Future-proofing English by harnessing the power of writing online

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Future-proofing English by harnessing the power of writing online
By Claire Amos
Director of e-Learning at Epsom Girls Grammar School
(this article was originally written for English in Aoteroa, Issue No.75, October 2011)

When we consider how we can best future-proof a curriculum area as central, universal and as diverse as English, it is impossible not to consider the increasing role that ICTs and e-learning will have in that future. Whilst it is interesting to explore the ways we can use ICTs in English, it is also important to consider the evidence suggesting why we should use it!

I would like to add a note here. At no point do I suggest that all students must use ICTs in English, I am firm believer that it is actually about differentiating for preferred mode, and offering it as a choice for those who see working online as a more engaging and useful way of working. I am a passionate advocate of e-learning, but more importantly I am a passionate advocate of learning. Therefore, ultimately, it is always about engaging the interest of the student and also addressing the needs of the individual learner.

Two years ago I was lucky enough to be awarded a Ministry of Education E-fellowship, giving me a little time and a lot support to research the impact that student owned blogs (and writing online) had on student outcomes and engagement. This year I was invited to review and reflect on that same research as part of a team of educators, ranging from Early Childhood through to Upper Secondary, each of us “mining the evidence” looking at how ICTs can be used to support literacy development, and drawing conclusions about the potential benefits. Below is an overview of my original E-fellowship project, followed by an exploration of the benefits that were afforded by the use of student owned blogs and the act of writing online.

Project Overview
The original project entitled ‘Beyond the virtual classroom – Developing literacy through the use of online communities and online writing  in English’ looked at how student blogs and class wikis can be utilised to raise literacy levels in the context of formal writing (AS 90053 – the old external formal writing standard) preparation and practice. The project focused on how ICT is used beyond the classroom (as we are presented with the challenge of limited access to computers in the classroom).

In this inquiry project I critically reflected on the practice of formal writing, as a formative task, through the use of an online classroom community (the class wiki) which provided students with the topics and related live links to resources for a range of formal writing topics. Students were then given a choice; completing the formal writing practice by hand, or by producing a student owned blog and writing online.

The aim was to reflect on the effects of these practices on the learner, to see the impact the online approach (in comparison to those working on paper) had on student participation, engagement and improvement of literacy levels as illustrated in their production of formal writing. I hoped to measure how realistic and successful this approach was in comparison to more traditional in class written practice and potentially measuring whether using an environment (that of the online community) that our students feel comfortable in, enhances the development of their literacy levels. 

Literacy, as it is defined for this project (as an understanding of and the ability to use the various forms of communication through which meaning is made between individuals or groups in society. It involves communicating with others using codes and conventions and understanding how those codes and conventions work) is central to the formative Formal Writing process. Students will be required to make meaning from a number of texts (newspaper articles, blogs, articles, television news reports and interviews which encompass print, graphics, moving images and sound) when considering any one topic for their Formal Writing blogs. They will in turn be required to interpret, analyse and create texts (and meaning) through the process of constructing their Formal Writing blog.

Mining the evidence and identifying the benefits of e-learning
In reviewing the original project findings, we used Alan Luke and Peter Freebody’s ‘Four Resources Model of Literacy’ which identifies four roles of a literate student; Code Breaker, Text User, Text Participant and Text Analyst. In discussion about each potential benefit of writing online, the impact that the benefit may have on each role is identified.

Whilst the impact that online writing had on the final “grade” is not explored here, what is explored is the way that ICTs and writing online impacted on the students level of engagement and how the act of writing online gave the student a real sense of self-efficacy, authorship, ownership and how the student clearly benefitted from the ability to edit, publish and access tools and resources to develop a long term writing portfolio.

Benefit #1: Audience - In publishing their work online, students had a genuine audience. Their audience included the teacher, peers and, for some, family. There was a sense that in publishing their work online it was a "published" document that could be viewed by anyone. All students were encouraged to make their blog "open" and therefore viewable by anyone.

Students who published written work online (compared to students who wrote essays by hand) were more likely to read one another’s work “I tend to read other peoples’ one but I don’t actually comment on it because I don’t want to-*“. The effect of this is an increased exposure to student examples and exemplars. There was also a sense that in making their work public and by it being "published" online, the "stakes were raised" and students felt pressure to take more care - "knowing other people are going to look at your work makes you do it better, more carefully". This positively impacted on how they operated as a Code Breaker, Text Participant and Text User in the sense that they were doing so publicly and also in that they were able to access examples showing how others were fulfilling these roles.

Benefit #2: Ownership - The Blogger accounts were created by the students and remained student owned. Also, the writing that they produced remained a part of their own writing portfolio. Students did not have to hand over or give away their work at any point. 

Students had a sense of producing something they owned. The blogs were set up and owned by the student, with some students still publishing their writing two years after the project has finished. As the student states, "It is also cool having your own blog." For several students the blog became an online writing portfolio, with a number of students maintaining the blog well beyond the end of the project, signalling that the student saw this as their blog, and their portfolio to continue using. The sense of ownership that students felt encouraged them as both Text Participant and Text User, as students had a sense of responsibility and pride that came with the greater sense of ownership.

Benefit #3: Editing (soft copy) - As writing remained "online" at all times, the work was always in soft copy (rather than printed on paper or hard copy). This meant that writing was easy to edit and revise at any point.

Students who published written work online (compared to students who wrote essays by hand) were more likely to act upon feedback/next steps. No students who completed their essays by hand chose to redraft and resubmit their essays, whereas several of the students who completed their writing online made a habit of redrafting and resubmitting their essays.  Several students commented on the ability to use online editing tools such as “spell check” which enabled them to more effectively proofread and edit their work.   Students also commented about the ease with which they could restructure and re-order their paragraphs and ideas. They also felt that they could more easily add to their ideas. They also appreciated that they could save drafts that they came back to later and could continue to work on them until they were ready to “publish”.

Each of these aspects definitely impacted on the way that students operated as a Code Breaker and as a Text User. As a Code Breaker online editing tools such "spell check" would have enhanced their ability to spell accurately. Also, the ability to edit and re-edit with the click of a button increase the student’s ability and willingness to restructure and revise their writing. As illustrated here,
"sometimes I’ll add a new sentence if I need a link them together. Like if I’ve ?? something. But it’s just, cos I’m a really lazy writer that’s why. Like if I was doing it on paper I wouldn’t be bothered to cross it all out and put an arrow and then write down cos I get confused cos my writing’s really messy as well so I just find it easier to like to edit on the computer". and " it’s much easier to like copy it and move it into the other one, instead of like if you write it on paper then it’s like a mission. 2 – Yeah. ?? like you could write it, you spell the word, you know it, but if you’re on the computer it tells you that’s not the way to spell it so..."

Benefit #4: Publishing and Authorship - Unlike a traditional practice essay that is only viewed by the student and the teacher, the practice essay written as a blog was a public, published piece of writing that was open to the world.

Publishing their writing online encourages the students to see themselves as “authors”. This of course impacts on how the student operates as a Code Breaker as "having the pressure and knowing other people are going to look at your work makes you do it better, more carefully" and also how they are empowered as a Text User in that there role is shifted from student to one of "author". This is reinforced in the work of Gail Loane "Much more than a skill, writing is the creativity of each child making itself known through the role of author" - from I've Got Something to Say (on authorship)  

Benefit # 5: Ubiquitous access - As the student’s work is written and published online, the student, teacher and peers can access the writing 24/7. Unlike traditional modes of writing and submission where a single piece of writing is created by the student and then handed to the teacher and then returned to the student, sometimes only to be lost or misplaced, the blog is available for anyone to view and read simultaneously. It can be revised at any point by the student and can be viewed and feedback van be made via the comment box at any time by anyone. It is also fairly permanent (unless the student decides to delete the post or cancel the Blogger account).

Students had 24/7 access to their blogs, and were able to draft and submit their written work whenever they liked. Online writers were better at meeting deadlines and often completed their work well before deadlines. This enabled them to receive feedback and improve upon their work. "And it is a faster and quicker way, rather than waiting until the next day you can hand it in straight away – as soon as you have done it." Students who completed their work by hand were more likely to miss deadlines. Ubiquitous access was definitely an enabler for the Text Participant "I usually forget to bring it if I write it on paper, but if I can email it or whatever straight away I don’t have to remember to bring it. That’s good."

Benefit #7: Increased Self-efficacy - Students were enabled (by access to online tools and resources) to act more independently of the teacher and could more easily source their own information and better equipped to edit their own writing through the use of tools such as "spell check".

Using online environments supported some student self-directed literacy practices. Students were able to work at their own pace, and had immediate access to online resources to support their writing. This undoubtedly enhanced their role as a Text User and Code Breaker in that the opportunities for "self-efficacy" were increased by the ease of access to online resources such as online newspapers and encyclopaedias and online tools such as "spell-check".

Benefit #8: Longevity - Unlike individual handwritten essays, the essays written on the blog became part of an on-going writing portfolio. The writing is automatically organised in chronological manner. The account is permanent, unless cancelled by the owner of the account. This means the writing may be kept for several years, allowing the teacher and the student easy access to a long term portfolio of writing which can be used to map development of writing skills and easy access to material for revision purposes.

Students developed an on-going writing portfolio that allowed both the student and teacher to map development in their writing throughout the year. Few students who completed the work by hand kept their writing, or had access to their writing when it came to exam revision. The screen shot below shows how easily students could access several months of writing at the “click of a button”. The second screen shot below shows a student still using her blog to publish her writing over a year after the project ended. The writing is archived in chronological order and allowed easy access throughout the year and makes them easy to access in the lead up to exams (for the purpose of revision). The longevity or long term development of writing that was enhanced by writing online impacted on the student’s role of Text User. They could more easily retain and reflect on the artefacts created as a Text User, over time.
On reflection, giving the students the choice to complete their writing online as a blog that was shared with the class provided many benefits for those students. Firstly, it was a mode they chose, there by catering to the student’s preferred mode of writing. It also provided support through access to online tools and in being soft copy encouraging students to redraft and “fix up” any issues identified in their feedback. The sense of audience and authorship, help to “up the ante”, encouraging the online writers to take more care in publishing their work. Also, they read one another’s work, and whilst they were hesitant to post feedback themselves, the very act of reading one another’s work was potentially a very powerful development.

I would like to end with quote from my reflective blog completed at the time of the original project, “I do however acknowledge that the greatest benefit comes from the fact that it is "another" option for my students. By this I mean that, it is not that blogs are the golden egg, the golden egg is actually that my students can choose the medium that suits them. That they are not limited to one means or another, handwriting or blog writing”. (Source: http://mye-learningfellowshipjournal.blogspot.com/)

*italicised quotes throughout the article are taken from student interviews conducted by Vince Ham throughout the project period.


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