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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