Low-Tech Variations of High-Tech Applications
for Learning Communities

Dona Hickey, University of Richmond, and Donna Reiss, Tidewater Community College
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Note on Push Pin We (Dona Hickey and Donna Reiss) began our collaboration with a workshop on writing about poetry to establish learning communities. Our special interest in teaching poetry and a common background in communication across the curriculum led us to apply the pedagogy of writing-to-learn literature to writing-to-learn across the curriculum. It's the same practice, of course, but like other teachers and learners, we learned more about general applications by focusing on specific instances: poetry students struggling to read, interpret, and write.

In developing workshops for colleagues across the curriculum, we created handouts descriptive of write-to-learn activities that could be applied in many subject areas--from geography to genetics. These collaborative exercises for students are more detailed than the generic type often suggested in writing- (or communication-) across-the-curriculum programs for two reasons: (1) We want to engage participants in the activities as students, not as teachers; and (2) We want to show how the pedagogy can be enhanced by informed uses of technology. By "informed," we don't mean merely "informed about the newest software"; we mean "informed about the best ways to use what is accessible at a given campus." Therefore, while we are building corresponding Web sites for our handouts, we also are accumulating techniques for adapting the pedagogical benefits of electronic communication to even the lowest of computer technologies: the single stand-alone station with the simple word processor.

Teachers' Needs

We discovered in the first workshop that participants brought with them a variety of experiences with, and assumptions about, collaborative learning and computers. They would also go back to diverse teaching environments. Some would return to networked Pentium facilities with specialized software for synchronous and asynchronous conferencing. But others would return to facilities with half a dozen computers or just one computer rather than a room full. Some would have no electronic classrooms for teaching but would have to send their students to open computer labs between classes. Some would not have computers in their offices and would have to develop their computer-supported activities with their own equipment at home or at a borrowed computer. Thus began our collaborative concern for suggesting a variety of options to support the pedagogy of computer-supported, collaborative learning communities.

Who's Driving the Bus: The Pedagogy or the Pentium?

Committed to pedagogy driving the technology and not the other way around, we asked:

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Access and Inequalities

We are well aware of access and inequality issues for instructional computing. Dona Hickey teaches at a selective admissions private university. Donna Reiss teaches at a large open-admissions two-year community college. Dona's computer labs are in a new building that looks like a cathedral; Donna's are always moving around to whatever space the college can spare, at the moment in a fishbowl room on the second floor of the library (used to be out in the open, so we're pleased to have a real room at all). Dona's students include graduate students in English. Donna's typically plan to major in business or electronics or engineering; most will try to finish the equivalent of the first two years of college in four or six years while they support families and work forty hours a week. Nonetheless, both of us see the same promise in computer-supported instruction for writing and literature and for every discipline at our colleges.

Making The Old New Again

We're teachers first, technology enthusiasts second. Mindful of our instructional objectives, we can simulate in other platforms some of what we like in the newest. In fact, new technology can improve our teaching without necessarily being installed in our classrooms. We can learn from it how to use what we do have in newer, more varied ways. After all, we rarely use all the capabilities of a single program. So why not use the creativity, practicality, and ingenuity all good teachers possess to adapt and simulate the best characteristics of the best programs?

More than just a question of access, then, we are dealing with a question of balance. Just as it's a mistake to replace all lecture and face-to-face discussion with electronic presentations and discussion, it is also a mistake to think that unless we have one of the dedicated collaborative writing and conferencing programs, we can't provide a similar learning experience for our students. We can.

Let Us Hear from You Envelope

At every workshop we attend, colleagues give us suggestions that expand and refine our workshop activities and web sites. If you send us something we are able to add, we'll attribute it to you, of course, and include a link to your mailbox and Web site if you wish.

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Musical Computer Chairs

Musicnotes If you are teaching in a computer classroom or a computer lab, students can write a document on the word processor, then move to another student’s computer and respond to a peer’s text. At the end of the exercise, each student has several responses to a work-in- progress or a write-to-learn activity. If the responders also include each other’s ideas as they write about a particular document, the author has a coherent body of peer review. This is one way that word processing can simulate email exchange, newsgroups, and file- swapping.

Disk Swapping or SneakerNet

Students exchange disks with each other for the purpose of swapping files and responding to each other’s work. Some teachers like to place disks on reserve in the library so that students can pick up and add responses when they have access to a word processor during the week; students can add to a single file and simulate InterChange and chat room transcripts.

Journal on a Disk

Floppydisk These are easy email, newsgroup, or listserv simulations; they’re also an electronic version of "inkshedding."

Class Journal : Students respond to questions/issues that are kept on one disk. Everyone who responds, signs, and then passes the disk on to another classmate. Students can print from the disk whatever is relevant to their work-in-progress.

Individual Journals: Each student keeps a writer’s (or reader-response) journal on a disk, then swaps with another student (or more, such as those in a study group). Students add their responses to each other’s questions or ideas.

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In the paper version of this activity, each student pens a response to a question posed in class, signs it, then passes the paper to the next student and the next, until the paper has passed around the room or time runs out. At the end of the exercise, each student receives her or his own paper back with a variety of responses. Whenever possible, students should connect their responses to others so that they create a coherent conversation about a document.

For the electronic version, in the computer classroom or lab, each student creates a wordprocessing document, answers the question posed in class, and signs. Then students move to another computer and write a response to their peer’s document . . . and so on, as described above. Of course, this variation of musical computer chairs also can be accomplished with disk swapping.



If students have access to email but are not in a networked classroom, they can use email to simulate newsgroups and other electronic conferencing programs such as Connect or InterChange. Students in writing or study groups can send individual messages to all members of the group by adding everyone's name in the "to" line. They can "cc" the teacher, if that's appropriate. When each person in the group responds, the messages go to all members of the group.

Students can also create a "nickname list" or distribution list or directory on email (Pine and Eudora make this easy to do). In this way, a message can be sent to a group or to the whole class. This activity can also be done collaboratively: a small group of students composes together and sends a message to the whole class. Other groups respond to the original message. Some teachers establish listservs for their classes to automate the mail handling aspects of email exchanges.

In schools where networked classrooms and labs are not available or where most students live off campus and do not have easy access to computers, collaborative email is hard to manage unless teachers reserve class time for this activity. When class time is not available, teachers might make due dates more flexible, allowing a week for individual or group response. If lag time affects classroom continuity, teachers can ask groups to report orally on the previous week’s mail exchange: What questions remain? Which issues have been brought to closure? What new questions/issues are raised?

As students shift back and forth among email exchange (or other conferencing programs), face-to-face discussion, and their more formal writing projects, they gain valuable practice in expressing their ideas for different rhetorical situations.

If students are also encouraged to quote and cite each other as they construct their own texts, they’re learning what it means to participate in an academic forum: building a community of learners, socially constructing knowledge, negotiating meaning, and arriving at consensus. To reinforce the idea that the final version of a writer’s work most often is not the product of one mind but of many, some teachers ask students to include an acknowledgment page.

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Pseudocyberspace: Web Pages without the Web

Pat's Page We can create and display Web pages that never go to the Internet but that look like those that do except for active links to actual Internet sites. Students can open their HTML documents as files through browser software on their hard drives. If your students do not have the Internet or an internal network, they can still have the advantages of creating hypertext for individual and group projects.

Use any basic Web page development tool to create the hypertext files. My students use Windows Notepad and Netscape and a site I set up for them, Building a Basic Home Page with HTML and can photocopy as a handout. I also show them how to turn a word processed document to HTML with Word or WordPerfect and how to use Netscape Navigator Gold 3 editor (it's free but adds annoying extra codes).

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Writing an Argument or a Poem with a Word Processing Chain

This process works in classrooms with only one computer, in non-networked classrooms, and with disk exchanges as well as with networked computers. It can be done at a distance with email as well. Both the poetry and argument versions can be adapted for classes in any discipline and are especially valuable for focusing students' attention on audience, use of concrete details and examples, and coherence among words and ideas. The creativity of writing a poem about geology or sonography or history helps students examine those concepts in a different framework.

Directions for Argumentation Links
To construct an essay: one person writes an introduction, another a body paragraph, and so on. Editing and revision steps can also be incorporated. Students then revise and edit both their own work and others'. The process can be effectively adapted for a variety of types of writing across the curriculum, for example, developing arguments by adding support, adding opposing views, adding refutations, adding source citations, adding titles, adding conclusions.

1. Write a thesis that is a clear statement of a position on an issue related to the assigned topic.
2. Move to another computer and at the top of the document, write one or two sentences to precede and lead into the thesis.
3. Move to another computer and write the first two or three sentences of a new paragraph as a supporting point for the thesis.
4. Move to another computer and write one or two more sentences to complete the paragraph.
5. Move to another computer and write the first two or three sentences of a new paragraph as another supporting point for the thesis.
6. Move to another computer and write one or two more sentences to complete the paragraph.
7. Move to another computer and write the first sentences of a new paragraph that refutes the thesis and one or more of the supporting points.
8. Move to another computer and write one or two more sentences to complete the paragraph that refutes specific points in the thesis and support.
9. Move to another computer and write a concluding paragraph.
10. Move to another computer and write a title for the essay.

Sunrise Directions for Poetry Links
To construct a poem: one person writes a line, another a second line, and so on. The instructor can build into the assignment whatever poetic elements she wants students to practice in their own writing or to notice in their reading. For example, the instructor can assign a traditional form such as a sonnet or a villanelle, or ask that the poem tell a story, or describe a scene, or make no such assignment and simply add certain diction, rhyme, or rhythm requirements: "include a simile in the line" or "write the line in iambic tetrameter"—or instructors can let students determine what elements to include in their lines.

As you proceed through these steps, save the file before you move on to the next computer. Use the “Save As” command, and change the extension number in sequence: spring.1, spring.2, etc.

1. Write a first line for a poem. Be sure that your line does not extend beyond the right margin of the line.
2. Move to another computer and write a second line that follows from the first line. Be sure that your line does not extend beyond the right margin of the line.
3. Move to another computer and write a line that follows from the previous lines. Be sure that your line does not extend beyond the right margin of the line.
4. Move to another computer and write a line that rhymes with one of the previous lines. Be sure that your line does not extend beyond the right margin of the line.
5. Move to another computer and write a line that uses assonance (repeats vowel sounds from the same or nearby lines). Be sure that your line does not extend beyond the right margin of the line.
6. Move to another computer and write a line that uses alliteration (repeats consonant sounds from the same or nearby lines). Be sure that your line does not extend beyond the right margin of the line.
7. Move to another computer and revise any lines to incorporate a metaphor or simile where one does not now exist.
8. Move to another computer and revise any lines to change the rhythm or rhyme.
9. Move to another computer. Center an appropriate title at the beginning.

Top of Page | Dona Hickey | Donna Reiss | developed in collaboration with the Epihany Project
Last modified 08/26/97 02:59:03 PM