Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, TESOL 2008

The following was restored from http://cesl.siuc.edu/teachers/pd/tw.html where it was first published in 2008 as part of the TESOL session listed below. The first set of links works and leads to the writing that comprised the original script; however, later links may not have been restored adequately. A full list of restored/non-restored writing can be found here.

The following is being written in preparation for TESOL 2008 in New York City: Teaching writing in online and paper worlds. Demonstration, Writing IS, #114600, April 3, 2008, 4:00-4:45, Liberty Suite 2, Sheraton Hotel, New York City. If you will be in New York, I hope to see you there! Names may change; it's unfinished. The introduction script will follow my comments only roughly. -Thomas Leverett, CESL, Southern Illinois Univ., Carbondale IL USA 62901-4518.

Written scripts for this presentation provide backup information and resources; they are written somewhat informally.
Introduction (below)
1. Communicative competence in the digital age
2. Fitting weblogs into a coherent writing pedagogy
3. Publishing is non-count; assignments are count
4. Digital fluency as goal and objective
5. Always in MyFace: Social networking becomes a necesssity
6. brb: Using chat in esl/efl writing classes
7. Space after period: Line editing as a way of life

Last year's presentation (TESOL 2007): Student weblogging for fluency, integration, and skills


Commitment to teaching students to write and present work online fundamentally reorients both the teacher and the student to a new medium, or rather, to two media at once. Writing teachers I have talked to are apprehensive on several levels; when first writing this, I used the analogy "opening up a can of worms," but later decided to rewrite due to the vagueness of the term.

"Can of worms" is appropriate, however, if you consider that though worms are not pleasant for many people, they are quite useful for others, and represent a world of opportunity to those who spend their days fishing. I have found weblogs beneficial for my writing class in many ways, which I outlined last year (1);it teaches students in media that they are likely to use; it gives them a real audience to write and relate to every day; it makes them more flexible; it puts their writing in real space where everyone can see it and comment on it as an ongoing process, until they are ready to take it down. I think teachers are attracted to the idea, but have a full plate already, and need to see how weblogs are going to fit into an already busy schedule.

Their first concern is that by increasing their teaching load by double, other skills will be devalued, given a fraction of time they were given previously, or lost in the shuffle altogether. I feel that, yes, orientation to online presentation has added numerous skills to the objective list that I bring to class each day (2); however, I have not lost that much in terms of what I no longer teach, what is in the rearview mirror.

Teaching with weblogs has widened my scope, given me more to teach, more to do. When I reflect on the characteristics of the paper world that have been left in the dust, so to speak, I really don't feel I've lost that much. My students know some things better, like what indentations are and why we don't use them online, or what adjustments you have to make to an online essay, when you know that the receiver will print it on paper, and thus not have access to the ability to click on the reference and arrive at the source. Much of what we deal with is audience awareness; I have heard at TESOL presentations for years about developing this in young writers, but now I feel that in moving from medium to medium with many pieces, with essays, research papers, and informal works, I have found an experiential way to drive the point home, to incorporate audience awareness into developing writers' systems.

For a writing teacher and a class of developing writers, amount of writing is indeed an issue, possibly the primary issue, and if writing teachers are afraid that putting things online will decrease the amount of writing that they are able to do with their students, my response is that maybe they should evaluate their entire program and the writing students do in it; was three essays per term, or whatever they were being expected to produce, enough to develop their skills adequately? Where else were they asked to write, and how much? What other kinds of writing were they producing, and what was being done with it? Were they ever asked to write for and interact with real audiences, besides their teachers? I have used weblogs to actually increase, almost double, the amount of writing my students do; much of this is for fluency purposes, directly communicating, with their classmates as their primary audience; I draw my inspiration from two champions of the communicative era, Peter Elbow and Marie Wilson Nelson, who basically taught me to deal with the writer's confidence as a more fundamental concern than anything else (3). I got tired of what I saw as a syndrome: students get an assignment; they put it off; they finally troll the web or the hidden files to find something that will do; they copy and paste, or, they just copy. Sorry, that's got to stop. In our class, they write every day; they write under my nose, then they publish it. And this happens so much that I'm intimately familiar with their style, their spelling, their grammar, etc. And I know when they've succeeded in communicating, because I was part of the process.

Teaching toward online presentation has elevated the importance of what my students write, since by nature asking them to put papers in a permanent international archive is asking them to do something for keeps, that would otherwise be in a notebook at the bottom of their dresser, or worse, in the recycling pile. They have the option to remove papers from the web, after the term is over, but they rarely do; from this I deduce that either they did not understand what I told them about their option, or that they feel it may be of some value to them sometime in the future. I prefer to believe the latter; this is why we saved old term papers, sometimes for years, in that dresser. But the web is far more accessible than the dresser, and takes up less space in terms of carbon footprint, so to speak, than the paper did. The fact that they put it there themselves makes it more likely that they can find it again.

Teaching toward online presentation has given me and my students a much more intimate relationship with certain writing techniques and skills, if only by virtue of using them and seeing them used in different media and in more genres. My writing classes used to have paper products only, essays and research papers done on paper, sometimes with title page, abstract, and six to ten carefully numbered pages of text, a bibliography at the end. Nowadays we have that in addition to an online research paper, the abstract separated by being in a different weblog and linked to the paper itself. Thus the students not only see the separation of the abstract, but also participate in using it for its proper function: as an invitation to read the paper itself. In the original, it needs neither the title nor the author's name, since it's part of the paper, but when it is with the paper itself, it's not doing what an abstract is supposed to do: invite a reader to read a term paper which is in another physical location. Thus the process of operating in different media has given them a different and wider concept of what an abstract is and why we would ask them to make one.

Since teaching toward online presentation can be restated as teaching toward publication in an ongoing, and developing, but nevertheless permanent arena, it has forced me to come to grips with the ongoing and uncomfortable relationship of the ESL/EFL teaching profession with the process of grammatical correction. While not all online publication has to be for public consumption, it is clearly easier for developing students to present work to the general public knowing that the teacher, or someone, has helped them make sure that the work does not have grammatical issues impeding its ability to communicate their thoughts. In other words, I "correct" (or "line-edit," as we refer to it) what they write, or get others to help; I justify it pedagogically, and I do enough of it so that I feel that it would be an unfair burden on my time if it weren't valuable to them. But I feel that it is valuable to them, and arrange my time accordingly.

I've learned that students generally accept the fact that they need to publish work or put it online, that they for example have to figure out how to make a weblog and put a research paper, complete with linked references, on it. I do notice a wide range of technological competence and background, coming into the class; it gives some students apprehension, for example, that they are so far behind their classmates in certain ways, right from the start. To counter this I set up a we-teach-each-other ethic in the classroom; this also comes in handy at times when I also need to rely on them to do certain things, for example, put an excel chart on a weblog, or copy and paste onto a chat interface.

Teachers may feel they are stepping into the unknown, a world that is very dynamic, egalitarian, active, one that you may not have time or energy to master. Yes, true. Some blog posts have 60, 70, 80 comments, though my students get very few. The web at its best is decentralized, freewheeling, open and accepting of many things, including some typos and vagueness about what your exact name is. On social networking sites, people give you applications that allow other people to do other things on your site, and you have to figure out what these are and what people are putting there; if you don't have time to watch little YouTubes, you probably should make time, or get out of MyFace, so to speak. Social networking has been described as a necessity on today's campuses, and it is- this is one more reason to make sure our students can write online, can distinguish formal from informal, can upload pictures, etc.

In short, teaching toward online presentation has made me far more aware of the world that they in many cases already occupy, the world they will need to produce most of their English in, I believe. It's one thing to say to them, I'm going to make you write paper essays, because that's what I believe your teachers in academic classes will ask you to do. But I tell them, in essence: I'm going to ask you to make paper essays, and then put them online in a presentable way, linking the references and formatting them properly. Then I'm going to ask you to get into a chat medium and write there, too, and while we're at it, I'd like you to use an online whiteboard medium, where we can see your image while you talk and use the chat interface at the same time. And I'm going to do this because this is how I believe you are going to need to use your writing skill in the future.

In answer to a challenge that was presented to me, however (4), I will say that I am slow to change certain things, among them my view that ultimately my students must survive in an academic world that is basically undemocratic, read-only, non-interactive, etc. Ideally they will be adequately prepared for both worlds. Ideally they will be able to manage Facebook, at the same time chat and use their videocam, thus keeping up with their friends, and turn around, pass tests, read books, and write papers adequately to please their teachers. I don't feel they're mutually exclusive, or even that the academy has the obligation to change its media or modes of communication. Let it do as it sees fit. I will prepare my students in any event. My main point is that the world they live in, which we should be aware of in order to present realia and prepare our students to use language in, is a world that we have in some cases failed to come to grips with.

Thirty years ago, the communicative revolution changed the nature of teaching language permanently, by insisting that grammatical competence alone was of little value if one could not master the oral medium in which it was being used. In that era, which in many ways is not over, strategic and oral competence were stressed over grammatical accuracy; classes were set up so that students took whatever they learned and immediately began to use it, in pairs or in groups, with peers or with whoever was handy, because the ability to use things in real communicative situations was valued more than the ability to recognize grammatical correctness at every junction. Today, the world is moving into an online medium where writing is used more freely, more casually, and more often between strangers. Online writing is today being used in many of the functions that we are more familiar with performing orally: meeting people, introducing ourselves, making business contacts overseas. Thus the same imperative applies to today's writing teachers: if our students are not able to use online environments successfully, and use writing in chat and other online contexts, they will not be fluent in the modern, more technological sense of the word.

The difference between the problem of today's writing teacher and the problem of practitioners at the beginning of the communicative era is that most of those teachers, and particularly the native speakers among them, were at least already fluent themselves in the very strategies and techniques they were trying to teach, though some of those strategies were poorly defined, or the teaching materials needed to teach them nonexistent; they were at least competent in the oral realm themselves, and knew what was missing in their charges.

1. See Leverett (2007), below.

2. See Digital Fluency as Goal and Objective, part 4.

3. See Fitting Weblogs into a Writing Pedagogy, part 2.

4. This was best stated by Will Richardson (2007) in a comment to his own post which is referenced below: "Pedagogy needs to change, assuming, of course, we should be 'teaching' at all, because I think we're dealing with a different environment...Yes, many of the outcomes are still the same. But some important ones are not. Back in my day, the published story was the end point. That's not the case today.


Leverett, T. (2007). Why weblogs work, in Student weblogging for fluency, integration, and skills, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL, Seattle, WA, March.

Leverett, T. (2006). Daring to enter the blogosphere. Includes This is your program: This is your program on weblogs; This is your class: This is your class on weblogs; and This is your brain: This is your brain on weblogs. Prog. Admin. IS, Paper, TESOL Convention, Tampa, FL, Mar.

Leverett, T. (2005). One teacher's perspective on weblogs in a curriculum, from Leverett & Montgomerie, Teaching teachers to use and teach with weblogs, Internet Fair, CALL-IS, TESOL 2005, San Antonio, March.

Richardson, W. (2007). It's not just the "read/write" web. Weblogg-ed weblog.
http://weblogg-ed.com/2007/its-not-just-the-readwrite-web/. Accessed 4-08.

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