Electro-Pedagogies: An Overview

This issue's CoverWeb, "Electro-Pedagogies," is built around the UCET NWE (University Center for Excellence in Teaching's Networked Writing Environment) at the University of Florida. An initial grant from IBM helped to establish the NWE as a unique, nonplatform-specific environment, and this freedom from design constraints has catalyzed UF's already strong tradition of inventive pedagogical theories into full-fledged pedagogical practices. The result is pedagogies of writing that take thoughtful, well-defined, and necessary risks at a time when very few "rules" apply.

This issues's CoverWeb is a textured web of testimony, theory, and hypothesis from both experienced instructors and those just emerging from the NWE Practicum, a graduate seminar designed to prepare instructors for effective teaching in the NWE. These webs respond to the challenge of teaching in a post-industrial, media-saturated environment by shuttling instructive threads at the warp-speed of "electracy," and knowing when to cut thread and thrum.

The CoverWeb, "Electro-Pedagogies," is more than narrative of the project at the University of Florida, it is a means of establishing effective, dynamic instruction at a time when very few "rules" apply. In an attempt to extend the dialogue of this CoverWeb, we have created a Kairos-Fla mailing list. Include the message:

subscribe kairos-fla you@your.address.here
in your message.

In a modest gesture of reflexivity, the participants in the CoverWeb participated in a session in the NWE's MOOville to discuss their teaching experiences and to draw out some of the concerns echoing through Kairos-Fla. Exchanges from the session are used throughout the overviews to provide some sense of graphic punctuation, a means of mapping the contributors' own sense production of an "Electro-Pedagogy" onto the creation of this issue of Kairos.

Cut the lights, roll the film...

Anthony Rue

Like a Hollywood movie, the story of the University of Florida's IBM Writing Project begins with a chance encounter, a case of mistaken identity, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Beyond its cinematic potential, the story of the project should resonate with the experiences of many writing programs over the last few years: an English program with no prior experience in computer-intensive classrooms is given a somewhat vague mandate to use technology to "improve student writing." In the case of UF, a dozen graduate students and two or three faculty members carried the brunt of the responsibility for figuring out how to make the transition from the analog to the digital classroom. Unlike many other institutions, our project was not to build an online writing lab (OWL) or to focus our attention strictly on composition.

We would need to generalize an approach to electronic pedagogy that could be applied to a wide range of English classes, including argument and exposition, genre and period literature, media and cultural studies, creative writing and technical writing. Quite literally, we would need to invent new classroom practices for a wide variety of settings, most of which fall outside the mainstream of the literature on computers and composition. Consider the contributions to this coverweb to be a collection of coming attractions of newly emerging approaches to teaching a variety of English classes, condensed versions of larger, ongoing projects to be projected onto the screens of a multiplex of classrooms. The projects included in this issue demonstrate a sort of thinking out loud about the confluence of composition, scholarship, pedagogy, and critical theory: in other words, a gesture toward one school's approach to reinventing itself in a digital realm.

Teaching Teachers on a Floating Island

Jane Love

During its first year of operation, the University of Florida's Networked Writing Environment (NWE) sparked many innovative approaches to teaching writing. Interwoven with the energetic discussions on the NWE e-mail list, however, were more than a few expressions of bewilderment and bafflement as instructors found their long-held assumptions about the writing classroom being systematically (it seemed) challenged by the new technologies. More often than not, the source of one person's confusion was the trigger for another's excitement and inspiration in the classroom; clearly, confusion and inspiration were two *related* points along a spectrum of responses to the NWE. The trick, it seemed, was to show instructors that both confusion and inspired excitement are but moments within a much larger and more complex array of questions, problems, and issues posed by the advent of networked writing classrooms on the UF campus.

In the fall of 1995, then, the UF English Department initiated a graded practicum devoted to the pedagogies of the NWE. Obviously, the founding assumption was that there *are* indeed pedagogies that are distinctive to the NWE and that these pedagogies can be taught (or at the very least constructively hinted at). We (Jane Love and Anthony Rue) designed and led this course for graduate teaching assistants, although two faculty members from the UF English Department and three from the English Department at Santa Fe Community College joined us. Initially, the practicum was offered on a pass/fail basis for two credit hours. In the spring of 1996, however, the course was upgraded to three graded hours--we'd made it to the academic "show." Anthony and I radically revised our conception of the course to reflect the additional hour of credit and the more vigilant evaluation required, as well as experiences from the fall semester--and thereby hangs an instructive tale for electronic pedagogy.

In the spring of 1994, IBM's PowerPC division approached the UF College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with information about the IBM Shared University Research grant. IBM was offering a chance for a million dollars in workstations and servers to the research department with the best proposal for using their new PowerPC Unix systems. Willard Harrison, the Dean of the College of LIberal Arts and Sciences and a faculty member in the Chemistry Department, could easily have promoted any of a dozen different programs in the hard sciences for the grant. Instead, he worked with Sam Trickey, of the UF Office of Information Technologies and Services, and Mike Conlon, CLAS Director of Technology and a faculty member in Statistics, to propose the Networked Writing Environment. Their basic research question: will large scale use of technology in the teaching of writing substantially improve the writing skills of students?

The University learned of the grant's approval only two months before it was to be implemented. Among the grant's five specific objectives, the Writing Project was to investigate:

  • Can a large-scale writing program (3000+ students/100 instructors per semester), small sized (30 seat) classrooms, and technology be combined effectively?
  • Is the client/server model, with technical workstations, servers, Xstations, and UNIX, superior to--or at least competitive with--networked PC's for this application?
  • Do students demonstrate substantial improvement in (through?) the use of writing technology?

The problem? Our case of mistaken identity: the research goals of the grant were predicated upon a comparative study of writing errors made by students in grammar-intensive classes taught by instructors in both computerized and analog classrooms. The grant, to some degree, assumes a model of instruction that doesn't afford a clean fit with the classes offered by UF English. While the program does offer a required course in argumentative and expository writing (ENC 1101), the majority of classes offered are in media and literary genre, period, or theory. The pool of instructors who offered to teach 1101 in the lab during the first semester of the project came from diversely different backgrounds, ranging from poststructural film theory to medieval literature. None were strictly defined as specialists in composition and rhetoric. The second semester of the project involved one hundred sections in the lab, with the same dynamics (and tensions) of the first semester amplified by a magnitude of ten.

We started blind. In its first incarnation, the practicum was forthrightly designed around the technologies of the NWE and their intersections with traditional pedagogical concerns: syllabi, assignments, evaluation, discussion, revision, and possible uses of the Web, the MOO, and e-mail for implementing each of these. We explicitly taught the tools of the NWE, spending large segments of time on HTML authoring, in particular, along with some MOO building. Participants constructed syllabi and designed projects for a section of ENC 1101, UF's introductory composition course, and wrote up instructor help sheets and guides on the different applications of the NWE. None of us ever forgot that we were writing instructors in a computerized environment, strangers in a strange land, facing unknown challenges, possibilities, and dangers. We understood our task to be the translation of our current teaching modes and strategies into these new technologies. What else could we do? Strangers must carry amulets from home into the strange lands they visit (we thought), for protection, you know? Amulets protect by occult means; they preserve, protect, and charm, "influence, control, subdue, bind, etc.," "calm, soothe, allay, assuage" (OED). Of course, the question is what, exactly, is being subdued or assuaged: the NWE (as a strange and potentially hostile place), or the anxieties of instructors caught out of their normal habitat? both, perhaps? Charmed by the familiarity of what we already knew, we remained immune to the charm of the NWE.

In its first incarnation, then, the practicum sought to make the technology familiar to instructors by teaching the tools and to adapt the technology to expectations of the instructors. This scenario, however, guaranteed (and granted!) frustration from the get-go. By assuming that instructors' pedagogies were intact and unassailable, that the technology was secondary to these pedagogies, and that the NWE therefore offered no critical purchase for rethinking these pedagogies, we unwittingly created and worked within an assumed hegemony of pedagogy over technology and of instructor over both. Whether it was expressed as alienation and distrust or mastery and bravado, this hegemony merely reiterated the fundamental problem encountered with the introduction of the NWE into UF's writing program: how to learn to teach *with*, not against or through, the technology. Technology in itself is neither culpable nor innocent--it does not dictate the nature of its products or the nature of its use, nor is it the transparent accomplice to good intentions. It is somewhere in between the two, where most of us are most of the time. Perhaps we might begin to think of it in a companionable fashion, as neither demonic enemy nor guardian angel, but as what provides the conditions for our thinking and writing, in the way that the body provides the conditions for an articulate experience of space and time, not always entirely comfortable, but not without bliss, nonetheless.

The questions also didn't anticipate that the shift into the digital might transform the goals as well as the methods of the online writing classroom, rendering it difficult to compare the numbers of "skill" mistakes made by students in similar sections of the same class offered in the different types of classroom. The project would need to strike a compromise; the instructors would need to re-think the role of composition in a program that does not primarily identify itself as oriented toward composition and rhetoric, and the grant researchers would have to reappraise their project goals to accommodate a wide range of possible uses of the project.

Work proceeded at a breakneck pace through the end of the summer. UF committed a half million dollars to renovate an historic structure adjacent to the main Liberal Arts building for the project and to fund a staff of three--two systems administrators and a graduate assistant. The equipment arrived from IBM two days before the start of classes and the rooms were not finished until the day before the first class. The system went live a month later, serving a half dozen classes in two rooms for the fall semester. Three months later the project was up and running with five rooms, one hundred different sections, and three thousand students. The University of Florida had moved half of its undergraduate writing into the Networked Writing Environment (NWE) in just under five months.

The problem of teaching with, not through or against, the NWE's tools demanded that we reconceive the relations among instructor, pedagogy, and technology. This daunting task turned out to have an almost idiotically simple solution: turn the instructors into students. And take away their amulets! Teach them to spin and weave, to knot and unspool. Teach them the ways of thrums.

In the Spring, then, the practicum no longer focused on the nuts and bolts of the tools, nor did it (at least at the outset) attach any particular importance to the fact that most participants were future instructors in the NWE. Instead, the focus was to create a direct encounter with the learning challenges and possibilities of the NWE (an exposure to its charms) and to elicit and nurture a dialog around the problems and issues during this encounter. Anthony and I deliberately constructed Web and MOO assignments whose goals reached far beyond learning the tools and planning a syllabus, and as a result, participants learned the tools quickly and in passing, being absorbed in far more interesting work. We applied the same strategy to questions of pedagogy: rather than focus on problems of teaching, we immersed participants in problems of *learning* in the NWE and allowed them to formulate the pedagogical issues of the course on the basis of their own experiences as students. The premise of the course was that the NWE provides an environment for a profound rethinking of pedagogy, learning, and critical thinking, and that a proper pedagogy for such an environment takes this profound rethinking as both its goal and its method.

The UF/IBM Writing project is unique in approach to delivering its environment as well as in scope and scale. The grant was from the PowerPC division, not the PC division. Desktop PCs were never an option. The Project utilizes a client/server model, with two small servers driving fifteen Xstations (or terminals) per classroom. Running a Unix protocol called Xwindows, each Xstation is capable of a full graphic display using a mouse and a point-and-click environment. The NWE doesn't have any floppy drives in the classroom; students who need to move work to or from other locations can either ftp from home or use any of the general computing labs on campus. By design, internet tools are used to form the "desktop" environment for the students. Syllabi and assignments are delivered over the web. Each class has an email list and a newsgroup created by default. Every student gets a MOO character in MOOville, and each class gets a virtual space to customize as the instructor wishes. The only commercial software in the environment is Word Perfect for Unix--everything else is freeware, including image processing and web authoring tools. Because most of the work done for the classes ends up on the web, in the moo, or on email, it doesn't matter what platform students use at home. Work gets saved as "text only," be it from Windows, Mac, Amiga, or VAX, and is transferred onto our servers for class use.The webs that make up this CoverWeb represent the kind of pedagogical practices and thinking that arise from, and give rise to, such a rethinking. The (edited) excerpts from the log of a recent MOOville meeting of all the authors (following) provide a lively and astute portrait of NWE pedagogy, and I will allow it to speak for its own eloquent self. May these MOO bits demonstrate a principle that UF's NWE writing instructors regularly put into practice: open a space for learning, and teaching will (have) occur(red)*.
The instructors, department administrators, and project directors quickly realized that the structure of the NWE was to have a profound effect upon the development of our approach to teaching in the environment. The NWE has been positioned as a teaching environment open to any writing-intensive class. The same environment had to be as useful (and functional) for the ESL class as for the literature class or the graduate seminar. Finding the right fit hasn't always been easy. For the first two semesters of the project, instructors had to find the time and the energy to re-think their approach to the classroom, through the NWE, from scratch. The Project provided a handbook for the system, workshops on tools and strategies, a mailing list to share ideas, and a supportive and responsive system administration, but the instructors were left to themselves to invent new classroom practices for themselves. The energy and enthusiasm (and, to a lesser degree, frustration) of the first year was overwhelming; the majority of instructors asked to return to the NWE classrooms. In spite of the successes, another--more systematic-- apporach was developed to insure the ongoing success of the project.

After the first two semesters, the English Department realized the need to offer a more formalized training in the dynamics of the networked classroom. As chronicled in the parallel overview, Jane Love and I were asked to develop a graded practicum in electronic pedagogy for graduate students and faculty interested in teaching in the NWE. Given the diversity of interests and approaches of the practicum's participants, we created a practicum that positions the instructor as both student and researcher, experiencing the demands of creating a first web or MOO project and theorizing the use of the online environment at the same time. We coined the term "Electro-Pedagogy" on our last syllabus as a means of identifying this movement between teacher and student that everyone experiences in an online environment--not as a manifesto for how to teach in an NWE, but rather as a gesture of recognition toward the transformation of the traditional positioning of the teacher and the student in the electronic classroom.

In reviewing the projects of this coverweb, I'm left with a list of questions about what it means to watch the nature of your discipline flicker and change in front of you--questions I'm sure we have not answered but (hopefully) raised: how do you capture the image of such a rapidly moving target? How do you capture the victories and frustrations of a program coming to terms with such radically different dynamics? What are the means to measure the distances transcended by the internet-oriented writing classroom? What is the rhythm of the digital?

CoverWeb Information CoverWeb Bridge CoverWeb Navigation
UF/NWE/IBM Writing Project Links UF's NWE NWE Syllaweb Archive NWE Practicum Syllaweb
IBM Grant Proposal IBM Writing Project Report
NWE Meta-Commentaries Gregory Ulmer's When In Mooville (asterisk) John P. Leavey's Thrums