Session O.30: “CTRL+A /Select All: Evaluating Practices for Improving Composing Technology Fluency in First-Year Writing”


Presenters: Gregory Cass (Lasell University), Sara Large (Lasell University), Michelle Niestepski (Lasell University), and Annie Ou (Lasell University)

In this roundtable, four faculty members from Lasell University discuss how instructors might assume technological fluencies in word processing and document management that does not take into account individual student practices. Their work builds on a survey conducted at Lasell University in 2019 and 2020 that queried students on what technological skills they felt confident in, as well as what programs they most often used for composing. 

Lasell University, as Michelle Niestepksi explained, is located about eight miles west of Boston in Newtown, Massachusetts and has an undergraduate population of around 1500 students. The campus is predominantly women, with 28% identifying as Hispanic or Black. The campus also has a small international student population, comprising anywhere from 3-7%. Finally, around one-third of students are first generation college students, although many were on college tracks in high school and graduated with above average GPAs. 

This presentation focuses on their first year writing workshop courses, although the data they cite is culled from surveys that went out to all first year courses. Students self-select into their workshop model, where classes meet for twice the normal length to provide them with in-class writing time alongside other peers, their instructor, and embedded classroom tutors. Students are also provided with laptops if they do not have their own. 

Because of the workshop model, the presenters realized where many of their assumptions about technological proficiency were falling short. As Annie Ou explains, international and multilingual students often encounter additional challenges when using technology, particularly when it comes to formatting. For example, Ou cites terms such as “italics, indent, tab and then margins, apostrophe, and colon” that multilingual students may not be familiar with when writing in English in word processing programs. Often, Ou says, students are used to writing in their first language or turning in handwritten essays only. To combat this, international students in particular were writing on their phones because autocomplete would help with English words and it allowed them to type faster by using just their thumbs (as opposed to the hunt-and-peck style of typing many students use on a full keyboard). Furthermore, the challenges faced during remote learning led to students accessing courses from countries that restrict internet usage or outright block controversial content or even standard learning management systems like Canvas. 

Ou also acknowledges how the physical materiality of our keyboards might differ by showing images of a Japanese keyboard (Fig. 1), asking participants to identify where the apostrophe and quotation mark keys are (above the number 2 key and number 7 key). If someone uses a standard English keyboard, both marks are on the same button next to the return/enter key.

JIS C 6233 draft 1968 keyboard layout
Fig.1 – Overhead view of standard Japanese keyboard layout.

Other examples showcase the same thing: that what instructors might think of as a simple error—like using two apostrophes instead of a double quotation mark—can also be due to differences in how the technology is made. Particularly important for instructors, regardless of the languages or keyboards of their students, is to be aware that technology differences, and students’ awareness of how to use their technology, can also help explain formatting errors. 

Michelle Niestepski follows Ou’s presentation by reading portions of the WPA Outcomes Statement for FYC, saying that, “[d]espite this emphasis on digital technologies, we contend that one commonplace in first year writing is that instructors do not or should not teach low level technological skills in first year writing” even as instructors often teach more complex technologies for multimodal projects. While instructors might assume students have proficiency in software like Microsoft Word or know how to download and annotate a PDF, data from their survey challenges those assumptions. To support this claim, Gregory Cass walks viewers through their survey data. 

Cass begins by sharing that the data was collected during the first week of the semester using a Google Form, with a 47% response rate in 2019 and a 52% response rate in 2020. From there, individual section instructors could access their classroom data to better address immediately their class’s technological gaps. What the team found was that students were most comfortable using Google Docs as their primary composing space, with programs like Microsoft Word or Pages used by less than the majority of students. The second part of the survey found that students were “most confident” in skills like changing the font size or line spacing of their documents, but had little confidence in areas of peer review or revision, like using track changes. 

As Cass also points out, using cloud composing spaces allows students flexibility to work with other technologies, like their phone, to compose. Their survey also identified that one of the biggest hurdles for students in 2020 was the lack of reliable internet access, a realization that Cass says was passed onto campus administration. Importantly, the lack of reliable internet demonstrates that instructors should work against assumptions about students’ classroom habits, as things like unreliable internet can affect learning, despite the students’ best intentions. The multitude and variety of technological differences should be taken into account. 

Following this, the presentation moves to three different strategies Sara Large uses in her own classroom to improve technological fluency and model best technological practice. The first practice she demonstrates is using Google Docs, a tool most of their students are already familiar with, as a space for peer review. Instead of multiple drafts, all peers and the instructor can comment in the same space, including replying to each others’ feedback. As Large points out, Docs keeps the comments alongside the draft as the composer writes, allowing them to work across interfaces with ease (no emailing attachments back and forth!). Docs also has a revision history feature that allows the student and instructor to easily trace changes in the document across all drafts.

Next, Large demonstrates a low-stakes assignment that has students locate, download, annotate, and share a PDF file from their campus library database. Students were not aware of where their documents actually “lived,” as Large says, so asking them to physically organize their materials in this way set students up for future success. Large shares a story about her nearly lost dissertation to emphasize the importance of backups as well. 

The third strategy Large has adopted into her own classroom, due in part to changes due to COVID-19, is using a shared class Google Doc for note-taking and demonstration. By modeling how to do things like change permissions, include a hanging indent, or inserting a page break during class, students improve their technological fluency while not taking up too much class time in one-on-one demonstration. Large emphasizes that the pros of these strategies outweigh the cons: by integrating small, task-specific technological practices into everyday classroom habits, students are more likely to develop useful technological awareness in their composing practice.

The session ends with Ou making recommendations to instructors interested in attending to gaps in students’ technological fluencies; these suggestions include first identifying gaps in technological knowledge for the instructor’s student population, gaps that are often mistaken as “laziness.” Other suggestions include having students teach each other skills they are confident in, designing low-stakes assignments that address necessary skills for the course, and creating handouts or short videos that model common practices and can be reused every semester.


The attention all the presenters paid to addressing gaps in the technological fluency of their student population is commendable. I was especially struck by the use of images of different keyboards to model how our assumptions about uniform technologies can lead instructors to misjudge a students’ issue with formatting. I also appreciate the clear examples from Large’s own classroom, particularly the suggestion that instructors should address file management and organization with students early on.

Missing from their discussion, however, is an attendance to the accessibility issues raised by the reliance on programs like Google Docs, which does not have built-in accessibility features like Word. Docs also relies on the internet to function, a problem not addressed even though their students reported reliable internet connection issues. I also wished for more information on how students were defining their “confidence” in a skill, particularly when that “confidence” might be the result of “inefficient” practice, as multiple presenters alluded to. One area for future research consideration might be to make use of screen capture software in their writing workshops to better assess how students are actually using software like Microsoft Word or Google Docs in real time.

About Author

Rhiannon Scharnhorst

Rhiannon Scharnhorst is a hybrid PhD candidate in Writing Studies & Victorian Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Her research focuses on writing objects and embodied rhetorics in women's writings.

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