Putting Everything On the Line?

 Part I
Part IV…

… Optimizing the Affordances, Minding the Pitfalls

Shyam Sharma and Christopher Petty

Especially after the advent of web 2.0 applications, the landscape of teaching writing is drastically changing. In many ways, writing teachers greatly benefit by moving into web-based, increasingly shared, and peer-involved practices especially at the post-secondary levels. New developments in technological applications are allowing highly effective pedagogical practices to develop. However, technocratic arguments founded on the positive affordances of new technologies can also be taken too far. 

In this context, we wanted to write a brief series of blog posts that will describe and discuss some of the educational/pedagogical benefits and also pitfalls of using web applications and shared spaces for providing instructor feedback to students’ writing, for engaging them in peer review, and for promoting collaboration in college writing courses. These discussions will go along with somewhat corresponding videos (which will be included in a separate section in the Writing@StonyBrook portfolio) that demonstrate how to effectively use collaborative and interactive spaces and tools such as wikis, cloud-based documents, blogs, and portfolios.

Described and implemented differently as peer review, critique, feedback, etc, the practice of letting students read and comment on each other’s drafts has a long tradition in writing pedagogy. Writing for the spring 1984 issue of The Writing Instructor, Elizabeth Flynn highlighted how important this practice had been in the teaching of writing even until back then when she said, “The approach [of peer critique] has been explained and defended by composition specialists such as Kenneth Bruffee, Thom Hawkins, Peter Elbow, and James Moffett. Their defenses generally center on the opportunities provided by the technique for confrontation with real audiences” (120). With the advancements in technologies of writing, the practices of using peer review/feedback seem to be gaining more popularity in the teaching of writing than ever before.

Reviewing the scholarship on the topic twenty-seven years later (in 2011), Flynn found that the scholarship on peer review in the writing classroom “tapered off in the early 1990s” in the mainstream. Research on the practice has been somewhat pushed to the margins of writing studies (such as in inquiries about ESL students’ performance especially in peer review online, studies in technical and professional communication, and research on peer review based on computer-aided calibration). As new technologies advanced, more rigorous research of pedagogical practices was gradually replaced by “research focusing on peer review using technology.” Now often described as “collaborative” writing, peer-supported writing has a broad range of scholarship that is represented in this extensive bibliography within the Writing Matters webliography maintained by Rebecca Moore Howard. Lists like this are quite extensive but there is decreasing focus on the  curricular and pedagogical aspects of using peer review, with increasing attention to technology per se. 

In the past few years, we’ve been witnessing “advancements” in technology that are introducing more harm than help into the profession and higher education at large. Some of the questionable new trends include machine-grading (whose objective is more to eliminate the teacher than to aid her, whatever the ostensible argument among its proponents), calibrated peer review mechanisms based on semantic algorithms (which can also undermine the role of teacher guidance in the name of efficiency), and peer-grading by learners who often reside across vast cultural/contextual differences (which is supported by absurd arguments that ignore fundamental issues of learning across borders). Thus, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that peer-involved teaching of writing could be increasingly moving away from the firm grounds of pedagogical “effectiveness” to mechanical “efficiency.” 

It must be noted that vast majorities of writing teachers—not at all surprisingly—reject the new logic of efficiency decoupled from effectiveness; however, among the expanding minority who embrace the efficiencies afforded by new technologies at the cost of pedagogical effectiveness, there is a disturbing tendency to disregard the decades-long and extremely rich scholarship on the subject of peer-involved teaching/learning of writing. If we observe current conversations about student peer review in venues like the WPA listserv, while the voices of members of the discipline whose scholarship and practice are deeply grounded are heard much less frequently, there is an increasing number of writing teachers who seem to buy into the logic of efficiency by decoupling it from effectiveness.

The result is an unfortunate (often seemingly willful) forgetting or ignoring of the established fact that the effectiveness (and often validity) of student peer review comes almost exclusively from teachers’ careful planning and thoughtful implementation of their own guidance for the students. In fact, as far as we could tell from our study and observation of current conversation in the field, there is little to no attention given a whole range of somewhat to severe side effects that emerging technologies can introduce when writing teachers partly or paradigmatically shift the basis of peer review from the paper/printer to the Internet. Those effects range from the discomfort that some students may feel when their teacher’s feedback is visible to their peers to the violation of students’ privacy and confidentiality even when teachers may not be aware of such situations.

In the rest of this introductory post, we’d like to describe some of the major tensions between the powerful affordances provided by collaborative/interactive tools and spaces for instructor and peer feedback on the one hand, and on the other, the potential pitfalls and concerns that those tools and spaces also introduce into the teaching/learning of writing. Using our own experiences and reflections, we will discuss why it becomes necessary to take pedagogically thoughtful and ethically responsible approaches when requiring or encouraging students to share the process and products of their writing (as well as our own feedback on their writing) with their peers, class, or audiences beyond the classroom.

Let us first look at some of the major benefits of using collaborative applications. Stated generally, these applications have tremendous potentials to make peer review process more effective and time-efficient, collaborative projects more productive, conferences more student-driven, and the entire writing process better controlled/owned by student writers even as they receive feedback from the instructor and their peers. In order to illustrate some of these benefits, let us compare two situations. In the first one, students bring their draft to class for peer review, and they spend all or much of class time reading each other’s work and sharing comments. They may be provided a rubric, they may workshop a sample before doing peer review, and they may discuss the best feedback they received from their peers. Peer review done in face-to-face situations has many benefits (so simply going online and posting comments on each other’s drafts cannot be a replacement). However, if guidelines/modeling, support, and resources are provided, shared spaces such as wiki and Google Docs can save a tremendous amount of time for peer review.

Let us now imagine a second situation. Suppose that instead of spending class time for doing peer review, they do practice runs in class and do the reading and commenting on each other’s drafts after class. They can use a carefully tailored rubric provided inside the same wiki as a separate post by the instructor; they can view and emulate the teacher’s comments on other students (as well as their) work; and they can complete the peer review by a certain day (say Friday evening) so that the instructor can follow up with more comments (when that order is more desirable).

Especially compared to students taking each other’s draft home and returning it at the next class meeting, collaborative tools can allow not only peer review and instructor feedback to be completed but also allow the writers to address the feedback by the time they return to the next class. There are many more benefits of using shared spaces like wiki. For instance, because student’s drafts are accessible, instructors can provide necessary support by regularly checking to see how each student is doing. Because versions can be compared, the exact amount and nature of revisions and editing done by students can by comparing drafts with the click of a button. And especially because students always have their writing with them, they can continue to work on it; their sense of ownership is better maintained because they never actually “submit” a copy of their work to the teacher as a final/finished product. Using web applications like wiki also allows students to integrate multimedia, hyperlink sources, and have an ongoing conversation through the comment function.

To further elaborate one of the most significant benefits of using shared spaces for the writing and instructor and/or peer review process is that of student conferences. In a 6-week course (Tuesday to Friday) that one of us (Shyam) taught last summer, he set two deadlines during the weekend and allowed students to do peer feedback as well as revise their writing by using his feedback. Through his course schedule, he let students know that they could complete peer feedback by the end of Saturday, that he would provide his round of feedback as instructor by the end of Monday, and students were supposed have read (and respond to, if they wanted) their peers’ and instructor’s feedback before class on Tuesday. This made the three-hour class meetings and, more significantly, the individual conferences much more effective than if students only came to class with new drafts of their work after four days since the last class. He found this a much more flexible way to provide feedback to students than collecting papers and returning them with comments or even using more conventional alternatives like assignment tools on Blackboard LMS or email (which is even less effective); his students were also excited by the opportunity to work on their papers while receiving their peers’ and instructor’s feedback in a systematic manner. Students who had to be absent in class were also able to catch up much more easily than when the assignments are paper-based. Similarly, Chris has found his one-on-one conferences with students far more effective and productive when his students have already read and often addressed the comments by the time they come to see him.

Now let us consider how the classroom is also a place where blind faith in technology can quickly start undermining ethical responsibilities, professional integrity, and the disciplinary value systems of writing teachers in particular and educators in general. There are risks and challenges involved with almost every opportunity for students and teachers to share ideas and resources, to engage in instructor and peer review, and to publish ideas to reach broader audiences of various scopes. To start with a quick overview, here are some pitfalls: while tools and spaces for sharing writing can help promote feedback, support, and collaboration, they can also undermine student’s confidence, confidentiality, privacy, and their sense of ownership of their work.

Some students may see the 24/7 access to their work by the instructor and their peers as constant surveillance (See Xin Liu Gale. Teachers, Discourses, and Authority in the Postmodern Composition Classroom). At more practical levels, students may not want to “edit” each other’s work; they may not necessarily make their feedback more substantive than they do in class; and writing comments is often a very weak approximation of providing feedback in an interactive form in the classroom.

Similarly, face-to-face collaboration is more familiar to many students; if not properly guided, students can feel anxious about having to use new technology. For some students, technical issues may get in the way, because of expertise levels, bugs, etc. Also, tools for sharing don’t always allow effective communication among collaborators. And, finally, as we will further discuss in the following entries, asking students to publish their ideas for larger audiences may potentially violate their confidentiality; using shared spaces may somewhat to severely undermine rather than promote students’ confidence about expressing their ideas even with the classroom; and sharing ideas through the web, even with the teacher, may make students less comfortable to write about personal, difficult, or other topics.

Efficiency for teaching and convenience for both teaching and learning may not be sufficient tradeoff for the compromises we may be making (more or less consciously) with our own ethical and professional standards when embracing emerging technologies.

Many teachers and academic programs/institutions who adopt emerging technologies tend to ignore the tradeoffs between convenience/affordance and potential drawbacks, as much as those who reject emerging technologies by ignoring or rejecting to practically assess the benefits against any drawbacks.

Our message here is that whichever technology we use—including the technology of the printed paper, the projector screen, etc—the fundamental issues of pedagogical effectiveness may not change but may instead need to be adapted to the particular tool and particular context vis-à-vis the pedagogical objectives. As Elizabeth Flynn said in her 1984 essay, teachers should always remember that ultimately, it is their voices and their experience that matters in both the design and execution of technology-aided teaching learning processes: it is we who have had “years of exposure to the genre of student essays and have developed strategies for reading them” (127).

In subsequent posts (as well as in the accompanying video clips), we will elaborate and demonstrate how, on the one hand, pedagogically-driven uses of collaborative applications can be tremendously beneficial for both writing teachers and students, but, on the other hand, the increasing pressure on students to publish/share their writing for increasingly broad audiences can create pedagogical and ethical blind spots in terms of students’ confidentiality, confidence, and comfort about expressing and sharing their thoughts and ideas.

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