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Teaching Guide: Introduction to Teaching in the Computer Classroom

Teaching writing with computers offers some unique opportunities and a few challenges. The better informed you are about computer assisted instruction (CAI), the more confident you will be in your decision to make the transition from the traditional classroom to the computer environment. To learn more about what you things you should consider and can expect if you make that decision, click on any of the items below:

Frequently Asked Questions

Many instructors who are considering teaching in the computer classroom have questions that often do not get addressed until computer-teaching orientation. Below is a list of questions submitted by TA's interested in computer assisted instruction.

The following questions have been answered in part using material from the book Transitions: Teaching Writing in Computer-Supported and Traditional Classrooms. These question will address some of your basic concerns, but Transitions contains a much more in depth treatment of a wide variety of computer classroom related issues.

Answers to other questions can be found under Key Questions to Answer in:

Will I be expected to be a computer whiz

In a word, no. As in any other aspect of teaching, the more prepared you are, the better. However, the basics of what you need to know are covered during the short but informative orientation you will be given if you decide to teach in the computer classroom. A basic familiarity with the technology you'll be using will be helpful, and you will want to spend sometime "playing" with that technology before you begin using it in the classroom, but relax: you will receive a lot of support on the technological aspects of the computer classroom. No one expects you to be a computer programmer or even to be especially computer literate.

How often should I be using the computers

This is really up to you. Of course, if you have asked to teach in a computer classroom, you probably should be using computers for more than just e-mailing assignments to your students. However, individual instructors' use of computers varies. Some TA's report using computers for little more than daily writing prompts to get classes started while others make extensive use of computers for in-class drafting, forum assignments, research, etc. The technology is there to be used, but there is no set guideline as to how much you should employ it.

If the technology is not functioning properly, does that affect one's authority as instructor

Anytime a lesson plan goes wrong, there exists the possibility of a challenge to your authority as instructor, and technology definitely offers the opportunity for lesson plans to go wrong. However, there are ways around technological betrayal, and you can develop strategies for dealing with the unexpected and keeping authority in tact. Some TA's have reported the technology failure/loss of authority problem to be an unpleasant surprise, usually because it is unexpected. Knowing the technology can fail and being prepared to deal with that contingency are probably the best ways to avoid being caught off guard and potentially embarrassed. Also, TA's in the past have commented on how helpful the support staff are in quickly addressing technology problems. For more about what to do when technology fails, see What do I do when the computers don't work? under Training Teachers for the Computer Classroom.

How do you monitor what students are doing on the computer

Computers offer students some unique opportunities to stray off task. Surfing the Internet, reading personal e-mail, or accessing non-class related files can be problems. At CSU, computer classrooms are set up in such a way that instructors can easily see students' computer screens, so a little vigilance can help to avoid abuse of the technology. Also, experienced instructors have reported that directly addressing this kind of off task behavior--perhaps even making a note in your course policy statement about its unacceptability--goes a long way toward curtailing it.

Do students in the computer classroom generally produce better writing

Individual student performance varies, of course, and some students will thrive more in one environment than the other, as far as traditional and computer classrooms are concerned. However, it can be said that students generally produce more writing in the computer classroom. Computers seem to facilitate more in class drafting than do traditional classrooms, but this seems to be a function of teachers assigning more in class writing than is common in the traditional classroom. For a detailed discussion of the ways students' writing and students' attitudes toward writing are affected by the computer environment, see the fifth chapter of Transitions: Teaching Writing in Computer-Supported and Traditional Classrooms. In general, though, new teachers in the computer classroom do not report radical differences in the quality of student writing.

What are the benefits of teaching in the computer classroom

Whether you consider the following to be benefits or not will depend on your own teaching philosophy, but here are a few of the positive characteristics of teaching in the computer classroom:

What are the non-obvious differences between teaching in the computer classroom and teaching in the traditional classroom

Several recurring themes emerge when teachers who have taught in both classrooms discuss differences between them.

How are TA's chosen to teach in the computer classroom

Mike Palmquist - Director of Composition, Colorado State University

We select GTA's using the following criteria. (1) Are they interested in teaching in the computer classrooms? (2) Have they completed the training? If we have more requests than we can accommodate, we look for obvious scheduling conflicts. If that doesn't work, we look at the two or three folks who are interested in a particular time/date and ask ourselves who has had the best reviews from classroom observations and grading conferences? We ask who we think would be the best teacher, essentially.

'I wish I had known'

The following quotes are from TA's who have made the transition from the traditional writing classroom to the computer classroom. Keep in mind that different instructors will have different, sometimes contradictory, perspectives and experiences. While informative, anecdotal evidence should be considered accordingly.

The responses to the following questions were made by GTA's at Colorado State University:

What do you wish you had known before you started teaching in the computer classroom

What do you wish you had known before you started teaching in the computer classroom

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Christof: I wish I had known how computer illiterate most of my students were going to be. I think I assumed that they would have had significant exposure to computers beforehand and therefore would be pretty quick studies. In fact, introducing students to the different facets of the computers--logging on, saving as text only, e-mail, etc.--turned out to be a lot more time consuming than I had anticipated. I wish I had been more aware that activities take longer in the computer classroom than in a traditional classroom.

What do you wish you had known before you started teaching in the computer classroom

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Karen: I wish I had known more about the forum. We just started using it in my class a few weeks ago. It would have been nice to have a semester-long dialogue with everyone. Also, how do you deal with the students in the first week who say, I don't know about computers, this isn't fair, I'll never do well...? I was too nice to them.

What do you wish you had known before you started teaching in the computer classroom

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Jill: NOT to use the computers on the very first day (personally, I wait a day or two to get a handle on the class before dealing with technical difficulties, log-ins, etc.). To allow EXTRA TIME for transitions (you can't wrap a daily up in 5-10 minutes, so you have to allow the time or leave them out--my students first semester felt very rushed all the time, and I didn't find out until mid-term!)

What do you wish you had known before you started teaching in the computer classroom

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Cara: I knew about, but wish I was better at accommodating, the time element. Using the computers, printing, trouble-shooting, etc., takes a substantial amount of time, especially in the beginning of the semester. The most helpful thing that was said to me was: "Remind them that their skill building and knowledge as to usage of these machines is their responsibility!" Remembering that I was there to teach writing using computers, not computer skills, helped me explain to them that they needed to work on their own outside of class to master certain things like typing, e-mailing, etc.

What do you wish you had known before you started teaching in the computer classroom

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Jane: Actually I did quite a bit of preparation so I felt like I knew most of what I could know at that point. I did have a problem initially teaching my students how to use the e-mail because their accounts weren't set up. I know someone suggested checking a few of the students logins, but perhaps we should also check a couple of e-mail accounts in advance if we plan to start using them right away. Just going through all of those how-to sheets [on the Writing Center] helped me immensely.

What do you wish you had known before you started teaching in the computer classroom

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Heather: What worked for me: get them to use the technology EARLY. Teach them about drives (some won't know) and get them working on their dailies as soon as their log-ins work. Then, get them used to e-mail. Send a message to the whole class, and have them answer you so that you can get the correct e-mail addresses for each of them. Also, pass a sheet around and have those who have holly addresses that they check more often write these down for you. Next, try the forum (I didn't, and regret it).

What do you wish you had known before you started teaching in the computer classroom

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Laurel: The only thing I can think of that I would have liked to have known is this: I wish someone had prepared me for the utter sense of despair I would feel when my authority was completely snuffed out by technology problems. I wish that someone had taught me some calm ways of responding to student questions I didn't know how to answer, that I had been given specific, detailed info about how to get help in the computer classroom, and that I had been told to immediately exploit the knowledge of those computer geeks who invariably grace our classrooms. This was all stuff I learned on my own: dealing with technology failure and the way it reflects on you as a teacher. I wish someone had given me some coping strategies.

What do you wish you had known before you started teaching in the computer classroom

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Ted: Although I knew how to USE the computers for the Daily, I hadn't given much thought to how and when I would print and collect it. I actually did not collect a Daily until the second week, then realized that students probably did not feel a great deal of motivation to do them since they weren't being collected. (Of course, I had some students who would have been very obedient to the end, even if I hadn't collected them at all.) My point is that I think new teachers to the computer classroom should give a lot of thought about how and when/how often they will collect the Dailies. One final point is that one of the biggest things that has bothered me in the computer classroom is that with 24 students in a circular room, I really have no place to stand where I am in the circle and can see everyone's face. Also, I don't have "my own" desk or area to put my books and set out handouts before class. When we come to the table for discussion I do have students come in closer and sit in the circle with them, but when I'm showing an overhead or at the whiteboard, I feel that I'm very far away from those on the other side of the room. Also, in 227, when I'm at the whiteboard, I'm always blocking someone's view, it seems. I think a teacher can work around these things, but just wanted to bring them up as "logistical" concerns that may not exist so much in the traditional classroom.

What will you do differently next time you teach in the computer classroom

What will you do differently next time you teach in the computer classroom

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Christof: I've learned to become less "panicky" when the computers don't function as expected and to always have a backup plan. Also, I've learned to panic less when multiple students (sometimes nearly the whole class) clamor for my attention and help with the technology. A really effective strategy is to STRONGLY encourage those who are struggling with the technology to solicit help from a nearby classmate who's already cracked the code, so to speak.

What will you do differently next time you teach in the computer classroom

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Karen: I guess I would practice more--using the drives, the LCD, chat functions. That would make my life less stressful. With a new syllabus and a computer classroom, I was overwhelmed at first with the technology. It's not all that confusing once you get the hang of it. Now, at the end of the semester, I feel like I'm taking advantage of the computers a lot more.

What will you do differently next time you teach in the computer classroom

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Jill: Same as the above. Make it VERY clear to students that this is not "the printing room," and that papers need to be printed before arriving in class. I also often don't have students print dailies until later, to save transition time.

What will you do differently next time you teach in the computer classroom

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Cara: I would expand their repertoire of skills in the beginning using things like attachments and email. I'd try to get them very used to corresponding via e-mail with me and their peers, because there is an interesting and different dynamic in that kind of communication--they tend to be frank and yet to the point.

What will you do differently next time you teach in the computer classroom

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Jane: Well--next semester I'm going to incorporate e-mail more effectively. This semester we used a combination of Holly/Lamar accounts and the vines ones. I'll give students clearer directions about how to check their vines accounts from off campus. I would suggest not trying to do too much technology-wise the first day (especially in 250 since people come and go so much at the beginning). I'm not sure what else I'll do differently--I find the Web forum a bit tedious in the classes where I use it, so I probably won't include it.

What will you do differently next time you teach in the computer classroom

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Brenda: Probably the thing I would do differently is wait to introduce them to the computers until after the add period. I wasted a lot of the time the first couple of weeks playing catch up with the late adds. Also, I think I would spend more time thinking about how to work the lesson plans around the computers rather than vice versa--i.e., I'd forefront the fact that it was a computer classroom more in my planning. By thinking of my lesson plans first, I found that often I just treated the computer as a word processor and I think it can be much more than that in the classroom. I'd also definitely use the class forum more than I did and also e-mail more as a way to check up on their reading or get them to ask me questions about the assignments.

What will you do differently next time you teach in the computer classroom

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Heather: When teaching them Internet research in class: My class was split between students who had lots of experience using the Web and students who had none. On the day I introduced Internet research, I had the "pros" sit on one end of the room and use the time to research their arguing topics on their own, and I had the beginners sit on the other side of the room so that I could lead them through the steps. With such a polarity, it is frustrating for the beginners and insulting for the pros to do a full class tutorial on this.

I got lots of great warnings about students spending the daily time (first 10 minutes of class) reading their e-mail, of just spending too much time getting their dailies done. A couple of things worked for me:

Reading Literature about CAI

Computer assisted instruction (CAI) of writing is a big field and has generated a growing body of literature. Since it is also a relatively young field, much of the literature you will find is typical of that of any newer academic area in which theory, research, and practice are ongoing.

In other words, be careful what you read. Depending on what sources you review (and when they were written), it is possible to get a somewhat unbalanced view of CAI. For instance, many early articles about computer based writing instruction are perhaps overly optimistic about the effects it can have on the writing classroom, or maybe they simply grant computers greater power in writing instruction than they really deserve. Consider the following:

"The computer, more than any staff development program, journal article, or administrative mandate, has the potential to alter the environment of the classroom, and with it the role of both teacher and student" (Boiarsky 47).

"Networked microcomputers dissolve the proscenium classroom," juxtaposing the students-as-isolated-individuals situation in the traditional writing classroom with the students' new positions in the networked classroom as "knowledge makers and participants in the discourse of the community (as defined by the network)" (Barker and Kemp 16-17).

The computer-based community creates "an atmosphere of openness, informality, and conviviality. Such an atmosphere contributes much toward truly fostering an editor-writer relationship between teacher and students as well as a peer system in which students rely on one another" (Boiarsky 63).

"Now [in the computer classroom] situated for writing, the student may assume authority of his or her unmutilated text on the screen, the instructor occupying the background--questioning, coaching, offering consultation, and observing . . . ." (Sudol 334).

Along with the laudatory comments, a complementary body of criticism has arisen. In some ways, the field now seems to have experienced a pendulum swing, and many researchers seemed pre-occupied with the negative, or potentially negative, aspects of CAI.

Of course, computers are only one of a number of factors that affect the writing classroom, and this should be kept in mind as you review the literature of the field. Browsing the sources found through Related Links will give you an idea of the current discussions of computers in the writing classroom.

For instructors new to the computer classroom, Transitions: Teaching Writing in Computer-Supported and Traditional Classrooms offers a fairly comprehensive discussion of many of the areas of concern you might have, including comparisons and contrasts between traditional and computer classrooms, classroom dynamics, student writing with computers, dealing with technology, and teacher training.

E 603: Computers and Composition

This course is not required for you to teach in the computer classroom. However, many instructors who have made the transition to computer assisted writing instruction have found it very helpful.

E 603 surveys the development of computer-based tools for teaching and learning writing. Throughout the semester, you will study historical and theoretical perspectives, along with practical classroom issues. Specifically, you will consider freshman college writing classes in a networked environment, and you will participate in special topics projects that will further your understanding of the role of computers in writing instruction (Kiefer).

Other CSU Online Resources

If you choose to teach in the computer classroom, you can explore the following sites during orientation. Looking over this material before you decide to teach with computers will allow you to make a more informed decision.

Related Links

The teaching of writing with computers is a big field, with a wide variety of resources and publications dedicated to supporting instructors in the computer classroom. Browsing the following computers-and-writing related online publications might help you to familiarize yourself with the ongoing conversations relating to computer assisted writing instruction. These sources are offered here only as potential supplements to and possible support for your introduction into computers and writing. You are not expected to be versed in the topics and theories you might encounter while looking over these publications.