Paul's bio

Writing Environments

"Our increasing use of technology has changed our reading and writing practices. This townhall focuses on those changes engendered by technology. How have the multiple forms of electronic texts changed our understanding of composing? By what processes are we building these understandings into our writing instruction? Portfolios, hypertext, synchronous and asynchronous communal texts, and 'the database essay' all have a place in this discussion."
Michael Day -
Dene Grigar -
Johndan Johnson-Eilola -
Jim Kalmbach -
Becky Rickly -
Paul Taylor -

Paul Taylor – "What's Hot in the Bidness of Internet-Based Education?"

What do commercial providers consider to be the evolving trends for business opportunities in online content, hardware, software, and services? What are the implications for the kinds of writing students will create for their classes? [1]

The National Science Foundation Middleware Initiative (NMI) is funding several universities and research institutions [2] to develop advanced network services that will help different applications share information across the Internet. These services will depend on common standards for authorizing and authenticating users, searching campus directories, scheduling access, managing and integrating course content, and exchanging information between database servers. The desired result is that a teacher or student will be able to log in with a single identity, access many educational resources provided by different vendors, and integrate the outcome into the institution's academic, logistic, and financial systems.
          In order for this to happen, information must be divided into discrete units. Some informational units are fairly easy to define: ID, password, course, school, and so on. Others, particularly those for educational content and processes, may be more difficult to define, and the eventual definitions may not be particularly conducive to teaching writing, especially when writing instruction includes hypertexts, communal texts, and database essays. On the positive side, middleware standards should make it easier for instructors to integrate a variety of resources and applications rather than struggling with one-size-fits-all course management packages.
          On May 7, 2002, the NSF Middleware Initiative released its first package of tools, mostly based on pre-existing applications for authentication, scheduling, file transfer, resource description, dynamic forecasting of network performance, and other administrative tasks. Just as HTML standards (and the way they've been implemented by Microsoft and Netscape) are largely responsible for the Internet as we know it, so these emerging middleware standards (and their implementations by vendors) are likely to shape the next generation of online education.

Webcasting took a licking with the demise of sites like iCast and, but it keeps on ticking. Currently, most webcasts consist of little more than a talking head, some slides, and a chat tool. Strictly speaking, a webcast is live by definition, but many vendors and schools are recording live sessions and then replaying them for other groups of students. When both the original and the replay involve teaching assistants who answer questions from students, there is relatively little difference in the students' experiences.
          Many colleges and universities are hoping that webcasting will be more economical than traditional classrooms, enabling instructors to work with larger classes. Those economic benefits have not actually materialized yet, and some schools are having second thoughts because they are spending a large percentage of their technology funds on a relatively small group of students. Still, the use of webcasting is likely to rise. Fred Kemp and Joel English have suggested (separately) that writing instructors need to accommodate the reality of large classes taught through webcasting, finding ways to make the best of its potential strengths.
          Webcasts, as used by most teachers, serve primarily to transfer information; they are, then, a new kind of text that is being incorporated into the learning environment. Instructors who wish students to explore a variety of nontraditional texts may want to use webcasting itself as an example, perhaps assigning students the task of writing their own webcasts. Such an assignment, incidentally, should become more technologically feasible as middleware standards and software evolve.
          Other current issues of interest to commercial providers include an emphasis on assessment tools in all disciplines (including writing), the uncertain future of e-libraries (such as Questia), and the uncertain future of content filtering under the Children's Internet Protect Act (the American Library Association is suing the government). All of these issues are likely to affect students' assumptions about the nature of writing and reading online.

[1] The factual material summarized in this statement comes from the Heller Report's Internet Strategies for Education Markets and the Web sites of the various organizations mentioned.

[2] EDUCAUSE, Internet2, National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), Southeastern Universities Research Association (SURA), University of California at San Diego, University of Chicago, University of Southern California Information Sciences Institute, and the University of Wisconsin.