Promoting Students’ Ownership

Part III
Part IV (coming)

. . . of Their Ideas and Their Writing . . .

Shyam Sharma, Christopher Petty

The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do. –B.F. Skinner

Writing teachers generally tend to be skeptical about technological determinism that rules the academic airwaves these days. And yet, to the extent that they assume that more and newer technologies will automatically improve teaching and learning, emerging technologies can potentially erode, instead of enhance, students’ epistemological agency and ownership of their writing and thinking. In particular, a lack of caution while making the switch from paper to pixel to having students share their writing more and more publicly (both as product and as process) can undermine the very educational, professional, and social benefits for which the technologies are celebrated. It will also undermine our ability to meaningfully adapt new technologies to our specific pedagogical contexts and needs.

In this post, we discuss how and why writing teachers need to take deliberate approaches to promoting students’ sense of ownership of their writing which the shift from paper to interactive/collaborative spaces can potentially undermine. We discuss and demonstrate how writing teachers can promote students’ comfort, confidence, and confidentiality in their expression, and hence their sense of ownership of their work. We continue to build on the central message of the current series of blog posts, which is that it is becoming more and more important to teach the “literacy of sharing” alongside the literacy of reading, writing, and effective communication. We define “ownership” broadly in terms of how students engage with the process and product of their writing and how the tension between support and critique from instructor and involvement of peers enhances or undermines the motivation and epistemological agency of the writers. Of course, these are not only relevant when using technology; but in this series, we are focusing on the use and impact of technology (both its affordances/benefits and its drawbacks). That sense of ownership can be enhanced or undermined in many ways, depending on whether any technology is used pedagogically and ethically responsibly or not.

Let us start by looking at some of the counterproductive effects that collaborative/interactive applications can have on students’ comfort and confidence in their ideas and writing. First, as writing scholars such as Nancy Sommers have long emphasized, when instructors provide feedback carelessly, their critique of students’ writing can undermine their ownership and pride in their work–regardless of the medium. Drawing on his prior experience of working at the Writing Center, our colleague Michael Reich has written about an instructor’s authority potentially undermining student engagement during class discussion; we are all aware of the same dynamics when providing feedback on students’ writing. Interactive and collaborative technologies can exacerbate that potentially negative effect unless we take necessary precautions. For example, the use of wiki or Google Doc that make students’ work available for comment 24/7 could create what some scholars have called the “panopticon effect” whereby students feel that they’re constantly being watched. Changes and comments are easier to “track”; drafts can be compared and shown to students; peer feedback can be shared; and instructor’s own comments can shift from private (student’s paper) to public spaces (class wiki, or even beyond). The very first step is to recognize the potentials for harm.

Second, when students are asked to comment on each other’s work, easy access may similarly undermine students’ confidence if it is not facilitated by the instructor. As online applications make it easier for instructors to assign peer feedback beyond class, instructors are tempted to require peer feedback without facilitation. It is the extreme form of this temptation that seems to make MOOC providers desperately try to find ways to make students “validly” grade each other’s work; worse, “grading” doesn’t even mean providing feedback even it comes to writing-intensive subjects. But we know from teaching small classes, even classes with highly homogeneous student groups in a particular institution, how shallow, potentially confusing, and often counterproductive peer feedback can be without expert support from the teacher. Simply adding access, speed, convenience, and so on to the process will not automatically improve peer feedback; it may only exacerbate the problems.

Third, students may also be confused about how to give and/or take feedback. Since we started using wiki for instructor and peer feedback, we have been puzzled by how often students simply delete the comments that we or their peers have inserted; especially if the feedback is not a direct instruction, the chances of student writers not knowing what to do tends to be surprising to writing teachers. As with paper-based writing, there are a lot of reasons why students don’t respond to comments (this is something the field’s research still hasn’t sufficiently figured out); but with the increase of exposure, hesitation and anxiety seem to only grow.

Finally, communicative/interactive applications also allow instructors to overwhelm students with content–more instructions, more guidelines, more resources (which may make students shut down at some point). When hi-tech supersedes hi-teAch, motivation could also take a back seat, contrary to how it is touted as the ultimate motivator.

With the potential and real challenges above in mind, we now turn to a set of do’s and don’t’s (or cautions and “teaching moments”) that we have learned from experience of switching from paper to pixel to sharing more publicly.

  • Don’t share grades or evaluative comments.
  • Be cautious about possibly harsh comments.
  • Beware of chances of discrimination, bias, harassment.
  • Teach students about diversity, global citizenship.
  • Spot sensitive topics, tensions, other difficulties.
  • Consider group dynamics, help resolve tension.
  • Be careful you’re not throwing more content at students (instructions, guidelines, rubrics, etc) because the technology makes it easier to do so.

Beyond issues of pedagogical effectiveness, the above list also implies also ethical responsibility on the part of the instructor, as well as teaching moments. With that in mind, and in favor of conciseness, here are a few more points about how to address the potential problems above:

  • Make objectives/rationales explicit (why we’re asking them to do more than submit their work to us).
  • Make full and advance disclosure of what students will be asked to share.
  • Allow students to opt out or use a different level of privacy/access.
  • Make the value of critique clear, explaining the benefits and allowing students to approach feedback in ways that suits their individual styles and interpersonal relationships.
  • When students write about difficult topics or sensitive issues, help them to make informed choices.
  • Make sure that students understand what will be shared and how and with whom.
  • Spend time teaching students how to use the applications, explaining the instructions, discussing the resources, practicing what students are expected to do online (collaboratively or individually).
  • Set up and facilitate the process/standards of feedback; use rubrics and guidelines that are carefully adapted to the particular assignment and if possible students.

We’d now like to share a particular technique, derived from Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, as a method of deliberately enhancing students’ sense of ownership of their ideas and the writing process. Chris described this technique in more detail in a blog post earlier in the semester, but just to highlight the point briefly, using techniques like this can serve as a baseline when asking students to comment on each other’s work. Basically, the guidelines for this process ask participants to provide feedback in a specific fashion: statements of meaning (how you understood the work), questions from the writers, neutral [non-evaluative] questions for the artist, then approved opinions. In this way, we are able to channel responses from even the most inexperienced critics into a meaningful flow in information that filters potentially negative or unhelpful feedback into responses that are useful, insightful, and focused. Replicating this type of feedback is essential to collaborative work in shared spaces, as unskilled or misguided comments and ideas can easily undermine a writer, especially one who is still  developing confidence in their own skills and voice.

The more we share our experiences about this subject, the more we become alert about how increasing technological convenience can magnify discomfort among our students when their writing is shared, critiqued, or published and they may not be ready to do so. Here is one of the incidents related to students’ ownership and conference that took place in one of our classes. In Theatre 101, where Chris uses peer feedback techniques most often, the main class objective is to give students an introductory understanding of theatre history, play structure, and the production process/the individual roles involved. One activity that he does is to make them each write a short, 10-page play (most of them are not experienced in playwriting, so the focus is more on understanding the work of a playwright rather than writing a polished play). Later in the semester, he takes the 5 or 6 most “producible” of these plays, divide the class into small groups, and have each group work on a mini performance of a different play (students take on a variety of roles such as actor, director, and designers). He always checks with the playwrights before using their play for the class, and there has almost never been any issue. However, one semester a student whose play he intended to use was absent on the day that he checked. He decided to use it anyway, because 1) it was not really a sensitive topic, 2) he thought that it was fiction, and 3) nobody had ever said “no” before. On the next day of class, when he assigned the project, the student in point became flustered and upset because the play was actually based on something that had happened to her family. She ended up being okay with sharing it after Chris let her direct it, but he realized that he had never considered the possibility that what seemed like an innocuous fictional play could actually be a more sensitive, personal piece when autobiographical. This incident has caused him to change the way that he approaches the assignments, giving full disclosure when the playwriting assignment is first assigned, and being sure to get written permission to use the play later in class.

Similarly, Shyam realized the varying level of confidence that students express when he gave his students in the Writing For Your Profession class several different privacy options for their edublog based sites: private, password protected, SBU-only, custom-protected, and public. Many students made their blogs increasingly public, but at the end of the semester, they decided to delete their sites when they were graded as assignments. One student said during the final presentation that he had thought the “blogfolio” was an “assignment from hell” until late in the semester; another student had subtitled their site “I hate to share anything about myself.” Being given options and encouraged to think critically about the medium helped students craft the message more carefully, and they left the class with a much better grasp of both the positive potentials of technology and its potential drawbacks.

No doubt, collaborative/interactive applications can greatly enhance the process of instructor and peer feedback. As we have written in our previous posts, those applications can add access, flexibility, affordances for synchronous and asynchronous collaboration and interaction, and integration of resources with teaching/learning. However, it is only when we are aware of and try to avoid potential pitfalls of collaborative/interactive applications that we are truly able to take advantage of their affordances.

Generally speaking, it is important that writing teachers ask whether the fundamentals of learning/teaching, rights/respect, and privacy are being undermined because of the direction in which technology is moving. What if technology is designed and sold by those who have no knowledge/interest about the objectives that we as educators want to achieve? Students need to know from us, as grown ups and educated mentors, that access and opportunity to share and share everything all the time are actually reasons to rethink when, where, how, and with whom we should share our thoughts, opinions, and ideas.

Indeed, it is important for us to be cautious about potentially doing more harm than good when we create constant access to students’ work in progress, when we require them to expose their thought process to us and to their peers (if not make it more public), and when we require/encourage them to publish their thoughts and ideas, some of which they may never be able to delete.

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2 Responses to Promoting Students’ Ownership

  1. Maha Bali says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking blogpost and especially for brining up this panoptic possible effect – the feeling that students’ work-in-progress is always under surveillance is a really important one we often ignore or forget (?) in our eagerness to benefit from the affordances of openness

  2. I enjoyed this post — these are great suggestions, I think, for helping students take and feel ownership of their writing.

    The suggestions here aren’t always easy to implement (and can at times be very challenging), and I think that speaks to the creativity, sensitivity, and skill of good teachers.

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