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What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Using Computers in the Basic Writing Classroom

Dave DeBaker

Technology in a Basic Writing Classroom
If you walk on any campus, from middle school to college, you’ll hear the word technology mentioned over and over again. Schools are adding more and more technology into writing classes — specifically more computers, word processing programs, web browsers, and website authoring software.

Since most basic computer instruction –how to use word processing, using the internet, emailing—falls on the shoulders of the writing teacher, it’s important for a basic writing teacher to have an understanding of how different types of technology affect their writing class.

The question becomes: What are the advantages and disadvantages of using technology in a basic writing class?

What are some disadvantages?
Some case studies have shown that when a computer is introduced into a classroom that it begins to breakdown collaboration and interaction between the students. Students become engrossed on the screen and not their classmates. It has also been shown that it creates a more teacher centered class than student centered class. Students questions become more, “How do I do this with the computer?” as opposed to questions that create discussion and allows the teacher to ask question, such as, “What do you think of my opening paragraph?” It was shown in a study done by Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe that writing teachers weren’t aware of this issue. On the survey given by Hawisher and Selfe, most writing teachers answered that the computers had increased collaboration and interaction, but when Hawisher and Selfe observed their classrooms, they found the opposite happening.

Another disadvantage is the issue of access for basic writing students. While this is becoming less of an issue than in years past, for basic writing students it’s still something to take into consideration. A study done showed that only 56% of the poor students in their sample had a computer at home, compared to 87% of non-poor students. Race also plays a part in access as the study showed that 84% of white students had a computer at home, while only 52% of African American students and 59% of Latino students had a computer at home (Eamon 99). This can affect students in various ways. Since a basic writing student may not have grown up with a computer in the home, their typing skills may be far behind some of their classmates. Which could cause the student to produce less writing with the computer than they could with a paper and pen.

Studies have also shown that basic writing students tend to give too much faith to the computer and rarely question what it tells them. This is shown in how students use grammar checker. Instead of critically thinking about the choices offered, students just make the changes that the computer suggests. If a basic writing student doesn’t have a grasp on some of the basic rules of grammar they won’t be able to determine if the computer’s assessment of their grammar is correct. The idea of too much faith also translates into how a student uses the internet to research. Instead of critically thinking about the validity of a source, a student may just pick the first thing that pops up from the search engine.

What are some advantages?
One advantage is that message boards and online reflections, such as blogs, can give a voice to the voiceless in a classroom and increase collaboration. It can also let students share more of their work with the class at large. Normally not everyone participates in a class discussion and group work usually only exposes the students to the work of their groupmates. But in an online discussion forum, each student is required to add to the discussion. Each student is also able to see what their classmates wrote about in their responses. In a study done by Judith Mara Kish in her basic writing classroom, using a forum to share and comment on their classmates ideas for a paper assignment help to alleviate writers block for some students. With the forum, they were able to see how others generated topics and to offer suggestions on how to approach the different topics.

Another advantage comes when you make the students critically think about computers. An article by Particia J. McAlexader discusses how she makes the students begin to think critically about the grammar checker. She spends the first part of the semester going over common grammar errors with the students. Then she has the students test the grammar checker by having them input sentences with grammar errors to see what (or if) the grammar checker finds. They then must see if the advice the grammar checker gives is correct based on what they had learned previously and give her a report.

A meta-analysis of studies about how computers have affected student writing showed that the use of a computer increased the quantity of student writing and also the quality of student writing. This increase was also more dramatic in higher grades than in the lower grades (Goldberg 14–16). This meta-analysis also showed that in some studies there was an “improvement in students’ literacy skills, attitudes toward writing, and an increase in the number of students who demonstrated high-order thinking skills in their writing” (Goldberg 18).

Works Cited

Conway, Glenda . “‘What Are We Doing Today?’ High School Basic Writers Collaborating in a Computer Lab.” Computers and Composition, 12 (1995): 79–95. This article is a case study done on how computers effect how students collaborate in a basic writing class. It focuses on students working on a class project to create a murder mystery.
Eamon, Mary Keegan. “Digital Divide in Computer Access and Use Between Poor and Non-poor Youth.” Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare 31.1 (2004): 91–112. This article uses data from a national sample to study the ownership and use of computers based on income and race.
Goldberg, Amie, Michael Russell, and Abigail Cook. “The Effect of Computers on Student Writing: A Meta-analysis of Studies from 1992 to 2002.” The Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment 2.1 (2003). Various case studies on the use of computers in writing classes were analyzed to look for an overview of how computers effect student writing.
Hawisher, Gail E. and Selfe, Cynthia L. “The Rhetoric of Technology and the Electronic Writing Class.” College Composition and Communication 24.1 (1991): 55–65. In this article Hawisher and Selfe look at the differences between what teachers say about computers in their classroom (they increase collaboration) and what they witnessed in observations (they decrease collaboration).
Kish, Judith Mara. “Breaking the Block: Basic Writers in the Electronic Classroom.” Journal of Basic Writing 19.2 (2000): 141–155. Kish looks at how computers can be used to help basic writing students overcome writers block, gain a better understanding of genres, and the organization of a piece of writing.
McAlexander, Patricia. “Checking the Grammar Checker: Integrating Grammar Instruction With Writing.” Journal of Basic Writing 19.2 (2000): 124–139. A series of lessons on how McAlexander teaches grammar to basic writing students by starting with traditional drilling and testing and moving to having the students test the grammar checker to apply what they’ve learned.
Pavia, Catherine Matthews. “Issues of Attitude and Access: A Case Study of Basic Writers in a Computer Classroom” Journal of Basic Writing 23.2 (2004): 4–22. Pavia discusses how students who do not possess strong computer literacy skills feel about using computers inside the classroom.
Stine, Linda. “The Best of Both Worlds: Teaching Basic Writers in Class and Online.” Journal of Basic Writing 23.2 (2004): 49–69. This article discusses various issues relating to teaching basic writers online and using technology in the classroom. A case is made for an online course for basic writers that includes a few traditional class meetings.


CompPile search terms. Technology. Computers. Message boards. Internet. Grammar checkers. Computer access. Digital divide. word processing.

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Page last modified on April 16, 2008, at 08:39 AM