National Writing Project

Computers and English: Future Tense...Future Perfect?

By: Stephen Marcus
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 4
Date: Fall 1990

Summary: In 1990, Marcus made some predictions about what might happen with technology in the classroom during the next 15 years—prophecies that are interesting to examine in hindsight.


Efforts to predict the future of educational computing are particularly chancy, given its rate of change. To paraphrase Alfred Bork at the University of California, Irvine: "By the time the technology's free of bugs, it's obsolete."

So you can make a monkey out of yourself trying to predict the future of computers in the teaching of English. Since that's what I regularly spend part of my time doing, it's of only small comfort to know that at least I'm in good company—for the ancient Egyptians, the god of text and writing took the form of a baboon.

Mentors aside, I took part in a "Delphi Study" about three years ago to predict changes (either positive or negative) that might occur during the next fifteen years resulting from the impact of technology on the teaching of writing. What follows is an update and expansion of that original study, along with some comments based on recent events. In later sections of this discussion, I'll suggest some ways to anticipate previous crises and to make the most of the inevitable.

People will stop confusing real paper with virtual paper. Most of us still think of a word processor as merely a means of producing a printed document. That's like thinking of film as a way to document plays, which after all don't have montage, closeups, split screens, and so on. Technology that allows the creation of hypermedia (i.e., extended, interlinked "documents" that include sound, animation, graphics, and video) produces "writing" that exists as process, not product. At the very least, as William Miller predicted in a 1983 speech to the Modern Language Association, "scholarly publishing . . . will [move] to a paperless, computerized mode, [and] university administrators will shake their heads in wonder at the antiquated humanists who insist that a large share of the library's resources be spent on books and magazines so clearly doomed to physical extinction."

Grading will become more dependent on the kinds of data available from style checkers. All of the controversy about style checkers doesn't seem to deter efforts to develop more of them. Some research suggests that teachers grade papers on completely different dimensions of writing; nevertheless, style checkers will continue to be a particularly "easy sell" to those who have a penchant for quantifying information.

More education will take place in the home through instructional databases and telecommunications networks. Many of these will be provided by commercial sources, not educational institutions. These developments will be intensified as companies take savvy approaches like America OnLine, in which a telecommunication system is presented within an entertainment metaphor. The growth in tele-commuting (i.e., working at home on computers tied into office systems) will help establish norms for tele-education systems.

Writing labs will become like studio art courses, in which instructors can monitor and give immediate feedback on students' developing texts—and have their advice almost as quickly incorporated into the emerging documents. This may sound pretty good, but some teachers are troubled by the consequences. They think students become too dependent on easy access to teachers' help in all stages of the composing process. In addition, some teachers who want to see discrete "drafts" of students' writing complain about no longer being sure how to define such a "draft," given the rapidity with which students revise their work. Other teachers aren't sure who should be getting the grade in such "collaborative" writing environments.

Software that generates its own text will change the nature of writer-text-reader relationships. Early plans for IBM's EPISTLE project envisioned the computer's reading incoming letters, taking note of key words, and generating memos based on the stored writing style of the person responsible for the reply. While this work remains uncompleted, it has in its own way been anticipated by the automatic signature machines already widely used.

Spelling and style checkers will make it even harder to convince students to learn many of the basic skills. Unfortunately, just as a great many teachers are still unsure about the power relationships between computers and people, students are prone to thinking that the machines will solve their problems. This is an issue of attitudes and expectations as much as of technology.

Handwriting will degenerate for more students. In general, it will develop as one of the fine or applied arts. There are reasonable people who question the need for students to learn handwriting (as opposed to printing) in the first place. The increasing accessibility of software that allows and encourages people to "design" their documents may lessen many people's willingness to depend on—or develop—their handwriting, the legibility of which is most probably a source of indifference or shame. The recent interest in "stylus" technology and handwriting recognition software may serve to standardize script rather than allow us our scribal idiosyncrasies.

Readers may want to fine-tune, omit, or add certain items—as well they should. It is, in fact, less important whether such predictions are accurate than that by concentrated efforts to articulate them, they aid any novice oracle in applying focused attention and insight to a problematic but fascinating field.

The future of literacy—that is, the nature and proficiency of reading and writing skills—is as uncertain in 1990 as it has always been. Pessimists note that history provides ample evidence for questioning the desirability of "technological progress." In fact, when I first started working in the field, most English teachers proudly turned their backs on the future, ignored the present, and faced the past with hope and determination.

The optimistic view, of course, is that computers and related technologies are providing new and increasingly rich environments that both enhance and transform students' capacities. The stability and vitality of the profession depend on talented teachers who acquire an informed exuberance. As usual, they'll be a major force in making the most of what the technology and their students offer them.

Originally published in Volume 12, Number 4.

About the Author STEPHEN MARCUS, who died suddenly in 1999, taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he served as associate director of the South Coast Writing Project. Marcus was a moving force in advancing the writing project's first steps toward involvement with technology. He coordinated NWP's Technology Network and the alliance between the California Writing Project and the California Technology Project. For The Quarterly he wrote on everything from email to the use of Polaroid cameras as a learning tool. He was a funny man and his writing often had an overlay of gentle humor as suggested by one of his titles: "Avoiding Road-Kill on the Information Highway."

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