Developing Fluency and Reflection Online
This workshop will consider ways that asynchronous and collaborative writing online can be used to encourage more fluent and reflective writers. We'll look specifically at forums, blogs, wikis, and social writing tools, discuss theories about their place in the curriculum, and consider specific tools, methods of implementation, and evaluation.

Thinking about Technology
You've probably already heard about Patrick Welsh's article in the Washington Post called "A School That's Too High on Gizmos." If not, take a look. Then consider this blog response by a local teacher. How does this issue relate to your own experiences and beliefs?

Assumptions and Disclaimers: During this presentation, I will assume a common understanding that the use of online technology is inevitable in the lives of our students and that the tools and resources available online are potentially transformative if used wisely. I will also assume that educators who work with online technologies have an understanding of the policies and procedures of their school district and are familiar with online safety, copyright, and legality issues. (You'll find some related resources here.) Finally, the tools and ideas presented here are obviously not exhaustive, represent my personal approach and understanding, and are subject to change as online technologies change. However, once participants gain a familiarity with these tools, they should find it easier to track those changes as they occur and adjust their thinking and instruction accordingly. Please feel free to edit this page to add corrections or resources; please add any comments about this presentation to the "discussion" tab. Thank you!

Working Thesis: Online writing tools that allow for asynchronous and/or collaborative writing can help improve the fluency and reflection of student writers in all disciplines provided the instructors facilitating the use of these tools have a clear and practical understanding of the tools (through personal use and experience) and have established specific goals and protocols that logically relate the use of these tools to the larger objectives of the curriculum. The main advantage of these tools is that they provide an authentic audience for the writer. The best use of these tools occurs when the writer is able to explore ideas and topics in which he/she has a personal interest within the context of a network of others who share those interests that has evolved around these writings. On the other hand, the mere addition of these tools to classroom practice will not, on its own, add any educational value, particularly if the tools serve only as digital substitutions for pen-and-paper work. All of this is easier said than done.

Asynchronous Writing

This is writing that occurs in conversation, but not at the same time (as opposed to synchronous writing, such as chat or IM, which is in conversation at the same time). The two most prominent forms of online asynchronous writing are forums and blogs.
  • Forums - In general, forums are best for allowing a group of students to build a sense of community and to discuss and organize a large number of topics that relate to a larger theme, concept, or idea.
  • Blogs - In general, blogs are best for allowing an individual student to develop his/her thoughts on a topic (or small number of topics) over time, tracking changes and growth in writing and thinking, and engaging the readers of the blog in conversation over time through comments on individual posts.

More on Forums and Blogs

In most situations, it's not that hard to decide between asynchronous and collaborative writing. However, when choosing asynchronous writing, it can sometimes be difficult to decide between a forum and a blog. I hope the points below will help. You might also refer to "Forums vs. Blogs: A Feature Show-Down" by Molly Holzschlag or "Comparing Weblogs to Threaded Discussion Tools in Online Educational Contexts" by Donna Cameron and Terry Anderson.
  • In a blog, the focus is on the author, in a forum, the focus is on the topic(s) under discussion.
  • Blogs develop the thinking and voice of an author over time, whereas forums develop the thinking and ideas of a group over time.
  • Forums are often used by a community to discuss community-related issues, many of which are logistical in nature, and therefore the audience of a forum tends to be the community itself. In contrast, the audience for a blog tends to be the general public (or at least, the segment of the general public interested in the topics discussed on the blog).
  • The primary purpose of a blog post is to present an individual's thoughts to a public audience. Discussion (through comments) is secondary. The primary purpose of a forum thread is to discuss the issue/topic/idea raised in the entry. Individual thoughts (as thoughts belonging to an individual) are secondary.
  • Forums tend to be self-enclosed and self-referencing. You must often login to read and/or add to the discussion, and links to outside resources tend to be minimal. Blogs are directed outward, referencing and linking to other sites, articles, and blog posts (often multiple references/links per post). Guests usually don't have to login in order to comment on a blog post.
  • Blogs almost always syndicate their content (both posts and comments). Forums can offer syndication, but this is not as common.
  • Forums may have moderators and/or experts to help manage the boards, but a forum is about the thoughts, expertise, and combined resources of a community, not about the thoughts or expertise of a few authors. Blogs are the reverse: the author(s) of a blog is(are) understood to be a reliable source of information, thinking, and resources for a given topic(s), with support sometimes coming from the comments section.

Collaborative Writing

  • Wikis - In general, wikis are best for allowing small groups of students to collaboratively develop a site, project, or page that provides information or resources, showcases students' work, or demonstrates students' thinking. Discussion of the growth of a page can foster reflective planning, and the discussion, collaboration, and revisions can increase students' awareness of the metacognitive aspects of organizing and presenting information and the writing process.
  • Social Writing Tools - Similar to wikis, social writing tools, in general, are best for allowing small groups of students to create writing and reflect on writing process and aspects of writing such as organization, focus, tone, diction, and the role of the audience. Social writing tools can also be used by individual students to collect their writings and revisions over time and/or share their writings with others for virtual critique.

Choosing the Right Tool

To help you decide which tool(s) will best suit your purpose, consider the advantages and disadvantages of each and how those match your desired outcomes. Also see: "Optimal Communication Tool Decision Tree" and "The Technology Toolbox: Choosing the Right Tool for the Task."

Popular Solutions

Forum, Blog, Wiki, or Social Writing Tool?

In general, the big questions for each tool are:
  • Do you want students to discuss or debate an issue/idea (or group of related issues/ideas) over time? Then use a forum.
  • Do you want students to reflect on their own thoughts and development over time (and possibly over a series of issues/ideas)? Then use a blog. (You, as the instructor, may also want to create a classroom blog that provides regular updates about classroom activities and allows parents and students to leave comments.)
  • Do you want students to build and present the outcome of their collaborative thinking on issues/ideas (which may be smaller week-long projects or longer year-long projects)? Then use a wiki. (You, as the instructor, may also want to create a classroom wiki that serves as the "home page" for all of the online activities related to the class: linking to student blogs, student wiki pages, helpful resources, etc.)
  • Do you want students to construct a piece of writing collaboratively, to share and/or critique their writings virtually, or to maintain an online portfolio of their writings and revisions? Then use a social writing tool.