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CAC Program Reports

Building Virtual Bridges: An Analysis of Pace University's Writing and Technology Assistants Program

by Linda Anstendig and Eugene Richie
Pace University

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As a result of a college-based National Endowment for the Humanities Grant obtained in Fall 1998, we (the Writing and WAC Directors) developed a pilot program to train a core of students to assist professors who wished to use computers to integrate technology and writing (both informal and formal) into their courses. Although over the past two years we had been giving workshops, highlighting faculty efforts to integrate both "writing to learn" and "learning to write" assignments in their courses, and had brought a national WAC leader, Christopher Thaiss, to our campus, it was not until we began to focus on technology that we gained more widespread support among faculty in other disciplines. As Cynthia Selfe (1998) noted in her forward to Electronic Communication Across the Curriculum, "Teachers…gradually realized that technology was useful…as a broadly based support system and medium for the writing and learning that students in all disciplines were doing"(p. xii). The technology component became the hook that drew faculty into this initiative, and seemed to make them more willing to consider redesigning their curriculum and examining their writing assignment requirements.

In preparation for the pilot we published in-house (also funded by the NEH grant) a Guide to Writing and Technology Across the Curriculum: A Resource for Professors and Student Assistants, (on-line at http://webpage.pace.edu/erichie/wacguide) that includes principles of WAC, strategies and techniques for integrating writing and revision as well as information about writing technologies and specific models of assignments for writing with technology, assessment materials, and instructions for the student assistants. The guide provides the basis for training, and has also been used by faculty not directly involved in the pilot program. In fact, the Dean of the School of Nursing requested copies be distributed to all Nursing professors.

Each semester four students and four professors (two each on the separate Pace campuses) from the School of Arts and Sciences have participated; the students work as writing and technology assistants for one professor for about fifteen hours per week, giving technological support both in the electronic classrooms (during class time), and outside of class time. On-going faculty development is an important part of the program, and participating faculty receive small stipends for their attendance at workshops and for curriculum development. Professors meet weekly during the semester with the Writing Directors, who guide them on developing writing-intensive projects using technology. Student assistants also meet weekly with the Writing Directors, who mentor them and monitor their work.

So far ten professors have participated, from the disciplines of Philosophy, Sociology, Art History, History, Psychology, and English. These professors have effectively used technology to enrich their courses, even though some of them had very limited computer skills at the beginning of the semester. Although a few had some experience with the technology, all were willing to take risks, and spend a great deal of time gaining technical expertise as well as revising course materials. All the professors learned how to use the electronic classroom's Robotel broadcasting system with the help of the Writing Directors and student assistants. One professor, brand new to the capabilities of the state-of-the-art computer classroom said, "I felt like I became captain of starship." Each of them developed course Web sites, used the online discussion forum, WebBoard, and most created some kind of Web research and/or multimedia project.

Student assistants were invaluable in supporting the work of the professors and of the students in these courses. They ensured that Web sites were set up and monitored, helped administer the online discussion forums, gave both professors and students technical help and advice along the way, and they tutored students individually and in small groups, especially during the Web research process.

Because of the student assistant support, and consultations with the Writing Directors, professors were empowered to rethink assignments, create new assignments, and enable students to present their responses in innovative ways. For example, the Art History professor centered much of her course on WebBoard. Students posted messages and responded to others' messages about the art works studied. The student assistant, helped the professor set up conferences, post assignments, and import art reproductions. For a major assignment, students worked collaboratively and posted their stylistic analysis of a 20th century work of art, such as Munch's "Scream, or Matisse's "Green Stripe," which they could view with the click of a mouse button(http://webboard.pace.edu:8080/~treadway). They also responded to another groups' presentation. Some of the work was done as part of a workshop in the electronic classroom, but much of it was done outside of class time. The student assistant was able to help those who needed extra support with the technology or with the writing. Also, students posted drafts of their research project for others in the class to review, and then posted their final versions too.

Another Web Research assignment, developed by one of the Writing Directors, was adopted by a few of the participating professors. It involves having students use some different search engines and data bases to access a number of sites on their topic of study, choose some to highlight on Webboard (which enables hotlinks to the sites), then summarize and evaluate the sites according to criteria developed (see http://webpage.pace.edu/lanstendig/evalcite.html), and, finally, complete a formal annotated bibliography as a step towards completing the research project. This semester students in a British Literature class researched topics such as the Bloomsberry Circle and modernism, the Pre-Raphaelite artists and poets, evolution theories in Tennyson's "In Memoriam," and Kipling's imperialism, and students in an American social and cultural history course researched topics that included Vietnam War films, patterns of etiquette, and Blacks in tennis.

Assessment of the program is ongoing. Using questionnaires, interviews, video-taped conferences, and samples of student writing, the Writing Directors are evaluating the impact of the program on all involved. So far the reviews from the faculty and student assistant perspective have been overwhelmingly positive, although they noted problems that need to be addressed.

Professors found that the Web-enhanced course entailed more work for them and for their students – which could be seen as a strength as well as a weakness. The need to balance using technology and spending time in the electronic classroom with having students participate in interactive class discussions and cover course content caused tension for many. Indeed, most of the problems encountered stemmed from difficulties with the electronic classroom. Scheduling difficulties, having too many students for the number of computers available, and running into technical glitches such as not being able to access WebBoard or the Internet, all caused frustration and used up valuable class time.

In spite of the obstacles, the professors lauded the positive benefits of the program: Students did work harder to productive effect, especially in terms of writing – both informally, such as using the online bulletin board as a kind of electronic journal, and more formally, in developing sequential research essay assignments. Many of the assignments involved extending class discussion electronically, debating ideas, replying to each others' postings, and posing ideas for essay and research papers. Professors appreciated the way this new medium enabled students to do research more systematically, and they felt their students learned a great deal about doing Internet research because of the way the assignments could be structured and sequenced. Above all, the professors found the student assistants to be an excellent resource for them and for their students, especially in terms of technical support.

The student assistants seemed quite satisfied with their roles. All of them expressed satisfaction, and seemed to agree with one assistant who noted, "I think that it's a great program; it really benefits everyone that takes part in it. It benefits the teacher because as technology grows, the teachers sometimes can't keep up with it...The class benefits because they get some valuable skills that they might not be getting in their other classes." Most of them suggested encouraging students to spend more time on computer research, and most wanted professors to require students to work on writing and technology skills with the student assistant. A few asked for more training, such as a course in grammar. Some commented they would have liked to help students with "more creative technological input into research projects" or to design student Web pages.

The students evaluated the benefits of using technology and of having student assistants by filling out pre- and post-course questionnaires (though not all classes used both forms). All of the student data has not yet been analyzed, but a preliminary check shows that the majority of students view utilizing technology, especially WebBoard, as a positive experience. Although access problems and time constraints are mentioned by some, others stress its power to encourage thoughtful discussion, and that it's a good place to practice writing skills. One student wrote, "It's more fun. I can read other students posts to get good ideas." And another commented, "It gives me time to think and then type in my response." The ratings for the student assistants were generally high (4-5 on a five-point Likert scale), although in some classes students praised the tutors for giving them help with their writing, while in other classes only technical help was mentioned.

When we planned this program, we wanted to combine the Brown and Swarthmore Writing Fellows program model with the Student Tech Assistant model of William Patterson College. The combination has worked for us in interesting ways, and we have been attempting to discover what helps and what hinders this mix. Although it is not always possible to get all professors to build in both dimensions equally, most have been quite successful in incorporating more writing-to-learn assignments into their courses through the WebBoard medium. Not all the professors, however, have accepted the student assistants as writing tutors, and some have not changed their traditional approaches to dealing with student writing (e.g., no use of intervention or revision strategies). There are probably many factors involved here, having to do with the ingrained culture, lack of adequate initiation into WAC principles and practices, and the learning curve needed for integrating the technology component, among others. However, two of the ten professors, from Psychology and English, did give the student assistants the responsibility of responding to all student drafts. In fact, the Psychology professor stated that he received more well written student papers the semester he participated, and added, "I think this was the best semester of teaching this course I ever had...I owe a great deal to my student assistant."

We expect to continue to receive NEH funding in the fall for four more professors to participate, but we are also seeking ways to expand this program with other disciplines and schools – Business, Nursing, and Education. In the future, we hope to develop an electronic portfolio project so that students could publish their work on their own Web sites, keep a growing body of their best writing, and add to it in their major courses. Now, we have just finished a proposal for a Writing Enhanced Course requirement in all disciplines and schools, which could serve as a cornerstone for further expansion of our program.

Starting small, stressing the personal touch, and trying to work within our Pace culture has contributed to our success with shifting slowly towards a writing-and-technology-in-the-disciplines model. We are just getting started, but are energized by the challenges and opportunities, and agree that the technology helps to build bridges and serves "as a motivating presence...creating attractive opportunities for adventuresome students and faculty alike to innovate, collaborate, and improve education." (Selfe, 1998, p. xxiv)


Reiss, Donna, Dickie Selfe, and Art Young. (1998). Electronic Communication Across the Curriculum. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Publication Information: Anstendig, Linda and Richie, Eugene. (2000). Building Virtual Bridges: An Analysis of Pace University's Writing and Technology Assistants Program. Academic.Writing. http://wac.colostate.edu/aw/research/program_reports/pace2000.htm
Publication Date: March 26, 2000

Contact Information:
Linda Anstendig's Home Page: http://webpage.pace.edu/lanstendig/
Linda Anstendig's Email: lanstendig@pace.edu
Eugene Richie's Home Page: http://webpage.pace.edu/erichie/
Eugene Richie's Email: erichie@fsmail.pace.edu

Copyright © 2000 Linda Astendig and Eugene Richie. Used with Permission.