Mavericks: The Ultra-Collaborative Composition Classroom

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Information about Mavericks: The Ultra-Collaborative Composition Classroom

Published on March 18, 2009

Author: jcmeloni



I gave an extemporaneous version of this presentation at the CCCC 2009 conference in San Francisco. My presentation was part of a panel called "Collaborative Crosscurrents in First Year Composition." In general, the three speakers on this panel were discussing the efficacy of Microsoft Word vs Google Docs in the composition classroom. I am pro-Google Docs, and this presentation discusses what I did and discovered in my composition sections in Fall '08.

Julie Meloni Washington State University CCCC 2009

“Mavericks” is NOT a reference to the  McCain/Palin campaign It IS a reference to the big wave break about  30 miles south of San Francisco. ◦ Mavericks is characterized by 50 foot waves, strong currents, sharp rocks, shallow reefs, and frigid temperatures.  Sounds like some classrooms...

But!  ◦ Mavericks is also characterized by the fellowship that forms around the surfers who attempt to tame it. It‟s that notion of fellowship, of camaraderie,  that I wanted to continue to foster in the classroom. ◦ What I promised my students was that through the use of Google Docs for their major writing assignments, they could use the built-in tools to ask me questions at any step along the way of their writing process.

What I really ended up doing is re-  discovering what students can and will do when pushed hard and with the support of instructors and peers. This includes buying in to unfamiliar  technologies—in this case, Google Docs.

Emphasized primary research, namely:  ◦ “to evaluate the effects of on-demand feedback on student writing within an ultra-collaborative learning environment.” My primary research question was whether or  not this type of collaborative environment increases writing confidence and independence among first year composition students. ◦ Specifically, I was going to look at the types of questions asked by students and comment on the move from lower-order to higher-order questions over the course of the semester.

Students in my two composition sections  were part of the WSU Freshman Focus (FF) program ◦ Lived in the same dorm, typically within a floor or two ◦ Shared two courses (World Civ and Introductory Writing) ◦ Participated in academically-oriented activities outside of the classroom both with and without the presence of their instructors. ◦ Were part of a cohort of approximately 100 students; see next slide for explanation of the FF “cluster”  I also wrote a long blog post about the course: FYE, FYC, and why I was really busy in Fall „08

ENGLISH 101 ENGLISH 101 (Johnson) (Meloni) GenEd 111 GenEd 111 (Snyder) (Snyder) ENGLISH 101 ENGLISH 101 (Johnson) (Meloni)

The other composition instructor (Toria Johnson)  and I decided to teach from the same syllabus. We also taught together on several days  ◦ I joined her at 8am, she joined me at 2pm ◦ We combined our 11am classes and taught together to 50 students  Students did in-class group work with their peers from the “other” section. We required student attendance at many out-of-  class activities, at which we were also present.

ENGLISH 101 (Johnson) GROUP 11am ACTIVITIES ENGLISH 101 ENGLISH 101 ENGLISH 101 IN-DORM (Johnson) (Meloni) (Meloni) and 8am 11am 2pm ON- CAMPUS

By the time we got to the first paper, we had  100 students working together within their section, working with each other across sections, and who trusted us. It's a good thing, because in my two sections  I would soon fill their Google Docs with a ton of colors and formats that they would have to negotiate in order to revise.

Students had three major writing assignments  ◦ Each assignment had at least two draft milestones ◦ Only one of the assignments (the research paper) had to be included in their end-of-semester portfolio (50% of the grade). I began the hard sell for communication with  the first assignment. ◦ “Ask me questions!” I said. “I‟m here to help! If you don‟t think you have a thesis, leave a comment in your Google Doc and ask me to look at it along the way.”

PAPER 1: Rhetorical Analysis OR Personal Narrative (1000-1200 wds)  Assignment Sheet Provided 9/3 (Wednesday) • First Draft Due and In-Class Peer Review 9/12 (Friday) • Instructor Feedback Provided (by 9/14, Monday) • Second Draft Due 9/19 (Friday) • PAPER 2: “Entering the Scholarly Conversation” (1200-1500 wds)  Assignment Sheet Provided 9/19 (Friday) • First Draft Due and In-Class Peer Review 9/26 (Friday) • Instructor Feedback Provided (by 9/29, Monday) • Second Draft Due 10/06 (Monday) • PAPER 3: Research Paper (1800-2400 wds)  Assignment Sheet Provided 10/13 (Monday) • Research Proposal Due 10/20 (Monday) • Annotated Bibliography Due 10/31 (Friday) • First Draft Due and In-Class Peer Review 11/07 (Friday) • Instructor Feedback Provided (by 11/12, Wednesday) • Second Draft Due 11/19 (Wednesday) •

Students to work on their essay before the  due date and ask me to look at things or ask a specific question. ◦ After all, the intention of the study was to track those questions and see how they changed over the course of the semester.

Because I was online anyway, I checked my  Google Docs at 11pm or so when the first draft of the first essay was due ◦ (I told students their essays were “due” any time before 11:59pm of the day listed on the syllabus) Approximately 96% of students were working  on their essays at that time. ◦ No wonder no one asked me any questions—for them, they had just started the process.

Immediately Few Days Before Day Before Night Before Day Due

No, I did not care more about my research  than the writing processes of my students. I did want to make it very clear, in case it was  not, that really, they could use me as a resource! I was there to help them along the way if they wanted! Composition is not scary and gross! For the next essay, I gave them a timeline  that shows when they can work, ask me questions, submit their essay, etc.

Based on a survey of when students began  Paper #2, the same number of students began the paper immediately, but more started the day before it was due. Immediately Few Days Before Day Before Night Before Day Due

Around mid-term, we began three weeks of  heavy reading and a lot of writing. Students were not required to use Google  Docs for these “informal” writing assignments. ◦ Many of them did, however, because:  They realized it would be easier to include revisions in their portfolio.  They realized the comments they were getting from me in Google Docs were easier to read and were more detailed than on the hard copies of their work.

Mary Roach Lecture Response  ◦ Author of the common reading Daniel Dennett Lecture Response  ◦ Campus visit by philosopher; fit the themes of the class 4 activity responses (> 20 possible activities)  ◦ activities part of the Common Reading Lecture Series 4 movie responses (out of 9 hosted in the dorm)  ◦ themes related to class; students generated discussion questions 6 instances of responses to class readings (prompts provided)  2 group presentation artifacts  7 responses to group presentations  TOTAL WORD COUNT FOR “INFORMAL” WRITING: 7500-12500 words

The original research question was blown out of  the water because of the way these particular students went about their writing process. That‟s ok.  I became interested in the ways in which students  were writing, period. For instance: ◦ They freaked out when we called something an “essay,” but would happily write 500 words about Sartre‟s No Exit or something from Smilansky‟s 10 Moral Paradoxes. ◦ The portfolio process allowed them to make their own choices (to procrastinate, or to choose Math/Biology/Chemistry/Botany homework over English) and realize/suffer/accept the consequences without harming their grade in my class.

Over the course of the semester, my teaching partner and I  were with students 35+ hours over and above class time/office hours. We were also available via email, IM, and (for me)  comments in Google Docs. These actions enhanced the collaboration we were  attempting to foster in the classroom and within their cohort. ◦ Since they were all working on the same difficult readings and writing on the same philosophical questions, they would talk among themselves outside of class and would reflect on their processes. ◦ Together, they realized that they had to break out of their old habits, that the research paper was a big deal and that they had better start taking advantage of the additional communication mechanisms we were offering them.

Working in Google Docs (me) or Microsoft  Word (teaching partner) made no difference Availability via IM made no difference  Availability via Email made no difference  Office Hours made no difference  But everything TOGETHER made a huge  difference in student outcomes.

Something clicked. In a survey of when students began working on  their research essay, 42% started immediately. Immediately Few Days Before Day Before Night Before Day Due

What I wanted to do with this study was to interpret the data  around the questions students asked in their Google Docs, throughout their writing process. Obviously, I don't have that much data. Very few students asked  questions between drafts. ◦ One student who consistently asked questions was an ESL student who was very self-conscious about her spelling and grammar. She was a master at revision. ◦ Another student was consistently concerned with support; her questions were almost entirely, from day one, about how well she was supporting her claims and introducing her quotes. ◦ Of the other 46 or so students, 75% of them simply said “here is my paper” when it was ready for me to review. ◦ That leaves approximately 12 students who did ask questions of me but at the end of their writing process—as they were submitting their draft. For instance, students would say things like “this is what I have, I don't know that I have a thesis, please pay attention to the introductory paragraph.” If they had only asked me FIRST, then they would have been  further along by that stage.

Students knew that WSU uses a portfolio system,  and even though they had two draft milestones throughout the semester, their work “didn't really matter” until they selected items for inclusion in their portfolios and revised at the end. ◦ I can‟t really argue with that. In the original abstract for this study, I also said  that I was most concerned with the students‟ ability to cogently reflect on their growth as writers. ◦ THIS is where Google Docs really came into play…

Google Docs significantly enhanced the students' ability to  visualize their writing process through browsing the revision history and using document comparison tools. In their portfolio, students have to include at least 22  pages of revised writing and write a reflection letter about their own critical thinking, rhetorical awareness, processes of writing, knowledge of conventions, and the mechanical aspects of their revisions. ◦ The average length of the cover letter in my sections, was 8-10 pages; the longest one was 15 pages. As a comparison, their research paper only had to be 6-8 pages. ◦ When pulling together their work, selecting the best of it for consideration, and writing about their own personal and scholarly growth, they did this with ease because, I believe, of Google Docs.

I didn‟t receive any outward resistance to the  use of Google Docs. However…  ◦ They weren‟t required to use it for everything (although several students did). ◦ They weren‟t even required to use it as a word processor—although many students did, several of them simply used it as a delivery mechanism. Perhaps another reason students didn‟t use it  as a communication tool with me was because they were not always using it?

Which of the following statements most closely matches your use of Google Docs for the FIRST DRAFT of your major papers? 47% I started the paper in Word and then pasted the content into Google Docs when I was  finished 23% I started the paper in Word and pasted what I had in Google Docs when I wanted Julie to  look at something, then went back to Word after that until I was finished 18% I started the paper in Word and pasted what I had in Google Docs when I wanted Julie to  look at something, then I continued in Google Docs until I was finished 12% I worked entirely in Google Docs from start to finish  Which of the following statements most closely matches your use of Google Docs for the SECOND DRAFT of your major papers? 53% I worked entirely in Google Docs for my revisions  47% I downloaded the draft with comments, worked on it in Word, then uploaded it when I  wanted Julie to look at something, then went back to Word after that until I was finished 0% I downloaded the draft with comments, worked on it in Word, then uploaded it when I  wanted Julie to look at something, then I continued in Google Docs until I was finished

Even if the students didn't use Google Docs to ask  questions and communicate with me in the ways I expected them to, they did buy into one aspect of Google Docs that I kept telling them would save them at some point in the semester—and likely the end of the semester: the revision history. But due to the ways in which half the students used  Google Docs, a lot of the revisions weren't in the system.

Some students still remained loyal to Word  during the semester because “it's what we're used to using.” However, all students used the major features  of Google Docs, and most used the secondary features like commenting and so on. Other reasons students didn't use Google Docs  from start to finish included statements like “I was paranoid that I would lose something,” which is exactly what I say about using Word on a personal computer.

100% Created a new document  100% Shared a document with someone (including Julie)  100% Sent an e-mail through the system to a collaborator (including Julie)  100% Changed the document styles (font, font size, etc)  100% Inserted a comment  100% Looked at the revision history  83% Used the spellchecker  72% Reverted to a previous version  61% Imported a document from Word  22% Used the dictionary function  11% Inserted a footnote  3% Inserted a picture  3% Inserted a link 

In the abstract for my talk, I noted that my main  question was whether or not this type of collaborative environment increases writing confidence and independence among first year composition students. Because I submitted final grades, and because I see  these students on campus and they still email me or are internet buddies with me, I know that the environment that my teaching partner and I set up increased their confidence and independence in their writing. But that has little to do with the consistent use of  Google Docs throughout the semester.

“I think that having on-demand feedback on writing was very very very  helpful! I feel like it made me write a lot better and I was able to think of ideas about what to say faster. It made me wan to actually do that assignments knowing that someone was actually going to read them, not just a TA. Also the fact that we actually got notes back on what was good/bad about the writing helped me to improve greatly. I learned what I needed to do better or expand on, and I also learned what I do well.” “This process helped a lot because I got more detailed and helpful comments  then if Julie had only read hard copies of my rough drafts.” “Google Docs was a good way to get papers back and forth easily. I like it a  lot, because it was environmentally friendly and cut down on paper costs. I think I gained confidence from the work on Google Docs.” “I definitely think Google Docs is a good way to have instant communication  with the professors. Maybe if other classes would use it too it would have better results. If the student is getting confidence in how to use it and then the class is over, then they never really got the whole advantage of Google Docs.”

The last response really gets to the heart of the matter, for  me. ◦ I am an unabashed fan/evangelist of technology. It is my background and my one true love, and I will fight for open source and free technology as a significant way to increase access to educational opportunities and communication between students and teachers. But the last comment makes a lot of sense. So what if I am  using Google Docs if no one else is? ◦ How much do we push students to be early adopters? ◦ At what point does teaching the technology take up more time than teaching the subject at hand?  I spent very little time teaching them about Google Docs, and if I had found I was spending more time teaching them about the program than about writing, I would have stopped immediately.  Did I sabotage my own research by not forcing them to use technology more? Probably. But I didn‟t sabotage their writing.

100% of my students have their own computers  100% of them have a wireless and/or wired  connection for that computer 100% of them own Microsoft Word or Works or  Open Office Would this study have been different with a  different set of students? ◦ Probably so, as students who don‟t own their own computer or software would be more likely to use a free, online application they could access from any workstation (lab, library, etc) and thus would have been working more in Google Docs, and perhaps been more apt to ask questions through that system.

A: These students succeeded. B: They learned to use Google Docs. A and B are not related to each other, per se. Crap.

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