A Case Study of Ted Nellen's "Cyber English" Class

Teaching Writing in a Web Based Classroom:

A Case Study


Ted Nellen's "Cyber English" Class

by Elizabeth Cushman Brandjes
April 24, 1997

Introduction: A Review of the Research Regarding Web-Based Classrooms

The Internet has fast become a global system for communication and information exchange, and its use and that of the World Wide Web can enhance the writing classroom in several ways. Teachers and students can engage in consistent dialogue about assignments or issues which may help to foster a more positive, nurturing classroom environment. In addition to consistency, the feedback obtained in a web-based classroom is also more immediate than that in a traditional classroom. Use of the Internet provides students with access to millions of sources of information, and classrooms provide the structure to help students learn to discriminate between useful and frivolous sources. Additionally, students who learn the necessary skills for designing and composing hypertext not only become more competitive in terms of future job opportunities, but they also acquire the skills needed to publish their writing on the Web. Lastly, if students are aware that their work will be published on the Internet, it may inspire them to work harder, ask more questions, and revise their work more often. Internet based classes are of high interest and help develop skills of communication, thinking, and writing. The key to the success of a web-based classroom lies in the choices teachers and students make for use of this technology.

In his book, Writing Relationships, Lad Tobin states, "Student writing would improve if teachers played a less authoritarian role in their interactions with students and fostered more supportive student-student relationships." (1993, p. 4) The use of email on an Internet system promotes discussion between teacher and students as well as among students. The teacher becomes a participant in the discussion, leading and encouraging dialogue about writing, and modeling the use of computer mediated communication. When students have access to each other as resources for sharing work and receiving criticism, they become more involved, as the writing assignments take on a more social nature. Risk taking in writing may become more common as a student reads others' writing or receives regular, positive encouragement from the teacher and peers. At the same time, the teacher facilitates by designing activities, assignments, and his or her own Web pages containing information which relates to the needs of the students. The teacher determines needs both through email exchange with individual students as well as through observing student process and product as works are published on the Web. (Quinlan, 1996)

Analysis of student response to Internet based classes at John Carroll University in Cleveland indicates that engagement with new technologies provides students with the confidence they need to approach various new learning situations, especially those related to other emerging technologies. (Beadle, 1996) These students were given specific problems to solve in short periods of time. The students remarked that email was a convenient and useful way to communicate with partners and with the teacher, and said things like, "felt more free to voice my problems and concerns," "responses received quickly," and "I could address my problem as it was happening and she always replied." (Beadle, p. 20)

The students used Netscape Navigator to access information on the World Wide Web, and they were fascinated by their ability to access global resources easily. The more students are immersed in Web sites, the more they can determine the value of a particular site in relation to another. If they too are learning to write hypertext, they can easily distinguish a glitzy, spectacular site from one that may have more information. They also learn which sites are easiest to navigate through as well as easiest to read. When a Web site is easy to read, it is not necessarily constructed with less information. A document that is all text based provides cues for the reader through organization and arrangement of words and sentences in relation to one another. A text that is visually informative (Bernhardt, 1986) utilizes rhetorical organization as well. Often, a hypertext contains as much or more information as a linear text, and the reader is allowed to "jump around in the text to get additional information on a particular topic." (Hill and Misic, p. 14) Through exposure to Web based resources, students are able to learn useful design skills which may bring to a meta-cognitive level the rhetorical skills used in traditional composition.

Students who utilize the Web to access information realize that they have access to resources from all over the world. Hopefully, they "gain an understanding of the school's place in the community and the community's place in America and the world." (Milone, p. 40) Additionally, creating a Web page of their own "gives students a chance to show off what they have accomplished." (Milone, p.40) In Kirby, Liner, and Vinz's book, Inside Out: Developmental Strategies for Teaching Writing, the following three reasons for publishing student writing are stressed: "1) Writing becomes a socially constructed process of communication, as teachers, students, and the wider, global audience maintain a dialogue which brings the act of writing to a metacognitive level; 2) Publishing is the only reason for the writing to be important enough for the hard work of editing and proofreading; and 3) Publishing involves the ego, which is the strongest incentive for the student writer to keep writing." (1988, p. 237) Traditionally, publishing is reserved for the final draft of a piece of writing. In a Web based class, process can be emphasized over product, as series of drafts can be published. The "writing task becomes a real effort at communication," (? ) as teachers, students, and the wider, global audience maintain a dialogue which brings the act of writing to a meta-cognitive level.

Finally, mastering the use of the Internet for research, communication, and publishing helps students become better users of language, and at the same time they learn a new set of skills becoming increasingly desirable in the work world. "Businesses have found that the Internet is a good way to gather and disseminate information because it is an established network and it reaches around the world. Students need to be introduced to the use of the Internet since they may be using it in the near future in the business world." (Hill and Misic, 1996) The technological revolution is under way, so it is the responsibility of schools and teachers to help students utilize the new tools for communication and research in responsible, productive ways. In Web based classrooms, teachers can arrange information using hypertext which helps students see "connections between diverse realms of knowledge." (Winner in Quinlan, 1996) In turn, students learn critical skills which contribute to their ability to not only comprehend but to contribute to this global compilation of knowledge.

Field Observations in a Web Based Classroom

Entering Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers, located near City Hall in lower Manhattan, one is greeted by the usual security guards. At first glance, they think I am a student, but then they either recognize me or something about my demeanor or dress communicates my age. I run up the four flights of stairs, losing steam at each landing, to observe Ted Nellen's Cyber English class. Cyber English was born fourteen years ago, and is based on the constructivist approach to education. Ted's philosophy is grounded in his conviction that learners must contribute to and take responsibility for their own learning, sharing what they already know and adding to their knowledge base by researching their own inquiries.

Ted teaches two sections of Cyber English, and each class meets once a day for a full year. It is a heterogeneously grouped class comprised of eleventh grade students from diverse cultural backgrounds. Levels of English language proficiency range from the highest in the school to students who have only lived in America for two or three years. Ted's class is representative of the student population at Murry Bergtraum High which serves over 3,000 students primarily of African, Latino/a, and Asian heritage.

The classroom is a large, rectangular space, about the size of two standard classrooms. It is furnished with several two-person lab tables placed end to end and arranged in two long rows. Each row is two tables wide and seven tables long. There is an aisle between the two rows. Each lab table is a work station with one computer, and a work space providing room for the student to refer to books or to place handwritten drafts or notebooks. Each work station is equipped with a dictionary, a grammar book, and two literature anthologies used by Ted and the other teachers who teach in this room. See 439.

Against one of the side walls is Ted's work station. Located here is the server for the system. Ted's class is not on a Local Area Network, but instead draws its interactivity from the Internet. With the help of some friends, Ted has rigged one phone line which, along with a 28.8 speed modem, allows all thirty computers to access Netscape Navigator. From Netscape, they access the high school's home page, and they enter the class's home page via Telnet from there. Over the summer, Murry Bergtraum is having a T-1 cable installed which will increase the speed with which Internet access by multiple users takes place. The Board of Education is purchasing the T-1 cable and paying for its installation. After installation, the cable costs one-thousand dollars per month to operate. The Board of Education has agreed to pay one half of this monthly charge, and Murry Bergtraum High is working the other half into their budget. Because the cable is so costly, and because the school will be charged for twelve months a year, not the school year, Ted envisions summer opportunities for students and members of the community. He feels that the purchasing of the cable is an acknowledgement of what he has done with this project, and that the opportunity for members of the community to experience this environment first-hand will help convince a larger audience of its merits.

Also at the work station against the side wall are two multi-media computers hooked up to CD-Rom players, a scanner, and a printer. The students do not usually print anything during class because there is a delicate balance to having all thirty computers on the same line at once. If a student sends a print command, it can possibly freeze up the entire system. When asked about the lack of printing capability, Ted said, "They're (the students) not as dependent on hard copy as we are. Because they're work is always in progress, I can constantly view it. If a piece really needs help, I'll print a hard copy and mark it up with the kid." He also believes that not focusing on print is part of the design of the class. The non-linear nature of many of their writing projects makes them difficult to print. Also, his printers only print in black and white, so the design features that may aid in the ease of reading a document (Bernhardt) may be lost if printed.

At the head of the class are two sliding white boards, behind which are cabinets housing more classroom texts, discs, and other supplies for class. At the back of the room is a closet which Ted has converted into a small office. The office is home to Ted's library of books, shelved from waist to ceiling, as well as a computer, a printer, a photocopier, and a phone. Ted uses this computer as a data base for students' grades, and for administrative work for the English department. Anything that requires confidentiality is stored in and worked on from this computer. Ted works in this office space during his preparation time, and at the work station in the classroom during class time. Between the two stations and his home computer, Ted has constant access to the high school's Web site, (of which he is the Web master), the web site for the class, and the students' work.

One criticism of computer laboratory classrooms is that they are cold, insensitive places where students stare at computer screens for the whole period, and have no real communication with one another. Ted's classroom is a very different place than this. The physical environment, although crammed with hardware, sends a message that serious work is to be done here, and that students have the primary responsibility for seeking knowledge that will enable them to grow. For example, three small bulletin boards on one side wall contain the information needed for the interdisciplinary research papers that all students are working on. The students can refer to this sheet to check the content specifications, format requirements, and due dates for their papers. Another board displays a poster for National poetry month, and another has listings for essay contests the students could enter.

Quotes, such as "Shakespeare Lives," "Lost time is never found again," and "Trust Thyself" decorate one wall, while the web address for the school is written on the bright orange beams which span the ceiling space of the room. Maps of the United States and the world hang in one corner, while a ceiling to floor sized mural, painted by a student, decorates another. Posters featuring famous African Americans and their contributions hang in another spot. The wall which Ted's work station is built against also has a long bulletin board decorated with student art work, posters, writing samples, informational items, calendars, and even an imaginary window with different authors featured in each pane. Plants sit atop file cabinets, and pictures of Ted's family can be found here and there, mostly in his closet-office. The room is well lighted both by overhead fixtures and windows; however, Ted has closed the shades on one side of the room to prevent glare on the computer screens.

As students enter the room, a clear routine seems to have been established. They go to the cabinets behind the white board and take their discs from their disc file-box. They then find an open computer station and log on to the system. The first thing they do is check their email, after which Ted usually presents a short mini-lesson and a list of objectives for the class. He has already placed all of this information on "Today's menu," located on the class web-page. He tells the students to check this list if they lose track of what they are to do. The students usually spend about ten minutes reading and responding to their email. Their email contains a variety of messages. There will always be at least one message from Ted or from one of his two student teachers, Grace and Tracy. The teachers read and respond to the work the students have completed, or have not yet completed, and send the students feedback regarding content, style, and considerations for revising. As Ted says, "Their work is constantly in process."

On one occasion, I overheard a student reading an email message aloud to the student next to her. She was very excited about the message which was a critique of her essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne's, "Young Goodman Brown." The message contained some curt criticisms suggesting she had not provided enough explanation of Faith as a symbol in the story, and that her essay was lacking in detail. The message was not composed in complete sentences, but instead just listed the problems with the essay. She said, "Ooohh, this kid's is good! I'm writing him a letter, man!" She then proceeded to chastise the sender because his message contained spelling errors and incomplete sentences. She composed a very clear message indicating that the sender should check his own work before picking on hers. She called Mr. Nellen over to read the letter she had written before sending it. Ted suggested that she not be so confrontational, but think about what his message had told her regarding her own writing, and instead thank the reader for his insights. He also suggested that there were ways to respond to his criticism that would not end the dialogue about her essay. Ted suggested she ask him to explain what he meant in his short statements by directing her to the specific areas of her essay where he saw problems. She agreed, revised her message, and sent it off.

The entire exchange is an example of the kind of enthusiasm and engagement which occurs when a writer's audience is expanded. This student, although a bit stunned by the criticism at first, was inspired to continue the dialogue with this reader. She learned a valuable lesson about accepting criticism and responding in a productive manner. Additionally, she shared the experience with both another student in the class and with the teacher, countering the arguments that classrooms using computers promote disengagement. These classrooms may look different, sound different, indeed, they are being conducted differently, but the students are learning valuable skills for communicating.

This example is just one in which Ted was actively engaged with the students. Ted knows his students better than most teachers, because he communicates with them through the internet on a daily basis. Regular exchanges of written dialogue between the teacher and his students have created a classroom in which the students trust their teacher and do not feel threatened or pressured by the work. The tone of the room is one of mutual support and respect among the students and between the teacher and the students. Students do interact with one another in Ted's class. They do not sit like zombies in front of their monitors, banging away at keyboards.

Ted prefers communicating through email to using Local Area Network programs such as Daedalus and ASPECTS. He sees both of these as "useful tools," especially for classrooms which may not be connected to the internet. He also finds them helpful for teachers who are beginning to implement technology into their classrooms, because they allow teachers to experiment in a closed space before opening up the students' work to the world. Most of the features of these LAN applications can be implemented into the design of his class's "ToDay's MenU." http://mbhs.bergtraum.k12.ny.us/menu.html He feels his methods offer more creativity and versatility to the teacher and to the students. At the same time, the internet access broadens the students' audience and supports the possibility for more authentic experiences with writing and revision.

In classrooms such as Ted's, the teacher does not have to be the only expert when it comes to technology. I often witnessed students helping each other with problems related to the technology. In a class of thirty students, the teacher can't be everywhere at once. The first occasion involving collaborative problem solving occurred when a young man had raised his hand and was waiting patiently for Mr. Nellen to help troubleshoot some problem he was having. The girl seated to his right said, "What's wrong, Thomas?" He told her, and she rose from her station and stood behind him to see his screen. She told him what she thought the problem was, and he nodded. They each made a few key strokes, and he said, "Oh, yeah. That's it. OK. Thanks." She returned to her seat and resumed her work. This kind of interaction builds confidence and community in the classroom and indicates that the students see learning as a shared experience, not something to be done in isolation or competitively.

The next occasion involved a student, Benji, who was clearly having trouble getting started on his science research paper on Jonas Salk. He was trying to find Jonas Salk by searching the Alta Vista White Pages. Another student overheard what he was doing and said, "You can't find him there! He's dead." It turned out that she was also researching Jonas Salk, so she shared a web site address with Benji, who carefully typed it in to the URL space on Netscape. She watched him over his shoulder, correcting him verbally if he made a mistake. Eventually, he was connected to the web site and began to read the information.

In the meantime, Benji's "helper" was back at her work station, reading and clicking, and taking some notes with pen and paper. Benji opened his composing space and began writing HTML code for his notes on Salk. I sat with him and we brain stormed what we remembered from reading the web site. He then created a link to the web site and saved his work. From there he went back to surfing for more information. On this occasion, a student who needs a little extra guidance was able to receive the boost he needed from a peer. She, in turn, did not covet her findings, but helped her classmate get started. The students seem to realize that the information is out there for everyone, and that what we do with the information is the part that is unique.

Ted believes the Cyber English environment serves the at-risk students especially well for a variety of reasons. Assignments in Ted's class are layered and have scattered due dates, so a student can come to class, check his or her mail for special messages from teachers or other readers of their work, and then go to the daily menu. From there the student can choose which assignment to work on that day. Most importantly, the environment is different from anything they have experienced before, and everyone comes in a novice. For students who have been unsuccessful in traditional English classes, this class holds no expectation of failure. The students see the class as a fresh start, or a new approach to English. Once they learn the basic routines they are free to work at their own pace. The students have more choices than they would in a traditional classroom, and they have more possibilities of presenting their learning in different ways from their peers.

The Cyber English class is also different from the traditional English class at Murry Bergtraum, because it is heterogeneously grouped. Students of varying abilities are somewhat equalized in this environment, because the students who may not have succeeded in other places may be the ones to help those who have. This kind of student interaction creates awareness that every class member has his or her strengths and contributes to higher confidence levels for traditionally lower achieving students. Evidence of higher confidence levels and of student engagement in this class was supported by a survey conducted by one of the teachers at Bergtraum. The survey was intended to measure use of the computer labs in the school, but at the same time it yielded the result that Ted's Cyber English class had the highest attendance rate of all of the English classes in the department.

The students in Cyber English use email to communicate with Ted and each other about class assignments. All writing assignments are published on the World Wide Web and can be accessed through the high school's Home page. http://mbhs.bergtraum.k12.ny.us To go directly to the Cyber English class, http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/. The students create their own Home pages using a UNIX editor, Pico. They choose their own layout, graphics, designs, colors, font, and presentation. Ted has created a link to a style sheet which they can refer to if they forget how to write certain HTML commands. The style sheet presents models of layout, text styles, gifs, etc. which they can click on to receive information on creating them on their own pages. http://www.tnellen.com/school/basic.html

Ted's students use Pico to create their Web pages because he believes this is a much better learning experience for them than using the Web page writing assistants which now come with many word processing programs. He likes his method, because he thinks it is "more consistent with what they (the students) will find žout there'" in the work world. He thinks writing assistants like Claris Home Page are useful for teachers who are unfamiliar with UNIX, but believes that learning to write HTML is better for the students because it will remain uniform. Claris Home Page is just one of many such Web page creators, and learning it does not ensure they will be able to operate any of the other programs which exist. Learning HTML also offers them more creative input into the actual design of the Web pages, since the choices are not as limited as those of software like Claris Home Page.

Ted has taught the students the basics for creating Web pages, and most of his assignments require research on the Web. Students integrate links to the Web sites from which they got their information. When asked about teaching them design considerations, Ted said that he doesn't really tell them what to do. Through immersion in these types of documents, they learn what works for them as readers, and they copy certain design elements in creating their own pages. Ted says that their engagement is an example of Marshall McCluhan's prophetic statement, "The medium is the message." He does emphasize to the students that a good design of a web page should make reading easier. He also emphasizes that the Web is different than other kinds of publishing. "Once you put something up there, it becomes part of the fabric," he says. He teaches the students "leave a trail," or a forwarding address, if they decide to take something off of a certain location. "People may have made links to it," says Ted. Rules like this remind the students of the much larger audience reading their work.

Assignments for a Web Based English Classroom

Assignments in Ted's class vary. During the weeks I visited, the students were working on two different types of writing assignments. The first involved an interdisciplinary research paper. The students had several choices of topics for this paper, and these topics were assigned by teachers in either their science or social studies class. This was a school wide assignment that all of the eleventh graders were completing. The English teachers worked with the students to teach the format of a research paper, as well as to help them with researching their topics, writing a bibliography, and using internal citation. Ted created a web page called "Ten Steps for the Research Paper." He also provided them with a text book containing information on end notes and internal citation. I watched as Ted taught the students where to find the information they would need when working on their papers. He did not give a lengthy lecture on the abstract qualities of research paper format. Instead, he gave them the tools they would need and left the responsibility for using these resources up to the students. Additionally, he mentioned that the students needed at least two sources from the library, not the Web, for their research papers. He urged them to write down both URL's and bibliographic information for any sources they used, so they could get back to them when needed and cite them properly in their papers.

This particular assignment could be considered fairly traditional. It is a good example of how teachers who are not teaching in Web based classrooms would teach the research paper. Ted incorporates the medium of the Web page into his lesson by providing information to the students that they can access as they need it, but the final paper will be hard copy. Because he is collaborating with several other teachers who are not involved with using the Web, Ted is forced to merge more traditional methods with his own for this assignment. In the future, Murry Bergtraum High School may become more interconnected, and teachers could collaborate on the development and instruction of similar assignments. This would make the physical separation of the class meetings insignificant, and the sharing of process and product something belonging to all teachers involved in the assignment. As it is now, the responsibilities are divided between teachers, which is not truly collaborative.

The second assignment the students are working on is also related to writing. The students were asked to write a journal entry (published on their Web page of course) about what they think makes good writing. Additionally, they were asked to include information about what they write, when they write, and how their writing varies from genre to genre or medium to medium. Ted and his two student teachers responded to these entries, and one of the student teachers, Tracy, pulled ideas from these entries to create her own reference page of the qualities of good writing for the students to look at. She then sent them all a message telling them to access this document through her home page, and reminding them that she got the information from them. She also asked them to let her know if they thought anything was missing. The use of the email and Web page construction makes the exchange and publication of information so immediate. This immediacy provides excellent positive reinforcement to the students as well as an efficient, powerful way for teachers to incorporate the knowledge the students possess into their lessons.

In addition to writing about writing, the students were asked to read and respond to the writing of three different classmates. The students' names are listed on the class Home page, so they were told to read the essays of the two people after them on the list as well as any one of their choice. This method ensures that every student receives at least two peer reviews. It also helps the teachers to check that everyone has fulfilled the assignment. The teachers asked the students to read and respond keeping in mind the elements of good writing that they had defined. They were also directed to specifically read the essays about "Young Goodman Brown" and the American Dream which the students had written earlier in the year. They could also critique Web page design if they chose to do so. As recipients of critiques, they were told to save the comments that people send to them about their own writing. Eventually, they would be required to rewrite both essays, incorporating suggestions from peers. They will then write another piece describing what they changed and which comments from their peers had led them to make these changes.

These assignments promote sharing of writing between students who would not normally read each other's work. Also, use of the email system to send critiques creates a dialogue between reader and writer, making the audience for the writing more real. As described earlier, with the example of one student's interaction, the students can ask for further explanation of the critique, and the process of the peer conference can be ongoing, rather than something that takes place once as a planned activity in class. The act of writing about writing, as well as the creation of a dialogue between students and teachers about writing brings the act to a meta-cognitive level, a process that will hopefully jar them into realizing what they are doing each time they sit down to compose. Additionally, it helps students and teachers develop the criteria for evaluation of their writing together. All of this can be done in a regular classroom, without the use of the internet; however, the internet communication may occur more frequently, be less inhibited, and allow the teacher an efficient way to deliver more individualized instruction.

A third assignment which the Cyber English students will be working on before the end of the school year involves creating a hypertext Haiku sequence. Ted mentioned "Afternoon, a Story," by Michael Joyce, Verbiage, a collection of short stories by college students, and a project of his own as inspiration for this project. Ted's students have been reading and writing Haiku poetry throughout the year. Along with a student from the University of Michigan, Ted has written a sequence of twenty five Haiku poems. Within each Haiku, there are four words which are linked to the other poems. As they read the poems, "each student has a different experience, even though they are reading the same texts." Eventually, they will have all read all twenty poems. Ted has also had the students read sonnet sequences, so the idea of a series of related texts by an author is familiar to them in the traditional, linear sense as well as in the hypertext sense.

The students will have a writing assignment related to this experience. Their job will be to create a sequence of poems, in any form, i.e. Haiku, sonnet, Rap, etc, and link them electronically, the way the examples in the Haiku were linked, and thematically, as poem sequences are traditionally linked. This assignment is a good example of how the medium in which these students are working lends itself to alternative assignments. An assignment like this one allows creativity and helps them understand the interconnectivity of words related to certain themes. In addition, it merges the concepts of hypertext composition, which they have already learned through creation of their home pages, and poetry composition.

Overall, the students in Ted Nellen's Cyber English class are engaged in reading and writing on a daily basis. Murry Bergtraum describes itself as a high school for business career preparation, and this class teaches marketable computer skills to help students gain entrance to the work world. There is an energy and a spirit of cooperation in the classroom which unites the students as they work. Ted has created this environment founded on his belief that students will learn more by doing than by being told. The requirements for their writing assignments emphasize process, not product. As in any classroom using technology, much depends on the teacher. Ted's enthusiasm and conviction seem contagious, and his vision keeps the classroom a flexible environment evolving with the work of the students. The students seem attracted to Ted's animated presence and sense of humor. These qualities, along with the newness of the medium in which they are composing, create a learning environment that is highly pleasurable and which results in higher confidence levels and acquisition of important composition skills.

Samples of Class Work

(See Web sites as listed)

Because of the non-linear nature of the student's work, it is hard to analyze linear samples of their work. Ted provided me with three names of students working at a high, middle and low level of achievement in the class. It is interesting to note that students who may be better writers are not always better Web page designers, and the student he chose as lowest achieving of the three is falling short in both areas. Because the Web pages are so colorful, much is lost in interpreting design from a printed version, so attempts will be made to describe the pages as much as possible. Addresses are included so the Web pages can be referenced through the Internet.

Each student has made design choices for their web pages, but content is essentially the same. The first section of each student's Home page contains links to information Ted has provided for the entire class. This section appears on everyone's Home page, and was probably created when Ted taught the students how to create links at the beginning of the course. The section of each student's page includes four links. The first is a link to ToDay's MenU http://mbhs.bergtraum.k12.ny.us/menu.html, a listing of assignments and interesting or necessary readings and directions. Ted updates this page daily, or as he introduces new information and directions to the class. Students are responsible for checking this section daily. The next link is to Cyber English http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/, a page including descriptions of the course and information about the teachers and the projects being conducted in the different sections of the course. The third link is to the Cyber Library, a list of reference materials ranging from Webster's Dictionary to CyberDewey, which students can consult when writing. The site also features links to information regarding Acceptable Use Policies, Censorship, plagiarism, Technology Plans, Copyright laws, and Curriculum Standards, all very useful for teachers. For students, links have been made to Internet resources, MOOS, MUDS, and sites devoted to Writing. (see http://www.tnellen.com/school/cylib.html The fourth link is to Search Engines, such as Alta Vista and Yahoo, which the students use for Web research. This page also provides links to LISTSERVES, Education Data Bases, and Data Bases related to subjects students may study, such as Mythology. (see http://www.tnellen.com/school/find.html These spaces provide the students with useful design ideas as well as the tools for independent research and self-paced fulfillment of class assignments.

The student that Ted suggested was achieving at a high level, Yi Chi, has a very simple home page design. http://mbhs.bergtraum.k12.ny.us/user/l1097/ The background field is bright green, and the text is blue. Her page is divided into three sections. The first section contains links to Ted's information described above. The second section lists all of the class assignments by title, followed by a brief description of the content the reader will find if they click on the title. Each entry in this section, title and description, is underlined. The text is single spaced. The third section contains links to her resume, a function for sending her email, and copies of essay readings for class. Each section is separated by a simple bar. The layout of the page does not interfere with the reading, however it also does not take full advantage of the possibilities of appealing design. Yi Chi's page is rather linear in nature when compared to another top student's page, http://mbhs.bergtraum.k12.ny.us/user/l5819/ which incorporates his blinking name at the top of the page, a starry, outer-space background, planets next to each title, and an interesting indentation and spacing between assignments creating a layout of "his work as galaxy."

Shalonda Lattimer's page also attempts to maximize the potential of Web page design. http://mbhs.bergtraum.k12.ny.us/user/l6274/ The background field is a marbleized light blue. The lettering of her name is in a dark-gold shadow font, the text for each title/entry is in dark blue and descriptions of each assignment are in black. Each text item on the page is preceded by a Mickey Mouse icon. Her page is separated into five sections by use of a simple black bar. The first section includes Ted's links. The second section lists what she calls "Classwork." These essays were assigned by Ted and are related to class readings. The third section is entitled "Opinions," and contains essays on controversial topics such as Ebonics. The third section contains "Book Reports," and the fifth section provides links to her resume and to the top of her Home page. It is important to note that the students in the class all complete essentially the same assignments, so a comparison of the actual content from one student's page to another should show the same assignments. Shalonda's page is easier to read due to her choice to group like assignments together in separate sections. She also chose to create the links in blue and descriptions of the links in black, another choice which aids in reading her page. The marbleized background and gold tone letters seem to communicate something about her personality, and at the same time indicate an experimentation with the possibilities.

The last example belongs to Yi Chun. http://mbhs.bergtraum.k12.ny.us/user/l1115/ Although a potentially interesting design, a few things interrupt the facility of reading Yi Chun's page. The most obvious is her choice of a blue background and blue text. Her page contains the same content as the others. Section one provides Ted's links in blue. Section two lists her assignments in blue, which is very difficult to see, and their descriptions in light yellow, which is readable. The third section contains the email mechanism and a link to her resume. Separating each section are red lines which appear to be dripping, or bleeding. Overall, the page is somewhat unappealing and difficult to read; however, it does indicate experimentation and effort regarding the use of the medium.

The students' essays about the American Dream indicates that some preferences about design are consistent throughout their web pages. In other words, the type of design on their home page is repeated throughout the other pages of their "web-folio." Additionally, parallels can be made between the style of essay writing and the style of Web page design. The first student, Yi Chi, wrote an interesting essay consisting of very descriptive anecdotes, arranged chronologically, about her family and her idea of the American Dream. The essay is organized, coherent and cohesive. The order of events and the clear beginning and end reflect her linear ability, as did her home page. The design of the page is more or less the same as that of her home page. She chose a bright blue background and purple text. This choice does not necessarily do anything to ease the reading of the text. All three student essays utilize a simple bar to separate the title from the text, and links to their home pages and email are at the end.

Shalonda's American Dream essay is striking in its organization. It is a classic five paragraph essay with an introduction stating three ideas to be expanded in the essay, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. The essay is interesting, and reflects the ideas that Shalonda believes are obstacles to the American Dream. The design layout of this essay is not consistent with her home page in that this essay appears in black text on a white background. However, the need to arrange information in chunks is repeated. Her home page had grouped certain like ideas together, as does her essay.

Yi Chun's essay, like her home page, has some very interesting ideas, but there are some language problems such as unnecessary capitalization, run-on sentences, and some inconsistent evidence to support ideas. The design of the essay page, like the design of her home page, is distracting and contributes to difficulty in reading. She chose a black "psychedelic" background with purple and green three dimensional dots looming out of the page. She then chose white text, which is possible to read, but the background is still distracting. The email and Home page links are in blue, as they are on her home page, and this is probably due to the ease of copying and pasting links from one page to another. Yi Chun's essay and design reflect thinking, experimentation and effort, more than skill.

Overall, the work contained in each students web-folio represents many hours or thinking and writing. Some of the more research based pieces contain hypertext links to the Web sites which were the original sources of information. Most of the assignments are assigned by Ted, and students have some choices within parameters he has defined for them. The true freedom comes in the Web page layout and design. The writing of essays strongly resembles the writing that would occur in any other class, but the environment, the constant feedback from peers and teachers, and the interesting new research and design tools on the computer provide students with different opportunities. Without being familiar with the students' writing before they entered this class, it is difficult to say if the class has affected their growth as writers or not.

Additional Conclusions

Observing Ted Nellen's Cyber English class over the course of six weeks gave me an opportunity to witness first hand some of the benefits of a Web based environment. The most powerful benefits to teaching writing in this environment are related to the social nature of the classroom. Teaching and learning through use of the Internet creates a community of writers through the publishing of assignments on personal Home pages, dialogue about writing and research processes via email, and shared discoveries regarding content and style of both Web page design and traditional writing assignments. It appears that changing the environment and purposes for writing results in changes in the level of student engagement.

Upon examining examples of student work, I realized that they were all working on the same basic assignments. At first I felt this contradicted Ted's constructivist approach, because I believed that students should have more freedom to design their own inquiries and conduct research and writing starting from their own curiosity about a topic. After observing some of the exchanges between students, however, I realized that Ted's choices resulted in thirty students writing from different perspectives about the same topic. Upon reading each other's work, they begin to realize the broad range of interpretation of topics such as The American Dream, and they may even rethink their own definitions upon exposure to new ideas. The "curriculum", then, is based on student response and grows organically through dialogue and revision. Ted makes choices regarding the direction the class should take, and he provides the students additional information as a good teacher/facilitator should.

The change in the actual physical environment and its relation to student engagement also fascinated me. The students in Cyber English are actively engaged in writing, research, and dialogue (written via email) during class time. Unlike other classes at Murry Bergtraum, the students in this class are heterogeneously grouped. Their prior academic record does not dictate what they will be able to achieve in this environment, so they are immediately captivated by a chance to succeed. The personal Home page allows them to creatively express themselves in a new medium. Awareness that their teacher, peers or someone thousands of miles away will read their work or encounter their designs provides motivation for self presentation.

Finally, the communication which occurs via email between teachers and students is unique in that it is written, but it also closely resembles spoken language. Students use keyboarding and technology as tools to translate what would usually be spoken comments into writing. This provides students with practice expressing themselves clearly in written English, and it can be a powerful way for students whose spoken English may be heavily accented to express themsleves without inhibition. Students can use email to ask questions they would normally not voice in large group discussions, and they can communicate with students whom they may not regularly talk to face to face. All of these factors contribute to active participation from all class members, a goal that is only a dream for many teachers.


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© Elizabeth Cushman Brandjes 1997-2000