netWORKS: Connecting Learners Across the Curriculum

1996 Conference of the Mid-Atlantic Alliance for Computers and Writing Blacksburg, VA, Oct. 4-5

Joe Essid
University of Richmond

I have been eager to visit Blacksburg since Virginia Tech and the locality decided to link "town and gown" with an advanced data network called the Blacksburg Electronic Village. My visit not only stoked my professional jealousy--the Blacksburg LAN is impressive--but also confirmed my suspicions that MAACW would provide a pleasant weekend of sessions and workshops. Conferences in the field of computers and writing tend to be cordial, intellectually stimulating, and inclusive. MAACW '96 was no exception.

Conference participants generally came from a different geographical area than did those who attended MAACW '95. This year, more faculty members and administrators attended from institutions in the Appalachians and Ohio Valley. The diversity of this group of professionals stimulated interesting exchanges across disciplines, grade levels, and topics. These included discussions of distance-learning, re-training for nontraditional students, and access to technology.

It was pleasant to attend a meeting that combined proximity to one's home, a comfortable atmosphere (to slip out for a cigar and a friendly game of darts), and thought-provoking discussions. There were, as at any good conference, too many interesting sessions to attend. My own interests--and my needs as a teacher who is training other teachers--dictated my choices. Other superb sessions abounded, ranging from the role of computers in K-12 writing classrooms to the use of Mathematica with college students.

Distance Learning:

The very phrase frightens some academics, who fear that distance learning undermines the importance of the face-to-face classroom (and their careers). Presenters at MAACW could provide no definitive answers to ease these fears, but participants learned about the continuum of distance learning, from combined face-to-face and virtual instruction to courses taught purely through the Internet. The presenters demonstrated how quickly "alternative delivery" of courses is already changing the teaching environment that most of us know.

Sue Liggett and Miller Newman demonstrated that at schools such as Montgomery College, traditional instruction and alternative delivery of course materials exist simultaneously. For various reasons, such combinations are not always possible, as Cathy Barlow and Phyllis B. Oakes of Morehead State University noted. In their region, students are widely dispersed and unable to commute to the campus; thus instruction using compressed video became viable. Barlow and Oakes noted the difficulties of being "over the air and under pressure" while working simultaneously with students at five remote sites. The presenters outlined important strategies for planning such a class, whose students might never encounter the teacher except through interactive video. For the pioneering instructor who uses teleconferencing, pedagogical and logistical issues to consider include resolving technical problems, discussing classroom etiquette, distributing materials, and collecting students' work.

Barbara Hutson, of Virginia Tech's Northern Virginia Center, discussed how she provides resources to students who must telecommute to get class materials. I found the talk interesting because Hutson adopted a holistic approach to the problem, or, using the analogy of the three blind men who try to describe an elephant, "seeing the whole elephant" rather than its parts. With that analogy in mind, Hutson demonstrated a range of technologies that students can use together--electronic mail, online journals, remote connections to the VA Tech library system, and video conferencing.

All of these presentations considered ways in which students can take classes for credit while registered at a given institution. Dave Sharpe, of Ohio University, presented a counterpoint that is probably a registrar's nightmare: a writing course, for credit, available to anyone with Internet access. Sharpe discussed accreditation for the class, submission of assignments, grading, and other topics. One wonders how many students in Alaska or Thailand might enroll in such classes. One also wonders how universities will offer transfer credit for them.

(Other Sessions)

Pedaogies and Problems

Lisa Pater Faranda, of Penn State, presented "The Computer is Down and so am I." That sums up our personal crises with networks we rely upon but barely understand. Faranda's moral was important even for those of us with several years experience in networked classrooms. As Faranda made clear, we must have back-up plans before diving headlong into uncharted waters with new students and reluctant colleagues. Faranda's own horror stories were reinforced by technical glitches in the room during her talk, but the point was well made; one must plan ahead for the pedagogical, personal, and political roadblocks to effective instruction in a networked environment.

I was curious to hear how Melvin R. Wilson and Gwendolyn M. Lloyd used multimedia to teach mathematics. I had hoped that I would encounter a way to re-take calculus and pass it; instead, I encountered a fascinating way to get even the youngest children authoring their own Web pages and using those skills as means to gain knowledge of mathematics and geometry.

Judith Yaross Lee and Andrew Wood, of Ohio University, discussed their "Orienteering" training for students in a Communications Theory Class. Their article discusses how they abandoned the traditional approach to the class and instead created an a syllaweb, including an online workbook. Participants at MAACW benefited from Lee and Wood's notes about assisting students with Web searches and evaluating collaborative, Web-based projects.

I enjoy keeping informed of the good work done by colleagues who try new methods of instruction with students. Len Hatfield of VA Tech was the first literature teacher I met who asked students to prepare Web portfolios for his classes. Hatfield and co-presenters Karen Swenson and Randy Patton discussed The Literature Initiative in Technology. This initiative, like VA Tech's Speculative Fiction Project and Center for Applied Technology in the Humanities, gives some indication what can happen when a core of faculty and students pursue the potential of the Web for teaching and scholarship.

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Epiphany Project in Blacksburg:

The members of the Epiphany Project led workshops and participated in concurrent sessions. As with other Epiphany activities, the MAACW sessions grew out of workshops done locally and then shared with larger audiences.

Frequent collaborators Dona Hickey and Donna Reiss led a hands-on presentation, "Muse Meets Mouse: Learning the High Arts in a Low-Tech (or High-Tech) Environment." Reiss and Hickey developed materials that are available to instructors with Web access; these include Cybersimulations: Low-Tech Variations of High-Tech Applications for Learning Communities and Poetry Portals for the World Wide Web. The workshop provided the sort of setting, and emphasis on pedagogy, that mainstream faculty need for integrating technology in their classes.

Elizabeth Cooper, a member of Virginia Commonwealth University's Epiphany Team, presented a workshop for teachers seeking to integrate Web-based research projects into their courses. Cooper has presented several other interesting Web workshops at VCU's Friday Epiphany Meetings.

Leaders from several Epiphany sites directed a "poly-vocal" plenary session, in which they discussed the impact of Epiphany on their teaching. The project teams also met with small groups in a workshop using the five-semester STEPs materials. After the groups discussed politics and pedagogies on their campuses, everyone re-convened to share their ideas.

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Speakers: Representations of Selves and Texts

Gail Hawisher discussed "Representing Ourselves (and Our Students) Online." Hawisher noted that the Web opens up new possibilities and problems as women represent themselves (and get represented) there. Hawisher's talk bridged the gap between the titillation of the Victoria's Secret online catalog and "Babes on the Web," a satirical look at academic women. The male-authored site appears to have vanished; this says something about the controversy it has provoked. Following Hawisher's talk, the discussion of the site led all of us to see that the Web is inevitably a public place; we cannot stop others from borrowing our photos, our texts, our selves. I should add that my attempts to find the current URL for "Babes on the Web" led to some unplanned and embarrassing destinations, including an illustrated advertisement for a XXX search engine that kept imploring, "download me now!"

This experience confirms Hawisher's remarks that despite institutional policies and firewalls, we must be prepared to discuss the manipulation of women online, as our students surf the Web in class and prepare multimedia projects. As Hawisher made clear, we must all re-educate ourselves by expanding our visual literacies and resisting the reduction of women to the virtual objects of online fantasies.

Ed Falco discussed the idea of representation during his keynote speech, "Hypertext Dreams: The Designs of Writing." Falco also considered different approaches to authoring creative hypertexts, and he read passages from his forthcoming hypertext novel, A Dream with Demons. Falco, like other authors who write in the ever-expanding and multiple genres of hypertext, noted that more online journals are needed for the publication of creative works. He discussed New River and The Blue Moon Review project, forums for creative hypertexts.

(Other Sessions)

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