Writing Online: Digital Natives or Creatures of Habit?

I have been teaching a “hybrid” online/ face to face class for a couple of years, for a basic writing class (below college level), where I have used the Moodle page (closed web site for class) as a place for students to access visual images from the Internet with minimal searching, and to comment on them.  Last semester I began teaching English 1A (transfer level composition) with a more “profound” goal: to have students reflect on the new multi-media communications system by reading and writing, in part, within that system.

For example, when they read authors, they watch speeches by those authors on the Internet.  While discussing the ethical standards in the blogosphere, they read and comment on blogs. While discussing the culture of YouTube, they will view, circulate, and discuss YouTube videos.

Every class has its unique chemistry that leads to certain kinds of conversations. This one has a nice range: at least five out of thirty students speak readily in class, and have some positive experience with verbal participation. A larger number speak occasionally when called on.

Yet many early discussions peter out quickly after the imperious, ultra-certain barbed comments of a student I will call Reginald.  My first big mistake is let him back into the class after dropping him for two absences in the first two week.  He claims I missed him.  He knows his rights.  He needs this class.  I have made clerical errors, and usually give students a second chance, so I relent.  Wrong.  He is awful:  always knows the answer, and is not above making snide comments to me about what I should do or know.  Arrogant know-it-alls with some literary smarts are the exception in community college classes, but they pop up occasionally. But wait: I have a class to teach. What’s the issue about conversation?

Intellectually, I realize that all dialogue is socially constructed, and that a college composition class will not be informal as anonymous Internet chat.  Although conversation in small groups and whole class, develops as usual, on-line discussions on assigned readings I find disappointing. I start to award points for posts, even in a “college level” class, but don’t want sink down to the level of grading the quality of posts, since the informality of the process is key. So, I introduce the activity in a computer lab visit, institute a point system, and assign the class to post from home about assigned reading.  A fair portion of the class posts.  Very quickly I have to warn in general about sneering put-downs of other views, and even individually admonish Reginald for his disrespectful or condescending comments toward others’ views.  I usually try to look beyond him and stir up good conversation.  The posting happens but is all too often pedestrian in nature, “I agree too”, and “it’s so interesting.”  At least Reginald’s barbs have a subject matter.

The pedestrian comments are a symptom of the fundamental weakness, the class’ weak reading comprehension, specifically misreadings of the arguments of the main texts, which are respectively optimistic and pessimistic about the culture of the Internet.  I know what to do:  I activate schema, ask students to reflect on their own practices and problems as Internet users;  I assign outlining, summarizing, and reading quizzes; students lead their own discussions of opposing views in class; I teach the vocabulary of argument, counter-argument, concession, refutation and the mapping of argumentative patterns in class readings. Yet I don’t know what to do: reading and writing does not improve in significant ways.  And Reginald cannot tolerate the halting discussions about the meanings of the opposed texts—he already knows that both of the main authors are simpletons who have it all wrong.

I try something new:  posting basic comprehension questions on the Moodle page in open-ended phrasing to encourage open grappling with the texts’ meanings before the reading is over with. To ensure that it assists in students’ active reading process, I assign them to post on Sunday, rather than Monday (the last day before class), when they have more challenging questions assigned for a reading journal assignment due on Tuesday.  My problem is that I don’t write and post these early reading questions until after the Thursday class meetings, and I notify students by e-mails that most students never open.  So I start assigning posting points only when students post by the deadline.  Yet, like clockwork, most of the posting happens only on Monday night, when there is no more time for the discussion to influence the reading that many students are doing at the last minute.

Reginald posts a protest:  why don’t you give me points for my Monday night posting?  I did the reading and I posted!  These deadlines are unreasonable! I defensively reassure him that the stakes (the points) are quite low and there will be many more opportunities to post in the future.

But Reginald has taught me something: that my wonderful attempt to use online dialogue to improve students’ reading is not introduced as the departure that it is, since it contradicts students’ previous experience of “homework:” written comments about readings are only submitted when the student has “the correct answer,” and that homework is always due at the next class meeting, not on some seemingly arbitrary date before then.  These may be digital natives, but as far as the submission of homework is concerned, they are, like me, creatures of habit.

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