The University Record, February 13, 1996

Ponting grant supports ECB collaborative computer network

By Jared Blank

Two U-M faculty members and the head of the English Department in a Detroit High School have received a $6,250 grant from the Herbert and Elsa Ponting Foundation to create a new collaborative computer network with MacKenzie High School in Detroit and Clemson University. "Cross School Internet Collaboration: Writing Across Geographical, Political and Cultural Boundaries" will promote written dialogue over the Internet between MacKenzie students and their counterparts at a rural high school in South Carolina.

Barbra S. Morris, lecturer in the Residential College and English Composition Board (ECB), George Cooper, lecturer in ECB, and Patricia Benjamin from MacKenzie High School will use the grant to support long-distance and long-term discussions between secondary schools and universities. Morris and Cooper hope the "conversations" facilitated by the computers will change many of the students' attitudes towards writing, to make writing an enjoyable form of expression and communication.

"This opens up a new motivation to write," Morris says. "Often, if you ask students to write, they see it as a job, it's a chore. They write simply to appease the teacher. But, we hope, if you put a student on a computer, it will take the onus off of writing; suddenly, writing is a way to communicate, it's not just for a grade."

Morris and Cooper envision students writing to each other on topics raised by students and teachers. The responses, then, would spur further discussion between the classes.

Communicating over the computer is not a way for students to avoid the lessons taught by traditional essay writing. Writing over the computer, they say, still requires students to write with fluency, clarity and expressiveness. Cooper says he hopes that teachers will use the exchanges over the computer as a means to expand their curricula.

"A curriculum, legitimately, is somewhat stagnant over time. But there is now a movement toward hands-on, community-based problem solving. In this program, we hope urban and rural students will talk about their environments, pollution, drugs, families. In turn, we hope teachers can alter their curricula a bit so the classroom can become responsive the students' discussion," he says.

Cooper acknowledges that some students initially may miss the face-to-face contact that is lacking in an over -the-computer relationship. Though, he says, "the cross-cultural communication will help the students connect in different ways, even if they can't meet face to face. The positive aspect of extending the four walls of the classroom helps compensate for the shortcoming.

While Clemson University has facilitated computer-based exchanges in the past, this is the first project of this type to be implemented in a Detroit high school. Because of the novelty of the idea, there have been some logistical snags in getting the exchange up and running. But, Morris and Cooper expect to have the students writing to each other by the end of April.

"This is a long-term project," Morris says. "We are working to phase it in gradually so everybody is comfortable. The success of this endeavor will grow out of the interest and excitement of the students and their correspondence."