Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Year Spent in 2.0

Certain things that changed this year because of my participation in community 2.0 changed so early that I had forgotten they were a result of the seminar. Case in point, my use of google docs as a the main form of feedback and grading ( More than once this year I wished I had stuck with traditional paper grading; first, because you can simply grab a bunch of papers and take them to a coffee shop or even a restaurant whereas laptop s carried to such places seems cumbersome and rather geeky. Yet when it comes to effectiveness in teaching, google docs wins hands down. Because these comments were going to be there for students to see throughout  the semester, I realized that I tended to give more global comments with specific support from a paper. As an example, I would say “you tend to not connect your paragraphs well: look at the lack of transitions between paragraphs two and three.” On a paper my ink note would be a “no transition” comment, and the same would go for other editing and grammar issues. I realize that such on-the-spot notes allow students to think that fixing this problem in this paper is all they need to do, as opposed to seeing a tutor for the pattern of problem, for instance. I noticed that in subsequent papers students would know and make references to my comments in conferences (“I make this mistake—I saw your comment” would be a typical statement).

The biggest change for my classes, however, was what peer review came to mean. I am not sure if there was any method to the madness or this just happened, but both semesters my classes experienced giving feedback, via blogger, to students in another section before they had done so to students in their own section. Both semesters, the experience for the students came to be a meaningful one for a variety of reasons: one time it was because they were responding to an ENA 99 or an ENG 99 class, so they saw themselves as having more writing experience which they could share. Another time they connected to a different ENG 101 section, one with a focus on masculinity rather than our class’ media and philosophy focus, and that interaction allowed them to have a break from our own thematic concerns and spend some time exploring that issue. I find that whatever the reason, peer review was an endeavor I did not have to justify for it provided its own rationale in the assigned context. By comparison, when we then had to conduct peer review on each others’ blogs students did ask for a reason behind this; they protested that they could simply walk over to the person and talk to them and also that they felt uncomfortable critiquing someone in the room. For the whole year I have been observing this from the perspective of what it means for peer review, but of course there are larger implications for what students consider happens in the grading process: they assume that knowing the writer of the person always means softening the blow and therefore when they receive a grade from their instructor they factor in their assumed instructor willingness to account for the interpersonal relationship. I believe there are possibilities, for future participants of this seminar, to also study what happens when different instructors offer feedback to students in other sections.

While I am focusing on instructors, I will also mention another overlooked aspect of these interactions between classes that took place this semester: I ended up having my students share activities, in one form or another, with five different sections over the year. Not once did I or any of the other instructors spend a moment explaining what our grading priorities are etc. Given how both students (as mentioned above) and others in the academic world often claim assessing writing is a subjective enterprise,   the reality that all of us who engaged in these interactions ended up having a common set of criteria which we had not sat together to predetermine is itself important.

Finally, while I am sure others in the seminar will mention this, a future participant of the seminar should be prepared for two realities: one is that often technology will not work and there will always be a need for a back-up plan. While this may seem like extra work and an incentive to avoid technology altogether, the advantages, at least for writing classes, far outweigh such concerns. The second reality (and this comes from my own observations alone, not some detailed study) is that the weakest students will also tend to be the ones with the most problems as the class sets up technology. I know that there is some urban myth out there that this generation lives and breathes technology. I did not see that in four different sections this year. What they are good with is the particular gadgets they learned through trial and error, but to use any particular new platform (blogger, ning, etc) quickly one has to follow directions and read these directions carefully. Nothing about these terms (reading, following, carefulness) comes naturally to the weaker students in the class, no matter how many videos they can download on their smartphones. So, the best approach would be to see helping students set up technology as helping them develop a set of skills which is vital for their success as college students.


  1. I really appreciate your insight into the more substantive nature of typed/"digital" comments. For whatever reason, students do seem to regard hand-written comments as a checklist of things to "fix," rather than as a starting point for global revision, so it's great to hear that Google Docs allowed your students to make responding to your comments a part of their process.

    Concerning your reflections on peer review and students' varying levels of comfort with the format, I wonder if part of the answer might lie in their limited perspective on the writing act itself. I've found in my own teaching that students are often eager to treat the writing and the writer as one and the same. They feel the need to, as you say, "soften[...] the blow" in peer review because they don't yet understand that the text is not inextricably an extension of the person who wrote it. (A similar rationale leads students in lit classes to have difficulty separating what the characters "say" from what the author "believes," I think.) Perhaps there's something in the cross-course commenting that allows them to see more clearly the text as a thing in itself apart from the human entity that produced it?

    Thanks for your helpful suggestions for next year's seminar cohort, Luke!

  2. On the plus side, we are teaching them reading, following directions, and carefulness with the tools!

  3. J: that was the point I was making. Either I was not being obvious enough or you like being too obvious. :)

  4. Actually you did say that. I must have been skimming!

  5. I think your reflection focused on three very important concerns for instructors teaching a web-enhanced (or tech-enhanced) course: the effectiveness of google docs, peer review (and your increased success with it), and the "reality check" regarding technology and the current generation of younguns.

    I'm especially interested in the google docs angle and would love to discuss some uses/abuses of this tool. Shall we meet at a Greek cafe? (I'll bring the camera.)

  6. Some of the main ideas/issues include: how technology can enhance writing-based courses and to have a plan B for times when technology fails. With regard to students' concern for giving feedback to their within group peers, I wonder if their first online critiquing experience could be exchanged within groups and then between groups.