A few weeks ago, students in both my online and face-to-face sections of English 302 submitted early drafts of their first essays of the semester. After receiving my feedback, a few students emailed me to personally thank me for my comments, one even reciting details of what I had said about his draft. Although we had devoted course time to discussing the draft review process and the role feedback (both from myself and from their peers) could play in how they revised and how they conceived of the audience for their writing, these students treated my feedback as if it were some special dispensation. Most intriguingly, these emails came only from students in my DE sections.
I quickly realized that this reaction was one I regularly received from my online students and only my online students. But why?
First, the providing feedback on an essay draft is the first one-on-one interaction I have with DE students that is specifically focused on their writing. It is more personal than my responses to their discussion posts or my group announcements or video lectures. They are of course vulnerable at that stage, sharing their academic writing in order to hear suggestions for improvement, more vulnerable than they are in their introduction videos or their first brief homework assignments.
But second, and more importantly, the nature of the online interface reinforces the sense that only my input on their work matters. As emerging learners, they often come from educational backgrounds that, to some degree, operate on a traditional banking model of knowledge—each lesson a deposit, each evaluation a withdrawal—that is echoed in many ways by the online delivery system. Any LMS, unless thoroughly customized, operates on a banking model by default: stream videos, download worksheets, upload completed drafts.
I suspect that, especially for those students who see composition as product-focused and don’t visualize writing as a communal activity, this student-to-LMS interface reminds them of their physical and temporal isolation from their classmates and reinforces their understanding of the class’s hierarchy. As Cheryl Hawkinson Melkun notes, an instructor in an online discussion can often stifle conversation because of the students assumption of the instructor’s authority. Students may not see their peers’ feedback and interactions as important to their own learning—say, approaching discussion boards as quick bullet-pointed tasks—and consequently overvalue my feedback, as if the instructor’s approval is the ultimate goal of the writing course. In their survey-based study “Toward a Complexity of Online Learning: Learners in Online First-Year Writing,” Merry Rendahl and Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch found that students in online writing classes “did not seem to value interaction with their peers as highly as they valued interactions with the instructors” (309). They did not, on the whole, consider collaboration with their peers a productive part of improving their writing.
Yet, we know that collaboration and community are vital components of the F2F writing classroom. Students gain both a sense of audience and an understanding of how to communicate meaning only in the negotiation with others. In response to the CCCC Committee’s “Report on the State of the Art of OWI,” which echoes the Rendahl & Breuch’s concerns that students do not feel as if they progress through peer interaction in an online environment, Ken Gillam and Shannon R. Wooden insist that the ideal classroom environment remains one “rich with interpersonal communication, rewarding collaboration, and the formation of productive learning communities.” The question then becomes how we can adapt collaborative lesson plans to an online environment that will allow students to participate in the negotiation of meaning.
Both Kerry and Brian have outlined some of the elements we must take into consideration. As Brian points out, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra may indeed provide a viable option for synchronous course meetings. From the little I have used it, Ultra offers a flexible virtual environment that could mimic the F2F classroom in many ways.
At the same time, in the past two semesters, I have had DE students attending class from Asia and Australia, as well as students nearby with inflexible schedules, making synchronous coursework nearly impossible. So, at this point, I am most interested in how we can build asynchronous collaboration into the design of our online courses. I hope that some of the thoughts that follow might complement alternatives regarding synchronous lesson planning.
- Ask Students to Build Social Profiles. Gillam & Wooden point out that the Wiki tool on Blackboard could allow students to build profiles like those they are already familiar with from social media. Asking students to construct a profile that is not limited to their participation in the course but also displays other facets of their lives might lead them to feel more invested in the writing community as a network. This project and the resulting wiki pages could also serve as a text for discussion and analysis, particularly via direct discussions of how narrative and literacy are involved in defining the public self.
- Model Real-World Telecommuting Projects. Any number of collaborative projects in the real world that require communication via email and a web interface could serve as a model for a long-term project. Handouts and templates could guide students through project management basics and the roles that team members need to play. This could work well as a self-timed project with certain boundaries, like a schedule of deliverables.
- Make Invisible Activities Visible. Assign students to groups at the outset of the course to investigate a variety of central topics. Ask them to collaborate frequently on small tasks designed to walk them through the process of composing a piece of writing. For instance, have a group brainstorming assignment that they can conduct collaboratively on their own time that asks them to explore full range of perspectives on the central topic. Then for the next step, each student could pursue one perspective in writing at greater length. The goal at that stage would not be to produce a single essay but to explore the range of possible essays that could be written about the central topic.
- Focus Peer Reviews on Summary, Not Critique. To avoid having the blind lead the blind, peer reviews could be reimagined as detailed reader summaries. Students would avoid the trap of being overly complimentary or overly critical and would simply present the author with a full sense of what had been successfully communicated.
Some of these ideas are just coming together for me after the readings I have encountered in the past two weeks. I plan to flesh these out as I read more.