Computer-Assisted Instruction in Composition: Create Your Own
Barbara L. Cambridge
When Lilly Endowment funded our public school-urban university collaboration on computer-assisted instruction in composition, I was elated that we could have time and money to find and purchase software. With high hopes, we defined our common philosophy of writing instruction, generated criteria for review of software according to our curricular needs, and ordered programs to review. Our hopes fell quickly: programs to support our goals in writing simply did not exist.
Blissfully naive about the complexity of our decision, we decided to write software ourselves. Instructed by a linguistics colleague, we learned to write flow charts, scripts, and pseudocode. We envisioned completing eight programs during our two-year grant period. Little did we know. We did not anticipate such factors as the many decisions about screen capacity, programming time, number of student responses needed to detect defects, or the total number of stages in producing a useful CAI package.
Little did we know. One of the helpful tools we applied to this task was Cynthia Selfe's Computer-Assisted Instruction in Composition: Create Your Own. In this spiral-bound book, Selfe leads would-be software writers through all the steps needed to produce programs which meet their needs. Selfe leads cautious writers by the hand and waves yellow flags at strategic points for would-be sprinters like us.
Chapter 1, "Identifying Assumptions about Writing and Pedagogy," supports our own intuitive starting point of looking at current philosophy and goals. Teachers should identify student writing problems, assumptions about writing, and assumptions about teaching writing. On each document during our project, we had printed our assumptions so that the technology would not usurp the theory. Selfe encourages this step and many more as writers begin. She includes worksheets throughout the book for generating ideas and for recording progress in the project.
Chapter 2, "Getting started on a CAI Project," continues from Chapter 1 the example of Jean, a hypothetical software writer. Using multiple presentational methods, Selfe discusses seven predesign tasks through Jean's experience, through chapter text, and through samples of completed worksheets. Selfe's use of numbered sections in each chapter overtly sequences a possible process; however, she cautions that writing CAI lessons is as recursive as other writing. Our experience confirms that some of Selfe's steps may come in a different order for writers with different writing processes.
Selfe's advice in Chapter 3 on "Working with a Design Team" might well come earlier in her book, for a cooperative design team is essential to a CAI project. Particularly pertinent in this chapter is advice on choosing a programmer, including the requirements of proficiency in a number of computer languages, enthusiasm about writing instruction, and ability to communicate in understandable terms. Our initial choice for programmer was a graduate student in systems design, and this choice was nearly disastrous because he had minimal time for the project, had to learn from scratch the language we needed to use, and understood little about composition. Selfe might add that even if the investment in a competent, informed programmer takes a good bit out of one's budget, economizing elsewhere is worth that investment.
Chapter 4 contains instructions about defining the instructional objectives of CAI, identifying screen types, and thinking about
lesson design, approach, and appropriateness. Sample screens distinguished in size and kind of type from other text and surrounded by generous white space illustrate each main point in the chapter. Although Selfe notes in this section that elaborate instructional objectives often seem a waste of time, (as did the instructional systems colleague added late to our design team), she also recognizes the importance of these objectives in checking every aspect of the program. For inexperienced software writers Selfe's complete consideration of introductory, orientation, help, instruction, exercise, and concluding screens is excellent. This chapter encourages conscious pedagogical decisions about an evolving CAI lesson.
Because some of our initial reviews panned the generic teacher responses in software, we often opted for open-ended responses in our writing. Yet, our students who field tested our software liked the personalized, answer-specific responses. Chapter 5, "Integrating Response and Evaluation into a CAI Lesson," would have awakened us to effective ways of writing answer-specific responses. Selfe explains the advantages and disadvantages of both responses as well as suggesting five ways to script responses. Although in revision Selfe might want to add Screen and Response identification lines to Worksheet 17, the worksheets, especially on reviewing evaluation approaches, continue to be helpfully directive.
What a disappointment when the programmer for one of our exercises created graphics in color, forgetting that the monitors in our own computer classroom are monochromatic! Selfe's advice in Chapter 6 on "Thinking about Screen Display" includes "Think about transfer." Will most available computers in other schools accommodate the special effects you want to use? Another helpful area of advice concerns functional areas on a screen, a concept with which novice writers of software have had little reason to concern themselves. A major attribute of Selfe's book is her meticulous anticipation of each concern of beginning software writers.
This attribute highlights Chapter 7, "Field Testing in CAI Lesson." Our unsystematic field testing would have been more thorough had we had Selfe's advice to "make time for field testing." Selfe considers the content, timing, methodology, and personnel involved in field testing. Especially well done is the Survey for Students, which is succinct yet comprehensive.
Although we created software mainly for use in our own classrooms, writers interested in marketing their work should read Chapter 8, "Spreading the word about CAI Software." Although Selfe does not include her own book in her distribution advice, any reader would surely do so. Computer-Assisted Instruction in Composition: Create Your Own contains clear, well-organized suggestions on every aspect of software production by teachers. After reading it, writers will know a great deal.