Language. Eds. Stuart Hirschberg and Terry
        Hirschberg.  New York: Oxford, 1999. 560-569.

Brown, John Seely. "Growing Up Digital." Mar./Apr. 2000. Change. American Association for Higher Education. 27
        Nov. 2002

Rothenberg, David. "How the Web Destroys the Quality of Students’ Research Papers." Reflections on Language.
        Eds. Stuart Hirschberg and Terry Hirschberg. New York: Oxford, 1999. 595-598.


Copyright 2002
Sherri Winans


Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA