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Help Computer Students Communicate in Human-Speak

Her students can write code—but can they express themselves clearly and confidently? How one IT professor’s assignment turns programmers into communicators.

Educator

Amy Caryn Redford, MA

Professor of Information Technology, Southern New Hampshire University

Pursuing a DIT in Information Technology; holds an MS in Technology, BS in Computer Science, BS in Biology

If a computer professor who aspires to be as literary as a librarian and as grammatically savvy as an editor sounds like an anomaly, it just may be. But for Amy Caryn Redford, a professor of information technology at Southern New Hampshire University, it is not a new concept. “I’ve been working since the 1970s on how to communicate in this two-dimensional, asynchronous online world of IT,” she says.

Redford knows that, with respect to the technical aspects of her curriculum, many students in her online Computer Platform Technologies class will “knock it out of the park” (or perhaps over an imagined firewall), but that is not enough. Redford wants them to excel at communicating with people, too, and that means writing accurately and persuasively in plain English, not just stringing together computer code.

“In computer [code], there’s no gray area,” says Redford. “It’s either right or wrong. But that’s not true when you’re writing a proposal for new work or sending a letter to a [prospective employer]. In those instances, you must communicate clearly so you can’t be misunderstood.”

While almost all IT courses have quizzes and exams, Redford’s may be one of the few computer courses that requires a term paper. That term paper is a gift to her students, though they may not view it that way at first.

Challenge: Helping IT students write well in plain English

In the 3 years Redford has taught Computer Platform Technologies, she considers one of her chief challenges to be making students’ writing a focus when so few of her teaching peers prioritize it.

The best programmer might miss out on an excellent job opportunity because her resume was full of grammatical errors. Another graduate might know the language of code as if he grew up speaking it, but if he can not convey his ideas and thoughts to real live human beings, he will not be effective. None of their focused, functional expertise matters, says Redford, unless students can write and express themselves well.

Innovation: Having code writers draft a “term paper”

“The term paper my students have to write is more like a proposal for a company,” says Redford. “I make sure that students validate what they’re recommending [in the same way as they will] have to do in the real world. I make sure they use proper grammar and sentence structure. During the course, I suggest ways they can communicate something better. I look at both the content and the writing: what they say and how they say it. Because you know what? That’s exactly what a potential employer will do.”

Context

Course: IT 201 Computer Platform Technologies
Frequency: 8 weeks to complete 8 online modules
Class size: 25
In her words: “There are no prerequisites for this particular course. Whether you are new to technology and its tools or a seasoned technical aficionado looking for a refresher course, this class should prove to be challenging and fun for everyone! But boy, will you pack a lot of learning into a short period.”

IT 201 Computer Platform Technologies

See materials

Lesson: A writing program for future programmers

Over the course of her 8-week class, Redford offers her soup-to-nuts exploration of how computer systems work, covering hardware, software, networks, and troubleshooting. But it is equally important to Redford that her students learn professional communication skills. “I’ve been told by students that other professors don’t go to the same lengths as I do to help them write properly and not just correct their content or format,” she says.

Here is how she preps them to be strong communicators, even as she teaches them the 1s and 0s of coding.

Put writing expectations in writing

Syllabi, rubrics, and first-day-of-semester packets are nothing new; most professors use one or more of these to communicate their expectations from day one. From the course’s start date, Redford makes it clear that students will take 6 exams and write a final term paper, in the form of a proposal like one they might need to draft in the professional world.

For this proposal, the student is instructed to imagine being an entrepreneur or consultant and to write academically as well as professionally.

The term paper consists of 4 clearly written sections:

  • Business needs
  • Hardware needs and recommendations
  • Software needs and recommendations
  • Networks

Every student submission is graded on a standard rubric so there is no bias. Papers submitted also go through the application called Turnitin to check for plagiarism. These English-class standards help students comprehend how serious Redford is about the quality of their written work.

Show students WIFM (what’s in it for me)

At first, many students really hate the term paper writing assignment, Redford admits. They do not understand why they have to concentrate on an area (writing) that may not come naturally to them. When students share these concerns, Redford asks questions until she can learn why they dislike writing and to generate further discussion about how to break through any barriers. Often, in the course of emailed dialog, the student begins to rethink the value of expressing his or her thoughts clearly. Redford has found that her persistence generally pays off.

Weave writing throughout the curriculum

As part of Redford’s course, students must post regularly and respond to online discussions. In this forum, students are encouraged to share why they agree or disagree with each other, as well as share experiences related to the lesson. Some of her “Discussion Board Rules & Etiquette” for students include:

  • Respond to at least 2 of your classmates in addition to your own post. Please, NO one-line comments. Here I am looking for substantial comments, with thought put behind them, to facilitate discussions.
  • ALWAYS proofread your work prior to submission so it is free of grammar, punctuation, and/or sentence structure errors.
  • Familiarize yourself with APA format standards. You can find details on Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab), which is free, thorough, updated frequently, and extremely accurate.
Mete out very specific feedback

Too much markup can be daunting for a student who is trying to develop their writing chops. So Redford chooses one or two things in a student’s term paper—e.g., a run-on sentence, overused word, or poorly phrased operating network recommendation—and makes alternative suggestions so her students can see what works better. Focusing on a few recurring issues allows the student to process the feedback (rather than be overwhelmed by it) and apply it to future communications.

Model good communication in other modes, too

Another challenge in online courses such as this one is developing personal connections via technology. To address this, Redford encourages students to do this:

Join in the “Discussion Boards” early! Post an icebreaker. Tell everyone a bit about yourself, your interests, aspirations, and why you decided to take this course (other than program requirements, please) or your career goals.

She also offers to communicate additionally, using the channel of their choice, including phone or text message.

“Every communication I have with my student is designed to make that student feel as though I am standing right next to him,” she says. “I give [students] a ton of personal attention, share my hands-on work, and let them know that, sure, technical information in a conversational style might sound at odds, but it’s not.”

Building Real Connections with Online Classes

Redford does not want to be a distant Wizard of Oz–like presence who looms large in students’ lives but is invisible to them. “I teach an online course for students who live in a very online world, so my biggest challenge is reaching them personally,” says Redford. “I can do my work whenever I want to, and students can do their work whenever they want to.” This makes it even easier for there to be a disconnect between educator and student.

One of Redford’s goals, therefore, is to encourage students to connect with her (and each other) so they are not hiding behind their screens—and she is not hiding behind a metaphorical green curtain.

This is not necessarily something that students will intuit or understand implicitly, though. It is important to spell out your commitment to making a connection.

“I let the students know from day one that if you keep in contact with me and let me know what’s going on, I will work with you. That floors some students, especially in a computer course.”

Even if students do not reach out, though, they are still on her radar—possibly even more so. “I pick up on patterns,” says Redford. “If I don’t see a student participating or communicating clearly with me or the other students on the class discussion board, I reach out to them directly. I tell them I am concerned and ask, ‘Are you having problems with a certain portion of the course? How can I help you embrace the course material more?’”

In a world of virtual learning, Redford assures students that there is a very real human being who is personally invested in their success. Sometimes that makes all the difference.

Outcomes

When Redford indicated that she was going to make communications a focus of her computer class, no one in her department pushed back. Rather, many educators were curious about how this new approach would work, and they have been pleasantly surprised that it has gone over well. The evaluation system at Southern New Hampshire University is thorough. The educator and course content are evaluated not only by students but also by a team leader (a de facto program director), and the educator of the course evaluates the team leader, too. It is a 360-degree evaluation. The response Redford has received about her teaching style from her students and other professors has been very positive. “Almost every evaluation comes back with glowing remarks that they like my personal availability and that I was there for them,” says Redford. “My team leaders evaluate me the same way.”

Student feedback

Redford says she loves receiving emails from students thanking her for teaching them how to follow APA writing standards, how to present research findings clearly, and how to convey technical topics in simple and straightforward language. Some of her favorite email excerpts include these:

“I wanted to let you know that I’ve decided to take the IT director’s position offered to me. Thank you again for your words of encouragement. June 2, I am meeting with the owner to review expectations and other details. I know the owners believe in me . . . I think because I took your course I believed in myself and knew I could do it! Thank you again!”

“Thank you for the recognition. Your effort and feedback is very much appreciated and my work is a direct reflection of the thorough responses I received from you.”

Redford adds this reflection: “There’s a lot competition for private sector and academic jobs. Students don’t always leave school with a good handle on applying what they’ve learned.”

That is why her favorite emails are like those above—from former students, now employed, who tell her how her class helped them succeed in their work.

Who could write a better ending than that?

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