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Joan Garcia Kotker
Bellevue Community College
Bellevue Community College, a two-year school in Washington with an enrollment of some 8,000 students, introduced a computer into its Writing Lab in September, 1983, with some rather interesting results.
We had anticipated using the computer in two ways: as a record keeper and as an instructional tool for students. We find, however, that in addition we are using it in a third way; it has proven to be invaluable for developing computer literacy in the lab's tutors, most of whom are planning careers in English and communications, fields in which they will be required to work with computers.
As everyone knows, the computer is a marvel when it comes to record keeping. Statistics can be compiled in minutes, with the practical advantage that students who are having trouble with lab assignments can be spotted right away.
The computer is also a worthwhile teaching tool, and more important, it is a tool that does not duplicate what was already available. It is particularly helpful for developmental students, who seem to acquire some distance from their work when they put it on the computer screen. This is analogous to what happens when one handwrites a draft and then types it. In the process of changing to a typed format, the work takes on a different look and one sees things that one did not see in the handwritten version. The result is that students have more objectivity about their writing. This is particularly valuable for developmental students, who frequently have much fear associated with the writing process, and who often handle this by writing in penmanship so poor that no one can tell what they've written (and hence find fault with it). Once they can look at their work on a screen, they can no longer hide from it and can more freely manipulate words, phrases, sentences and so on.
Another advantage to using the computer for writing is that students can make changes that result in a readable "correct" version. Working with pen and paper to do the same kind of editing requires erasing, crossing out, writing in margins, and generally creating a "correct" version that looks absolutely dreadful on the page and is virtually indecipherable--a result that may well convince the student that his or her work is indeed a mess.
In these ways, then, the computer lived up to our expectations: it saved us time and gave us new methods for teaching composition, just as the literature had told us it would. However, it also had a benefit we had not anticipated, that of developing computer literacy in tutors. Like many humanities majors, our tutors tend to be machine-anxious--their perception of themselves is that they're word people, not machine people. Fortunately, or unfortunately, they find themselves in fields where word people are now expected to be machine people, too--everyone working in communications today does so with computers and word processors, and it just isn't going to be possible to teach English in the public schools without making use of computer-based instruction. Having the Apple in the Writing Lab has allowed these tutors to develop confidence that they will be able to work in their fields, that they will not be disqualified through lack of peripheral technical skills. This is no small thing to give tutors, when one considers how poorly they're paid and how much work they do. It has also become a good recruiting tool for me as Lab Director--now I can tell prospective tutors that they'll not only develop their writing and interpersonal skills; they'll also have the opportunity to learn how to use a computer in a failure-free environment. This has proven to be a definite attraction for those convinced that they cannot master technology and will simply look like fools in a computer class.
In sum, the computer has proven to be a real advantage to the Writing Lab at Bellevue Community College--our only regret it that we don't have more of them.