Pedagogical Implications of Online Readership
Now that handwriting is on the way out (at least in Finnish schools), learners are likely to use some form of computer technology in most writing contexts. We may take computer-assisted writing for granted, but lots of things change when we bring them to the digital domain. Like most other human activities, the scriptorial domain is shifting.
This Winter, VTE explores such issues in its lab on writing support tools. On February 19, our first online meeting focused on feedback given by teachers on student writing. On March 11, a second session revolved around the diverse challenges facing learners as they write. A third and last step in this lab, planned for early April, will address ways to improve student writing through technology.
“If a Text Falls in the Forest…”
Pedagogues in any discipline can learn from language teachers’ insight. A core idea has already emerged through the lab: the importance of an audience. From teacher feedback set in “the voice of the reader” to the pride in getting work in front of peers, readership matters.
Technology plays key yet subtle roles in bringing texts to their intended audiences. The implications might run deeper than most would imagine.
For decades, students in diverse contexts have been able to submit their work digitally to teachers. In a cloud computing context, this means that servers outside of educational institutions host documents containing personally identifiable data (name, email address, student ID…). Unless all parties sign explicit agreements, it can mean that something as common as an online assignment may go against Quebec’s relatively strict privacy laws.
Online texts afford diverse audiences. For instance, Twitter may greatly expand any piece of writing’s potential readership. Literary uses of Twitter (known as “Twittérature” in French) and Twitter dictation (“twictée”) can provide learners with a strong incentive to avoid spelling mistakes, for fear of ridicule.
However, many people become quite uneasy at the prospect of making their work available to anyone in the world, without any prior relationship between author and readers. Despite its successes, Twitter represents quite radical a case of readership explosion. Some may not be that comfortable with sharing their work so broadly.
Perhaps more appropriately, however, it has become trivial to share assignments with a team or a whole class. Private forums and blogs do allow peers to read each other’s work without the added pressure of letting “anyone in the world” do so. With a class forum, a teacher can monitor written interactions among classmates without making every paragraph into a high stake written assignment.
Through cross-campus partnerships, learners’ written work can reach a well-defined audience. Designed by Champlain College’s Gabriel Flacks, NewsActivist allows for just this kind of collaboration. Unlike an open forum, it gives teachers the opportunity to provide feedback before sharing texts with a wider group. Unlike private assignments, it allows for peer feedback. Teachers at many CEGEPs have adopted NewsActivist for their classes. They are now being joined by postsecondary institutions around the world. The platform has a strong footing in the CEGEP network. Another lab guest, retired Profweb editor Norm Spatz, helps Flacks to expand NewsActivist’s thriving community.
The Nonjudgmental Computer
Technology affords a further type of audience to have an influence on the writing process: software readers. Writing for a “computer audience” shifts the focus away from the human gaze.
Guests in VTE’s lab on writing support have described several points related to the non-judging nature of computer tools used in writing. Grammar checkers are so common that they may be taken for granted. However, their impersonal nature may prove beneficial. Though a large number of red wiggly lines can hit someone’s self-esteem, feedback provided by software tools have a very different impact than a teacher’s marks.
Automated feedback has its limits. In most cases, it seeks to supplement human feedback instead of replacing it. As Nicholas Walker has it, teachers themselves can (and probably should) use such power tools to improve their pedagogy.
Walker teaches ESL at Collège Ahuntsic and develops related tools in his spare time. Corrective Feedback, his latest project, allows teachers to provide appropriate feedback more efficiently. A few days before our first lab session, Walker posted a video describing the pedagogical principles behind his power tool.
Writing for an Audience of One?
Ultimately, writers can become their own audience. With a bit of ingenuity, technology can enhance this reflexive process. Perhaps more than in other learning contexts, metacognition can have a deep impact on language instruction.