Two semesters ago, I had the opportunity to co-teach a course in the College of Education with my advisor and another graduate student. This course, Approaches to Teaching Writing, is designed to give foundation and practical knowledge and praxis to students who might be teaching writing in their future. Most of our students were aiming to be secondary English teachers. Through the semester, we engaged in classic revision processes for their various course papers. Students were assigned groups, shared writing with each other in and out of class, gave substantive feedback, and went through several drafts.
Our syllabus had a session devoted to Writing Technology. When I asked my advisor what that meant, she discussed how computers should have revolutionized the teaching of writing, but those changes never came. We had several papers discussing the topic, and planned to engage the students in some conversation. I started wondering what else we might do. K-12 schools are increasingly digital, with 1:1 computer-to-student programs, Google classrooms and other learning management systems becoming the primary delivery mode, and constant attempts to engage students in technology as a tool, not just a gaming or communication device. I wondered if we could try to imitate the revision processes we already did in class, but in a fully digital space.
For both experiments, we used Office365, which offers shared online document editing. Groups were managed through ICON, so only assigned group members had access to the document. For the first experiment, done asynchronously, each group was given the same writing sample, borrowed from an 8th grade history teacher. Basic student information was provided, and students were asked to interact with the text as if they were in a peer conference. Students were given the week between class meetings to read and respond to the sample text, and also respond to their classmates’ responses. The second experiment was done synchronously, with students reading a single text in the classroom and holding a discussion about the text, like a workshop circle, on a shared Office365 document. Bot experiments resulted were robust dialogues with the text and with one another without sharing the same space. While the readers were physically disembodied, their voices were actively engaged within the space of the text.
We took this experiment to the Conference on College Composition and Communication this spring. There, speaking to composition and rhetoric teachers, we ran the second experiment again using Google Docs. Among the first questions asked was “Why Office365?” The answer is simple: it was the most convenient. We knew students had access, we knew we had access, and we knew it could do roughly what we wanted. But that’s not good enough.
I am interested in the power of a digital space on the process of writing. I wonder how digital tools could impact the revision process, how the sort of disembodied reviewer positions the writer differently than an in-person reviewer. Most immediately, I am curious if there is a tool that makes this process fluid, dynamic, and allows for conversation between reviewer and text as well as between reviewer and reviewer. For my project, I intend to take a close look at three products that could serve this purpose, review them, and determine if any are better and more accessible than the tools I have already used.