Some Thoughts on Pedagogy
These days there's a lot of talk, some hyperbolic, about the wonders of computer technology. Though we are eager to sing the praises of our own computer-integrated composition classrooms, we will refrain from describing it as, say, a "radical alternative" to the traditional classroom. Such reluctance stems from a realization that the CIC classroom doesn't actually eliminate anything that the traditional desk and lectern classroom offers. Rather, CIC adds to, it subsumes, the traditional classroom into something much larger. The technological enrichments in the two classrooms that we maintain in Denny Hall at the University of Washington currently include a twenty-three-station LAN, an LCD projector, bulletin board and word processing software, televisions and VCRs, a video camera, the library web interfaces, and the vast, various resources of the Internet. Our instructors don't have to unlearn anything when they move into the CIC teaching environment, but they are presented with a veritable explosion of pedagogical possibilities. It can seem overwhelming or intimidating. Technology does sometimes, and it has been known to induce mild cases of phobia. But only mild cases.
And none of these fears persists after the two half-day training sessions our CIC instructors attend before they actually start teaching in the program. When we explain to our recruits just what CIC has to offer over the traditional classroom, we often talk in terms of student attention: how to get it and what to do with it. Isn't that what classroom teaching is really all about: engaging the student's interest and finding ways to focus attention on the "work" of the classroom? The traditional classroom offers one venerable, indeed monolithic, possibility: a collection of desks clustered around a table or lectern. Student attention is focused on a central object: the instructor. Sometimes the table or lectern that the instructor is standing behind comes to resemble a protective barrier or, even, an altar. This sort of arrangement works fine if you are delivering a lecture. Having all eyes focused upon oneself can be effective in a class discussion too, positioning the instructor as solicitor, target and conduit of student opinion.
Of course there are limitations to this sort of arrangement as well. As the center of attention, the teacher might be mistaken for a Fountain of Truth or an Arbiter of All Opinion. Students may become, in some measure, dependent on the instructor for permission to speak and for approval of what has been said. It is always an odd situation when a student insists on addressing her or his comments to the instructor, when in actual fact he or she is responding to the comments of a fellow student. Complicating this is the possibility that shy or self-conscious students may be so uncomfortable with idea of becoming the center of attention that they may simply refuse to participate.
In the CIC program, as it is currently designed, classes move between two rooms. One contains the centerpiece of the program: a twenty-three-station Local Area Network. The other classroom is fairly conventional in appearance; there are desks and a lectern. Sitting inconspicuously at the back of this room is also a networked computer terminal, an LCD panel, and a projector. Sitting at this terminal, in the midst of his or her class, the instructor is suddenly out of the picture. Although all the students' attention is still focused all on the same thing, at the same time, that "thing" is now the material being projected from computer to the screen at the front of the room. If it's a composition course, for example, the students and instructor can look together at a student writing sample. They can read and revise collectively and cooperatively. In this perhaps subtle but concrete way, students are encouraged to distinguish the medium from the messenger.
In our other classroom, the LAN, there are even more possibilities for redirecting student attention. This is due, in part, to the classroom's physical design. Instead of being arranged to all face the "front" of the room, the students' computers are arranged to face each other, in three- or four-station pinwheel formations. The room provides no fixed place from which an instructor can command the attention of the class. This can be disconcerting for the uninitiated, as can the reduced access to marker boards. However, these are deliberate design features that help concentrate classroom activity online.
What advantages does online activity, in itself, offer? For starters, everyone can talk at the same time and still be heard. In Babel, our bulletin board program, students converse online, but not quite in real time. They type their questions or responses to the instructor or to fellow students, but only when they decide that they are finished do they "post" what they've written and make it public. Students can interact actively and BB discussions are always lively, although they still afford some "private space" in which students can compose their ideas before they make them public. The shy, the thoughtful, and anyone with misgivings about drawing attention to themselves tend to appreciate this, and the option for anonymity that BB offers. By allowing students to adopt pseudonyms, BB focuses attention solely on the written utterance; students become only what they say.
In the LAN it is also possible to disperse altogether the focus of your class but still keep students engaged. Students can work independently or in groups, at online exercises prepared by the instructor, on essay assignments, at critiquing one another's work, doing online library research, or on the Internet. Though it is at least theoretically possible for students to work independently in the conventional classroom, the greater range of options in the CIC classroom makes independent work more purposeful and productive.
Several CIC instructors have web sites for their CIC courses. To see a listing of these sites, click here.