Water Damage, Writing Technologies, and Alternative Modes of Feedback

By Kathleen Daly

Kathleen Daly is a PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric and is currently serving as the Assistant Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at UW-Madison. Her doctoral research looks at technologies that underwrite digital archive projects in order to explore questions of archival materiality, accessibility and discoverability.

Kathleen Daly is a PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric and is currently serving as the Assistant Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at UW-Madison. Her doctoral research looks at technologies that underwrite digital archive projects in order to explore questions of archival materiality, accessibility and discoverability.

Kathleen Daly

Two weeks ago, I spilled water on my laptop. Despite my frantic attempts to dry it off, a few drops of water seeped in through the keyboard and into the internal components, rendering my computer entirely useless. While I wait for my computer to be repaired, I have been taking advantage of the Equipment Checkout System (ECS) available through UW InfoLabs. Through ECS, I am able to rent a laptop that is the exact same make and model as my personal computer. However, these laptops have a loan period of only three days with no options for renewal. This means that every three days, I have to check out a different machine.

Because of the limited time I have had with each rental computer, it hasn’t been worth it to install and setup the programs that I use on my personal computer. Instead, I have tried to find alternative ways of completing the work I need to do, most of which involved writing. In my search, I have discoverd a variety of extensions available through Google’s Chrome Web Store, which offered different possibilities for note taking, outlining, tracking revisions, and customizing documents. As I experiment with the different writing technologies and modes of writing** made available through these extensions, I have been surprised to find that some of these alternatives were actually more useful than the technologies I had become accustomed to using on my personal computer. Furthermore, I have noticed that engaging with these alternative writing technologies and modes of writing have not only changed where I am writing, they have also changed how and what I am writing. **Throughout this post, I use “writing technologies” to refer to the tools of writing, and “modes of writing” to refer to the processes made possible through the use of particular writing technologies.

The author's cat contemplating the temporality of rented computers.

The author’s cat contemplating the temporality of rented computers.

Seeing the unexpected benefits of different writing technologies and modes of writing has reminded me of a question that frequently arises in my work as Assistant Director of Writing Across the Curriculum, a question posed by instructors thinking through responding to and evaluating student writing: What is the best way to give feedback on student papers? In the past, I have typically understood and responded to this question logistically rather than pedagogically, advising instructors to use technologies and modes of giving feedback that they are most comfortable with. However, using alternative writing technologies and modes of writing has motivated me to rethink this response. Drawing on my personal experience with using different writing technologies and modes of writing, this blog post seeks to reframe questions about what feedback can look like and how it can be given. After presenting some general principles for effectively responding to student writing, I will explore how we as instructors think about different modes of responding to and evaluating student writing.

Key Principles for Giving Feedback

Questions and concerns about feedback arise in just about every WAC workshop, teaching assistant training session, individual consultation and outreach opportunity. As I work with faculty, instructional staff and teaching assistants to develop strategies and practices for responding to student writing effectively and efficiently, I try to emphasize the following key principles for effective feedback, which appear in the UW-Madison WAC Faculty Sourcebook:

from The UW-Madison WAC Faculty Sourcebook (2016)

from The UW-Madison WAC Faculty Sourcebook (2016)

Putting Principles into Practice: Embracing Alternative Technologies and Modes

When considering how to put these principles for effective feedback into practice, instructors typically turn to possibilities for changing the content of feedback. These changes are often conceptualized as happening with familiar technologies and through familiar modes of giving feedback. Although possibilities for changing technologies and modes are often mentioned, they are rarely garner enough attention or are met with varying degrees of indifference or resistance.

An overflowing stack of student papers.

An overflowing stack of student papers.

What makes instructors hesitant to try alternative technologies for and modes of giving feedback? There are a number of challenges instructors face when changing how they respond and evaluate student writing, the most notable being that engaging effectively with alternative modes of writing demands flexibility and patience. Oftentimes, instructors explain that they don’t have the time to learn about and experiment with different tools and technologies. These concerns about time management are often coupled with concerns about how to maintain the goals of feedback across different modes, as well as concerns about how to accurately assess the usefulness of alternative forms of feedback for student writers. My experience trying out different tools and technologies for writing troubled my preconceived notions of what my writing process should look like, but it was only through experimentation that was I able to see the potential for unfamiliar modes of writing to enhance my writing. Using different technologies and modes of writing demanded a different engagement with my writing. It forced me to think about my work in new ways, giving me a new different perspective on both how I was writing and what I was writing.

When experimenting with different technologies for giving feedback, it is important to think critically about the feedback process in terms of production as well as reception. Questions instructors might ask themselves when responding to and evaluating student writing include: What stage is the student currently at, both as a writer generally and in the writing process? How do I imagine students understanding, responding to and otherwise engaging with these different modes? What assumptions do I have about students’ technological capabilities? What is my current relationship with the student? What do I hope my relationship with the student will look like after they receive this feedback? How can I frame my feedback as conversational and dialogic rather than unidirectional?

Screencast Technologies: A Multimodal Approach to Giving Feedback 

One accessible alternative for giving feedback is through the use of screen recording. Screencasting enable instructors to give feedback through video, audio, and screen recordings that can be easily shared with students. Through screencasting, students can simultaneously listen to their instructor’s verbal feedback and watch as their instructor scrolls through their draft, highlighting and gesturing to the specific parts of the paper being commented on. The primary screencast technology used by instructors at UW-Madison is Kaltura CaptureSpace, a free program that integrates with Desire2Learn and Moodle (video tutorials are available here). This year, former Online Coordinator for the UW-Madison Writing Center Jessie Gurd is using screencasting to give Online Writing Center tutors feedback on their email instruction.

In a post on NCTE’s Online Writing Instruction (OWI) Open Resource website, Jodi Whitehurst, an instructor at Arkansas State University-Beebe, explains the benefits of screencast technologies for instructors looking to give specific, revision-oriented feedback on student papers. She argues, “By creating screencast videos for feedback, online writing faculty are able to indicate specific needs for revision within student assignments, discuss possible approaches for revising, display assignment rubrics to specify criteria that are and are not being met, direct writers to online resources, and give ‘voiced’ affirmations to developing writers” (“Screencast Feedback for Clear and Effective Revisions of High-stakes Process Assignments“). By integrating audio/video and screen recordings, screencast technologies allow for more clarity and personalization in both the instructor production and student reception of feedback. The multimodal structure of screencast technologies also opens up possibilities for making feedback more accessible to students with different learning styles. 

For a more local take on screen recording, check out the “Screencasting” section of this blog post, written by former UW-Madison Writing Center tutor Mike Shapiro.

Reflections On My Rental

Within the next few days, I will be reunited with my personal computer. While I can’t say I will miss the string of rental computers I have worked with over the past two weeks, I am grateful for the new perspective I have gained in the process. The discomfort that came with these temporary machines led me to discover new possibilities for my writing process, possibilities that facilitated a more reflective attitude towards my writing. Moving forward, I hope to continue experimenting with different writing technologies and modes of writing while motivating others to do the same.  

8 thoughts on “Water Damage, Writing Technologies, and Alternative Modes of Feedback

  1. Hi, Kathleen

    I very much appreciated your post on a topic that is of constant interest to me: the philosophy, strategy, and technology of writing feedback. You do wonderful work connecting feedback to teaching in your post, and encouraging instructors to see more possibilities for feedback as a means of enriching the students’ learning experience.

    I am regularly seeking innovative ways to engage with the students through the feedback I provide them, constantly striving to engage in feedback as teaching, and trying to encourage students to see feedback, at times, as the most valuable aspect of teaching writing: trying in particular, as you note, to achieve a more “conversational and dialogic” approach, whether teaching an online or f2f course. Thanks to your post, I am particularly keen to look again at Screencast Feedback and am inspired to work more with this technology. The one caveat I would offer, however, concerns the manner, the tone, of the instructor providing the feedback.

    I am reminded of the cutting edge feedback technology from when I was in high school: the cassette tape. In my Honors English class, the teacher asked students to submit a cassette tape with each essay we wrote. Our teacher narrated her comments via the act of reading through your paper, and she would amplify her written comments, and also added additional comments during the course of going over the paper. I very much appreciated the personal approach. However, her tone of voice was sometimes on the sharp side (OK, I could have been a better student back then, I’ll admit it). Nevertheless, I learned something valuable from the process. When we write, our writing will be read by someone–and readers develop an understanding of our writing based on their experience of reading our work. I think if we would like to make the feedback process meaningful, then we would do well to consider our tone: in writing, and in person, or on Screencast when providing this feedback to our students. To this day, before I hand back or post the feedback to their first papers, I take a fair amount of time to discuss with my students the tone I would like them to hear in their heads when they are reading my voice: I would like them to hear me as someone who care about reading their work, and who is deeply engaged in trying to understand what they are writing to me. I’m trying to “inhabit a reader position” (as we used to say in the Writing Center–do we still say this?), and to take them seriously as writers. So, yes, even in my brick-and-mortar workaday writing instruction world, I’m trying to encourage them to hear me kindly so they will know my intentions in providing this feedback are to encourage them to think about their writing and how their writing affects others: readers. Then, if we can think of this process as a collaborative enterprise, especially for the purposes of revision, or for producing a future draft, or for encouraging our students to write another day, it seems that feedback is most effective (and here I’m trying to echo Kathleen’s thoughtful blog post) when it allows writers to learn, through various modes of writing, about how writing is much more than the means of communicating our thoughts to others, it’s a means of communing with others, even through feedback, or, especially through feedback.

    Thanks for this fine post on such an important topic.

    Christopher J. Syrnyk
    Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition
    Director of the Oregon Tech Honors Program
    Oregon Tech

  2. Kathleen, thanks for this post! It reminds me of a time in my own teaching life when I needed to find a way of giving feedback on English 100 drafts that didn’t require typing or handwriting because I was holding a sleeping baby (who would cry if she was no longer being held). I tried out what was then a relatively new way of giving feedback, which was to record an audio message on UW-Madison’s Learn@UW site. Using this tool, I could speak my feedback into a headset. I’m not sure I practiced this mode enough to get as good at it as I would have like, but I did notice that students did not respond in the same ways to this mode that they did to written feedback. Some heard my more specific verbal recommendations (since I had to read parts of their essay in order to show what my comments referred to) and made more successful revisions than usual; some seemed only heard the parts where I was pointing out things they had done successfully. However, these differences did not exactly match students’ previous success or not with revisions. In general, I liked how this tool helped me to give specific examples from their writing more quickly, and I really liked how it gave me a chance to read their paper back to them, with my own inflections of how I was hearing them. Unfortunately, I had to stop using this method when my internet connection became too unreliable to record information into the cloud, and I haven’t thought about it since. Reading your post makes me excited to try it out again soon.

  3. What a provocative post, Kathleen! I love how an unfortunate event pushed you into trying new strategies and allowed you to discover new possibilities. I remember one time I had to check out a library computer and found that my writing practice was jumpstarted due to the absence of other programs and distracting elements on the computer.

    I was struck by your comment that when you suggest that instructors try using different technologies for giving feedback that you often hear a lot of resistance. I hear the same resistance (sometimes) when I assign multimodal projects. Students are often worried about having to spend more *time* grappling with the technology AND the writing. I would imagine instructors have the same concern for giving feedback–grappling with the technology AND formulating productive feedback. But what if the technology helps facilitate the feedback giving process, which is itself a writing process?

    I noticed in the video you shared that the instructor’s feedback feels rather polished. I’ve never tried audio or screencast feedback, but I would like to. My main concern is–how much do I have to prepare before beginning to record? When writing feedback, I can jot down notes and half-formed ideas before going through and writing a more polished note to the student. I wonder how giving screencast feedback would alter or facilitate that process. I know instructors are very concerned about time spent giving feedback, and I wonder if/how screencasting can facilitate the process. For me, at this point giving written feedback is like an art that feels almost second nature–I have a voice, style, format, and what feels like a rather creative process that involves a bit of planning and then a final productive push and a bit of revision. I don’t think we talk so much about the actual *process* of giving feedback, as much as we do the process of writing a paper, and I wonder how using a different technology might alter that process.

    I’d love to take a workshop on screencast feedback!

  4. This is really helpful. Thank you, Kathleen. I saved a copy of the considerations for responding! I think it’s cool that you made the most of being forced to use a new computer–that is, you were open to defamiliarizing your own processes to discover new tools.

    I’ve always really enjoyed giving feedback on student writing. Last term, I forced myself into trying Google docs, because it had worked so well during Skype Writing Center sessions. The students said they thought sharing their drafts with one another electronically was really helpful. The risk paid off for us.

    (Also, cute cat!!)

  5. Thanks for sharing this post, Kathleen! I really appreciate how you frame that changing our feedback strategies and modes can push us as writing teachers. It reminds me of my own experiments with screencasting, which students found more helpful but which also took me much longer to return than written feedback. I’m excited for more empirical research to come out in composition studies about how these different modes affect student revision and uptake of feedback.

  6. Thanks for such a great post, Kathleen! I love the way you separate the logistical aspects of giving feedback from the pedagogical ones. This is something that I don’t always clarify for myself, and your post is a good reminder to consider the student’s perspective when we write feedback. Your post really gets me thinking about the affective and emotional dimensions students experience when they receive feedback: does my feedback inspire/confuse/anger/invite more revisions? Certain technologies can sponsor particular responses or reactions, and your ideas get me thinking about how a student will perceive the choice of technology we use for feedback purposes: does this technology demonstrate investment/instruction/clarity/helpfulness? I’m thinking a lot about how I can clarify to my students my decision in feedback style and technology throughout the writing process to help close the gap that can exist between instructors and students.

    Also thanks for such wonderful resources!

  7. First, I have to say that I admire your ability to make the best of what has been, I’m sure, a ridiculously inconvenient situation. Your experience is making me think about how our use of technology as writers and writing tutors has limitations–computers malfunction, internet connections drop, documents get lost–but that these limitations can actually help us to think strategically about our processes for writing and giving writing feedback. There isn’t (as far as I know!) a single, perfect approach for giving feedback that is most clear, most effective, most efficient, and most tech-savvy. So then it seems like we ought to regularly try out new approaches, evaluate the affordances of various technologies and strategies, and build up a sort of toolbox to draw from as we encounter different students and genres and scenarios. Thanks to this post, I’m really excited to try out screencasting and to research and experiment with other new strategies!

  8. Thanks, Kathleen Daly for writing such an inspiring and adorable post that sounds good. I am inspired by your personality and also your thoughts . I really appreciate the way you separate the logical aspects of giving feedback..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *