Russell A. Hunth
St. Thomas University

Computer-Based Written Dialogue in Teaching and Learning Across the Disciplines

[as published in Ninth Conference on Computers and Writing Presentation Summaries. Ann Arbor: English Composition Board, 1993. 120-122]

"Collaborative Investigation" is a teaching method currently under development at a number of universities whereby students participate actively and meaningfully in the making of knowledge. In this process, students learn not only the "substance" of a discipline but are also enabled to gain an understanding of the ways in which that discipline (and, by implication, other disciplines as well) creates and exchanges knowledge through continuing dialogue -- oral as well as written -- between members of the discipline.

Students thus can move toward a broader understanding of what knowledge is and how it is created and transmitted, of research methods and the nature of scholarship. They can gain experience of collaborating with others in the creation and sharing of knowledge. And they can learn a great deal about the ways in which such activities are mediated by writing and about the kinds of writing characteristic of the discipline; further, they can gain a great deal of practice in writing in those and other ways. Most important, the practice in writing in which they participate is dialogic, and thus potentially engaged: texts are created in situations in which writers can have authentic audiences and authentic purposes.

It is a method which can be used in a wide range of disciplines. Currently, it is regularly employed in courses ranging from introductory literature to forest mensuration, from introductory courses in cognitive psychology to senior courses in religious studies, rhetoric, the history of psychology, and literary theory.

There are many variations in detail among the ways in which collaborative investigation is employed, according to the demands of the discipline and the preferences of the professor. But elements common across disciplines include the following:

In my courses (ranging from introductory literature through children's literature to seminars in eighteenth century literature and literary theory) for the past four years, this process has been increasingly conducted through the medium of a computer network. (Courses in cognitive psychology, rhetoric and religious studies have all been based on the same computer network.) The hard- and software support available has of course changed dramatically over that period. The current situation is that a Novell network linking a number of computers in a lab (with connected workstations in teachers' offices) runs a mail system, a bulletin board for discussions, and a word processor which accesses the student's own, private subdirectory, as well as a common subdirectory shared by all members of the course.

By sequencing introduction into these systems so that the simplest (electronic mail) comes first in the course, and by encouraging collaborative learning from the very beginning of the process, we largely circumvent problems often associated with learning to use computers and computer programs; learning to use the computer network becomes parallel to the other kinds of learning in the course.

This infrastructure supports a number of different activities:

Typically, a student involved in such a course would write many times as much as for a conventional course, and, perhaps more important, in many more kinds of situations, for many more kinds of audience and purpose than in a conventional educational situation. Besides the production of "formal academic writing" for a final product, the student might write in the following situations: Almost none of these kinds of writing occur in conventionally organized classrooms.

Further, and perhaps equally important, none is the form labeled by James Britten as "writing for the teacher as examiner"; none, in fact, is ever formally evaluated (though all are read in situations where what they say and whether it is said effectively matter, in the sense that they have immediate, practical consequences). Neither is writing commented on or corrected, except in situations where groups do final copy editing for publication.

Normally, a session in which this process was described would be comprised of three sections: exposition and explanation; discussion, exploration and clarification; and practical applications, with the final two sections doubling as demonstrations of how class sessions might be conducted, and as explorations of the ideas and their possible practical implications. As a twenty-minute presentation, however, I will primarily outline the process and present some examples of the kinds of writing development (and student reflections on the development) that occur in the course of one example of this sort of intensely dialogic "writing immersion" experience, the year-long course in Restoration and Eighteenth Century Literature I conducted during the academic year 1992-93.