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Siha, Alfred. Using iPads and iPhones as Teaching Tools. TETYC, Mar. 2019. Posted 04/28/2019.

Siha, Alfred. “In the Palm of My Hand: The Efficacy of Mobile Devices in a Community College Developmental Writing Class.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 46.3 (2019): 192­-209. Print.

Alfred Siha conducted a qualitative study to determine how students reacted to instruction delivered through iPads and iPhones using iOS apps in their developmental writing classes.

Siha notes that despite some instructors’ concerns about the presence of phones and other electronic communication devices in classrooms, technology is becoming more and more common in learning environments, earning generally “positive” reviews in studies (193). Evidence indicates a number of benefits from incorporating technology, such as improvements in motivation, collaboration, and interaction as well as engagement beyond the classroom (194). Siha feels, however, that more research is needed into students’ actual responses to the use of such devices as teaching tools (195).

Siha recruited students from two semesters of face-to-face developmental writing at a community college. Twenty-three of the thirty-eight students enrolled consented to participate. Names of the participants were shielded from the researcher/instructor until after final grades were awarded (196). Participating students allowed their work to be used and were interviewed at the end of the semester (196).

The course was designed around the use of iPads and iPhones; students were notified of the need to have a device. Seventeen study participants already owned a suitable device, while six purchased one (196). Siha writes that the students were also required to open an Apple ID account (204). The textbook for the class, developed through the educational software in the apps, cost $1.99. Students were able to make their purchases through the college bookstore and to use financial aid (204).

The course was built around iTunes U, which Siha characterizes as a “public and private quasi learning management system, or LMS” (192). This platform allowed the instructor to create his own interactive textbook, notify students of new posts, link posts to chapters, and connect directly and immediately with students (200-01). In order to promote a more interactive student-centered experience, Siha assigned a companion “visual project” for each of the five major writing assignments (198). Siha notes that despite being “digital natives,” students did require some help using the new tools (199).

The study yielded many positive responses from the participants. The “simplicity and mobility” provided by the devices allowed students to work on class assignments in any location, even in the company of friends (199-200). Students found responding to notifications sent to their devices to be more helpful than having to check email for posts (200). Siha found that students appreciated being able to communicate more easily with the instructor; he cites one student who “claimed that this class was the first time he ha[d] ever communicated with a professor outside of class time” (201).

Siha advocates an “intentional pedagogy” to make best use of the features devices and apps like the iOS systems provide (201). Student responses indicate that students reacted well to a textbook written by the instructor and specifically paired with posts and assignments, so that components could be accessed with a touch (201). The students responded that they felt the instructor was ‘“talking directly to’ them” (qtd. in Siha 201); this kind of relationship, he maintains, “elicits self-confidence and allows them to feel invested and cared for in their educational experience” (201). Siha also posted sample student work from previous semesters. He writes that such pedagogical approaches are important in any writing classroom but argues that properly “leverag[ing] mobile devices” provides “complete and unfettered access to high-quality course content . . . at their fingertips” (202).

The author found that varying screen sizes did have a small effect on the ease of reading and writing, with some students planning to use different devices in future classes with similar design or working on desktop computers before posting work to their devices (202-03). Compared to iPhones, the iPads used in the course did require students to be near a safe Wi-Fi network in order to receive immediate notifications (203).

As a developmental writing class, the study course required students to pass with a C or higher to move on to credit-bearing college work. The 74% pass rate for the course compared favorably to the 70% institutional pass rate (203). Siha argues that in addition to pass rates, courses should be assessed on their contribution to student confidence and understanding of writing. He cites student responses indicating that students did find the course a positive influence as they considered moving forward in their college careers (203-04).

Siha notes both his own bias as a researcher and the small sample size of his study (204). However, he states that his sample was a “diverse participant group in age, gender, race, and ethnicity” (205).

Throughout, Siha emphasizes the importance of course design to ensure that “the technology is being implemented wisely into the class curriculum” (204). Instructors, he urges, should receive adequate training and should have administrative support (205). In his view, an “intentional pedagogy” using applications and devices like iPads and iPhones should aim to exploit the “potential technological advantages” in order to move beyond “merely replacing paper handouts with PDFs” (197).


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Grouling and Grutsch McKinney. Multimodality in Writing Center Texts. C&C, in press, 2016. Posted 08/21/2016.

Grouling, Jennifer, and Grutsch McKinney, Jackie. “Taking Stock: Multimodality in Writing Center Users’ Texts.” (In press.) Computers and Composition (2016). http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compcom.2016.04.003 Web. 12 Aug. 2016.

Jennifer Grouling and Jackie Grutsch McKinney note that the need for multimodal instruction has been accepted for more than a decade by composition scholars (1). But they argue that the scholarship supporting multimodality as “necessary and appropriate” in classrooms and writing centers has tended to be “of the evangelical vein” consisting of “think pieces” rather than actual studies of how multimodality figures in classroom practice (2).

They present a study of multimodality in their own program at Ball State University as a step toward research that explores what kinds of multimodal writing takes place in composition classrooms (2). Ball State, they report, can shed light on this question because “there has been programmatic and curricular support here [at Ball State] for multimodal composition for nearly a decade now” (2).

The researchers focus on texts presented to the writing center for feedback. They ask three specific questions:

Are collected texts from writing center users multimodal?

What modes do students use in creation of their texts?

Do students call their texts multimodal? (2)

For two weeks in the spring semester, 2014, writing center tutors asked students visiting the center to allow their papers to be included in the study. Eighty-one of 214 students agreed. Identifying information was removed and the papers stored in a digital folder (3).

During those two weeks as well as the next five weeks, all student visitors to the center were asked directly if their projects were multimodal. Students could respond “yes,” “no,” or “not sure” (3). The purpose of this extended inquiry was to ensure that responses to the question during the first two “collection” weeks were not in some way unrepresentative. Grouling and Grutsch McKinney note that the question could be answered online or in person; students were not provided with a definition of “multimodal” even if they expressed confusion but only told to “answer as best they could” (3).

The authors decided against basing their study on the argument advanced by scholars like Jody Shipka and Paul Prior that “all communication practices have multimodal components” because such a definition did not allow them to see the distinctions they were investigating (3). Definitions like those presented by Tracey Bowen and Carl Whithaus that emphasize the “conscious” use of certain components also proved less helpful because students were not interviewed and their conscious intent could not be accessed (3). However, Bowen and Whithaus also offered a “more succinct definition” that proved useful: “multimodality is the ‘designing and composing beyond written words'” (qtd. in Grouling and Grutsch McKinney 3).

Examination of the papers led the researchers to code for a “continuum” of multimodality rather than a present/not-present binary (3-4). Fifty-seven, or 74%, of the papers were composed only in words and were coded as zero or “monomodal” (4). Some papers occupied a “grey area” because of elements like bulleted lists and tables. The researchers coded texts using bullets as “1” and those using lists and tables “2.” These categories shared the designation “elements of graphic design”; 19.8%, or 16, papers met this designation. Codes “3” and “4” indicated one or more modes beyond text and thus indicated “multimodal” work. No paper received a “4”; only eight, or 9.9%, received a “3,” indicating inclusion of one mode beyond words (4). Thus, the study materials exhibited little use of multimodal elements (4).

In answer to the second question, findings indicated that modes used even by papers coded “3” included only charts, graphs, and images. None used audio, video, or animation (4). Grouling and Grutsch McKinney posit that the multimodal elements were possibly not “created by the student” and that the instructor or template may have prompted the inclusion of such materials (5).

They further report that they could not tell whether any student had “consciously manipulated” elements of the text to make it multimodal (5). They observe that in two cases, students used visual elements apparently intended to aid in development of a paper in progress (5).

The “short answer” to the third research question, whether students saw their papers as multimodal, was “not usually” (5; emphasis original). Only 6% of 637 appointments and 6% of writers of the 81 collected texts answered yes. In only one case in which the student identified the paper as multimodal did the coders agree. Two of the five texts called multimodal by students received a code of 0 from the raters (5). Students were more able to recognize when their work was not multimodal; 51 of 70 texts coded by the raters as monomodal were also recognized as such by their authors (5).

Grouling and Grutsch McKinney express concern that students seem unable to identify multimodality given that such work is required in both first-year courses, and even taking transfer students into account, the authors note that “the vast majority” of undergraduates will have taken a relevant course (6). They state that they would be less concerned that students do not use the term if the work produced exhibited multimodal features, but this was not the case (6).

University system data indicated that a plurality of writing center attendees came from writing classes, but students from other courses produced some of the few multimodal pieces, though they did not use the term (7).

Examining program practices, Grouling and Grutsch McKinney determined that often only one assignment was designated “multimodal”—most commonly, presentations using PowerPoint (8). The authors advocate for “more open” assignments that present multimodality “as a rhetorical choice, and not as a requirement for an assignment” (8). Such emphasis should be accompanied by “programmatic assessment” to determine what students are actually learning (8-9).

The authors also urge more communication across the curriculum about the use of multiple modes in discipline-specific writing. While noting that advanced coursework in a discipline may have its own vocabulary and favored modes, Grouling and Grutsch McKinney argue that sharing the vocabulary from composition studies with faculty across disciplines will help students see how concepts from first-year writing apply in their coursework and professional careers (9).

The authors contend that instructors and tutors should attend to “graphic design elements” like “readability and layout” (10). In all cases, they argue, students should move beyond simply inserting illustrations into text to a better “integration” of modes to enhance communication (10). Further, incorporating multimodal concepts in invention and composing can enrich students’ understanding of the writing process (10). Such developments, the authors propose, can move the commitment to multimodality beyond the “evangelical phase” (11).

 


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Kelley, Brittany. Fan Fiction as a “Gift Economy.” C&C, June 2016. Posted 06/22/2016.

Kelley, Brittany. “Chocolate Frogs for My Betas!: Practicing Literacy at One Online Fanfiction Website.” Computers and Composition 40 (2916): 48-59. Web. 02 June 2016.

Brittany Kelley investigates the literacy practices of a fan-fiction site, the Ashwinder archive included in the Sycophant Hex fan community, a “site for quality Harry Potter fanfiction” (Sycophant Hex, qtd. in Kelley 49). Noting prior research on fan fiction that casts it as a locus for “resistance” within consumer cultures, Kelley contends that the interactions within the fan community she has studied are more complex, with unique “affective econom[ies]” (49) that both derive from and expand upon larger social forces (50).

Citing Kathleen Blake Yancey’s 2004 call for composition studies to embrace “this moment right now” for its unique window on what writing and identify mean in an age of increasing digital expansion, Kelley argues that fan fiction deserves attention because it would seem to embody the democratization offered by new online environments (49). For Kelley, however, an important reason to study fan fiction is what it can reveal about evolving digital practices, how they shape writers, and how these practices “change the ways in which texts are produced, circulated, and received” (49).

Kelley documents the degree to which sites like Sycophant Hex are governed by hierarchical gatekeeping processes, such as “vehement” assertions from administrators about the importance of correct English grammar, at the same time that they play a “teaching role” for novice writers who are encouraged to use the site’s resources to improve their writing (50). Contributors are also held to high standards with regard to accurate use of the Harry Potter “canon” and are reminded that while they “own” new characters, invented settings, and events they create beyond those that appear in the books, the “intellectual property” belongs to J. K. Rowling (51-52). Thus, Kelley posits, the site offers access and agency tempered with elements of control.

Kelley’s particular focus is the nature of the exchanges that govern interaction on the site. Though these exchanges take place within a rule-bound context that requires strict adherence to the canon and that channels writers into categories of permitted activities, Kelley argues that the more salient feature of such sites is the degree to which they are governed by the development of emotional relationships and a “‘goodwill’ ethics of exchange” (52).

Citing Henry Jenkins, Kelley posits that continued interaction within the group is the incentive for participation in the exchange of symbolic and social rather than financial capital (52-53). She sees this incentive as affective and emotional, noting for example that plagiarism, which is loosely defined on the site, is seen not so much in terms of legal ownership but rather as “a direct offense against the affective economy of the website” (52).

Kelley illustrates this “goodwill” ethic through a case study of one successful fan-fiction writer, Chivalric. In Kelley’s view, this writer’s practice demonstrates how writers establish long-lasting and emotionally rich relationships with the “betas” who voluntarily edit both for surface correctness and for plot and character development (56). Members of the fan-fiction community serve as betas for each other, generating what Kelley describes as a “gift economy” in contrast to a “commodity culture” (53).

Kelley presents Chivalric’s process to support her claim that literacy practices among fan writers are “deeply heteroglossic” (53). Writing produced by these writers integrates many elements and voices: the intellectual creations of J. K. Rowling; an extensive set of categories and tropes created by community members over time; discussion and debate on forums; specific group-governed genre expectations; and the ongoing interactions among authors and beta readers (55). Many of these intertwined voices are documented in the notes, acknowledgments, and dedications that accompany texts (56).

Further analyzing the heteroglossic nature of these sites, Kelley draws on Mikhail Bakhtin’s distinction between “centripetal” and “centrifugal” language practices to examine Chivalric’s short story, “Divorce.” Centripetal or “unitary language,” in this view, is language that is bound by clear directives from the language community, in this case the accepted uses that can be made of the Harry Potter characters and themes. At the same time, Kelley writes that Chivalric’s story, which won one of the competitive challenges generated on the site, demonstrates centrifugal force in that it gives the standard tropes and story material a “unique twist” (55) that results in an original, “transformative” telling that expands readers’ understanding of the conventional materials Chivalric incorporated (54, 55-56). This story, Kelley argues, comments on the power relationships among two Harry Potter characters, legal and political machinations in the post-canon world of fan fiction, and implications of gender in the particular category into which the story falls.

Citing Matt Hills, Kelley notes that prior research casting fan fiction as an avenue for resistance to dominant cultures has been criticized as an attempt by scholars to justify their attention to the form and to cast fan writers as “mini-academics” taking on the role of cultural critics (50, 57). She argues that her study reveals the degree to which academic views of digital environments as “somehow democratizing and hence liberating” should also recognize that “these spaces are still beset with the tensions of power structures” (57).

In her view, the hope that the access offered by such sites will allow for “widely shared and discussed knowledge” free of the bonds of entrenched power systems should include the caveat that much of what ultimately gets distributed “already fits nearly within dominant narratives” (57). The practices Kelley has examined, she contends, are still subject to issues of “race, gender, sex, class, sexuality, etc.” (58).

Noting scholarship on the possibilities of importing fan-fiction processes into the classroom, Kelly cites Michelle Knobel and Colin Lankshear to caution that it may not always be possible or advisable to do so. However, she notes that fan-fiction communities adopt many features of formal writing instruction, such as peer review and revision, and that components of fan-fiction engagement mirror the goals of writing classrooms. In particular, these sites feature learning that is “entirely self-directed” and that is enabled by the kind of intense emotional engagement that fosters learning (58). For these reasons, Kelley urges more “in-depth investigation of the writing practices of these online communities” (58).


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Omizo & Hart-Davidson. Genre Signals in Academic Writing. JoWR, 2016. Posted 24 May 2016.

Omizo, Ryan, and William Hart-Davidson. “Finding Genre Signals in Academic Writing.” Journal of Writing Research 7.3 (2016): 485-509. Web. 18 May 2016.

Ryan Omizo and William Hart-Davidson, publishing in a special section on digital text analysis in the Journal of Writing Research, report on a process for investigating markers of genres, specifically in academic writing. They hope to develop a tool that will help advisors and advisees in graduate programs recognize differences between the rhetorical moves made by experienced writers in a field and those more likely to appear in the work of less experienced writers.

They draw on “rhetorical genre theory” to state that although particular kinds of text “recur” in the scholarship of a given field, simply learning patterns for these generic texts does not necessarily produce the kind of text that characterizes expert writing within the field (486). Specific instances of a particular genre vary from the “stable textual patterns” that are easy to identify (486).

As a result, the authors contend, understanding that textual patterns actually constitute rhetorical moves is a necessary component of successfully participating in a genre. Omizo and Hart-Davidson characterize the markers of a genre as “signals shared by author and reader about the social activity—the genre—they are co-negotiating” (486). Understanding the rhetorical purposes of genre features allows novice writers to use them effectively.

The authors work with 505 research articles from the SpringerOpen Journal archive. In order to determine how particular genre markers function as social signals, they begin by developing a coding scheme that mimics what human readers might do in finding clusters of words that do social work within a genre. They give the example of identifying a move essential to an article that can be labeled “science”: “propositional hedging,” in which the writer qualifies a claim to reflect stronger or weaker evidence (487). Omizo and Hart-Davidson argue that in searching for such moves, it is possible to identify a “key protein,” or crucial marker, that indicates the presence of the move (487).

After this initial coding, the authors analyze the texts and convert the markers they find to a graph that allows them to calculate “the relationships between words” (487), which then make visible similarities and differences between the uses of markers in expert work and in novice work, with the intention of allowing advisors and advisees to address the reasons for differences (489).

Their study addresses citation styles in chemistry and materials science (502). They argue that citations are among important kinds of “signaling work” that “communicate something about a text’s status as a response to a familiar kind of exigency to a particular audience” (488). They hoped to find “classifiable patterns in citations moves” that varied “consistently” between experienced and novice writers (489).

They review other ways of categorizing in-text citations, some recognizing as many as twelve different uses of citations. For their own purposes, they created four categories of in-text citations that could be recognized from “premarked cue phrases” similar to those used by D. Marcu, who used phrases marked with “although” and “yet” to locate rhetorical moves (491). Omizo and Hart-Davidson’s scheme, they contend, can recognize types of citation moves and assign them rhetorical functions across disciplines, without requiring any specific knowledge of the discipline or field in which the moves occur (490). Moreover, they argue that their system can distinguish between “mentor and mentee texts” (491).

They categorize citations into

  • Extractions: This term denotes “an idea paraphrased from source [sic] and attributed via a parenthetical reference” (491). In an extraction, the paraphrase itself does not reference the source. Such a rhetorical choice, they posit, “prioritize[s] the information” rather than the source author[s] as “active agents” (491).
  • Groupings: These include “3 or more sources within a parenthesis or brackets” (492). The authors see the social function of groupings as an indication of how the writer or writers locate their work on the topic in question in the larger disciplinary field. As opposed to an extraction, which notes “what particular agents are saying” about a topic, groupings indicate what “a community of scholars is saying” (493). Groupings often facilitate the groundwork laid out in research-article introductions, in particular allowing scholars to establish their ethos as knowledgeable members of the relevant community (493).
  • Author(s) as Actant(s): In this category, the author(s) of the source appear in the sentence as subjects or objects. The category also requires a publication date (493). Omizo and Hart-Davidson see this form of citation as “a qualitatively different means to engage with sourced material” (495), specifically allowing the writer of the current paper to interact directly with others in the field, whether to “affirm, extend, complicate, or challenge” (495).
  • Non-citations: This category encompasses all other sentences in an article, including references to named authors using pronouns or without specific dates (495). Recognizing that they are leaving out some moves that other coders might classify as citations, the authors argue that the limited “shallow parsing” their program uses allows them to more precisely determine “citational intrusion whereupon authors are making manifest their adherence to research conventions and signaling adjuncts to their arguments” (495). Thus, they exclude such components of a text as an extended discussion that is not marked by citation conventions.

Omizo and Hart-Davidson explain in detail how they convert the citation patterns their program discovers into graphs that allow them to chart the relationships between different citations (496-501). They believe that this process allows them to detect several phenomena that may be useful to advisors aiding students in developing their “scholarly voice” (507). The data suggest that it may be possible to use a coding scheme like the one proposed in this study to amass features that characterize a body of work by experienced writers and compare analogous features of an advisee’s draft in order to detect deviations that signal “that there is something this writer does not know about the ways others in the disciplinary area use” the particular feature, in this case citations (505).

For example, the data indicate that the papers of less experienced writers vary less and adhere to conventions more insistently than do those of more experienced writers, who have been exposed to more genres and whose status allows more deviation (503-04). Advisee papers exhibit more “elaboration” than do those of their mentors; Omizo and Hart-Davidson suggest that the detection of more Author(s)-as-Actant(s) citations signals this feature. Markers at the sentence level such as words like “actually” or “better” can point to the presence of more explicit evaluative stances in the work of the less experienced writers (505).

In sum, the authors propose that digital analysis can detect patterns in the citation practices of novice scholars that point to differences between their work and the work of more established scholars and thus can allow them to focus their revision on the rhetorical moves embodied in these differences.


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Head, Samuel L. Burke’s Identification in Facebook. C&C, Mar. 2016. Posted 05/10/2016.

Head, Samuel L. “Teaching Grounded Audiences: Burke’s Identification in Facebook and Composition.” Computers and Composition 39 (2016): 27-40. Web. 05 May 2016.

Samuel L. Head uses Kenneth Burke’s concept of identification to argue for Facebook as a pedagogical tool to increase students’ audience awareness in composition classes.

Head cites a range of scholarship that recognizes the rhetorical skills inherent in students’ engagement with social media, particularly Facebook, and that urges composition specialists to take up this engagement with “very real audiences” (27) to encourage transfer of this kind of audience connection to academic writing (27-28, 29). Noting that, according to the National Research Council, new learning depends on “transfer based on previous learning” (qtd. in Head 28), Head contends that, while much scholarship has explored what Facebook and other digital media have to offer, “the pedagogy of transfer with students’ previous experience and prior knowledge of audience in social media requires more scholarly analysis” (28).

In Head’s view, among the skills developed by participation in social media is the ability to adjust content to different audiences in varied contexts (28). He offers Burkeian identification as a means of theorizing this process and providing practices to encourage transfer. Further analysis of transfer comes from work by D. N. Perkins and Gavriel Salomon, who distinguish between “low road transfer” and “high road transfer.”

Low-road transfer occurs when a learner moves specific skills between fairly similar environments; Head’s example is the use of cooking skills learned at home to a restaurant setting. High-road transfer, in contrast, involves using skills in very different contexts. This kind of transfer requires abstract thinking and reflection in order to recognize the applicability of skills across disparate domains (30). Burke’s theory, Head writes, offers a means of evoking the kind of reflection needed to facilitate high-road transfer from the very different contexts of Facebook and a writing class (30, 31).

Head reports on Burke’s identification as a means of persuasion, distinguishing between classical rhetoric’s focus on deliberate efforts at persuasion and the “subconscious” aspects of identification (32); without identification, according to Dennis Day, persuasion cannot occur (cited in Head 31). Identification allows communicators to show that they are “consubstantial” with audiences, thus “bridg[ing] division” (31). This process invokes shared values in order to win audience adherence to new ideas (32).

Head explores aspects of identification theory, including “cunning” identification in which the values shared between audiences are not genuine but are rather created to generate persuasive identification and therefore work to the extent that the audience believes them to be genuine (32). In particular, he notes analysis by George Cheney that discovers “three main strategies” in Burke’s theory: “[t]he common ground technique,” which focuses on shared aspects; “[i]dentification through antithesis,” or the establishment of a “common enemy”; and “[t]he assumed or transcendent ‘we,'” to create group allegiance (qtd. in Head 32). Current scholarship such as that of Tonja Mackey supports Head’s claim that components of identification inform regular Facebook interaction (33).

Head reports on Facebook’s algorithm for determining how users connect with friends. This process, according to Eli Pariser, creates a “filter bubble” as Facebook attempts to present material of interest to each user (qtd. in Head 33). Head suggests that students may not be aware that this “filter bubble” may be concealing more complex combinations of ideas and information; introduction to the theory of identification in the classroom may make them more alert to the strategies that both link them to like-minded audiences and that direct them away from more challenging encounters (33).

Postings by an anonymous “example Facebook user” illustrate the three Burkeian strategies pointed out by Cheney as they inform a Facebook timeline (34). This user establishes common ground by sharing photos and posts that reflect a religious affiliation as well as an interest in fantasy that connects him to many friends. He establishes a common enemy by posting and then collecting likes in opposition to “mandated health care” (34). Finally, he generates a sense of the “transcendent ‘we'” by appealing to group membership in a National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) experience (34). These examples, in Head’s view, demonstrate the degree to which identification is a natural component of Facebook interactions.

For Head, the transfer of this inherent identification to an academic environment involves explicit instruction in the theory of identification as well as reflection on the students’ part as to how these actions can be applied in more formal or novel settings. Students can recognize the strategies and moves that constitute identification in their own Facebook interactions and then can locate similar moves in other types of writing, finally applying them consciously as they connect with academic audiences (35).

Head contends that more teachers need to use platforms familiar to students, like Facebook, to teach rhetorical skills and awareness; he urges teachers to share their experiences with these media and to publish analyses of their findings (36). He reports that his own students enjoyed beginning their rhetorical curriculum with a medium with which they were already engaged, using their own work as a starting point (35). He concludes with a schedule of suggested assignments for making the tenets of identification visible in Facebook and transferring awareness of them to academic projects (36-39).


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Comer and White. MOOC Assessment. CCC, Feb. 2016. Posted 04/18/2016.

Comer, Denise K., and Edward M. White. “Adventuring into MOOC Writing Assessment: Challenges, Results, and Possibilities.” College Composition and Communication 67.3 (2016): 318-59. Print.

Denise K. Comer and Edward M. White explore assessment in the “first-ever first-year-writing MOOC,” English Composition I: Achieving Expertise, developed under the auspices of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Duke University, and Coursera (320). Working with “a team of more than twenty people” with expertise in many areas of literacy and online education, Comer taught the course (321), which enrolled more than 82,000 students, 1,289 of whom received a Statement of Accomplishment indicating a grade of 70% or higher. Nearly 80% of the students “lived outside the United States” and for a majority, English was not the first language, although 59% of these said they were “proficient or fluent in written English” (320). Sixty-six percent had bachelor’s or master’s degrees.

White designed and conducted the assessment, which addressed concerns about MOOCs as educational options. The authors recognize MOOCs as “antithetical” (319) to many accepted principles in writing theory and pedagogy, such as the importance of interpersonal instructor/student interaction (319), the imperative to meet the needs of a “local context” (Brian Huot, qtd. in Comer and White 325) and a foundation in disciplinary principles (325). Yet the authors contend that as “MOOCs are persisting,” refusing to address their implications will undermine the ability of writing studies specialists to influence practices such as Automated Essay Scoring, which has already been attempted in four MOOCs (319). Designing a valid assessment, the authors state, will allow composition scholars to determine how MOOCs affect pedagogy and learning (320) and from those findings to understand more fully what MOOCs can accomplish across diverse populations and settings (321).

Comer and White stress that assessment processes extant in traditional composition contexts can contribute to a “hybrid form” applicable to the characteristics of a MOOC (324) such as the “scale” of the project and the “wide heterogeneity of learners” (324). Models for assessment in traditional environments as well as online contexts had to be combined with new approaches that addressed the “lack of direct teacher feedback and evaluation and limited accountability for peer feedback” (324).

For Comer and White, this hybrid approach must accommodate the degree to which the course combined the features of an “xMOOC” governed by a traditional academic course design with those of a “cMOOC,” in which learning occurs across “network[s]” through “connections” largely of the learners’ creation (322-23).

Learning objectives and assignments mirrored those familiar to compositionists, such as the ability to “[a]rgue and support a position” and “[i]dentify and use the stages of the writing process” (323). Students completed four major projects, the first three incorporating drafting, feedback, and revision (324). Instructional videos and optional workshops in Google Hangouts supported assignments like discussion forum participation, informal contributions, self-reflection, and peer feedback (323).

The assessment itself, designed to shed light on how best to assess such contexts, consisted of “peer feedback and evaluation,” “Self-reflection,” three surveys, and “Intensive Portfolio Rating” (325-26).

The course supported both formative and evaluative peer feedback through “highly structured rubrics” and extensive modeling (326). Students who had submitted drafts each received responses from three other students, and those who submitted final drafts received evaluations from four peers on a 1-6 scale (327). The authors argue that despite the level of support peer review requires, it is preferable to more expert-driven or automated responses because they believe that

what student writers need and desire above all else is a respectful reader who will attend to their writing with care and respond to it with understanding of its aims. (327)

They found that the formative review, although taken seriously by many students, was “uneven,” and students varied in their appreciation of the process (327-29). Meanwhile, the authors interpret the evaluative peer review as indicating that “student writing overall was successful” (330). Peer grades closely matched those of the expert graders, and, while marginally higher, were not inappropriately high (330).

The MOOC provided many opportunities for self-reflection, which the authors denote as “one of the richest growth areas” (332). They provide examples of student responses to these opportunities as evidence of committed engagement with the course; a strong desire for improvement; an appreciation of the value of both receiving and giving feedback; and awareness of opportunities for growth (332-35). More than 1400 students turned in “final reflective essays” (335).

Self-efficacy measures revealed that students exhibited an unexpectedly high level of confidence in many areas, such as “their abilities to draft, revise, edit, read critically, and summarize” (337). Somewhat lower confidence levels in their ability to give and receive feedback persuade the authors that a MOOC emphasizing peer interaction served as an “occasion to hone these skills” (337). The greatest gain occurred in this domain.

Nine “professional writing instructors” (339) assessed portfolios for 247 students who had both completed the course and opted into the IRB component (340). This assessment confirmed that while students might not be able to “rely consistently” on formative peer review, peer evaluation could effectively supplement expert grading (344).

Comer and White stress the importance of further research in a range of areas, including how best to support effective peer response; how ESL writers interact with MOOCs; what kinds of people choose MOOCs and why; and how MOOCs might function in WAC/WID situations (344-45).

The authors stress the importance of avoiding “extreme concluding statements” about the effectiveness of MOOCs based on findings such as theirs (346). Their study suggests that different learners valued the experience differently; those who found it useful did so for varied reasons. Repeating that writing studies must take responsibility for assessment in such contexts, they emphasize that “MOOCs cannot and should not replace face-to-face instruction” (346; emphasis original). However, they contend that even enrollees who interacted briefly with the MOOC left with an exposure to writing practices they would not have gained otherwise and that the students who completed the MOOC satisfactorily amounted to more students than Comer would have reached in 53 years teaching her regular FY sessions (346).

In designing assessments, the authors urge, compositionists should resist the impulse to focus solely on the “Big Data” produced by assessments at such scales (347-48). Such a focus can obscure the importance of individual learners who, they note, “bring their own priorities, objectives, and interests to the writing MOOC” (348). They advocate making assessment an activity for the learners as much as possible through self-reflection and through peer interaction, which, when effectively supported, “is almost as useful to students as expert response and is crucial to student learning” (349). Ultimately, while the MOOC did not succeed universally, it offered many students valuable writing experiences (346).


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Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc. Scalar Analysis in Literacy Studies. RTE, Feb. 2016. Posted 03/20/2016.

Stornaiuolo, Amy, and Robert Jean LeBlanc. “Scaling as a Literacy Activity: Mobility and Educational Inequality in an Age of Global Connectivity.” Research in the Teaching of English 50.3 (2016): 263-87. Print.

Amy Stornaiuolo and Robert Jean LeBlanc introduce the concepts of “scales” and “scalar analysis” as tools for examining how people locate themselves in a stratified global context. Scalar analysis moves beyond the dichotomy between “local” and “global,” shedding light on the ways in which locations are constantly in flux and in interaction with each other, often shifting as a result of strategic moves to respond to asymmetries and inequalities.

Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc applied their analysis to five teachers in four countries—India, Norway, South Africa, and the United States—who worked with adolescent students on “a Space2Cre8 (S2C8) project,” which was “oriented to helping young people in challenging circumstances engage in cross-cultural communication” (270).

The five teachers worked with the S2C8 groups once or twice a week during the two-year duration of the project; students engaged in various forms of media to communicate with each other about their lives and cultures. During the project, the teachers met ten times via Skype, communicated in emails, and produced memos and notes; additional data came from interviews and classroom observations (271-72, 284-85). The teachers came from varied disciplines, such as technology, art, history, and design (271). Much of the work took place in English, which was the “only shared language” across the sites (270).

According to Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc, scalar research is useful for literacy studies because of its power to examine how meaning gets created and how it shifts as it moves into and through different contexts (267). Understanding literacy through scales “compels several shifts in literacy research” (268). These shifts revolve around moving from a sense of literacy actions and artifacts as fixed in time and space to understanding them as products of “ongoing and often contentious labor” that evolve through “the active and strategic working/reworking of texts in unequal globalized contexts” (268; emphasis original). Scalar analysis asks scholars to examine “how people are positioned and position themselves and their literate identities in and through literary practice” (269).

Such a focus on the “mobilities” of meaning, Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc contend, is necessary to understand how inequalities are created and sustained, how meaning becomes more or less “understandable” (269) as it enters different scalar levels, and how people negotiate the hierarchical contexts that characterize globalization and in which they inevitably locate themselves. The authors were specifically interested in the ways that educators functioned in an environment understood through the lens of scales; the use of scales as a heuristic can both “explain how difference is turned into inequality” as well as how movement within and across scales can enhance agency for individuals and groups addressing their own marginalization (266).

Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc delineate six scalar “jumps” or “moves.” “Jumps” include “upscaling,” which involves “invok[ing] a higher scale rationale to prevail over lower-scale orders of discourse” (272); for example, institutional factors might be named as a reason for a particular choice. Kgotso, working in South Africa, refers to exam schedules and a teachers’ strike “to justify how he had been using his time” (280). Via “downscaling,” an actor asserts his or her local circumstances to validate a choice (272). Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc recount how Amit, writing from India, focused attention on how local technology limitations affected his group’s participation in the project (275). “Anchoring” privileges the actor’s location in the “here-and-now” without necessarily invoking higher or lower scales. The authors cite teacher emails in the project, in which the teachers claimed authority in reference to “an issue at hand” (273).

Other moves do not necessarily involve jumps. “Aligning” occurs when actors compare scalar locations to strengthen positions. As an example of aligning, Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc present the efforts of Kgotso in South Africa to compare his concerns about the dominance of English with similar issues he saw as affecting Amit’s work in India (278). Kgotso further engaged in “contesting,” a scalar move in which he challenged the “US-centric imprint” of the project, suggesting that the curriculum be reconsidered to address the needs of the two “linguistically disadvantaged” sets of participants (qtd. in Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc 278). Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc provide an example of “embedding” in the way that Maja, in Norway, saw the project as “nested within a number of other entities” such as school and university commitments that affected her own use of time (281).

Such examples, for Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc, indicate the usefulness of scalar analysis to illuminate “gaps” that reinforce inequality. Differences in resources, such as adequate bandwidth, affected the ease with which the teachers were able to integrate the social-media exchanges the project hoped to foster (275). Another important research gap uncovered was the varied access to English as the primary language in communications among students. For example, Maja in Norway saw the need to translate S2C8 contributions into English, and Kgotso contrasted his students’ use of Afrikaans with the need to “cross over” to an outside language when working in the project. Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc consider moves like Kgotso’s and similar ones by Amit to be examples of downscaling, asserting the validity of students’ local practices and needs (277, 281).

Gaps in availability of time also figured prominently in the findings. Materials presented by Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc suggest that the teachers regularly made scalar jumps and moves to position themselves in relation to the amount of time required by the project in comparison to the demands of their local situations and of the higher-order scales in which they found themselves embedded. The teachers, Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc suggest, saw S2C8 as such a higher-order scale, one in some sense “imposed” on their immediate missions and requiring strategic negotiation of the scalar landscape (281).

Although Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc acknowledge that their account of the S2C8 project echoes “familiar narratives” about the issues that arise when the promise of digital communication across space and time is actually put into practice, they argue that these narratives “mask” what scalar analysis can illuminate: “the ongoing labor of producing texts and contexts over multiple affiliations in time and space” (283). Especially visible, they indicate, are the ways that literacy productions are valued differently as they move through different scales. The authors contend that attention to scales provides a “concrete set of tools to highlight the constructed and contingent nature of all literacy practices” (283).