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.
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.
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:
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.
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.