Posted to ACW-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk, and TEACH on 11/30/98.
The last List of Ten provided questions that we can ask students to
consider as critical thinkers interacting with computer technology. This
list provides another Ten ideas for discussing critical literacy and
technology. Some of the ideas look at the same issue as a previous
assignment, but in a slightly different way or giving writers a
different way to frame their discussion (for instance, #4 and #6 on the
first list share the topic of advertising with #2 on this list). If you
want to consider computers and advertising, just choose the assignment
that best fits your students -- or let your students choose among the
Most of the assignments ask students to look at the ways that computer technology
is presented in the world around them, so access to computers in
the classroom is not necessary for students to work on these assignments.
If you do not have computers at your school, students can consider
computers where they work, computers where they shop, computers
in their homes, and so forth.
Note: Part 1 is available
- The Microsoft Monopoly trial has placed computing in the news and
increasing the number of stories related to computer technology that
are covered on the news. Choose a statement made by one of the major
players in the monopoly trial (Bill Gates, the chair of Netscape, and
so on). Do a close reading of the way that the speaker talks about
computers and computer technology. How does the speaker think about
the people who use computers? How does the speaker talk about what
computers can do? Does the speaker have different assumptions from
the general public? Consider, for instance, all this discussion
surrounding the definition of a web browser. How do you and your
friends define web browser, and how do your definitions compare to
the ones that are used in the statements that have been released?
For this paper, your job is to focus on how the trial is defining
something about computers or computer technology and compare that
definition to what you see in the world around you.
- Write a parody of an advertisement for a particular kind of computer,
for a particular kind of software, or a particular Internet Service Provider
(AOL, Compuserve, and AT&T Worldnet are Internet Service Providers).
Think about the ways that the technology you're exploring are presented in
typical advertisements. What kind of people are shown? Or are there people?
What are the computers doing? What aren't they doing? Once you've thought
about that way that advertisements are done, write a parody that makes a point
about the way that way that computers and technology are presented.
Remember not just to make fun of the advertisement, but to make a point
about something like access to computers or about the reality of using
- Computers are often portrayed as an invention that has changed life drastically. Think about inventions that are historically portrayed as dramatically shifting life -- the automobile, electricity, the locomotive, and so on. Do computers fit in this group? Have they had a drastic effect upon your life or upon the lives of people that you know? How have that effected (or not) society in general? Write a paper that argues your position -- Are computers life changing? Will they change society as we know (or knew?) it? Be sure to use evidence to support your claim.
- Analyze the portrayal of computers in television science fiction shows or in motion pictures. What do computers and computer-based technologies look like? What can computers do? How do they work? Consider how the science fiction portrayal compares to the real knowledge about computers at the time that the work was published or filmed (in other words, if you're analyzing the computers on the original Star Trek television series, you need to compare the Star Trek computer to the technology available in the late 1960s rather than to the technology available today). How do you account for the differences between the technology available when the piece was written and the technology that is shown in the film or episode? What does the portrayal of computers tell you about the way that people thought about computers when the show was written?
NOTE: This assignment can easily to shifted to an analysis of science fiction novels or short stories.
- What are the dangers of computers that are shown in the news, in advertisements, and in popular culture? You can begin your list with dangerous hackers, viruses, and hard drive crashes. And, of course, there's a great deal of information on the possible troubles of the shift to the Year 2000. What is the point of discussing these dangers? What kind of language is used to talk about them? What are the reporters and advertisers trying to communicate? Analyze the purpose and audience for the discussion. What is the point of view? How is the point of view communicated? How does the point of view affect the way that the ideas are discussed? What details are included? What is explained -- and what isn't?
- Take a look at what you see on-screen in a particular computer program. Consider the menu commands, the dialog box names, and the design of what you see on-screen. What can you tell about the designers by the names and the design that they use in the program? Who does the designer think will use the program? What does the designer assume that the user knows (and doesn't know)? What terms does the designer assume that the user is familiar with? Where is online help available (and where is it missing)? Is the program ADA-compliant*? Write a paper that analyzes the computer designer's vision of the users with attention not only to who the designer is thinking of but also to the users that the designer leaves out.
**ADA-compliant means compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. You can find information on ADA compliance with a simple Internet search, but at its most basic it means that a piece of software can be used by someone who visually impaired or hearing impaired. Think about the way that the program is used -- if the only indication of something is a change in color, will someone who is color blind understand? if the only indication of an error is that the computer beeps, will a hearing-impaired user know what is going on? Consider such issues as you examine your software.
- [Based on an assignment described by Anne Wysocki of Michigan Technological University, at the Computers and Writing Conference in Gainesville, Florida]
Examine a program that claims to show a realistic vision of its topic (or a vision based on reality). Consider a simulation program such as SimCity or Microsoft Flight Simulator; or take a look at the way that people, places, and events are portrayed in the Carmen SanDiego series. Think about the way that humans are portrayed in medical education software like Adam. Choose a particular program and analyze the way that the designers think about their topic -- just how realistic is their vision? what is included and what is left out? What can you tell about the designers biases? How does the designer's vision affect the value of the program?
- Examine a program designed to help you complete a task such as write a paper, draw a picture, or calculate data in a spreadsheet. You might choose any program in Microsoft Office, PhotoShop, Word Perfect, Illustrator, Freehand, or Quicken. Take a close look at the program that you've chosen -- what does it do? what abilities does it leave out? Once you've thought about the program and the things that it does, analyze the designer's vision of the task that the program is meant to help the user complete. How does Microsoft define 'writing' if you consider Microsoft Word as a writing tool? How does Adobe define 'art' if you base their definition on what you see in PhotoShop? What do the designers think is important, and what do they leave out? Look at the activities that the program supports, the ease of using the tool, and the way that the features are named. Your paper should analyze the task that the tool supports and the ways that it supports it.
- Take a critical look at something that most people never consider -- Look at the fonts that are available on a computer that you have access to. You'll see font such as Arial, Courier, Monaco, Chicago, Schoolbook, Wingding, Verdana, and Colonna. Create a system of classification that makes sense of the naming conventions that are used. What connections are there between the names and the appearance of the fonts? As you create your system, give attention to the reasons for the categories that you find -- why, for instance, are some fonts named after cities? why are some given women's names (Arial, Desdemona, etc.) Your paper should provide both a basic classification system and some interpretation of the reasons for the apparent categories.
- [Based on an assignment described by Dickie Selfe of Michigan Technological University, at the Computers and Writing Conference in Gainesville, Florida]
How is money spent on computers at your school, where you work, or in a local business or government? For your paper, do some investigative work -- dig around and find out where the money comes from and what it is spent on. Who proposes ways to spend the money? Who makes the decisions? Who are resources provided for -- and who is left out? What kind of training and support are available? Once you've completed your research, write a paper that explains how technology is valued and the ways that technology users are defined at your school, where you work, or in the business or government agency you've investigated. Alternately, you can write a paper that proposes a change in the process that is used to decide how money is spent or a paper that suggests a specific technological need that should be addressed in future spending.
Posted February 8, 1999 on
the Daedalus Website.