Happy holidays! The photo has nothing to do with this post, but it’s a festive day and there it was. It’s winter break and I’m currently redoing my ENG 704: Teaching Writing Online course, something I do every other year since that is when it is offered, but mostly because things change so fast. The tools change and sometimes old tools get better. Sometimes scholarship plays into pedagogy in the case of studies that come out giving fresh insights. I have to say, there were some very pretty studies done in the past two years, but unfortunately for the the module on workshops/ peer review, nothing for that this time. So, I thought I’d do an informal version of the article I wish I’d found, an examination of approaches to online peer review for composition (or tech writing or creative writing) students.
A little Context
I’ve been teaching either blended or wholly online writing courses since 2001 when I was a doctoral student at Bowling Green State University in Rhetoric and Writing. immediately after receiving my MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry. I would have done it before then, but as a poetry MFA student, the culture was not that open (then) for poets who wanted one of the online composition classes. Other people were ahead of me in line. Once I entered the Rhetoric and Writing doctoral program though, there were more options and of course, the coursework opened up opportunities. I will be forever grateful to Dr. Kristine L. Blair for many things, including her keeping me as an Editor for Computers and Composition Online since its reboot in 2002, but out of all my coursework at BGSU, her Computer-Mediated Pedagogy class was the foundation for much of my future research and personal pedagogy. That is where I first worked-out the possibilities for online writing assignments. What follows here is my online workshop evolution. In reading, keep in mind that in online pedagogy, what goes away often comes back. Read this as alternate approaches dependent on the tools available at the time. Sometimes a workshop method will get dropped only to be revived later using newer versions of the older, discarded tools.
Where it all began–Drupal
My first class that really functioned as a blended classroom was an advanced composition class where I used a Drupal site to organize student posts and my announcements. The campus at that time was using the last gasp of WebCT and a very early version of Blackboard, which I promptly dubbed Blackbeard. I liked Web CT better , but it also froze frequently. I had learned about Drupal from an online forum mostly made up of techy grad students focused on teaching writing and was dying to try it out as a CMS for my classes. It worked of course, and was more stable than the alternatives and could be password protected too, giving the security universities often want for student writing. I did not do that though, seeing benefits in writing being public. Essentially, what I did was run it like a three-column blog that had class resources (including a weekly poll) on the left side and web resources on the right. It was still a paper culture back then, so I did not have to worry about having my assignments open to the web. I kept the assignments themselves paper and in the classroom, a choice I would not make now. The blog was set up to be a whole class blog, something I might consider again. All posts were tagged date/time and author, with the author names pseudonymous. I remember having to really stress how their name choice needed to reflect them somehow, not embarrass me ( no hotgirl or hotguy2000 names), and not be the same as their email. Since blogs always put the newest up top, this worked surprisingly well. I also had a permanent post up top with the ground rules. How was workshop done in this rudimentary form? Well, it wasn’t done online. The room was a computer classroom broken into pods and there was much rolly-chair moving from screen to screen. During drafting though, I noticed that this was a very silent bunch and it did not take long to find out why. Many of them had connected using IM (Instant Messenger) and were having long, multi-user conversations on IM. Remember, this was pre-smartphones and pre-Facebook. I knew I was onto something here, but the existing tools weren’t up for it yet.
The next stage using Drupal was when I began as an assistant professor at Missouri State University. As new faculty, I had missed the chance to request courses the semester before and consequently was teaching three Gen-ed composition courses–two Writing IIs and one Writing I. On the bright side though, I was teaching in a spiffy computer classroom in a very underused statistics lab. The solid rows of desktops were a very efficient way to save costs on wire, but not a good way to teach writing. I had to find a way to have collaborative spaces where students could discuss their writing together. That was not easily done with such tight rows, So, I started thinking about what could work for student peer review. It occurred to me that I had another space that was always available–the Drupal CMS online. This was my big chance to really get students to be open about feedback in a way that they seldom are face-to face. Since the Drupal site was set up for pseudonyms, with some savvy organization, I could combine the two of the three classes that were the same to be one class online. That way students had a much larger pool to select from when they gave feedback I also decided to make the site password protected so that they could attach their draft files to their workshop posts. Voila! I had a doable workshop.
Of course, I may have a higher ability to stomach chaos than some, but I did set up some protocols that kept anarchy at a minimum.
For the site
- Used the profile feature to have student info at my fingertips. It also could list and count all posts and comments so that tracking work was doable.
- Had tagging so that individual assignments could be seen in one spot.
- Had naming conventions for assignments so the tagging would work.
- Could delete or change student posts if needed.
- Could password-protect individual posts, so I was able to post feedback.
- Pseudonyms must be unique, not embarrassing to me, and not the same as something easily identifiable such as their email.
- No flaming, no trolling. Anything like that will be immediately deleted.
- Make drafts full enough to allow for feedback.
- Be timely in posting and with feedback.
There may have been more, but those were the big pieces. The university had Blackboard then and it did have assignment upload, but gosh. It was so fragile. I used it anyway, hoping for what was later seen as a “green” classroom. At that time though, some students had to email assignments because they couldn’t get Blackboard to work for them. Most of the time that was student error and I had them walk through it with me in the classroom. It got done then.
Being able to turn in work online was fine if all I did was assign work and have them turn it in, but best practices for the teaching of writing has movement both ways. Writing teachers do much more than grade the final version and move on to the next assignment. I needed a way for students to get peer review and for me to give draft feedback too with the privacy student have come to expect from instructor feedback. The student workshop then was online behind a firewall, multi class, and public for my classes but not anyone else. Students were to post by a certain date/time and give feedback as comments to at least four class members by a certain date/time. An unexpected benefit to this two-class method was that many students chose to give feedback to more than four. That made for a superior workshop online. Although I could password-protect individual posts, I couldn’t do that for comments, so to stay in the workshop itself meant I had to make password-protected post for each student, posts that they might have a hard time finding if they got buried. In the end , it was almost easier to email feedback. Both ways worked for me and I put it up to a class vote. Some semesters the students went for posts, others went for email. The main thing was that they got feedback in time to help with revision.
Finally, since these classes had a physical classroom, we followed up online workshop with whole-class discussion of shared issues using the big screen. Since this was pseudonymous, students had no problem seeing work on the screen and discussing it. The embarrassment sometimes connected to sharing one’s work in front of the whole class was simply not a factor. In the end, I saw this blended workshop as superior to the wholly face-to-face workshop. The great Springfield ice storm was during this time too and the extended time with campus closed meant that those who had power could keep up. Most did, and it was a real advantage when campus reopened.
My last Drupal build was when I used DrupalEd as a program-wide LMS for writing classes. I was filling in as acting director until the department’s search for a full-time writing program administrator was successful. At that time, Blackboard was still very much about managing content rather than enabling learning or collaboration, so I felt that something needed to be done. What I did not count on was how little “buy-in” the current graduate teaching assistants would have for this. Coming from a paper-only culture where there had not been a compositionist running the program for some time, this just seemed like more work and for the most part, they were not gonna do it and I really could not make them. For the few that did use it though, and for myself, it was the best available at that time (2006-2007). Workshop ran the same way it did for my individual Drupal site, but it also had some interesting instructor collaboration features built in for sharing assignments, making cross-portfolio assessment possible. And it was open source! Free to download and use! Suggestions to the coding community might just turn into new features! Those were the days. Once we hired a composition director, he was not interested in the DrupalEd site and went another direction. He was right though–deep cultural changes like what was needed then take time.
The Move to WordPress
It was new. It was easy. It was pretty and had lots of themes. But when it came right down to it, I moved to WordPress from Drupal because it was far easier to use for me and my students and it had that marvelous organizational feature I had learned to love, tabs. Yes, Drupal had tabs too, but…aesthetics and ease of use won. With WordPress using a theme that featured tabs, I was able to use the organization we all know know and see as standard: a home page, a blog page, and other pages as needed. Password protection was possible too.
I would still recommend WordPress as a option for a classroom CMS for those who either have no district or university-provided CMS or for those who do but really don’t like it. It seems that no matter what CMS a university uses, there will be a soft chorus of whimpers from those told they must use it. However, if your university does not actually require their official CMS, consider WordPress or Edublogs instead. WordPress keeps adding more functions and themes each year and Edublogs is a specialized version of WordPress made for education. I used both and found things to like about both. One advantage with WordPress though is that if your university is agreeable, it is free to download and thus could be housed using university server space.
I organized WordPress so that my own blogging space and each course had its own tab. This meant having more than one blog space on the site, which WordPress allowed. If it was a course I taught often, I would keep it around, just removing student posts before each new semester. This was my go-to for a long time until I moved to Moodle and kept WordPress for my own use only.
It’s possible that I would still be using Moodle if a few things had not happened. First, my hosting service stopped updating it. I knew this was a bad sign, but forged onward for the rest of the semester. Checking things out afterwards, I found that they no longer had Moodle in their bag of open source downloads. On the other hand, doing a recent web search, I saw that Moodle still exists. In fact, Moodle.org looks bigger and better than ever, but even though you could download it to your server space (that’s what Dreamhost is for me), you would need to know how. I can get that far. However, I know full well that updates are fairly frequent for all CMSs and I don’t want to do the database coding that is sometimes necessary when an update goes sideways (they can). That is why choosing a host that will do it automatically was an important feature to me. My current hosting service no longer has an open source list of software at all and only supports WordPress, their own WordPress, which they call Dreampress as well as a new website builder for those who don’t have software like Dreamweaver to create a site. The days of techy DIY people may be over. Luckily, I am using WordPress for my own sites, so I do not have to change hosts at this time, but if I did want to say, add a wiki build, I would have to switch.
But I digress. Moodle was great. It wasn’t pretty, but it was very functional and very collaborative plus it had a workshop feature which worked great once everyone got used to it. It actually allowed you to set up workshop groups and set how many group members each student had to give feedback to. It also had a great deadline set-up, so you could have deadlines for both initial file submission and feedback. The downside was that this could be a bit of a stretch for students to master right away, so the first workshop tended to be a bit of a shakedown cruise. After that, it was fine. If your district or university is considering a new CMS, please have them consider Moodle for the sake of the workshop feature and also for how it uses profiles to build online identity for your students. Over all, it is a more intuitive CMS than Blackboard, one that more easily allows the kinds of collaboration that make best practices in writing pedagogy possible.
Back to Blackboard
So there I was in (I think) 2015, happy with Moodle, but forced to part. I spent the summer trying out options (Canvas came close) and in the end, whimpered to myself maybe a bit loudly, then put all my courses in my university’s Blackboard. Yes, I was back, and if not loving it, I was at least making it work and finding that if I don’t exactly use Blackboard’s bag o’ tools in the way they intended, I can bend them to make them fit my needs as an instructor.
For my face-to-face composition and poetry classes, I use Blackboard groups as a pre-workshop prep area for the in-class workshop. Students have an upload due date, they read the drafts, and they write out feedback before the actual workshop in-class. During the workshop, they tend to add more comments to the paper copies they bring. They also bring a paper copy of their own draft so they can take notes on it while it is being workshopped. This works very well. An unforeseen benefit is that those who forget paper copies still have the files available either on their phone or their laptop. Students then share their feedback through the group or using Blackboard’s Send Email. I see this as a good solution to the “I forgot” syndrome, better than the alternative, which is a quick read and verbal feedback only.
However, going fully online is different–not better or worse, just different. Instead of the circle of desk-chairs, there is a separate discussion board for each group. That is where the action is and you can set it up for a grade. I do that, but assess based on an on-time draft that is developed enough to insure good feedback and on the student’s feedback given to the others in the group. That feedback too needs to be thoughtful and complete. I do not grade on how “good” the draft is. Writing process research shows there is a broad continuum of drafting styles and it would be wrong to privilege one extreme over the other. All can turn out well in the end, and the point of workshop is to give feedback on what needs to happen next or even what is missing at that point, usually transitions, points, or source support. Warm-up writing is fairly common also, and workshop is where it can safely be pointed out and marked for deletion. Poetry workshop also has its repeat issues: Line breaks, images (lack of), the need to cut/replace any cliches or hackneyed language, and yes, warm-up writing happens in poetry drafts too.
I tried several approaches to workshop in Blackboard over the years and see the alternatives as a personal choice based on one’s own pedagogy. For wholly online classes though, Blackboard has finally made its Group feature functional. Maybe it was before and I was not willing to do the skull-work needed to make it work, but I sincerely believe it is better in the latest version of Blackboard. That is how I am setting up workshop in the eight-week second block Writing I INET I’m teaching SP 2019. Once enrollment has settled, I will set up randomized groups of four or five. Each group has its own upload area for file-sharing and there is an option for its own Discussion Board, which is where the workshop will happen. This can be set up to have a grade attached too, and since it is Writing I, I will have points attached to workshop so that students see it as something real, something they need to do rather than something extra that might be nice, but not something a busy student has time for. At the same time, as mentioned before, points do not mean assessment for quality. I know that different people draft differently, and as long as it is reasonably developed and as long as the student gives feedback to all the group members, the grade will be full points.
Less easy is when a student uploads their draft in the last few hours of the last day then gives feedback quickly before the workshop closes. I give a due date for the upload, but late work remains a strong possibility no matter how I publicize the dates. In anticipation of this dilemma, I try to make my expectations clear so that when late drafts turn into a lesser grade, the reasons why also will be clear. For example, a very late draft won’t get student feedback. They also won’t get my feedback because I also give it via the group discussion board. By that last hour, the other group members are done giving feedback by then and shouldn’t be penalized because they didn’t stay up late waiting for the last draft to show up three days late. The same goes for me–I’m done giving feedback, probably had been done for a couple of days. Last hour uploads function the same way as students who walk in halfway through class on workshop day with a half-page draft. Yes, they did it, and yes, it was better to do that than not show up at all, but it is absolutely not that same level of achievement as the majority of the students who are on time, ready to workshop (have notes in advance for all group members), and have their previously uploaded draft with them which is three full pages plus the Works Cited.
Some other ways I have done workshop in Blackboard use the whole-class method, much like what I did in past years with WordPress. I have used the Journal, The Blog, and the Discussion Board for workshop. Of the three, the Discussion Board has the edge since it makes it easy to track posts by individuals for grading. Make a forum for each workshop and set the desired points. Bingo. You can also have it appear and disappear on the dates you want, a good way to ensure timeliness. Whole class workshop works well online. Just let them know when their initial post with attached file needs to happen and how many people they should respond to. I like to have a full-blown assignment sheet for workshop and post it in more than one place–the module and with the discussion board itself. The feedback is better when you give them things to look for. Without that, they proofread, which as we know, really isn’t the point.
One more thing
I know this was a very long post, but there is one more thing, something I’ve said but want to repeat. Ultimately, whether online or face-to-face, workshop is a mainstay of process pedagogy and many newer pedagogies because it fills a deep need within the writing process–the need writers have to see what value their writing has outside their heads. Audience is a tricky concept for students in FYC, but they need to know that it is not just them. As anyone knows who has submitted work to an academic journal, what is sent is not the last word. Writers, good ones, will get peer reviews back and yes, they are helpful. Even before submission, it is common to ask a colleague to review the manuscript. In student workshop then, we are mirroring what is actually a real process in the real world of writing. Yes, creative writers appear to be an exception to this since their submissions get the quick/not-so-quick no with no feedback or a quick/not-so-quick yes with congratulations. However, that is why writer’s workshops and retreats flourish. Creative writers also need an audience in-progress and savvy writers reach out to get it, either online in groups or in person at exotic locales.
So, if you are not happy with your current workshop solution, consider trying something new. One thing I know for sure–online tools and CMSs will keep changing, which means we need to keep up in case something even better than our current method comes along.