The Written, the Archived and the Active

Technologies become fascinating when we consider the human institutions in which they function and the relations they foster. The occasion of this particular set of reflections is my dialogue with Dr. Brian Greenspan one of the key organizers of a conference

Writing Across the Lines: Teaching with Technology

held in March 1997 at the University of Toronto (Scarborough).

The organizers list three goals of which the third to be enumerated is

to develop practical strategies for implementing cost-effective courses and programmes that will improve our students' literacy skills.

The cost recovery model can be harnessed to the ideal of universally accessible and affordable post-secondary education.

Indeed, the statistical gathering capabilites of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) will allow future administrators and senior academic officers to not only justify expense but also to argue for the social good of accessibility and that post-secondary education should be adequately funded.

Nature & Cost of Accesses

Every institution pays the cost of not accounting for actual access. There is a simple question here. Of whom to whom by whom? Academia is, in a strong sense, the site of exchanges.

There was a time when auditing courses was free. There is nary an institution that set its counters to keep track of such a service. The audience was not seen as a contributor to the college life. The community was intramuros including the invisible college of researchers and professors tied together inter-institutionally by disciplinary lines. The dominant mindset was that of community of scholars on the one hand and general public on the other. CMC has allowed more people to understand that this was never the case. That along with public and community there was audience.

To Liss Jeffrey of the The McLuhan Program In Culture And Technology, University of Toronto, and historian of media communications I owe the distinction between community, audience and public.

From Dr. Geoffrey Rockwell I derive the important notion of eavesdropping in pedagogical situations. See his work on the philosophical dialogue, A Unity of Voices.

Before examining access in terms of writing labs and teaching, let us extrapolate from a model of access to the library.

A publicly funded library is open to all readers (the stacks may not be). Physical access has an electronic analog. For example, the library catalogue and databases are searchable by any one who is wired but certain database are not because of licensing agreements.

This type of access accountability addresses the reader. And very often even in writing classes the students are positioned as readers, at best, note takers during a lecture. Let us take our students seriously as publishers. I do not mean just proto-publishers.

But behold libraries also serve writers. Here access gets interesting. Not everyone's book gets into every library. Such are the market forces of publishing and the vagaries of taste. However just as National Libraries do have deposit rules, CMC environments can gather examples of student work into corpra; track length and nature of interaction between students and between students and faculty; correlate test scores with the quantitative measures of the pedagogical interaction (thus opening up informed debate on comparators). Most importantly the management of CMC environments itself can be tracked so that the costs of gathering and presenting use and success data are themselves recursively fitted into the analysis.

But lets us return to a micro-focus. Translated into the writing lab this means that people don't always get to publish in your forums (Web space, discussion list, moo etc.) or get feedback from tutors in person but they should have access to your syllabus and be able to form study groups on their own.

One example:
Professor Andrew Ford has posted the questions to an exam on the WWW. There is a wonderful question (III,3) there which invites students to imagine hosting in their home a symposium attended by three figures of the occidental intellectual heritage. The dialogues so-produced could be posted as well. Thus developing a corpus from year to year.

The implications of interrogating the nature and cost of access are evident. Success criteria need not be tied solely to enrolment, retention and completion. Under a print regime, the measure of textbook sales was important to the progress through the ranks of the professoriat. In the collaborative worlds of the CMC such measures may spell the survival of programs that depend on continued human resources and upgrading and system maintenance capital. Even when the classroom is envisaged as a time-sensitive grouping in cyberspace, service to groups outside the classroom needs to be counted.

From Access to Interaction

So now that we are thinking in terms of a series of audiences, publics and communities, let's apply the reader/writer distinction to a typology found in the WWW space of the Institute for Academic Technology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill developed on a page developed by Chad Kearsley. Listed are three types of interaction







In extending the classroom through supplemental interaction system planners need to consider if autonomous study groups can form out of materials freely available. How big and transparent the fishbowl? Consider inter-institutional partnerships. Your readers may be anywhere. Your writers working in an exchange-environment set up by twin institutions.

Evidently the inside/outside take on writer/reader can be applied to the collaborative learning that stems from human interaction. What is not evident is the cost of not inviting student work to be exposed to public feedback. Devasting for the novice writer you say? But what are pseudonyms for? Not just cute handles for the chat rooms where newbies and pros rub shoulders in many an e-community with lurkers sometimes putting in a comment... Of course any budget conscious planner knows that it takes time & advertising for such space to develop.

Content interaction that enriches the learning cries out for a consideration of how the speaking/listening modes can be introduced via multimedia in the writing/composing lab. These are of course the "quatre savoirs" of classical second language instruction. They are also the basis for any pedagogical interaction. It is worth exploring how IVR (Interactive Voice Response) can deliver some benefits in the short term before the technology of convergence is fully distributed and accessible.

To Access Interaction Plan Integratively

which is not the same as integration...
which is not the same as de-segregation, as James Baldwin reminds us.

The IAT syntagm lists the types of interaction in the order of supplemental; content; human.
Note how this listing invites us to travel from the big picture classroom without walls (extended library, lab, campus) to the intimate view. From the materials gathered to the human gathering. Notice that sandwiched between the supplemental and the human is a content.
If this typology is transcoded into more general terms

  • architecture
  • objects
  • agents.

then our cost accounting can be done in terms of building, housing and hosting. We can then ask what kind of society would invest in the building of museums without budgeting for artefacts. Or the money to tell people what's there.

How can a human gathering produce materials for other gatherings? It's quite a different notion of a class or teaching/learning and it is not a question so far from sound practices. It does involve valuing the good, the bad and the ugly.

Copyright © François Lachance 1997
All Rights Reserved