Writing Matters #9

Online Interaction

Students tell us that they become better writers when they can interact with others about their compositions. Interaction typically takes place in class discussions, small groups, student-teacher conferences, and through written comments to the student.

The Internet allows increased opportunities for the interaction to be accomplished through writing on faculty or student created websites and blogs. Social media websites such as Facebook are also used to create forums for written online interaction.

The University of Hawaii has the Laulima system which provides new ways for faculty to interact with students. Laulima provides a forum for students to increase their participation in the experience of learning through writing, including opportunities for meta-commentary and peer support. Many faculty across the curriculum now make active use of Laulima, so you will find that many, if not most, of the students in your course are familiar with it.

Online Writing Assignments

Online assignments give instructors additional ways to:

  • extend classroom discussions
  • discuss student writing
  • help students learn from each other
  • assign collaborative projects.

Extend Class Discussions

Instructors have found that online assignments can extend the class discussion. The online format lets students pursue issues in greater depth and gives all students an equal chance to participate. They can focus on their message instead of worrying about interruptions, gender bias, or other classroom distractions such as seating arrangements. Plus, online discussions require that students write much more, which can lead to better writing skills. Faculty may develop and post their own websites or utilize Laulima to post online assignments.

Sample assignments include:

  • Post an assignment to the class Resources Folder that asks students to create several "ethnicity" scenarios (such as a Filipino spending his first Christmas away from home). Choose one for the students to write a letter home about. The letters are posted for all class members to read. Each student must read at least one letter and respond to it.
  • Post a question about a reading assignment or ask students to post a question. Require that students post responses and then later in the week read a classmate's message or question and respond to it. To make sure everyone gets a response, assign students to small groups or pairs.
  • "About eight times a semester, students write and post Language Observations. They must also respond to eight observations by their classmates. They do this on a Resources Folder which is open to both of my sections. In effect, they're interacting with a community of junior linguists." -Professor
  • "At the end of the semester, students print out their contributions to the online discussion. They summarize them and draw conclusions about what they learned that semester. I grade on participation, and this helps me see each student's level of participation." -Professor

Discuss Student Writing

Discussions about students' compositions can be moved online to save class time. If you usually include peer writing groups, you can treat them as you usually do, except no paper exchanges hands and all comments are written

Email: Each student attaches a document to an email message and sends it to the instructor, a partner, or group to review. The reviewers open the document and use the "comment" feature or they insert their feedback in a different color text. When finished, they send the document back to the author.

Laulima: Students may post their response to an assignment on Laulima for classmates and instructors to read. Laulima has review and commentary features allowing students comments and discussions about assignments during all phases of composition.   

"Pairing up students and assigning them to review each other's work makes the expectations of interaction between students clearer, more specific. It also gives them a peer audience for their work." -Professor  

Help Students Learn From Each Other

Students are important resources for each other. Simply allowing the class to see other students' finished work can motivate students to improve. Writing assignments can be published on a class web site, emailed to the class or posted on Laulima. You can also design an assignment so students' efforts directly benefit the entire class:

Students can construct an annotated bibliography of web sites and post it for all to see. Students then use the abstracts as a starting point for their own research projects. An English professor requires students to search for five web sites connected to the Bill of Rights. Students write and post 100-word abstracts for each web site. Later in the semester, they read other students' abstracts as they search for sources.

Assign Collaborative Projects

Business and engineering instructors, among others, prepare students for future professional team projects by giving collaborative assignments. Students appreciate career-preparation but complain about scheduling conflicts and claim that "group grading" is unfair. You can eliminate most complaints by asking groups to "meet" asynchronously online. And you can promote equal participation and fair grading by requiring that students submit their individual contributions.

Traditional group projects can be moved to an online forum or you can experiment:

•Arrange an online debate. Divide the class into teams and set up deadlines for each posting: presentation of case (pro), rebuttal (con) and so on. After the debates, students can write critiques of each side's argument.

•Have student groups develop a web page. Yahoo and Google provide free website development and hosting. Companies such as Fat Cow and iPage charge nominal fees for domain names and the hosting services and allow use of free blog building tools such as Wordpress. All class members (or the general public, depending on where the page is located) can view the group's product. (See http://webhostingchoice.com/ for up to date lists of pay for usage webhosts. http://www.freewebspace.org/ provides alternative free hosting information)

Getting Started

Avoid Overload

You can prevent being overwhelmed by the increased opportunities for contact with students if you adopt a simple grading system and provide clear guidelines for use of email and Laulima Resources Folder messages:

Credit/No Credit or Excellent/Good/Unsatisfactory. Many choose this method because they are simply looking to see whether a student has participated in the online discussion. Also, extensive instructor feedback is usually unnecessary because the writing will not be revised.

To limit email volume and redundancy of responses to inquiries ask students to post all content or assignment related questions to the class Resources Folder on Laulima and to use email only for specific personal matters such as grade assignments and special requests.

The question of a single student is often shared by others in the class who do not make the inquiry, so having students post their content and assignment related questions for class viewing may be beneficial to the class as a whole.

Move Online One Step at a Time

21st century students are engaged in online writing in many different formats including social media, personal blogs and job applications. Use of online writing for course assignments provides a familiar and accessible means of learning and communication for these students. Online discussion also gives quiet students a way to participate more fully and it gives feedback on the concepts students have trouble understanding.

You can switch from a "paper" class to an online class by adding one element at a time. For example, professors may start by requiring two Laulima Resources Folder postings per unit. There are Laulima workshops that will assist in adding syllabi, quizzes, and other course materials online. 

Take Advantage of Training Opportunities

http://www.hawaii.edu/talent provides Laulima support and information about workshops for UH faculty and staff.

http://www.cte.hawaii.edu/ offers workshops on use of Laulima, Google Docs and other online teaching vehicles. Go to http://www.cte.hawaii.edu/OnlineReg.html to view and register for upcoming events.

http://www.google.com/edu/tools-and-solutions/index.html provides a menu of features that may be useful for instructors. The resources are available to all UH Google users.

The Manoa Writing Program and General Education Office also offer topics workshops each semester that often include tips and resources to develop and/or enhance online writing and online teaching in your classroom.