These technologies also have the advantage of rapidly and efficiently putting writing in front of a broad audience, whether those readers are asked to respond explicitly or not.
In thinking about the audience aspect of message boards, this term I'm having students write "Argument Statements." Each week, in one of the threads in our online class, they respond in a substantive, almost proclamatory way to a prompt, basically devising/creating a short argument (the course is Persuasive Writing & Reading).
This is not pedagogically mind-blowing, of course. In fact, you could argue this almost essayistic writing is the easy part on message boards and the challenge has been to build conversations. But these "Argument Statements" open other writing opportunities when used in conjunction with conversational threads. Pedagogically, my expectations are different, as the "Statements" provide multiple chances for students to work out a voice, an approach, a strategy for argumentation. It's the equivalent of the one-page essay every week some teachers assign, but, again, this time they write for peers each time. (Of course, there can be dialogue and response, but these "Statements" aren't by nature conversational the way I am introducing them.)
In addition, most weeks I'm going to use these as ways to promote students to take a stance about their own writing practices -- in line with my writing about writing approaches -- and how they will, in line with overall course aims, argue that their particular approaches are effective -- or in fact aren't.
For instance, early on I asked them to think about how they write. Using our very good text Praxis (this is a solid book for a rhetoric-grounded first-year course, and I thank my colleague, Drexel First-Year Writing Program Director Rebecca Ingalls for introducing me to it in our core syllabus), I gave them this prompt:
Subject: Argument Statement: How I write
For this week’s Argument Statement, I want you to think about, well, how you write. Write about how you approach writing, and craft through that an argument about why your particular style of approaching writing is effective for you. You have a couple of good readings in chapter 5 of Praxis to work from to help you think about this.
Thinking more about the proclamatory nature of this type of reading, after we read King's "I Have a Dream" speech, I asked them to write their own speech, including laying out the context for that speech:
Subject: Argument statement: A speech
This week, you read King’s famous speech. Please write a speech that you would deliver arguing any issue of your choosing. Obviously, it will be short. In the first paragraph, in parentheses, describe briefly where you should be to most effectively deliver this speech and why. Then write the speech/argument. You can choose any issue; King was talking about one of the most pressing issues of the 20th century, but perhaps you have something more personal about your day-to-day life that you’d like to argue.
Finally, I was able to tweak one of my favorite types of message board threads (see this May 2010 post), in which I take on an alter ego, a "provoker," asking that their "Statement" address directly my argumentative, bombastic alter-ego, Dr. Logoetho:
Argument Statement: Challenge Dr. Logoetho about Wikipedia?
Dear students in Prof. Warnock’s English 102 course,
I am will be an occasional visitor to your course. My name is Dr. Logoetho. Perhaps this may shock you, but I have never been defeated in an argument. Never. I have decided to give you the honor of trying to end my undefeated streak this week with this argument, because I have something to say about Wikipedia.
I think that Wikipedia is a completely useless site except as entertainment. No one should ever use it for anything of importance or for real research. Wikis are an unreliable way to build true information. I think the positives of Wikipedia are grossly exaggerated and are only promoted by people who have something to gain from Wikipedia or who don’t understand the informational value of the Web!
There. If you want to take me on, at least show a little argument savvy and use some evidence.
I doubt you're up to the task,
In some ways, I'm going retro. In a course that is still primarily dialogic, I want them to write a brief argument each week, all, of course, with the goal of helping them develop their ability to write persuasively.