2. Open Source in Computers and Composition
3. Defining Access
4. The Access Research Agenda
5. Access and Open Source Research
6. Conclusion: Directions and Challenges
8. A Note on Webtext Design
Access Research Agenda
Over the last twenty years, researchers have proposed several insightful ways to address the problem of access. Most of these ideas are for university professors: actions we can take in our current institutional and community roles. Gomez (1990) argues that teachers should identify students who need extra time and help and provide it (p. 320-321):
Equitable teaching with computers means providing some students with more than equal time to work with hardware and software; more than equal opportunities to sign up for after-school, club, or free time with computers; more than equal opportunities to enroll in coursework; and more than equal occasions to engage in drill-and-practice and/or remedial activities with the computer -- especially students from lower-income families, nonwhite students, women students, and students with limited English proficiency. Teaching and learning activities for these students must provide more than mere access to technology. These activities must actively recruit students to use computers. These students need teaching and learning activities that move beyond the traditional activities of drill, practice, and remedial tutorials in so-called basic skills.
What Gomez suggests takes as a given that the schools have the raw materials for access: computers and their attendant accessories, as well as (in 2010) an Internet connection. While most schools may have some sort of computing equipment, if school officials perceive it as obsolete -- to refer back to Fitzsimmons-Hunter and Moran's idea of "perceived access" -- they may not put it to use. Moran (1999) has expressed skepticism in the face of the computer industry's sales tactics and has advocated resourcefulness: making the most of modest computing equipment. Moran and Selfe (1999) suggest,
maybe we can think – at least on an occasional basis – more about how to create increasingly effective teaching and learning opportunities with the technology we already have than about how to stay up with the very latest technology [… ]work locally, and constructively, with the low-end technology that is out there, an underground technology that gets very little press because there's not enough profit in it" (p. 52).
Fitzsimmons-Hunter and Moran (1998) call for putting more money into teachers' professional development and support for teaching with technology than is put into the equipment itself. They did three such projects as part of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. In each project, more money in the budget was allotted to paying teachers for their time than was allotted to the purchase of hardware and software. Their outcomes were encouraging; they reported that community and parental involvement increased, one teacher secured a grant to get more computers into her classroom, and after the model of their project-based initiative, “teachers approached administrators with particular projects that required specific technology,” proposals of which were more persuasive than “the abstract complaint that without technology the students will fall behind.” Investing seed money in teachers can, they argue, enable teachers and students to lobby on their own behalf for technology access.
More teaching-based actions that professors can take, according to Schwartz (1990), are to form coalitions with school districts, industry, and government, and provide leadership for initiatives to provide schools with computing resources (p. 30). Moran and Selfe (1999) call for a "critical technological literacy" approach to technology, which by now in the field of computers and composition, we know well: an ability "to understand and be able to assess – to pay attention to – how the social, economic, and pedagogical implications of new communication technologies and technological initiatives affect their lives" (p. 53). They recommend helping teachers "read in the areas of technology criticism, social theories, and computer studies and then provide them with important opportunities to participate in making hard decisions about how to pay attention to – and affect – technology issues in departments, colleges, schools, and local communities; […] how to provide more access to technology for more people; and how to help individuals develop their own critical consciousness about technological literacy" (p. 53). These interventions can also be more direct; Moran and Selfe add that "[i]n libraries, community centers, and other nontraditional public places, literacy educators need to provide free access to computers for citizens at the poverty level and citizens of color" (p. 53). They also note the importance of remembering access in the voting booth and other forums: "[i]n voting for school board members, in committee meetings, in public hearings, at national conventions, in the public relations statements of our professional organizations, we have to argue – every chance we get – that poor students and students of color get more access to computers and to more sophisticated computers, that teachers in schools with high populations of such students be given more support" (Moran and Selfe, 1999, p. 53).
Scholars discussing access have also argued for research-based actions to address inequities in technological literacy. In addition to Selfe's call to "pay attention" to social and political issues embedded in technology and technology policy in our research (Selfe 1999a, 1999b), Moran (1999) sets forth a comprehensive research agenda centered on access. Harking back to his earlier claim that "access" does not necessarily have to mean owning the newest, most expensive, most bleeding-edge gadgets and software, he recommends "study[ing] and report[ing] on the effects of teachers and student writers of substituting low-end for high-end technologies" (p. 219). He outlines other practical inquiries: "what have teachers done in their classes to resist, or to in some degree undo/redress, inequalities of access to technology? [...] study what seem to be successful examples of 'equitable teaching.' What are the effects of these bold attempts, on learners and on teachers? (p. 219). He also encourages researchers to find out about on-the-ground, everyday arrangements that students make to "level the technological playing field" for themselves (p. 219). For more ambitious projects with broader scopes, Moran poses the following questions: "Does a technologically-impoverished school environment affect students' performance? Learning? The students' self-image? Their sense of academic opportunity or futility? Does it affect the teachers' estimates of their students' potential? Of their school's effectiveness? [...] Ideally, these studies would be longitudinal and long-range" (218-219). The research would include participants as co-researchers, bringing feminist research ethics and practices to mind. Participating in the study could increase the participants' awareness and move them to action on their own behalf, and publication of the research would increase awareness in the community.
Several recently published articles have explored the literacy narratives of a variety of students from the United States and other countries (Hawisher, Selfe, Moraski, & Pearson, 2004; Selfe, Hawisher, Lashore, & Song, 2006; Hawisher, Selfe, Guo, & Liu, 2006; Hawisher, Selfe, Kisa, & Ahmed, 2010; Goode, 2010). These narratives discuss these students' acquisition of technological literacy in the context of their home and school lives. Selfe, Hawisher, Lashore, & Song (2006) show the importance of factors beyond simple access to a computer and the knowledge necessary to use the computer effectively. Also significant are economic and governmental technology policy; citizens of countries that prioritize technology infrastructure in spite of having scant resources to divide, for example, are at a significant advantage with regard to access. These detailed case studies have contributed greatly to the field's understanding of the complexities of access and its "cultural ecologies," which include "social contexts; educational practices, values, and expectations; cultural and ideological formations like race, class, and gender; political and economic trends and events; family practices and experiences; and historical and material conditions--among many, many other factors" (Hawisher, Selfe, Moraski, & Pearson, 2004, p. 644). It is possible that some of the students who have written literacy narratives in conjunction with Hawisher and Selfe's research have used open source software, but this is not mentioned in the studies.
I am curious about the extent to which the use of open source software would be discovered in researchers' attempts -- to take up one of Moran's agenda items -- to uncover what teachers do in class to ensure "equitable teaching" when working with technology, or to find out what students lacking the means for expensive software do. Those directions for study are obvious potential connections between open source and issues of access. In the next section, however, I wish to examine open source software's qualities more closely and draw more, and more far-reaching, connections between open source and access. I hope to show that open source software and its use in teaching and research can make a potent intervention into the ongoing problem of access.