Teaching With Technology
Business Writing


Teachers of Business Writing have always been concerned with workplace technologies as they relate to communication. We have typically taught students about typewritten or wordprocessed documents and occasionally the use of voicemail and fax machines. Increasingly, though, we are called upon to teach students more sophisticated writing skills with more sophisticated technologies. Students are now expected to know the proper use of electronic mail, to produce professional visuals and presentations, and even to be proficient in writing online documents like web sites.

writing skills and technologies for business writing
With most business settings, there are basic expectations that students will be technology literate. Our courses have always been full of things to do - there are myriad writing tasks our students need to learn. Yet increasingly, the burden falls on us to also teach technology. We have to prepare our students for the reality of the business world where professional quality documents are expected of them. Professional quality is still equated with good writing skills (grammatical prose, clear style, appropriate information, and sound reasoning behind the content). Yet it can not be separated from document production and delivery which these days means an increasing reliance on writing technologies.

For most of our students this means being able to do the following writing tasks with some form of technology:

Writing Tasks

Programs/ Technologies
Creating and formatting professional quality documents (headers, page numbering, styles, changes to page size and layout) Word Processors (Word, WordPerfect, Word Pro), Page Layout Programs (PageMaker, FrameMaker)
Communicating within the company and with outside clients/customers/colleagues Telephone/voicemail, fax machines, electronic mail, web sites
Designing professional quality visuals and graphics Excel, Paintshop Pro, Photoshop, Lview Pro 
Presenting information to external and internal audiences PowerPoint, Corel Presentations, web sites
Researching content for various reports and documents Web sites and cd-rom databases

focus on writing, not technology
Depending on our own educational background, keeping up with writing technologies may seem a daunting task. We must first realize that our job is not to keep up with the latest version of every software program that enters the market, because that is impossible. We most often have neither the budget nor the time to buy and learn the latest version of all programs needed for this course. We have to decide what students can learn with the existing versions we have (and when we need to push to get access to newer software) and then to teach students how to learn new programs and technologies on their own.

Our primary job is not to train students on the use of particular tools, even though that may be a secondary benefit of our courses. Our primary goal with technology is to teach students specialized writing skills and strategies for negotiating new terrains (such as electronic mail or the web). In other words, pedagogy should drive the train of technology. If our focus becomes the students' writing and not the technology, we can spend time teaching students how to write and communicate in real-world settings, not simply how to memorize every command in Microsoft Word or PowerPoint.

If we let technology drive what we do in the classroom and teach specific programs and commands, our students will leave us knowing tools/programs only. They might know how to format a document in Microsoft Word, for example, but will not be able to apply this knowledge to other documents or programs. If, on the other hand, we teach our students about good document design (perhaps using one or two different programs to show them how to produce the effects they want), then our students should be able to create professional documents in a variety of wordprocessing programs (Word, WordPerfect, Word Pro, etc.) and to apply document design principles to a variety of documents. They should also be able, with likely little effort, apply these skills to other programs, such as PageMaker or Netscape's Composer for web pages.

We don't mean to imply here that there isn't a learning curve involved for either the teachers or students in Business Writing classes. However, we can manage the steepness and sharpness of the curve by being very selective about what we choose to teach and learn. Since our goal is teaching writing, we should use whatever technology facilitates the process of producing professional quality work for our students.

So, here are some things to think about:

  • Start with what you know about writing, teaching, your students
  • Let curriculum drive computer use
  • Integrate learning technology with writing assignments

communicating with students using technology
One way to help your students learn writing technologies in a realistic context is to consider your classrooms as a business setting. You probably should consider setting up a "virtual office" and may want your students to have one as well. This has the added benefit of allowing you to communicate with students more easily.

Your office could be as simple as an email address for correspondence and perhaps even office hours. We often tell students that they can reach us by email at the same time we hold hours in our physical offices. Alternately, you can hold email office hours from home or any where else you have access to your email. We can also have electronic mail lists (or listservs) setup for our classes which would allow you or students to post messages to everyone in the class. This can facilitate class discussions about relevant issues, question asking, and sharing of research and other information.

You can also think of your virtual office as a way to distribute information to students. We have web pages set up in our personal accounts on campus which serve this purpose. These pages have course syllabi, assignment handouts, information on office hours and ways to reach us, and a mailto function so that students can email us directly. The Business Writing mentoring site will contain general course assignment information, but your website would be tailored to the specific assignments you are teaching in any given term.

In addition to your setting up a virtual office, you may decide to have your student do the same as one assignment in class. Their virtual office could contain their resume (another class assignment) and a mailto function so that you could reach them via email when needed. They could also link their coursework/writing to links on their pages so that their work would be available to you easily. This would require some very sophisticated skills on the part of your students, but would enable them to learn a great deal about using various technologies for online writing (page layout, word processing, composing web pages/html, email, file transfer, graphics manipulation, etc).

strategies for teaching in a computer classroom
The exciting thing about teaching in a computer lab is that you have the technology needed at your fingertips to help students become professional communicators. Yet there are drawbacks. You have to negotiate how much technology to teach and how to teach it. You have to learn enough about writing technologies to help students with little or no knowledge learn them. You have to be aware that students may prefer to surf the net in the back row while you talk about memos.

First, stay focused. Remember that this is a writing class (not computers 101). Thus, you only have to learn technology as it will help you teach writing or help your students learn writing and produce more professional documents. Remember that you are the writing expert not a computer expert. Be willing to admit this to students and build in ways to use students' knowledge of technology. If a student knows a program better than you (and perhaps most of the other students), use them as the expert for that program in class. This will build their own confidence and give other students a good resource.

Be aware that the mere presence of computers and a network in the classroom will often mean that your plans for the day will need to change, maybe more than once! If you plan to show students PowerPoint and the campus network goes down in the middle of your class, you will need a plan B. This goes with the territory in the lab.

Pacing can be a change for teachers who are unused to teaching in computer classrooms. Working with technology often takes longer than expected. For example, you may know that you can work through formatting a Microsoft word document in about 10 minutes. However, when you try to teach 25 students how to format documents in class, it may take 30 minutes or more (waiting for computers to start up, students to try out the commands you give them, students to find where you are on the computer, and questions to be asked about other commands). You should be prepared to move items on your daily agenda around so that you focus on what is important. In addition, knowing how to balance lecture, class discussions, computer time, and group and individual work can be tricky. You need to recognize that an important component of classes that meet in computer classrooms is the workshop-time allowed for production of documents and learning about writing technologies. Students often learn a great deal by doing (not just be hearing us talk about doing it). Yet they do need some guidance for making the most of their workshop time. A well-timed discussion about an assignment, lecture about a writing principle or a demonstration of a computer program or command can make all the difference for a student's understanding of their task.

Keep in mind the following:

  • Let students be experts (especially when they know more than you do about a technology)
  • Don't fight the technology (you'll lose…)
  • But, disrupt the technology when you need to
  • Always have plans B and C
  • Use electronic technologies to prepare students between and before classes
  • Plan daily activities to include multiple tasks: whole class interactions, small group interactions, individual writing time, one to one time with you. Mix it up and allow for options
  • Use mini-lessons--3-5 minute lessons with focused topics

strategies for teaching technology without a computer classroom
Being in a computer classroom for all class meetings will facilitate students' learning to produce professional quality work and to learn some writing technologies. However, if a computer classroom is not available to you, you can still help them learn what they need. You may need to take students to a lab for a class or two to demonstrate the use of a particular key technology. You may need to hand out documentation that will teach them basic computer tasks as well. You might consider holding office hours near a computer so you can show students important commands and such as needed.

Specifically, you should always expect work that meets quality expectations of the workplace. This means, at a minimum, word processed and laser printed documents (600 dpi). This can also mean documents that incorporate graphics and make use of advanced formatting (such as running headers, different page sizes, tables, etc).

You can always require use of email in your classes. You might have students send proposals for projects or progress reports this way, for example, to allow them to become familiar with the technology. While you need to be considerate of students who have difficulty learning email or gaining access to computers to send and check their mail, students on campus can gain access to their campus email in open use labs (some of which are open 24 hours a day). Many of our students also have email access from home or work. You may need to set aside some time to teach students new to the technology how to open their accounts and send mail, or at least hand out documentation which explains how to do this.

In addition to email, you could have students create web pages out of class. You would need to have some days in a technology classroom to at least demonstrate how to create pages and would definitely need to give students clear documentation on creating web pages.

Keep in mind the following:

  • Be aware and considerate of students' out-of-class access to technology. Assume some have easy access and others do not
  • Plan to teach technology through brief demonstration and written documentation instead of immersion
  • Be available to teach students technological tasks during office hours
  • Use electronic technologies to prepare students between and before classes
  • Plan daily activities to include multiple tasks: whole class interactions, small group interactions, individual writing time, one to one time with you. Mix it up and allow for options.