Writing and Peer Tutoring Students Create an Interactive Syllabus

Gail F. Wood, Director, English Learning Center
William J. Portilla, Technical Director, Information Technology
College of Staten Island, City University of New York, USA

"I feel like Descartes," Tom Henry said. It was the end of October, past the middle of the semester, and nine students of ENL 281, Writing and Peer Tutoring, were demonstrating their class homepage at the College of Staten Island's Fall Media Fair.[1] The computers used to be a negative experience for me," he continued, standing in front of a row of them, all with screens turned on to our class homepage. Now, here he was, describing his transition. "Descartes came to mind in order for me to get to experience computers. In order to find meaning or truth, he would strip his mind of all preconceptions, all belief systems. I had to release from my mind my belief systems about computers. I had to come at it from the bottom, where I couldn't regress--I could only grow."[2]

The workshop/demonstration that day began with Gail Wood, course instructor, briefly explaining the background and the perspective of a nontechnical teacher in learning the language of hypertext to help create the class's homepage. William Portilla, the college's technical director, Office of Information Technology, and designer of the homepage, presented an explanation of the technical processes involved. The initial purpose[3] of developing a class homepage with student involvement was for prospective students and their advisors to know more about the course--and for others teaching, or designing, similar courses to have an available resource. The product would be the class presentation at the college's Fall Media Fair. Several other things also happened. Students not only helped design the homepage, but also showed their contributions in determining what happened in the class and when, and, through use of the Internet, became more confident learners. They also became more aware of a larger society, and felt more integral with that society. As the suggestion for the class homepage arose at a Pedagogy and Media Committee meeting at the college, after the semester began, neither students nor instructor anticipated, nor had background in, using the Internet. Indeed, some students in this class, in an open-admissions branch of the City University of New York, had not had any computer experience at all.

But six weeks before we began to work with the students, we struggled with the question, how would this work with an affective, student-centered pedagogy? How do you merge a class based on the "goodness of fit" concept, addressing individual temperament and learning styles (Chess and Thomas, 27-42), with development of a class homepage? In this class, designed to prepare students as peer tutors through developing awarenesses about their own learning, students are such an integral part of the class they even participate in their own grading. We entered this project not knowing precisely what we'd do, how we'd do it, how the students would react, or the exact outcome. We wanted to avoid what's often considered the "traditional" approach to computer-aided instruction, where educators see the concept of teaching and learning as passing knowledge as a concrete object--a medicine ball!--from one person (instructor) to another (student); the computer, in this case, is seen as the medium for carrying the ball, letting the student know if answers are "right" or "wrong." The alternative is to see the role of learner as interpreter. That's what we were after.

Portilla, committed to the IBM, and Wood, committed to the Macintosh, worked outside class for three weeks, about six hours per week, discussing the basic design of the homepage, before bringing the students into the project. The project occupied all or part of five two-hour class sessions in a 30-session course. The first step was in Portilla's office, establishing the homepage and immediately inserting "under construction--please be patient." His IBM was to become the server, or host machine. This is based on the Linux operating system. On a Macintosh computer in Wood's office in another building, Web documents were created, allowing the transfer of the course material to the host computer, using an Internet application called FTP (file transfer protocol). Viewing and interpreting of the homepages was done using Netscape Navigator software on the Power Macintosh. We used basic hypertext markup language (HTML) programming to create the homepages. The campus has a 2500-node network with access to as many as 500 computers to students at any given time. This affords all students at the college complete access to the Internet and, especially, to the World Wide Web (WWW). It's not only that this project didn't take place in a potential vacuum--it has the potential of reaching a large number of students on campus. Portilla's host machine, then, is linked to another Web server host at the college, http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu, creating the entire link between the two WWW servers.

In planning the contents of the homepage, we decided it would have to be congruent with the student-centered pedagogy of the class: there had to be input for the students. Therefore, students would have the final say in what would be listed on the 'contents' page--approving Portilla's suggestions of class roster, class assignments, bibliographic references (Wood added "and student comments"), and "some relevant resources on the Internet;" and, after brainstorming, discussing, and reaching consensus, chose the remaining topics--"why we took the course," "class projects," "tutoring techniques," "what happened last class," and "reflections-in-progress by students of ENL 281."

Portilla and Wood continued to meet outside class as he taught basic HTML codes to the students, using only a small subset of the total number. The class, during six in-class sessions, could then create pages without any real knowledge of programming. The process for students was more like using a word processor, which some of them were familiar with. They were not overwhelmed by HTML; indeed, they enjoyed the novelty--and the concept of publication. The use of WWW technology enables individuals to "publish" their work, their ideas, and present them to the world, including, in our case, the rest of the college community. This kind of authority, granted by the Interent, is a given.

To see through the eyes of novice users gave Portilla a better perspective: being so immersed in the Web technology, he feels he sometimes loses perspective on how a novice user views a homepage. By observing the users in the class, he was better equipped to design the layout of the homepage--by highlighting certain things and deemphasizing other information on the page. What made the process more accessible to students was keeping the technical content or verbiage to a minimum--and emphasizing the hotlinks and the graphics. Novice users tend to focus on the things they can readily understand. It's like testing a software product by allowing users to play with the pages; where people are looking and where people are confused become visible, permitting focus to be addressed--and highlighted.

The students, like Tom Henry, were helping take participants--instructors, technicians, administrators, and students from other classes--through each section of the class's homepage, describing the process of creation and their personal experiences. Before Henry spoke, Gavi Diesenhouse introduced the Why We Took the Course page. Media Fair participants laughed as she illustrated how candid students were by reading the first entry (hers) from the computer screen: "I took the class because I needed four more credits and it fit into my schedule perfectly."

Wood introduced the class and the Class Roster page, explaining how students and instructor voted on the kind of shot to be photographed, and how a scanner was used to enter the picture.

In the classroom, students often decided, too, how much time we would spend on a topic of discussion. The Class Assignments page, introduced by Wood, mentions, "As what we do when depends, in part, on your interests and needs, this, then, is the beginning of a Tentative Syllabus." The listing on the homepage reflects a posterior view of what we did.

Now, here is Henry--clearly, his identification with Descartes has worked, as he guides workshop participants, with classmate Jennifer Kilroy, into clicking on the blue underlined Bibliographic References and scrolling past the lists of texts required and to choose from, to student entries on what the readings meant to them. He speaks confidently as he checks participants' screens, not proceeding farther until all screens are the same. Kilroy tells of the class giving her more confidence as a learner. She then explains the student entries, What We Think About What We've Read. These are segments students chose to enter from their logs--usually handwritten, and commented on by classmates and instructor--before translating into HTML. Participants read Henry's comments on John Dewey's Experience and Education: "...I think many students would begin to feel more comfortable expressing their own opinions, and holding their opinions as being valuable because the presence of superiority would be greatly diminished".

Portilla based incorporating WWW technology, and electronic mail for use in a classroom environment, on the University of Notre Dame model.[4] Notre Dame's premise was that if the technological support and equipment are available, faculty will be inclined to explore and develop ways to use technology in enhancing teaching and learning. It would also lead to a concept extending the classroom beyond the set hours and place of the class itself, allowing students access, via technology, to course materials--and to instructors and to each other.[5] We began our project, then, as Notre Dame did, by procuring e-mail accounts for each student.[6]

E-mail would provide a more detailed means of communication among members of the class and maintain an ongoing dialogue outside of class. The technology is a vehicle, not an end in and of itself; it has become an appliance that joins people from different cultures, that breaks down the cultural screening of previous generations by presenting a global community. Many of the cultural barriers that have been errected will dissolve because you touch so many cultures, and the Internet itself becomes its own culture--the culture of the Internet. A "culture is constantly in process of being recreated as it is interpreted and renegotiated by its members. In this view," psychologist Jerome Bruner explains, "a culture is as much a forum for negotiating and renegotiating meaning and for explicating action as it is a set of rules or specifications for action." There is, however, a caution to this: We need to develop "techniques for intensifying this function--ways of exploring possible worlds out of the context of immediate need" (123). The concept of not seeing our reader can induce the way we exercise the First Amendment: We can say whatever we want on the Internet, perhaps further authorized by the option of being anonymous. As Cynthia Selfe and Susan Hilligoss, coeditors of Literacy and Computers, remind us, "technology forces us to rethink what it means to be human." Furthermore, the challenge of technology is inducing us to look at ourselves--and our relationships with others. In order to become a more democratic society, Selfe and Hilligoss infer, "we need more problems like this" (1).[7]

There was also a pedagogical reason for using e-mail: The immediacy of e-mail fosters fluency by encouraging the "free-writing" that relies on innate syntactical awareness and creates sentences nearly with the ease of speech.[8] Indeed, one of the ENL 281 students learned English in Liberia, but has lived in New York long enough for his conversational speech to reflect only a slight lilt. His writing, though, reflected another rhetoric--forced, flowery, and distant. He had been reluctant, at first, to use a computer. He raised his eyebrows, "You expect me to use this thing? I've never done this before." He smiled tightly, looking down at the keyboard of the PowerMac in front of him, "I can't even type." "That's all right," he was told, "We have all the time we need." "I'll try--but don't expect much," he concluded. The immediacy of e-mail overcame his apprehension about the computer; furthermore, encouraged to log on the computer, rather than in his notebook, he readily gained the fluency and clarity his earlier writing had lacked.

Kathi McHugh and George Springer introduced Tutoring Techniques: How do you know when something works? What responses and reactions do we look for? They explained the note to see Bibliographic References, as some reading comments also refer to tutoring applications. Fair participants scrolled to read McHugh's entry on observing a tutor "accentuating the positive aspects" and Nurit Bass's describing a student who made a list of metaphors to replace repeated expressions--"From a solid but boring discussion, it became a solid but appealing essay."

While we weren't exactly putting together teams of faculty and trained students, as in the Notre Dame model, we were working closely with students.[9] Like the Notre Dame project, our homepage provides network access to class material.[10] But in Staten Island's ENL 281, it was the students who entered concepts. Even though when ENL 281 students signed up for the course they were unaware of the computer component, students didn't view this as a negative--but as a positive and interesting component. One student had voiced an early complaint that a computer community was exclusive, too expensive to own; this opportunity in class would include him. Once the students became "hooked," though, not only would they come to class an hour early to surf the Internet and receive or send e-mail, but whoever's turn it was to write in their own perspective of a class would invariably stay after class--despite 15 minutes set aside during class time.

When Chris DiGiacomo introduced the What Happened Last Class page, it concluded with the pre-presentation class. Springer was class secretary October 23, recording, "We worked on the computers, typing in information on the Internet and preparing for the workshop on Wednesday. All in all, it was quite an exhilarating experience. To me, the highlight of our practice session was "cruising" on the information superhighway."

Michael Pollaci and Marie DeSario escorted participants to the Reflections-in-Progress page. Here, the class decided not to use names, but to list pros and cons, occasionally in conflict. Pros included "No grades are given on the paper, which makes some students less anxious and allows them more freedom and creativity" and "Working in groups helps develop ideas that otherwise would have been unknown to me." Cons, albeit in minority, countered with "Since we are used to being evaluated by grades, the lack of marks makes some of us anxious" and "Some feel that working in groups takes away from the individuals' input."

All students endorsed, listed under "pros" for taking the course, two basic premises: Each of us is an individual and we make up a collective group. To establish a voice in their own learning, students create meaning and reflect, reconsider, revise. It is this action that gives them authority (Berthoff, 5; Mayher, 287). "We are asked many questions rather than told facts," they wrote. "This helps raise self confidence and self-respect. It helps us create a true voice and an opinion and to stand by it." As we listen or read, we are looking for the "voice" of the individual (Elbow, 1994, xli); we can take this concept a step further--even an anonymous signature on the network can suggest who we really are. Bruner succinctly says, "We account for our own actions" and that it is conceivably "our sensitivity to narrative" that "provides the major link between our own sense of self and our sense of others in the social world around us" (69). "The common coin," he continues, "may be provided by the forms of narrative that the culture offers us" (69). What we established in class we continued, on a lesser scale, on the Internet: We enabled it to provide this common coin.

The students' awareness of themselves as part of a group was reflected in the unanimous "pro" listing: "Before submitting work, we exchange it with our peers and get advice, questions, and helpful hints on how to improve it." We expanded this concept to our class homepage: Students chose, discussed, voted on topics that would make up the contents table of our homepage. Indeed, this process of selection continued in the building of the homepage, as it did in the classroom. How can we share equally? Should we sign our names or have our entries anonymous? Should our pictures be individual, or should we have a group picture? How do we want others to see us? Are we receptive to e-mail messages from strangers?

While the Internet can offer a forum, a tool to enhance our relationships with each other, what we need to guard against is creating, instead, a podium where we speak without listening or listen without making meaning. Bruner reminds us that we are running "counter to traditions" that "looked at the process of education as a transmission of knowledge and values by those who knew more to those who knew less" (123). In the context of the Internet, we have information but not necessarily knowledge. Knowledge requires the interpretation of information to make sense of all of the various pieces of information that can be retrieved by searching the Internet. What we are dealing with is the pedagogical struggle of a search for knowledge instead of an Internet search for information. Information in and of itself has no meaning. Unless we can distill the information into something meaningful to us, we do not have knowledge. It is too evident on the Internet, because there is so much information available. Information without understanding is dangerous. What happens when "experts" gather information and present it as truth? The Internet can be a double-edged sword. The dangers of the Internet are (a) assuming because information exists there it is true and (b) that information is not interpreted to create meaning. The other side is that it can provide a forum; the sharing of meanings through forums can change the shape of culture (Bruner, 123). In a student-centered class, however, we're dealing with the two snakes around the truncheon that make up the physician's symbol--one snake is transmittable information, the other is wisdom, what you do with what you know. Meaning is amorphously created by each individual, connected to their experiences, their learning styles--and perhaps also to their mood at the moment. The computer must oblige.

With this in mind, we decided at the beginning of the project to provide a base of information that the class could use, relevant to class material. We also wanted other tutors and faculty to be able to use our homepage as a form of training themselves, and to pique their interest in using this technology.

Portilla was explaining the Relevant Resources page. We explored the Internet, using various search engines, entering key words that pointed us to existing sites on the Internet. Since the course is a holistic approach to teaching and learning, sites in anthropology, sociology, and psychology were tapped. We then created a Web page, which used the hypertext concept to provide hot links to sites outside the college. ENL 281 students and others could click in--and even contribute: Some resources, such as "Galaxy--Excellent Starting Point for Exploration/Social Sciences," have outlets for adding your own information. This communal authorship is another form of sharing power.

The use of the technology in an Intranet setting provides the organization with a powerful communications tool, and, in a sense, our project is the tip of an Intranet iceberg. The college is pursuing the use of WWW internally to provide voluminous amounts of information--one part is our project. The Intranet will be a powerful information tool for organizations in general, and an educational institution in particular. In a sense, the Notre Dame model, or our model, can be expanded--it can either be part of or the seed for the much larger and more powerful concept of the Intranet. It's the idea of the Intranet itself to use WWW technology within an organization to provide access to information. We welcome others to use what they find useful in ours and to build on it, as we did on the Notre Dame model.

Our contents page ends in a WebChat. Nurit Bass concluded the presentation by leading Media Fair participants into it. Here each could enter or respond to a comment; all comments appeared simultaneously on all computer screens. This means of conversing in real time, in a classroom setting, allows ideas to be discussed openly with immediate feedback. What we found, though, in both open chats and in the classroom, is that the immediacy of the process encourages distraction unless the chat is directed. When directed, it readily produces creative, collaborative thought. As such, it can be useful in building ideas--and in creating texts. Months after the Fair, Springer and DeSario led a workshop for tutors and faculty on a collaborative writing chatbox they discovered, an Internet extension that does not require additional software. Sponsored by the University of California at Berkeley's Academic Achievement Division, it can be used either privately, on the Intranet, or publicly, connected with the home computer.[11]

ENL 281 students continued incorporating the Internet into their learning experiences as the semester continued--not only through entering post-class reflections and continuing e-mail transactions, but, like Springer and DeSario, by exploring ways to use the Internet in tutoring. Pollaci, for example, established an e-mail correspondence with a student in Japan. As he was tutoring a Japanese-speaking student in the English Learning Center, he coordinated a dialogue between the two students, in English, to help his tutee's fluency and motivation for writing.

The commitment of time and energy, however, turned out to be much greater than we originally anticipated. This is not a negative statement on the process, as we gained greater personal understanding of the way this technology can be used in an academic setting; furthermore, our individual project has spawned ideas for many other projects, using the same technology in different ways. Our suggestion for others would be to work together to establish a grant to provide such time and funding.

Using the Internet holds the promise to enhance cultural and linguistic diversity--and to endorse an egalitarianism that could make for greater humanism. Yet, all of us, instructors and technicians alike, hold the shovel that directs this kind of building; unwielded, it can work against us. Using the Internet as an educational tool is still very much "under construction."


Gail Wood directs the English Learning Center at the College of Staten Island and is senior college chair of the City University of New York's Writing Centers Association. She teaches reading and writing courses at developmental and upper levels, including ENL 281, Writing and Peer Tutoring. She came to teaching by way of publishing and parenting. Her e-mail address: wood@postbox.csi.cuny.edu.

William Portilla spent three summers as a working archaelogist in the Mississippi Valley before turning to engineering. A former computer science instructor, he is now technical director of the Office of Information Technology and former director of the Administrative Computer Center at the College of Staten Island. His e-mail address: portilla@postbox.csi.cuny.edu.


1. ENL 281, Writing and Peer Tutoring, became, in 1995, a central part of a grant in Increased Academic Success Through Improvement of the Tutorial Support Program, sponsored by the Office of Freshman Programs under Dean Carolyn Fazzolari. The grant provided a section of the course to focus on math and science. While the grant did not provide additional funding for the homepage project, the class's focus on math and science was the reason the class was chosen by the college's Pedagogy and Media Committee for this project.

2. "There's No Home Like HomePage" workshop/demonstration by students of ENL 281, Writing and Peer Tutoring, at the Fall Media Fair, the College of Staten Island, October 25, 1995. This was repeated at the CUNY Writing Centers Association Conference, "Cultures, Contacts, and Cuts: Can the Center Hold?" at Kingsborough Community College, New York, March 8, 1996.

3. The project was suggested a couple of months earlier by the college's Pedagogy and Media Committee chair--and Computer Science Department chair--Michael Kress.

4. Joan Hartman, Dean of Humanities, and William Bernhardt, English Learning Center Director Emeritus, the College of Staten Island, acquainted us with the University of Notre Dame model.

5. C. Joseph Williams (deceased) was instrumental in developing the University of Notre Dame model and was one of two Educational Technology consultants collaborating with students and instructors. The project took place in the DeBartolo Classroom Building.

6. At Notre Dame, each member of the university community is given an e-mail account. At the College of Staten Island, each member--student, staff, or faculty--may have an account, but must request it. Notre Dame requires Freshman Writing students to spend one hour per week in a computer lab outside class. At the College of Staten Island, some instructors choose to hold College Writing in the English Department's Macintosh Lab; weekly tutorials of one hour in the English Learning Center are optional, with some tutors choosing to hold tutorials in the Center's Macintosh Lab. Both Notre Dame and the above-mentioned Macintosh labs at the College of Staten Island provide collaborative software.

7. See also Neil Postman's The End of Education, pp. 190-193. He says "Technology education is not a technical subject. It is a branch of the humanities" (191). The University Professor and Chair of the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University lists 10 principles students need to know, including intellectual, emotional, sensory, social, and content biases of different technologies (192-193).

8. Peter Elbow, who teaches English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and is considered the "father of free-writing," alluded to the immediacy of e-mail writing in his keynote address on "Embracing Change: New Investigations of Writing and Writing Centers" at the CUNY Writing Centers Association Conference on March 10, 1995.

9. In the Notre Dame project, students were paid and faculty were awarded grants up to $1,000--as well as havaing two support personnel assigned to the project.

10. In the Notre Dame project, common materials were available for multiple sections of classes. In Fall 1995, ENL 281 was the only class at the College of Staten Island working on a homepage; this established the Staten Island model, followed in Spring 1966 in a communications class.

11. The University of California at Berkeley's Academic Achievement Division has an Online tutoring program where tutors log in their availability and students request tutoring through the On-call server, all through e-mail. The chatbox described above for collaborative writing is part of this program. For information on these and other Meta-Tools, "custom-designed extensions for Internet applications," contact Tom O'Brien at tomo@uclink.berkeley.edu.


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Bruner, Jerome. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.

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