Harvard Educational Review
  1. Spring 2001 Issue »

    Book Review of Sibylle Gruber's Weaving a Virtual Web: Practical Approaches to New Information Technologies

    Bettina Fabos
    Weaving a Virtual Web: Practical Approaches to New Information Technologies
    edited by Sibylle Gruber
    Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2000. 326 pp. $26.95

    Weaving a Virtual Web: Practical Approaches to New Information Technologies, edited by Sibylle Gruber, is a valuable resource for teachers and administrators trying to make sense of Internet use in the classroom. The book's twenty contributors delineate some of the most important themes regarding Web-enhanced instruction that have developed since the mid-1990s: 1) the value of hypertext as a new and important language; 2) the Internet's ability to encourage student interaction; 3) the importance of teaching Web production; and 4) the implications of accessing wider audiences for student writing. Besides offering both careful summaries of theoretical scholarship and practical approaches to understanding and using the Web in school, the book also documents the current state of Internet-enhanced pedagogy. As the author writes in her preface, Weaving a Virtual Web is just the beginning of a critical discourse on the Web's possibilities. The book also serves as the beginning of an idea-filtering process whereby certain themes will inevitably emerge as more relevant than others over time. For example, the hype over hypertext has already begun to wane. A consensus is emerging that interaction among students will depend on the nature of a specific project, not the Internet technology itself, and will change depending on varying student/computer ratios. Educators are quickly moving beyond the need to teach basic Web searching and design skills and toward more concrete analyses and construction of Web content.

    Most of the contributors to this volume teach at the college level and investigate the use of Web technology in their own composition and English classrooms. A few exceptions include chapters focusing on a college engineering course, tips for foreign-language teachers, and digital photography aesthetics. Only one contributor teaches at the high school level. Three contributors are graduate students.

    The collection of essays is divided into four main sections. The first section, Planning and Structuring Web-Enhanced Courses, discusses the Web as a practical and theoretical tool to supplement other course goals, such as text and image analysis, and the study of hypertext as an extension of other forms of writing. The second section, Encouraging Research On and With the Web, focuses on distinguishing between various forms of Web content and using Web resources to reinforce library research. The third section, Supporting Collaboration and Interaction, features the Web as a tool with which to discuss aspects of composition theory (e.g., audience, hypertext), literature, and aesthetics. More importantly, this chapter talks about extending these theoretical and practical discussions into cyber and classroom communities. Finally, the fourth section, Publishing on the Web, explores the many implications of placing student projects online.

    The third section, in my view, is the strongest, because of the authors' distinct efforts to conceive the Web as a supplement to larger educational projects as opposed to making the technology and its "newness" the sole emphasis of the course. For a thematic unit on the literature of war, for example, author Katherine M. Fischer asks her students to email war veterans, communicate with them about their own experiences, and relate those experiences to a particular piece of literature. "Why use the Web if all it does is poorly replicate what other sources and media already do well?" Fischer writes (p. 147). In a similar example, Patricia R. Webb explains how her class investigated the collaborative nature of writing through a number of Web (and other) projects, and notes that "the Web proved to be an important part of my strategy to encourage students to question traditional assumptions about writing, but it was only one part of a whole class dynamic that emphasized this critical questioning" (pp. 129-130).

    While some of the essays help to advance our current ideas about valuable classroom Web use, many others in Weaving a Virtual Web tend to appropriate theoretical Web discourse in a way that treats theory as fact (e.g., the Web enables a new kind of literacy; the Web is a living text; the Web enables more student collaboration; the Web changes teachers from authority figures to facilitators). These discussions, of course, are part of an important shake-down process that will eventually privilege some ideas over others. As evidenced in this book, some of these ideas are already being stretched in more thoughtful directions, such as the Internet being an extension of other media technologies rather than an entirely novel communication tool.

    One prevailing discussion throughout the book, for example, highlights the Web's newness. Since the early 1990s, hypertext theorists such as George Landow have discussed the nonlinearity of Web linking as a new and less confining way to communicate text (Bolter, 1991; Landow, 1991; Lanham, 1994). Drawing upon such theories, the book's authors work hard to differentiate between Web writing (new, nonlinear) and academic writing (traditional, linear). By describing Web writing as such a novelty, these authors do not consider, however, that both linear texts (e.g., a government report) and nonlinear texts (e.g., search engine results, an interactive encyclopedia) thrive on the Web, or that nonlinearity is not a new concept. We are surrounded by nonlinear reading and writing opportunities every day, none of which are dependent on the Web. While some texts are designed to be nonlinear (e.g., indexes, phone books), all texts can be read in a nonlinear fashion, depending on the reader's priorities. Gruber actually makes this point to some extent in her introduction by encouraging us to read Weaving a Virtual Web in a nonlinear fashion:

    On the one hand, the papers can be read linearly, moving through a progression similar to the processes involved in writing a paper. . . . On the other hand, readers are encouraged to move freely from text to text, creating their own links and connections within and among texts. This perspective enables the reader to approach the book less as a traditional volume and more as a hypertext which allows for unpredictable moves while sustaining a cohesive experience. (p. xxiii)

    However, Gruber's point is lost on many of the book's authors, who repeatedly promote the Web's nonlinear reading and writing capabilities. Other authors point to the "new" bulleted style of writing that currently permeates the Web. They forget that this style, also prevalent in USA Today and promotional brochures, is just the language of print journalism and advertising. By uncritically belaboring this dichotomy, these authors seem to be trying to distinguish the Web from all other print sources - an impossible task.

    The "impermanent nature" of Web content is another topic advanced throughout this book that has been problematically overstated and overtheorized. Some contributors argue that the Web, as a "living text," promotes constant revision and reinterpretation. This can be true in the context of a particular writing process, where students rework a particular page for a class project and refine their writing skills and page design based on continual feedback. But many documents published on the Web are created "offline" and then presented as permanent, never-to-be-revised texts. Indeed, other authors appreciate how their students can revisit their "published texts" years after they created them (Rehberger, ch. 14), or are embarrassed by the overly simplistic nature of a now unalterable class Web publication (Golson & Sagel, ch. 4). Once again, the notion of permanence or impermanence depends on the context of the document and the goal of a project, not the "new" nature of the Web medium. Therefore, we have to be careful about speaking in absolutes, consider what we mean by "nonlinear" and "living text," and present these ideas within their particular contexts. Fortunately, some authors in the book see the Web in a more complex light, comparing it to other mediums and practices, and detailing why a certain use of the Web within a particular context has benefited learning. Fischer (ch. 11), for instance, focuses on the aspects of the Web that made it unique for her purposes - its immediacy, its ability to accommodate associative thinking in multiple ways, and its interactivity. Likewise, Patricia R. Webb (ch. 9) discusses how the Web both aided and interfered with student writing practices, offering various experiences depending upon user preferences and project goals.

    One more recurring theme in Weaving a Virtual Web involves using the Web to generate critical thinking. Not surprisingly, critical thinking takes on many forms depending upon author perspectives. In some chapters, authors promote the Web as a place for associative thinking - juxtaposing disparate texts (in this case Web sites) and making connections between them (e.g., Webb, ch. 9; Fischer, ch. 11; Wysocki, ch. 12; Burow-Flack, ch. 13; Smith, ch. 18). Other authors view the Web as an ideal place to illustrate and understand contemporary cultural studies and writing theory (Rehberger, ch. 14; Doherty & Thompson, ch. 19); as a practical means for critically evaluating textual content (Burow-Flack, ch. 13; Rilling & Csomay, ch. 8); and as a place to analyze effective design and writing components (Wysocki, ch. 12; Egbert & Jessup, ch. 17).

    Despite these variations, none of the authors considers the kind of critical thinking advanced by John Elkins, Allan Luke, and others (e.g., Elkins & Luke, 1999; Luke, 1999; The New London Group, 1996) who extend critical evaluation beyond the texts themselves, acknowledge the myriad ways readers socially construct texts, and explore broader political and economic motives behind text production. Since more than 80 percent of the Internet serves commercial purposes, according to a recent study (Lawrence & Giles, 1999), it is all the more important for students and teachers to understand the nature, history, and motivation behind this commercialization and how it influences our experiences of the Web.

    Not addressing these kind of critical literacy practices, and the Web itself as a complicated, advertising-dominated, and overwhelmingly commercial environment, is a weakness of Weaving a Virtual Web. Indeed, authors are painfully uncritical about the heavily commercialized Web content that they cite and that they encourage their students to produce. Jean W. Leloup and Robert Ponterio (ch. 7), for example, speak to the value of Web research in a foreign-language classroom and point readers (and their own students) to "authentic foreign language resources," in this case an English-language, tourist-oriented photo spread for an Argentinean luxury hotel. The authors do not consider the website's promotional leanings, the one-dimensional portrayal of Argentina, and the wealthy, non-Argentinean audience the website is trying to reach. Additionally, many of the examples of student-created Web productions given throughout the text are for promotional homepages for "real" business clients (e.g., Egbert & Jessup, ch. 17; Smith, ch. 18), which imitate and glamorize the Web's increasingly corporate-dominated value system. "Some client [websites] are designed to function as a service, putting the client's function online," author Catherine F. Smith writes, describing her students' projects. "More often, [websites] are designed to advertise the client. Students choose whom they want to promote" (p. 242).

    Encouraging students to appropriate a corporate/consumer mindset will not likely help students to approach a higher level of critical literacy. Instead, we should encourage Web production that emphasizes the democratic possiblities of the Web. Why not get students to think about how they can enhance an academic or civic community by connecting with alumni or town officials and by writing profiles, historical pieces, and issues-oriented items on "real" topics, such as town elections, public library developments, or town recreational activities? Why not make a "living text" out of the school's homepage that goes beyond promoting the school's student writing samples (a current favorite) and actually serves a purpose by providing links and communication venues that are meaningful to the school and the surrounding community? If one of the Internet's unique assets is its ability to connect students with larger communities, then it makes good sense to foster connections that encourage their role as citizens, not only consumers. Furthermore, we should encourage students to explore the various genres of texts appearing on the Internet and ask them to investigate the various political and economic motives behind text production. This includes the texts they create as well: whose interests are served by the communication, and why do these different purposes matter?

    With so many specific examples of successful classroom Web use presented, the book has the feel of a roundtable discussion where teachers share insights and consider their teaching methods. A number of detailed recommendations emerge. For instance, some teachers have students evaluate the Web pages of their peers and encourage Web page revision throughout the semester. Another idea is to use outside feedback, such as Internet mentors (see Beason, ch. 3; Nellen, ch. 16), to comment upon student Web content. Weaving a Virtual Web also makes a strong case for using the Web to extend class activities beyond scheduled class time and for keeping students involved and interested through electronic discourse. The book expands on these recommendations with many in-chapter references to active websites that link to specific teaching projects discussed by the various authors. By including URLs in her chapter, for example, author Jean Boreen (ch. 6) sends readers to the Web pages published by the students in her study; author Ted Nellen (ch. 16) includes online references to his Web-based syllabus and assignments, as well as student work, throughout his essay. These links enliven Weaving a Virtual Web, as do sample syllabi that appear at the end of many chapters, and the Resource Appendix, which offers additional references, links, and Web page reviews.

    Since all of the contributors promote increased Web use, Weaving a Virtual Web might have benefited from an additional chapter critiquing various kinds of student Internet activity. A number of authors acknowledge that the Web has its critics among fellow teachers. For example, authors Joy L. Egbert and Leonard M. Jessup (ch. 17) observe that educators relate many anecdotes about the suboptimal implementation of classroom technologies, and arguments against using the World Wide Web have many supporters. However, these criticisms are never directly addressed and are too easily dismissed as technophobia. Surely some of this criticism has merit. For example, the second section, Encouraging Research On and With the Web, could have benefited from a chapter considering a growing over-reliance on Web research among students. This is a major complaint that I hear among professors, teachers, and librarians who have noticed an increase in student laziness when doing research. In their view, the Web is making research "too easy" on a number of levels, and students are reluctant to investigate sources that they can not immediately access. Aside from the book's occasional reminders not to let technology guide the curriculum, it would also be valuable (and important) to understand how certain projects can be just as satisfying and successful without Internet technology.

    Weaving a Virtual Web is more of a barometer for where we are now in our notion of a successfully Web-enhanced classroom than a tool for determining where we could be. There is still a great deal of room to push our ideas about Web use in many different and more important ways. The themes laid out in this book offer a starting point for such expansion.

    Bettina Fabos
    University of Iowa
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    Spring 2001 Issue

    Abstracts

    "Improve the Women"
    Mass Schooling, Female Literacy, and Worldwide Social Change
    Robert A. LeVine, Sarah E. Levine, and Beatrice Schnell
    Education for Democratic Citizenship
    Transnationalism, Multiculturalism, and the Limits of Liberalism
    Katharyne Mitchell
    Apprenticing Adolescent Readers to Academic Literacy
    Cynthia L. Greenleaf, Ruth Schoenbach, Christine Cziko, and Faye L. Mueller
    Book Review of Sibylle Gruber's Weaving a Virtual Web: Practical Approaches to New Information Technologies
    Bettina Fabos

    Book Notes

    Conflicting Missions?
    Edited by Tom Loveless

    Three Seductive Ideas
    By Jerome Kagan

    The Social Life of Information
    By John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid

    Classrooms and Courtrooms
    By Nan Stein

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