Multiple layers of the word "access"

Paper #3: Object of Study– Variables of Access for Basic Writers Using Technology Inside and Outside of the Classroom

My proposed object of study is basic writing students’ access to technology outside of the classroom and how that level of access impacts their writing progress and/or retention in the program. When I first began teaching Basic Writing, I had several types of classroom environments. Three of my classes were at the college I still teach for, but they were each in a different type of classroom: daytime traditional classroom, daytime modular building (polite term for a trailer), and evening computer lab. In 2002, students who walked into the computer lab classroom were sometimes tempted to walk back out again and never return. I still have some students who would prefer not to work on the computers in our classrooms, but these students are fewer and farther between. This may be in part because all of our writing courses now meet in computer labs.

Shades of Use and Resistance

Somewhere in between 2002 and now, colleagues (not all colleagues, mind you) suggested that our students who do not have access to technology outside of the classroom would withdraw from our courses if they were pushed too hard into too much technology too quickly. By too much technology, they usually meant anything more than mere word processing. In her JBW article about computing and BW, Leigh Jonaitis defines the three categories of computer use in BW classrooms: “computer-assisted composition (word processing); computer-aided instruction, which is often self-paced, such as grammar drills that are assessed by a computer program; and computer-mediated communication, which includes online programs and discussions” (38). The self-paced computer-aided instruction via drills will not be addressed here as there is much scholarship in BW about how isolated practice does not transfer to writing ability. I’d like to argue for a fourth category of computerized composing that is beyond word processing but involves composing instead of activities like grammar drills or communication between students and the instructor or students and the class. In short, I think the definition of computer-assisted composing needs to widen beyond word processing to incorporate multimodal activities and revision strategies. Jonaitis observes, “Much of the research initially done on the use of technology with basic writers was on computer-assisted composition” (38), but this research focuses purely on the word processing definition of computer-assisted composition.

In 2004, Catherine Matthews Pavia wrote about her experience with students who had a variety of access to and comfort using computers for her writing class. In her case study of four students, she found that for two students, the use of computers in the classroom was prohibitive to their writing in some ways and determined that she should only require computer use as an option for her basic writers rather than a requirement (18): “Basic writing computer classrooms can be viewed as makers of opportunities– the basic writing classroom becomes a place to give all students the opportunity to write with technology, an opportunity students like Matt and Maria do not readily have. Yet, even as computers in the classroom create opportunities, they may accentuate differences in opportunity” (Matthews Pavia 15).

In a field like Basic Writing, there is certainly reluctance to further divide the have from the have nots. On the other hand, there is also a responsibility to train students for projects they will need to be able to complete in FYC. This dichotomy is often complicated by the professor’s own experience with and comfort using classroom technologies (Selfe 21). Additionally, professors who view BW students via a deficit model often view the students’ technology skills with that model as well: “This reluctance is based on the assumption that so-called ‘remedial’ students will be challenged by learning more ‘advanced’ technologies in addition to the writing tasks they have been assigned” (Jonaitis 42).

Use Without Acknowledgement of Access Issues

Of course, not all BW instructors resist use of technology in the classroom. Early published works about basic writers using technology in the 1980s and 1990s focus on skill and drill types of instruction or the benefit of word processing. More recent uses of classroom technology pedagogy are more difficult to find, but they cover everything from the benefits of WebCT for community building in a course (Megeehon 24), the use of ePortfolios for classroom communication and assessment (Klages and Clark), multimodal composition (Reid), to completely online courses. According to Lynn Reid in “The Politics of ReMEDIAtion: Multimodal Composing in Basic Writing, “Despite the paucity of published scholarship that directly addresses multimodal composing in basic writing, online forums, email lists, conference presentations, and corridor conversations with colleagues make clear to me that basic writing faculty are, without question, employing a wide range of digital pedagogies in their courses” (Reid). However, in many of the publications, no mention is made of issues of access to the technology outside of the classroom while the hallway and conference conversations tend to be ripe with concerns about access.

In a piece warning the field of Computers and Writing to pay attention to the issues of inequality with computer use in any composition classroom, Charles Moran admonishes, “Yet in our scholarship we either ignore/accept what Jonathan Kozol has termed the ‘savage inequalities’ of the systems in which we work, or we give an obligatory nod in their direction and quickly turn to something else. For us, the relationship between wealth and access seems to be one of those issues that ‘goes without saying’” (206).  But it cannot and should not go without saying or being questioned. In her essay about WebCT use in a BW classroom, Megeehon says nothing about students’ ability to access the platform outside of the classroom; this may have something to do with teaching at a public university (New Mexico State University at Alamogordo). Klages and Clark, both of LaGuardia Community College, address the issue of access briefly in their article about ePortfolios: “The digital divide is no longer about access to technology, but rather a more complex divide of those who have had the educational access, training, and critical engagement to use technology well as literate cyber-citizens” (48). I’d argue it is still about both. We cannot presume that all students have easy access to technology outside of the classroom, nor can we presume those who have access are comfortable using it fluently.

Students must be able to access devices (computers, phones, etc.) as a conduit or portal to the applications and programs they need for composition, but access is greater than a physical ability to get online. Selfe defines this other type of access, one that is more of knowledge and confidence, as technological literacy:

Rather, technological literacy refers to a complex set of socially and culturally situated values, practices, and skills involved in operating linguistically within the context of electronic environments, including reading, writing, and communicating. The term further refers to the linking of technology and literacy at fundamental levels of both conception and social practice. In this context, technological literacy refers to social and cultural contexts for discourse and communication and the ways in which electronic communication environments have become essential parts of our cultural understanding of what it means to be literate. (11)

The Call to Research

While some debate continues about whether or not our basic writing students have less physical access to technology, most recognize that at least some percentage of basic writing students has less technological literacy when compared to their FYC peers. What that differential actually is would be an interesting area of study. To what extent do basic writers need direct instruction in technological matters? Are they able to transfer knowledge of one tool (Microsoft Word, for example) to a similar but different tool (Google Drive)? In what ways do their experiences with social media impact their writing abilities?

Technological literacy is one object of study, but the issue of physical access is still of great concern to me. Moran, Selfe, Reid, and Jonaitis all acknowledge that basic writers are a group of sundry marginalized students, and our marginalized students are often without the means to have the same types of computers non-marginalized students frequently enter freshman year with. Of course, these days we’re used to seeing almost all of our students with phones in hand. While many complain of their students’ phone use, I see this as a great opportunity. As Stacey Pigg writes, “When we move and carry networked mobile writing technologies with us, coffee shops can become office spaces, seats on the bus can become sites of academic learning, and classrooms can become domains of personal communication” (252-253). I also concur with Pigg’s observation about mobile device research: “In general, writing research has paid relatively little attention to the places and materials students choose when making a place for completing academic writing projects” (267). How should we define access in light of mobile device use? How many students are currently using them for their writing assignments? How can we integrate that use into basic writing pedagogy? And will that be enough to close the technology gap?

Many of the pieces I read for this paper all have a call for more research. In 1999, Charles Moran wrote, “…we as a field [compositionists] all seem to agree that computers are unequally distributed to teachers and learners in our educational system, and that we agree, too, that access to emerging technologies is a function of wealth and social class. [….] we’ve not, as a field, paid sufficient attention to the fact that our students have differential access to computers” (215). In 2012, Jonaitis added, “The field [of Basic Writing] would benefit from future research that considers basic writers’ use of computer-mediated technologies in light of the discursive practices presented here, as well as research that further explores the technological hierarchies both inside and out of schools, and how they shape basic writers’ literacy practices” (53).

I have done some survey research at my institution to determine our students’ access to devices outside of the classroom, as well as what they intend to use for their major writing assignments and their comfort using certain classroom technologies because a few years ago, I was tired of hearing from multitudes of places (colleagues, national publications, etc) that it was presumed basic writing students do not have access to technology and will be reluctant users of technology in the classroom. I feel that some of this presumption is due to socioeconomic realities but some of it is in need of correction or at least exploration. In Basic Writing, we’ve finally mostly eradicated the deficit model from instruction. I believe if it is time to rid it from our understanding of student use of classroom technology with some provisions for socioeconomic realities.

Works Cited

Jonaitis, Leigh. “Troubling Discourse: Basic Writing and Computer-Mediated Technologies.” Journal of Basic Writing 31.1 (2012): 36-58. ERIC 13 Oct. 2015. Web.

Matthews Pavia, Catherine. “Issues of Attitude and Access: A Case Study of Basic Writers in a Computer Classroom.” Journal of Basic Writing 23.2 (2004): 4-22. Print

Megeehon, Alexandria. “Using Technology to Build a Community of Writers in Developmental Writing.” NADE Digest 4.1 (2008): 19-27. Print.

Moran, Charles. “Access: The A-Word in Technology Studies.” Passions, Pedagogies and 21st Century Technologies. Ed. Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe. NCTE: Urbana, IL, 1999. 205-220. Print.

Pigg, Stacey. “Embracing Mobile Composing Habits: A Study of Academic Writing in Networked Social Spaces” CCC 66.2 (2014): 250-275. Print.

Reid, Lynn. “The Politics of ReMEDIAtion.” Strategic Discourse: The Politics of (New) Literacy Crises. Ed. Lynn Lewis. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

Selfe, Cynthia. “Literacy and Technology Linked: The National Project to Expand Technological Literacy.” Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Paying Attention. SIUP: Carbondale, IL, 1999. 3-24. Print.

Image credit: Nicole Hancock via Google Draw


2 thoughts on “Paper #3: Object of Study– Variables of Access for Basic Writers Using Technology Inside and Outside of the Classroom

  1. You mention a lot of great points related to the difficulties surrounding assigning labels to basic writers as they related to technological access and literacy, Nicole. Last year, I served on a yearlong LMS Review Task Force charged with evaluating learning management systems and choosing one for our 4-campus college. A lot of the difficulties and biases came up in our research and discussion, complicated also by the fact that our four campuses are spread out over a geographical area that composes communities of varying socioeconomic backgrounds. The conflation of ‘basic writers’ language literacy and their technological literacy was one that popped up, as was the assumption that students at our inner-city campus “didn’t have access to the mobile technology,” which was a sweeping generalization and something not supported by either our student surveys or the data we had in Blackboard regarding how students were accessing the site. The danger of course is always in taking anecdotal evidence, which in and of itself isn’t bad by any means, but then turning it into a generalization. I’ve had several homeless students who didn’t have access to technology; one of those students, as recently as last week, was in an Honors course of mine. But I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that all of my honors students don’t have access to technology or value it (yet, as you point out, some have done this with basic writers). I’m very intrigued by your mention of technological literacy, and how students are able (or not able) to transfer technology skills from one setting to another. I agree that that’s a great area that needs additional research.

    As for what writing assignments could and should be written on a mobile device, and how we can incorporate that into our writing pedagogy, I would imagine there to be generally a big divide on that within many English departments. At my own institution, many on that LMS Review Task Force (when this topic arose) were very opposed to any “formal” writing being done on smartphones, but what was funny was when they then went to object to the same writing on tablets, and some of us pointed out that tablets can be hooked up to physical keyboards/docking stations, have powerful word processing programs, etc., they backed down and said, “well maybe tablets are alright here, but I don’t know how they see it!” I think this illustrates the need for more research. We all have our own preferences, and sometimes those color how we see others working.

    With the surveys you did, were these just in your and colleagues’ classes or was it an institutional level survey of technological access? If the latter, did you get a good response? Did you incentivize students to respond in some way (drawings, prizes, gift cards?). Just curious–our response rate was dismal.


    1. Mike, Thank you so much for the great comment! The surveys we did were completed in class. We had paper surveys so technology would not be an issue when taking the survey. Our Outcomes Assessment Department used a program to compile the data for me. There was no additional incentive. We eventually did an electronic survey for our online composition students to take it as well and somehow managed a decent response rate. This may have something to do with how instructor evaluations are managed in the online courses, though. If students do not open them within the required time-frame, they get locked out of Blackboard, so our experienced online students have more incentive than most to respond to the online surveys. I hope to write more about my surveys in the next paper.


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