[ENG 203 students: this is about teaching theory. You will probably be more interested in the entry I wrote specifically for you about workshop etiquette]

The traditional writer’s workshop with creative writers placed in a circle of desks, one hopes having read the work in advance with previously-made margin-comments that they refer to during workshop, this method, guided by an experienced author/teacher is the method adhered to in MFA and BFA programs across the land. It’s a pretty good method too, depending on leadership and the amount of preparation done by the students before workshop begins. One of the reasons I hesitated to do an online poetry-writing class for so long was because of how well this model works. However, few classes now don’t have at least an online component and most use a LMS (learning management system) to share files and distribute drafts. This happened in our department because of the massive paper and printing savings, but it also proved to be quicker and more convenient for students and teachers alike.

Because it is effective for sharing drafts, almost all of the creative writing classes here successfully share drafts using groups in Blackboard. I tried it myself when I taught ENG 501/602, the advanced fiction writing class (it had a Science Fiction/ Fantasy focus in my section). The method was sound, but Blackboard was its usual clicky self, taking too many steps to do what it does and without the assurance that files were really shared when students uploaded. For example, I know the failed uploads were pilot-error, but this has been an ongoing procedural flaw for Blackboard since at least 2001, when I used it for composition classes. Twelve years is time enough to work on user-friendliness.

Beside uploading drafts, I took the Blackboard groups method one step further and also had the class share written feedback via groups. I believe this ensured that very thorough analysis was thought out and shared in advance of the actual workshop day. Because we did this, workshop began with shared insights in place. People in the highlighted group were expected to be discussion leaders since they were the ones who had really taken the time to look at the work closely. The whole class then would discuss (having read the piece in advance), but the featured writer would know what his/her group wrote about the piece before workshop, and that saved a lot of time. For example, if no one got the Jar-Jar Binks reference, the writer knew it, and discussion could move on to possible whys and fixes instead of foundering on speculation about whether or not people get it or not. It’s hard to argue against united shared insight.

Of course the actual workshop for most sections is still face to face. In summer though, our department has moved to multiple online sections of the 200-level creative writing courses and for some of the composition courses. This makes sense. Most students leave Springfield for the summer and this has kept summer enrollment fairly low. The addition of online sections serves those far-away students who need to take courses.

Those of you who have been following me since 2003, know that I have used a variety of LMS solutions through the years, including WebCT, Blackboard, WordPress, Drupal, and DrupalEd. I also have friends who have been extremely happy with Moodle for their writing classes, particularly Chris Harris, who writes about the workshop module in Computers and Composition Online. I wanted to give it a try. I switched to Moodle Fall 2011 in anticipation of a study I planned to do about student success and Moodle vs Blackboard in writing classes with an online component. Last semester I taught a blended Writing I, and adding a fully online writing class to my data, a class which is not mandated but that still fulfills a gen-ed requirement, would be good for comparison on several levels. So, here I am. So far I am spending huge amounts of time filming videos, but that should be done by early next week. The students seem to be self-starters (yea!) and some have already uploaded the beginning of semester prompt that is part of the study and even contributed to the forum on the readings. Moodle makes all of this easy by having the schedule for the semester be the organizing template. Moodle is also writing class-friendly. It has blog, wiki, forum, and workshop modules. My only complaint so far is that the blog module does not have a comments feature, which, for me, means that it is not really a blog. All that aside, the workshop is what makes this LMS extra special for writing classes.

So far though, the workshop is also more of a learning curve for many student since it defies expectations based on past online experiences with file sharing. One of my goals this summer teaching the online version of Introduction to Creative Writing/ Poetry is to use the Moodle Workshop module to create  something that can be as helpful as the traditional face-to-face workshop. Now, I don’t intend to do this by duplicating the face-to-face method, like I would if, say, I mandated that all students met in a video chatroom. The logistics for that would be awkward since the point of an internet course is that it does not “meet” at set days/times. I also would not be comfortable asking students to do that; it seems too much like changing the rules on them in the middle of the game and would mean that students with time limitations (work? summer internships? other classes? Joe’s wedding?) would be set up for failure. Workshop is very important. Missing workshop in a face-to-face class without prior notice and/or a huge reason means that the instructor can and should question the student’s commitment to the class.

The Workshop module in Moodle has a series of task “windows of opportunity,” submission date ranges (upload, assess others, teacher assess), that add up to a very effective feedback method. It does not have the benefit of sight and sound, but I’m thinking about that. Maybe the answer is to have uploaded video feedback. For now, the written feedback has the advantage that it is usually more concise and better thought-out than the oral feedback given in a face-to-face workshop where students can have the appearance of having prepared, but may not actually have done it. The main sticking point is how many feedback opportunities each student is offered, An I think it is a settings problem on my end. I’m trying a change and hope it means that students can give more feedback than the set number if they so desire. Students give feedback using a textbox that can also be divided into sequenced prompts. I am able to see who has commented and to whom in an easy-to-read chart. I can also comment on drafts using the workshop, but will probably keep using iAnnotate to comment on drafts separately. It does it so well, and a text box does not let me draw new line breaks on drafts or show with arrows how to shift or separate out sections, feedback that is very common. The callouts are vital as well.

Just writing this though, makes me wonder why I don’t see these features as needed for students when they give feedback. Am I being elitist? I hope not. Here is my reasoning. Students in 100 or 200-level writing classes are quick to go to what they know for feedback, which means local issues such as correcting spelling and punctuation. I want them to give holistic comments about global issues instead, comments based on their perception of the poem as a reader. The text box does great for that, and it is easy to use. I give holistic comments first in my feedback also, but I supplement it with specific suggestions for what to do next in revision. As beginning poetry students, it will take time before these revision suggestions (i.e., line break  changes, stanza shifts or additions, tightening…) are internalized enough to come out in their feedback.

As you can see, I’m taking this online course seriously. I think it can work. That may seem like I’m discounting those who have been doing this successfully for a while, but I have to find my own way with this. One thing I do know– Moodle has built-in advantages for the writing teacher, not the least of these being the assumption that the purpose of workshop groups is to give feedback, not to distribute work only. Blackboard’s top-down approach to learning has its limits, and I hope that finally using a LMS that is founded on student-centered pedagogy will make a difference. So far it has.

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