The CONNECTed Class
An article by Ann Woodlief on just how (and why) CONNECT works in a literature class, 1996
Teaching students how to develop their own voices and strengthen the persuasiveness of their arguments for readers who may be disinterested, skeptical, or opposed is perhaps the hardest task to undertake in the traditional teacher-centered classroom. Eliciting good discussion and strong workshop skills from all students, and not just the few more assertive ones, to create a truly collaborative learning environment is also challenging, especially within the strict time limits of class periods.
For years I have struggled to find ways to encourage all my students to speak their ideas and listen and respond to those of others in the class, convinced that these are the primary ways they learn how to write. So I have often turned to the computer to ease the sharing of papers essential for a collaborative class. Even in the days when all we had available was an IBM mainframe computer offering the awkward Script wordprocessing, with few work stations), lousy printers, and the habit of crashing frequently, my students agreed that using computers was worth the bother (and sometimes agony).
That is the background for my enthusiasm for CONNECT, a Windows-based computer program available from our LANserver, which makes possible--and easy--a truly collaborative environment. This program, from WW Norton of anthology fame, was developed particularly for composition classes, although it works well for any discussion-based and writing intensive class.
CONNECT now works in tandem with WORD for Windows, a word-processing program which easily converts files from other programs, including WordPerfect and Works (even MAC files saved to an IBM-formatted disk). The WORD spelling and grammar checks and thesaurus as well as a CONNECT version of the Norton Handbook are available at the click of the mouse.
In simplified terms (as with most computer programs, it really must be seen in action!), CONNECT works this way. The teacher posts a writing assignment, perhaps including special instructions or even a sample paper. Students write their papers, using any program WORD will convert, and bring them to class on their CONNECT disks, when they post them on the computer, either to the class as a whole or a critique/discussion group (the teacher's call on this). Students may then read and comment on other student papers, posting "publicly" either to a class or a group discussion, either by name or pseudonym. They may copy and paste from the student paper in their comment, thus being quite specific. They may also send messages to the teacher and to each other (if the teacher allows this) for their private comments and questions.
Electronic (hypertext) grading is one of the most powerful features of CONNECT. The teacher can mark text and type comments which appear not in the student's text itself but by double clicking on a small icon. She can create individualized icons and accompanying comments, for those made repeatedly; CONNECT offers about 20 icons with common editing comments (which maybe edited) also. Or the reader can be easily linked to the applicable section of the on-line handbook.
Another fine feature is the program's "transparency." A student''s papers and messages are automatically uploaded when he enters the program and then saved to his CONNECT disk and to the network when he exits. Such automatic features do much to avoid the kinds of foolish errors we all make when using the computer!
This program does not have quite the immediacy of discussions on DAEDALUS, which many instructors have been using. However, it does seem to promote more serious discussion and more substantial papers. It also has the advantage of being available to students in any of the Hibbs computer rooms, as well as from the basement of Cabell Library, and at any time, so that the discussions, postings, and revisions can be done outside the class period or room.
Students buy access to CONNECT (as well as disks and an excellent text) for $24.95, and it can be used for any classes they ever take using this program.
I have been using CONNECT for a year with my classes, although this is the first year it has been in a Windows format. The support from Norton has been exceptional; both students and teachers can call an 800-number any time and get full, personal support--no waiting. This semester my students learned it much more quickly than they did in the DOS version, and I found many more students than before already comfortable using the mouse and Windows.
Pedagogically speaking, I am still learning just how powerful this tool is. Students seem to take their writing much more seriously when they have to present their ideas to students as well as the teacher, making their ideas stand up to the questions and different reader perspectives. They feel much freer to comment at length, and are always astonished to discover how much more they want to say, in their own papers and in discussion, in this format. And of course, everyone talks and everyone listens! As a teacher, I am also part of the discussion, with my comments modeling ways the students can comment productively on each others papers. Although students know that I will eventually be grading their papers, they soon become much more aware of the need to reach all of their readers, not just me.
Perhaps the most surprising discovery has been just how much students learn from reading each other's papers. I have always suspected that students could recognize the quality of a paper much better than we realize (even if they can't quite match it), and I've seen this happening repeatedly. They learn much about writing by reading strong student papers, and they soon figure out which ones are stronger and why (even though they see no grades). Then they "reach," trying to get their own papers to be just as good, not so much for the grade as for the personal satisfaction--collaboration does not necessarily cancel the values of competition!
For most of us, the most surprising effect is the intimacy of communication which is established in this electronic medium. Though students may not know for a while what the other students look like, they do soon know a lot about how they think and feel. I am often astonished by how much students choose to reveal about themselves, and how much they may bond with each other over the semester. Although that is not my purpose for using the computer, it is the kind of result which seems to motivate the students to engage more fully with the course and their writing.
Because I am so curious about the cognitive processes going on in the electronic discussion medium, my classes almost always meet in the computer center. However, I could see some advantage in having periodic sessions there or having on-line postings and discussions more asynchronously, and being in the classroom at other times. I've noticed that the quantity and quality of discussion increase in the classroom for students who have become comfortable with electronic discussions. Here is a sample class CONNECT discussion on "The Yellow Wallpaper."
Added Summer 1997: CONNECT is now available as CONNECT.Net, accessible from the Internet, not just the local LAN-server, and it (as does CONNECT) allows teacher or students to put in "hot URLs" to Web sites. Pretty cool!