Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Just how much are they writing online?

One of the main reasons I'm such an advocate of digital environments for writing--especially first-year writing--courses is because, plain and simple, students write so much in these environments. If teachers use asynchronous tools, their courses easily become focused on student texts.

But just how much do students actually write with these asynchronous tools? Last spring, I taught a hybrid first-year course, Analytical Writing & Reading, a literature for composition-type course. Remember, Drexel is on the quarter system, so this was a 10-week course. In this hybrid, my students met once a week, on Tuesdays, and much of their work for the second half of the week took place online, with the bulk of that work being conversations about texts on message boards (in this case, Bb Vista Discussions). I also used the Journal function of Bb Vista Discussions to enable each student to set up a journal; essentially, the Journal function creates a message board thread only viewable by the instructor and the student, and I found it a convenient way to maintain journals.

As a step toward answering the question "how much do students actually write?," I cut-and-pasted all of the message board and journals posts from two students in the course, placed them in a Word file, and then counted the approximate results (making sure to subtract post headers and such). Student 1 wrote 6,800 words in the journal and 8,300 words on the course message boards. Student 2 wrote 9,100 words in the journal and another 9,000 words on the message boards.

Although I know students write a lot in my classes, I was still a bit awed by the amount of writing: These students are writing, again in an environment with all of the advantages I've described in earlier posts, an additional 1,500 to nearly 2,000 words each week on top of their formal projects and other informal assignments.

I want to make a couple comments to accompany these results. One is that this wasn't just a lot of writing; no, this was a lot of high-quality writing. Also, while these two were both certainly good students who were on the high end of the scale in terms of their performance in the course, they were within the "normal" behavior of students in this environment; in other words, this is representative student work in my courses.

1,500 to 2,000 words a week. That's a lot of writing--and that's what I want my writing courses to be about.