Commenting Conundrums . . .

Part II
Part IV…

. . .  Teaching Students the Levels of Sharing

Christopher Petty and Shyam Sharma*

“I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?” she said aloud. “I must be getting somewhere near the center of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think –” (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the school-room, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) “– yes, that’s about the right distance – but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I’ve got to?” – Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

One of the great desires of writing teachers is to help their students write for “real” audiences, to connect students to “real-life” communities that might respond to their ideas. On top of engaging students in peer feedback/interaction about their writing, we also want to bolster their confidence in their own voice by finding ways to share ideas “about” the real world and “with” the real world.

The good news in this situation is that we now have access to more and more venues; there are now applications that allow students to do peer review/interaction and sharing/publication of their ideas in more and more convenient ways. However, in order for us to make educationally, pedagogically, and ethically good sense of that good news, we must start by recognizing that the paradigm shift from paper to screen and from personal screens to public display of one’s writing on the web is not an all or nothing deal.

As we ask our students to share their writing–their unformed thoughts, the process of their writing, and any of the products of their writing that they may not be comfortable sharing with anyone beyond the teacher because they wrote it to “learn” not “publish”–with broader and broader audiences, we are responsible to let them decide how far they want to go beyond the attention and support of us as teachers and the additional support of their peers in class toward the center of attention and access on the world wide web. As writing teachers, we are best equipped and most responsible to teach our students the “levels” and tradeoffs of risk and reward by teaching/promoting the “literacy of sharing.”

Our students aren’t simply like the curious girl in the novel we cited above, eager to leave a confined space and explore a wonderful world of open nature that lies beyond. They are also young intellectuals and writers who are exploring new ideas, starting to develop their own voices on subjects of their interest (often writing about issues that don’t interest them at first), and learning to decide what ideas (and how developed versions of them) they want to share with broader audiences.

Not all of our students want to “show off” the process of their writing as well as the product (even as this distinction long established by our field is being drastically blurred); not all of them understand without our guiding them what their “latitudes and longitudes” are in terms of how broadly and why and how we are asking them to share and publish the process and products of their learning.

It is with this understanding that we intend to describe the levels of sharing in which we ask our students to engage in our classrooms. We hope that you will find some of these ideas relevant to your approach to collaborative and interactive writing practices in your classroom. We will be grateful if you could also share your ideas in the comments section.

Let us consider the “levels of sharing” in terms of settings available in particular applications such as Blackboard LMS and the applications available in it. In many of Blackboard-based applications–such as the Campus Pack Wiki, Blog, and other collaboration tools–levels of sharing are explicitly presented at the level of deployment of the application’s modules: privately, in groups, or amongst an entire class. In the case of Google Docs, share levels are less visible at first because they require students to share their documents with individual partners, campus-wide community, or “anyone with the link”; at all these levels, students can share permission to view only, view and comment, or view/comment and also edit the document. Digication, our portfolio application, provides site-wide share setting options, but the share levels are comparable to those of Google Docs. The new edublog (you domain) application is a versatile web development platform that also demands a whole new set of skills for students to share what they want with appropriate audiences. Wikis and blogs on the open web involve even better skills level and decision-making capabilities on the part of students because they may need to configure share settings on their own. And the list of applications and both options and complexities that they introduce are ever expanding.

Regardless of which method any given application uses, an informed understanding of these levels and their implications is imperative to making the most effective and ethical use of shared spaces in the classroom. We can break down the levels of sharing into five basic options:

  1. Individual
  2. Partners
  3. Groups
  4. Class
  5. Public

Individually shared content refers to settings that only share material between one student and the teacher. While the individual level may seem like the opposite of sharing, it is in fact quite useful in many situations. Rather than using paper documents or a series of emails, privately shared assignments offer a few unique affordances, the most immediate of which is the drastic increase of accessibility and efficiency in regards to working with students on drafts and revisions.

In addition to creating one central document that may be accessed from any place with an internet connection, we also create a space where work is documented and preserved, and old revisions and drafts are easily accessed. This level of sharing is secure and low-risk, which makes it ideal for work that is in early stages and may not yet be ready to be seen by others. This is also a preferable mode for any work that requires intensely critical instructor feedback that may be sensitive if shared beyond the individual student. However, this level also omits many of the other affordances provided by collaborative spaces.

The next level of sharing adds one more set of eyes to the mix. Sharing between partners asks two students in the class to share their work with each other (this space is also still accessible to the instructor), which opens up possibilities for peer work. This level is particularly good for extensive peer feedback, as students can become heavily invested in one other piece of writing, devoting time and energy to substantive work on it. This level is also very good at building trust in the sharing process because it is still low-risk (they are only asked to share their work with one other student), but exposes them to the benefits of peer review and eases them into a comfortable sharing environment. However, individual outcomes may vary, as a negligent student can disrupt the entire process for their partner.

The idea of a “group” setting is a bit amorphous, as the number of members in a group can vary greatly based on class size and the teacher’s intent, but the fundamental factors still apply. Creating groups of three or more students has the benefit of providing students with a wider range of feedback. This has a number of positive effects, including the reinforcement of key feedback coming from a range of readers, the potential to build significantly off of the initial work as a group, and the prevention of the repercussions of negligent or absentee partners.

However, this is also a higher-risk situation; asking students to expose themselves to several classmates may seem intimidating and uncomfortable to some at first. The more immediate risk, however, is that students may take the feedback they receive and the other work they see shared as a cue to change the entire nature of their writing from a perceived integrity issue that may not truly exist. This can be avoided by informing students about the literacy of sharing in order to foster trust in the process, but to not feel beholden to it in their writing. Additionally, the more members there are in a group, the less individual attention the student writing will generally receive.

Sharing among the entire class is high-risk, meaning that we as teachers need to be particularly aware of considerations of student comfort and confidence in their work. Simply throwing students into this level of sharing can prove problematic; however, there are a couple of particular circumstances in which this mode has unique benefits. For one, sharing among an entire class is ideal for early stage writing or pre-writing where the focus is on brainstorming and refining ideas rather than presenting polished writing. It creates a shared space of ideas where students can discuss, comment, and learn from each other. This space becomes an extension of the classroom and the ideas presented in it, but also develops into its own space of trust and collaboration.

Alternatively, using this space to present more developed writing forces students to have greater awareness of both their audience and of themselves as a writer. This works best for more developed drafts where concerns of moving from something “writer-based” to something “reader-based” can be informed by having an actual audience. As teachers, we must be particularly mindful of potential issues of plagiarism, discrimination, and harsh comments when employing this level of sharing.

Teaching students about the literacy of sharing becomes especially important before asking them to share their work publicly. There are a number of venues in which students may be asked to do this, for example in ePortfolios or on blogs. One major benefit of this is that it encourages student ownership of and pride in their writing. It also makes the idea of audience immediate and real, necessitating that they consider the rhetorical implications of their writing and their own ethos as a writer. However, it is also the highest-risk level, as students must be very comfortable with the integrity of their work. They also need to be well-informed of what exactly will be shared, how publically (within SBU? the entire internet?), and how and if it can be modified or deleted.

By making informed choices about the levels of sharing that we employ in our classes, we can avoid many of the pitfalls that threaten student comfort, confidence and confidentiality. One common issue is that less experienced students, especially those in FYC courses, may feel that their work is not worth sharing with their peers. This often comes along with a feeling that they do not have the authority or skill to give feedback on the work of others. Beyond this, some students may simply not want to share some of their work with anybody besides the teacher. Both of these issues can be remedied by fostering trust in the collaborative system, but unclear guidelines and objectives can take students by surprise and do significant harm to the trust and comfort that we are trying to establish.

There is also a possible issue of students dealing with sensitive, personal, or controversial topics that may place them in an uncomfortable situation. Finally, although we’ve discussed how instructor feedback should be navigated in an ethically considerate manner when using shared spaces, there is also the possibility that negative or unproductive feedback from peers may have an even worse impact when presented in a shared space. The best way to counter these potential pitfalls and promote ownership of student work is through the use of clear, understandable objectives, a transparent feedback process with definitive standards, and by fostering professionalism through what we teach, how we provide feedback ourselves, and a moderation of the collaborative space. We will go into further detail about how to accomplish these things in our next blog post.

As we also highlighted in our previous blog entry, our experience of exploring, adapting, and sharing our ideas about using these applications in the writing classroom (here on campus and beyond) could be described as “cautious excitement.” We continue to be enthused by the affordances of the tools in helping us achieve more and more fine-grained benefits to our students’ learning and our teaching. But we also continue to realize how things can go the other direction, and we share such experiences with each other. For instance, upon adapting these applications in the classroom, Chris observed a number of almost immediate benefits, one of which was a significant increase in student engagement and productivity during their one-on-one conferences. Previously, students would often come to their conferences without having looked at much feedback besides their grade. This resulted to a lack of questions and minimal input overall, citing a desire to “just be told what to do” and revisions that were “started on my laptop, but I don’t have it with me.” However, by using virtual shared spaces that make feedback highly accessible and available instantly, students were arriving not only with questions and ideas, but many would even upload new revisions or drafts before the conference that they wish to receive feedback on. Another significant effect of this technology that Chris noticed was that students began to adopt a more professional, critical, and in-depth approach to peer revision as the semester progressed. While students can receive much direction from rubrics and guidelines, it was through an unsolicited emulation of instructor feedback that student peer feedback grew to be extensive, developed, and effective.

On the non-exciting side of our exploration, as we use interactive/collaborative applications increasingly extensively, we keep coming across unexpected challenges. Over the past two years, we have shared numerous classroom occurrences with each other, many of which we wouldn’t share here because they are specific to individual students. Among the ones that seem okay to share on the web here, Shyam remembers a case when a student emailed him to express their frustration about a paper being “criticized” in front the whole class, meaning commented on in a class-wise wiki. When he looked up to see what was so offensive to the student, he found that the comments were just regular feedback on issues of paragraphing, clarity, and grammar–and he had not used any harsh words. But the fact that the student panicked means that it is not enough to “assume” that our good intentions are sufficient in themselves, that students will perceive our comments in the same way, and most importantly, that students should be forced to receive feedback at a level that is more public than they are comfortable with.

In essence, it is wrong to assume that new technologies are helping us and our students to move teleologically forward into better and better places of teaching and learning. The idea that more “advanced” technology–except when it is specifically created and continually adapted by or at least for members of  a profession or community–automatically improves our work, relationship, or place in the world is wrong-headed and needs to be called out as such. Technologists who are (often meaningfully) excited by their new tools and techniques certainly have much give to the rest of us for improving our work, life, and often relationships. But when it comes to our work, life, and relationships, we are more likely the dog and technology its tail–rather than the other way around.

Teaching the “levels of sharing”–which is a critical component of the “literacy of sharing”–has to do with preparing our students for a changing world, with diversity and global citizenship, with professional skills, and with navigating the often-risky world of media and changing understanding about professionalism. It is no longer enough to teach the literacy of writing: the literacy of sharing is becoming equally important.

*This is the second in our series of blog posts that came out of a TALENT Grant project. You can access the full series, along with accompanying videos, from the Writing@StonyBrook portfolio for writing instructors.

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