Saturday, January 31, 2015

Peer review in OWI: Slowing it down

I’ve written here before (but how time flies since 2008 and even 2012!) about how peer review and OWI intersect so well. I keep returning to this topic, because, for so many of us who teach writing, peer review is the thing: a central part of writing instruction.

Simply put, going online accentuates and highlights that centrality. If you teach an online writing course (OWC) asynchronously, the whole class becomes a peer review. It becomes a workshop, sometimes a cauldron, in which students' ideas come under close examination. Students can continually push each other through a textual dialogue that they, even they, the children of the electronic age they are, are unaccustomed to.

In a way that some may find paradoxical to critics of digitality, an OWC works so well in this way because it is a uniquely slowed-down course experience. Students get to think. They interact with each other in a naturally contemplative environment, one that by its nature does not reward the quickest hand or the sharpest tongue.

For many teachers in any medium, that’s what good peer review is all about. It's not about shuffling papers around a room and asking students to give each other brief comments (leading, too often, to "All you need to is __ and you'll get an A!"). It's about providing students with time, even a few structured minutes, to delve into each others' thoughts made manifest through writing.

I haven't taken video of students working on written discussions in my courses (although, at CCCC 2014 I saw a fascinating presentation by Patricia Portanova of the University of New Hampshire; she used screencasts to investigate how writers are affected by distraction). But it would be interesting to compare students' cognitive and perhaps physical behaviors when responding to a colleague's post to the behaviors when they provide face-to-face responses in a classroom. How much thinking is going on in each situation?

Online, during the routine written conversations they have, students critique each other in detailed, complex ways. They push each other to think and elucidate ideas. They often are complimentary in authentic ways to writing that moves and impresses them. Without the confines of the class space, they can slow down and really think about the piece of writing.

As I've mentioned before, this dynamic can become transparent in an asynchronous OWC. If you are building a dialogue, then all postings become a kind of peer review: Here’s what I have to say about the writing you put before me. Based on my response, you can tell if I thought it was clear, if I thought it was powerful, where I thought it might need more elaboration or even evidence.

My students push each other hundreds of times in this way in the course. I believe it tightens their writing in ways I could never do alone.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

OWI: Opportunities in medium, genre, volume

I have another blogging life, and this month those lives weirdly intersect, as I'm building here on my post for my blog Virtual Children (which I've been keeping on the Website When Falls the Coliseum, for several years). I posted there about another blog article written by a friend of mine on the Website 11trees; his smart post describes how much he writes in a work day, what he called just an average writing day for a "knowledge worker." In a one-day diary, he calculates he wrote about 2,500 words, saying, "We write more words every day than many college or high school students write in an entire term." 

His post is so smart for many reasons, particularly because it spurs great conversations about genre, medium, and writing volume. In his log, the writer describes all kinds of writing he did during his "writing day." At 5 am he's emailing; he works on PowerPoints and text messages; he drafts notes and other materials in/through word processing programs and different collaboration software. He's composing collaboratively with people around the world, planning, drafting, and putting on finishing touches.

If you teach writing, you have probably thought a lot about how and how much people write. I think the generation we’re educating now interacts with each other through writing more than any generation ever
But our teaching to prepare students for their writing lives often doesn’t account for the rhetorical complexity, the varied genres, and the sheer volume of the writing they will do. In fact, in many cases, writing instruction looks pretty similar to the way it looked many decades ago.
I remember in my earliest moments of interest in OWI that I felt that digital instructional settings opened new avenues for teaching and learning writing. In OWCs, students compose in multi-audience environments that are close to writing they will do in their professional lives -- and these environments are simply inherent parts of the course. Also, it was evident that electronic writing spaces allow teachers to assign lots of informal and exploratory writing, providing many opportunities for students to engage in meta-reflection about their composing processes. 

To me, ed tech tools are not exclusive to online instruction -- I mean, you can use digital tools with any type of course -- but the digital environment of OWI does seem to lead teachers to explore tech tools, so they will find new ways to interact with and even assess student writing that make the whole process more productive. For instance, 11trees is a great example of a tool that makes it easier for teachers to respond to student writing.
As I’ve described before, a brief analysis of my own 10-week, quarter-system classes showed  students were writing some 15,000 words through message boards and electronic journals. I was proud when I found that out and still am; I feel they had a challenging writing experience. But if you think about that number in comparison with the 2,500 daily words of a "knowledge worker,” you realize I might need to significantly up the workload yet if I'm going to responsibly teach writing that prepares students for what they’ll face at the next stage.
By the way, I'm not advocating a kind of mindless kowtowing to the “real world.” I don't want us to dispense of genres/modes like the exploratory essay or writing to learn. But the limitations of "school writing" get exposed in productive ways in online writing courses. The only game in town need not be "papers" that don't resemble the short, high-stakes writing that they do. We can put them in posting and sharing situations that allow us to better teach them what they will do -- and are doing -- in other parts of their lives.
This is a major component of the promise I see of OWI. Perhaps we need to do more in our research to understand not just the kinds but the amount of writing that take place in various professions.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Blogging about blogs

I’ve been writing this kind-of blog for nearly 10 years (it’s astonishing; I was a young man once), covering many topics, but I’ve never written about, uh, blogs.
Time to fix that. A recent conversation on our first-year writing (FYW) listserv at Drexel got me thinking about how I’ve used blogs in teaching, and I contributed a message that included a version of some of the stuff below.
First, I realize I probably haven’t covered this topic because blogs have become almost transparent to me as a teaching practice/approach. I use them for many assignments. As Wikipedia points out, blogs are really just Websites, and you can have students do a lot through the simple platform/genre of the blog. Advantages to me are straightforward; blogs

  • Encourage students to write.
  • Help students heighten audience awareness, especially in terms of multiple audiences, which I think is important.
  • Allow students to explore multimedia.
  • Are easy to share. Having a list of URLs on a simple discussion thread in our CMS makes it easy for me and others in the class to access and share these blogs.
  • Are easy to keep track of as an instructor.
  • Are easy for students to update.
  • Are difficult (maybe impossible) to lose.
  • Encourage post-class continuation of writing work. Many of my students have continued their blogs after our term had ended.
  • Require no paper (they are quite easy to lift).

You won’t need to do much to “teach” students how to create their blogs. They can set up a blog using any blogging application/software quickly. (I once timed a student who was complaining he couldn’t set up his blog. I put him on the clock and it took about a minute; he left with an “Okay, Warnock, you win – this time” attitude.)

I’ve used blogs as a form of journal in first-year writing (FWY) courses for about 15 years. (Lots of people are doing this, even in middle schools.) Mainly, the kind of journals I’m talking about are focused, often prompt-driven. The prompts tend to tie in with writing-about-writing approaches I’m using in the class: Students writing about their own process during a particular project, compiling quotes a la a commonplace book, or even writing down words they learned from our readings. The point is there are not overly personal.

Blogs have been the platform/genre for many other types of projects in my courses. In some courses, I ask them to pursue a focused topic of interest to them throughout the term, blogging several times a week. My students' work -- what can I say? Some of it is now part of the blogosphere. Some of these things are amazing.

I also use blogs a lot for teams. I assign Website projects in both FYW and courses such as Writing in Cyberspace, and students have packaged projects ranging from advocacy sites to class-wide "e-zine" publication through blogs. This appears, among other advantages, as an easy way for them to work together.

During the term, I usually ask students to peer review each other’s blogs for an informal grade. Some teachers worry about privacy, but I don’t do any grading or even commenting in the public space of the blog, although other students use the blog comment functions at times. There is no requirement that students use their names publicly, and I don’t require any personal disclosure as part of their school work.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Online peer review writing groups

In talking with teachers about online writing courses (OWCs), I find myself circling back to some core teaching ideas, and one is that OWI appeals so strongly to me because the OWC becomes, especially when asynchronous forums are at its center, an ongoing peer review. And I sure do believe in peer review.

In OWCs, students are consistently reading, thinking about, and responding to each other’s writing. They are working with each other as writers. It’s serious work, non-surface work. In fact, an oft-encountered problem with “regular” peer review is that students who are not confident or are unsure how to respond turn into grammar guards/editors. You rarely see message board conversations that devolve into that, and when you do, it often looks like flaming.

Some of what makes peer review work so well online is simple: It’s easy to bring students together and share documents digitally. But using easy-to-facilitate groups can become an even more powerful part of the OWC experience. I often conduct my group online peer reviews similarly to how I would other peer reviews in terms of review instructions, but there are two major logistical differences: 1) reviewers are responsible for all drafts in their group, and 2) comments are not just additive; they must be cumulative. In other words, say Ariana posts her document and Alexa reviews it. Drew cannot just come along and review Ariana’s draft without also accounting for Alexa’s comments. The reviewer's writing challenge becomes more complex, and the reviewee must read and account for multiple, perhaps contradictory, comments. They can synthesize such comments and consult me – or the writing center or someone else.

Technology-wise, groups are easy. (I use Blackboard Learn in my courses and find, despite the vitriol often directed at Blackboard, that it mostly does everything I need it to do. That being said, I do think its Group function is not very good, but my understanding, based on a Bb Learn “listening session” I attended recently, is that Bb will soon improve this functionality.) In terms of group creation and maintenance, you can simply let the CMS randomly create the groups for you, or you can purposefully build groups based on various criteria, distributing students in ways you think make sense. Four is a good number of students in a group.

Exchanging documents is easy on message boards. They can simply use attachments. Or they could use Google Docs or something similar. They can respond back to drafts in a post within the group and/or make comments using Track Changes or other annotation software. 

You can also choose whether students remain in the same group all term or whether you reshuffle when a new assignment arises. There are good arguments for both.

The online peer review group is basically a writer's circle, and perhaps students who have a good experience in class will find ways to set up similar circles for their own writing projects.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Social bookmarking with Diigo

I'm continually struck by the intellectual communities that develop in my online courses. I stress intellectual communities, because so much of their relationships end up being framed around their work in the course, around their writing and conversations. (To the online instruction naysayers: I wonder perhaps if these relationships are even more intellectually robust than onsite communities, based as they are around reading and writing.)

I think a major component of my role as Online Writing Teacher (it's been a while, so I figure I'm due for an eponymous shout-out) is to provide my students with digital tools to help facilitate these types of connections. Social bookmarking applications are great for this. There are a numerous options and they are all straightforward, but I particularly like Diigo.

What is Diigo? Diigo is Web-based tool that helps you organize, categorize, and share Websites and other content. The Diigo About page lays it out nicely:

Much of our information consumption and research, whether at home or at work, has shifted online. We are now spending a big part of our day working with online information - reading and researching related to travel, health, shopping, career, hobbies, news, online learning, smart investing, school papers, work projects, you name it.

Yet the workflow with information, from browsing, reading, researching, annotating, storing, . organizing, remembering, collaborating, sharing, to connecting dots into knowledge, is still largely ad-hoc and inefficient. Diigo is here to streamline the information workflow and dramatically improve your productivity....

Like most of us, every day I get tons of emails with links to stuff that I want to remember or save, but I don’t always have a good, efficient way to file/store that information.With Diigo, you can save content and then mark it with tags and commentary and easily store sites by category. And you can readily share everything with others.

All of this functionality makes Diigo excellent for your classes. Using the free teacher console, you can create a Diigo group for your class and invite students to it in a non-intrusive way. From there, you and your students can easily share materials, annotate them, and tag them. Group members receive a once-a-day email update so you don’t have to remember to go and seek out the info. Of course, while students are working with Diigo, they are also learning about the possibilities for sharing such material in digital environments, thinking through rationales for identifying, tagging, and categorizing content as well as being introduced to other communities of learners.
I think it's a valuable, powerful tool. On this site, a teacher-blogger describes "13 reasons teachers should use Diigo," including that Diigo "has tools that encourage students to collaborate with others to analyze, critique, and evaluate websites" and that "by joining groups of like-minded users... Diigo allows you to gain access to the ‘collective intelligence’ of the internet." Teaching online leads us, inevitably, I think, into issues of how to manage digital content, and the goals of our instruction need to includ facilitating conversations about how to talk about that information. Social bookmarking tools like Diigo help us accomplish those goals more effectively.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

“Running Themes” on course message boards

This winter, I taught a graduate course for Drexel’s School of Ed: Using and Integrating Learning Technologies. The students were smart and hard-working, and they cranked on our message boards (through Bb Learn) all term. Through their efforts, I realized that I could easily and productively change my usual time-bound discussion thread approach, using the simple "walllessness" of online learning to build conversation spaces that ran all term.

This was a great aha moment for me. As I’ve described on this blog in some detail (e.g., see, I assign message boards in weekly “frames.” While I feel I do provide students with excellent thinking and writing opportunities, the conversations are organized and thus tend to exist within the constraints of week 1, week 2, etc.

That's pretty limiting. As onsite classrooms are bound by walls, my discussions were bound by weeks. When a week ended, normally the conversation would fade too. Sometimes I’ve extended conversations into a second and maybe third week, and I also use “general” threads – such as “Tips Advice Resources” – for other conversations, but our message boards are mainly controlled by time markers.

In the winter course, we had a couple of topics that kept re-emerging, so I did something simple: I opened up threads in a course forum called “Running Themes.” Students, in fulfilling their weekly requirements, were welcome to post in a Running Theme thread instead for some of their posts. And they did. They continued, in our case, to want to talk more about MOOCs or "What makes a good online/hybrid (blended) teacher?" Often, by the way, they would reframe our ongoing conversations about these topics based on current readings, building from dialogue in the weekly posts.

In retrospect, this was obvious. As I said, why was I constricting students? It didn’t make sense in online learning, which has the great advantage over onsite learning that it can naturally and easily extend dialogue. Conversations can happen in parallel, and they don't need to end when the bell rings at 2:00. Different students can dig into areas of high interest particular to them and enjoy the luxury of extending conversations after they've had time to percolate. Even if you have a tight, required-post type pedagogy, like I do, your messages boards can still be fluid and organic. (If you're worried that students will use Running Themes to excess and won't stay up with current material, it's easy to still require some posts in the weekly forums.)

Running Themes. I’m really happy with this idea and will create ongoing asynchronous conversation spaces in all of my courses.

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