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Pedagogical Tool Review

For online writing instructors looking to incorporate an interactive journal component into their courses, Penzu is web-based diary that could easily facilitate such an educational purpose. Basic journal accounts on Penzu are free with a valid email address. Penzu emphasizes personal privacy and boasts of military-grade encryption, which together with the distinguishes this service from public blogs or websites. The interface has the appearance of a paper notebook with the current date and the option to title the entry. Text is entered in the body of the page. A tool bar at the top of the pad allows for numerous format and font changes, insertion of images, and sharing a link to the individual entry via email. One fun feature is the inspiration light bulb that will display a quote or question at the top of the entry that writers can respond to if searching for a topic.

Easy to use, intuitive interface that mimics a notebook page.
Automatic prompts can help the reluctant writer find a topic.

Individuals with whom the entry link has been shared will receive email notification, and can easily add comments by simply responding to the email. Users will receive an email notification that a comment has been left and will see an alert upon logging in. Comments can be viewed at the top of the entry, but do not interact with the entry itself. At anytime, the user can choose to “unshare” an entry and link becomes invalid. 

Users can share single entries, but not the entire journal, selectively by email. They can choose to have the entry appear in the email, or just provide a link. The latter affords greater student control as the instructor will not have an archive of the text.

Instructor comments appear at the top of the entry, but do not interact with the entry itself, keeping the integrity of the student work in tact as opposed to inline commenting that can make students feel self-conscious.

Work is automatically saved to the cloud as typing occurs, to more closely mimic the experience of writing on paper and more readily preserve the entry. From a table of contents list, there is a search function that allows users to enter keywords to find related entries. Users can also request to be sent reminders to create entries at regular intervals. The content is completely controlled by the user and can be deleted entirely at any time. 

Table of contents and search feature allow for retrieval of entries for potential use in formal writing.

Students can set reminders in accordance with assignment requirements.

Penzu also has free mobile apps for iPhone and Android, so users can add entries on these devices as well. Accounts can be started on the website www.penzu.com, or the apps can be downloaded from iTunes or Google Play as well as from the website. Although the audience for the free accounts is primarily the general public, but they do offer a classroom version with greater functionality for a $49.00 annual fee. Some of the educationally-aimed features of that service are the option to provide inline comments, a grade book, assignment creation, and centralized management of all student work. 

A list of the added functionality of the classroom version, notably centralized management of student submissions and  letting students create entries by email for easier access.

Overall, Penzu is a quick and easy close-approximation of the paper journal, with additional affordances and enhanced privacy. This tool would best be adopted in composition courses by instructors wanting to add a dialogue journal component to their courses. Dialogue journals are an ongoing conversation between the instructor and individual students that foster positive rapport, engagement, and academic achievement (Holmberg qtd. in Danowski 100). Students can be given writing prompts that may or may not be related to course content, but both types help students improve writing skills and develop stronger relationships with the instructor, an important determinant of student success and satisfaction. This type of written exchange is highly interactive, which is “vital is successful pedagogy” (Danowski 99). It is important to consider how to develop interaction like this so as to mediate students’ feelings of social isolation as noted by Mann, Varey, and Button and Huws (qtd. in Hantula and Pawlowicz 150). 

This kind of low-stakes writing also reduces student anxiety and provides a comfortable space for exploration outside of the public sphere. Although discussion boards can promote a sense of community through student-to-student interaction, students can sometimes be reluctant to expose their ideas and display their skills in such a setting. However, online composition instructors should strongly consider incorporating journals since learners in communities of inquiry must have the “freedom to explore ideas, question, and construct meaning,” which journals can provide (Brabazon 15).

Private journals can offer the benefits of low-stakes writing without the pressure of the larger peer audience and have been a staple of FYW programs, but have been difficult to simulate in an online setting. Yet we should strive to find ways to incorporate time-tested pedagogical practices into online courses rather than abandon them in favor of activities using new technologies, remembering that successful online education “e-learning ‘is marked by a juxtaposition of new technology and old pedagogy’” merging “the best of traditional and Web-based learning experiences” (Brabazon 7-8). And journals are certainly one such traditional pedagogy, credited with aiding prewriting, generating and organizing ideas, promoting creativity, providing a pleasurable experience with writing, and encouraging critical thinking (Danowski 103). It is also encouraged that instructors begin with “pedagogical assumptions” that de-emphasize “the search for technological solutions,” to start designing online courses around pedagogy and not around the affordances of a particular technology (Cook 59). The free, basic version of Penzu provides instructors this kind of blended approach honoring the tradition of journal benefits with the needs of teaching and learning online. It is an easy to use system for encouraging private student writing that can be selectively shared and features a comment function to facilitate dialogue.

In addition to the relational and educational benefits of dialogue journals, they also afford greater student agency over their own writing, a significant difference from similar types of writing assignments facilitated by traditional course managements systems like Blackboard. Penzu shifts the ownership of the work from the course to the student. With this program, students have their own space to write outside of the course, and they choose which entries they share with the instructor. They can also use the “unshare” feature to revert an entry to private, and they can choose to deactivate the account entirely upon the completion of the course. While it is unclear what entities might have access to entries at Penzu, the student is at least not conceding ownership to the school. Nevertheless, this ownership is something “administrators and instructor[s] need to understand the implications of” when “selecting OWI technologies” (DePew). Students control their own archives, which is an ethical position in the conversation of technology-mediated composition. This autonomy mirrors the shift toward independence in technologically mediated learning and future working environments (Hantula and Pawlowicz 153).

The student-centered focus continues with the features of mobility and accessibility that favor their lifestyles. Blackboard can be cumbersome to navigate on phones and tablets, with numerous log-in screens and multiple pages to click through before accessing the discussion board. Often these devices are not fully supported by the system and do not display full functionality. However, these are the preferred devices for students, and Penzu’s simple interface, cloud storage, and mobile apps afford additional, direct access to the journal without the obstacles of Blackboard. They can also write an entry wherever and whenever they have time with their phones, which accommodates their often busy lifestyles - a student could write an entry as quickly as a text message when on a work break or riding a bus.

One of the other benefits is that Penzu is free, which is important to both students and budget-conscious departments when considering new services. It is also much simpler technology to learn because it approximates the familiar notebook, which is an advantage—especially for non-traditional students who are often enrolled in online courses for lifestyle reasons— over other blogs that have far more functions that can distract from the kind of freewriting that make journals successful and have more complex interfaces that may even require basic html knowledge. Unlike simply assigning and responding to freewrites though, Penzu keeps student writing collected and the search function allows for the retrieval of what often amounts to prewriting for formal assignments. These benefits in particular fulfill the CCCC OWI Principle 1, which emphasizes financial accessibility, flexible access, and simple, intuitive use for all users regardless of technological proficiency (Hewett 6).

Responding to dialogue journals is time-consuming, which can be a challenge for online writing instructors who are already investing more time than for face-to-face classes. However, the investment builds strong rapport, which facilitates motivation, effort, achievement, satisfaction, and retention. The benefit of dialogue journals is what often encourages instructors to use them despite the increased workload, but Penzu may help make the work faster. When the student shares the entry, the instructor can both read it and respond to it in their email. The instructor is then also freed of the cumbersome interface and navigation of the course management system and can respond to students as easily as they can create entries, anywhere and on anything that allows email access. While this may potentially clog already overburdened email accounts, the instructor could create a dedicated email address for journaling or consider upgrading to the classroom version. Warnock suggests several methods for journaling online, but none (blogs, emails, Word documents, or message board threads) offer the agency, privacy, or accessibility of Penzu (103). Overall, this program should be tested in a classroom setting for broader use in dialogue journals in an OWI course.

Works Cited:

Brabazon, Tara. Digital Hemlock: Internet Education and the Poisoning of Teaching. Kennington, NSW: University of New South Wales Press, 2002. Print.

Cook, Kelli Cargile. “An Argument for Pedagogy-Driven Education.” Online Education: Global Questions, Local Answers. Eds. Kelli Cargile Cook and Keith Grant-Davie. Farmingdale, NY: Baywood, 2005. 49-66. Print.

Danowski, Debbie. “Anyone? Anyone? Anyone? Leading Discussions in Cyberspace.” Role Play: Distance Learning and the Teaching of Writing. Eds. Jonathan Alexander and Marcia Dickson. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2006. 97-108. Print.

DePew, Kevin. “Chapter 14: Preparing Instructors and Students for the Rhetoricity of OWI Technologies.” unpublished manuscript from Foundational Practices of Online Writing Instruction. Eds. Beth Hewett and Kevin Eric DePew.

Hantula, Donald A. and Darleen M. Pawlowicz. “Chapter Six: Education Mirrors Industry: On the Not-So Surprising Rise of Internet Distance Education.” The Distance Education Evolution: Issues and Case Studies. Eds. Dominique Monolescu, Catherine Schifter, Linda Greenwood. Hershey, PA: Science Publishing, 2004. 142-162. Print.

Hewett, Beth. “Chapter 1: Foundational Principles that Ground OWI.” unpublished manuscript from Foundational Practices of Online Writing Instruction. Eds. Beth Hewett and Kevin Eric DePew. 1-48.

Warnock, Scott. Teaching Writing Online: How and Why. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2009. Print.

Blog Assignment #4: Article Review

Murphy, Elizabeth and Maria A. Rodriquez-Manzanares. “Rapport in Distance Education.” The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 13.1 (Jan 2012). 167-190. ERIC. Web. 4 Jun. 2014.

Murphy and Rodriquez-Manzanares’s study examines distance education teacher-student rapport. They focus on the indicators of rapport, the challenges to the distance educator in building rapport, and the reasons why rapport is important. For the purposes of this study, rapport is defined as “harmonious interactions between teachers and students,” and relationships with “mutual understanding and satisfactory communication” (168). This qualitative study included 42 distance education teachers, with data collected in individual interviews with participants, the transcripts of which were coded and unitized according to thematic similarities. To establish the importance of rapport as a classroom variable, the authors first provide an extensive literature review of texts arguing that rapport is linked to “enhanced learning, attention, motivation, attendance, and involvement for students” (168). They also provide a synthesis and classification of rapport manifestations from the literature into the following categories: honesty/respect, support/monitoring, individual recognition, sharing/mirroring, social interaction, accessibility, caring, and effective communication. One study result is that distance education lacks the benefit of face-to-face communication and thus has a heightened need for rapport’s effects on student learning and motivation. In addition, there exist specific challenges to building rapport at a distance, specifically geographic dispersion, asynchronicity, heavy teacher workloads restricting time to invest in rapport-building activities, software limitations, and teachers not recognizing positive rapport as a significant aspect of learning. Murphy and Rodriquez-Manzanares argue the most significant of the rapport categories apparent in the literature are individual recognition, accessibility, and social interaction; however, due to the nature of distance education, there are two additional necessary manifestations of rapport: having non-text-based interactions (such as video conferencing) and paying attention to the tone of interactions (generally positive and jovial). Following the findings, the authors provide charts of behaviors, specific to distance education, that can build rapport in each of the identified categories. The authors suggest these charts can be used prescriptively by distance education teachers interested in building rapport. Finally, they conclude that unlike the spontaneous rapport-building in the face-to-face classroom, rapport in the distance classroom must be premeditated, consciously promoted, and is only achieved with a significant investment of time and more work. I strongly recommend this article to both researchers in the field of distance education and those looking to enhance their online pedagogical practices. The authors’ work in classifying rapport are both theoretically and practically significant. Rapport tends to be a variable that borders of the mystical, as an intangible outcome of the classroom chemistry and thus irreproducible or transferrable. However, this work provides specific rapport categories and how to achieve each one. The authors note as well, that this provides a starting point for future research in developing and refining rapport categories while giving teachers applications to use at the same time. If rapport is as significant to student success as the literature suggests, then this article is an important initial steps in moving the variable toward the quantifiable, measureable, and implementable.

Blog Assignment #3: Article Review

Conner, Tonya. “Relationships First.” Journal of Global Intelligence & Policy 6.11 (2013). 37-41. EBSCO. Web. 2 Jun. 2014.

Conner’s article is essentially a literature review of works supporting her assertion that the relationships between students and teachers are the keys to student engagement and success. She attempts to provide evidence for this conclusion by presenting a discursive context of several other studies as well as theoretical arguments. Conner begins with related theory; Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that posits connections with people is an individual’s first requirement after physiological necessities are met. Maslow’s assertion of the importance of relationships is ultimately an emotional need, which Conner connects to education through Fredricks, Blumenfeld, and Paris’s argument that student engagement is behavioral, cognitive, and emotional. From this position, Conner is able to collect theories claiming that teachers—more than any other factor—are responsible for students’ emotional engagement. This claim essentially rests on Skinner and Belmont’s declaration that “when children experience teachers as warm and affectionate… [they] are more enthusiastic in class” (qtd. in Conner). Additional support for this comes from Uline and Tschannen-Moran’s suggestion that teachers’ dispositions are linked to students’ academic achievement. These and other theoretical conclusions are followed by Conner’s summary of various related qualitative and quantitative studies. She begins with a review of her own 2011 mixed methods study that found after analysis of student surveys that “building rapport between teachers and students is a priority among respondents.” A 2004 study by Crosnoe et al concluded that positive affective ties with a teacher resulted in better grades. Mikami et al studied the effects of an educator-training program, My Teaching Partner-Secondary (MTP-S), which targets building positive relationships with students. This study found that students if the teachers trained in the program not only improved academics, but also decreased behavioral problems and improved peer-to-peer relationships. Conner includes qualitative published works based on anecdotal evidence that emphasize the positive effects of strong, caring, invested student-teacher relationships. This article also reviews the literature on the effects of positive collegial relationships between teachers. What I find to be most helpful about this article is the work it has done to gather significant works in the field of student-teacher relationships. The inclusion of both theoretical and study-based texts is especially useful for researchers looking to defend pedagogical practices that enhance relationships between the teacher and the student. This is important because these practices may not be in and of themselves immediately recognizable as academically relevant, such as taking time out of instruction to talk about hobbies, but these authors convincingly argue that there is a highly positive cumulative effect on achievement, motivation, and engagement. It is also useful as an introduction to the topic with a bibliography that supports further study. Although many of the included texts focus on secondary education, the theoretical arguments apply to post-secondary students as well. 

Blog Assignment #1: Article Review

Junco, Reynal, C. Michael Elavsky, and Greg Heiberger. “Putting Twitter to the Test: Assessing Outcomes for Student Collaboration, Engagement and Success.” British Journal of Educational Technology 44.2 (2013): 273-287. EBSCO. Web. 26 May 2014.

The authors of this article conducted a study of using Twitter in two university courses, concluding that required use of Twitter with actively engaged faculty results in increased student engagement and academic achievement. In the study, one class was required to use Twitter and the faculty actively engaged with students on the platform, answering student-tweeted questions or offering tweets of encouragement in response to student tweets expressing anxiety. In the other class, Twitter use was optional and the faculty rarely interacted there with students. The authors used a mixed method with both qualitative analysis of tweet content and quantitative analysis of student grades and engagement survey responses. They find that students in the first group had significantly higher engagement over the course of the semester than the second group. Additionally, the first group had significantly higher grades and greater rates of improvement between a pre-test and post-test. Interestingly, the study found that there was no difference between students in the second group who used Twitter voluntarily and their peers who chose not to use it. This leads the authors to conclude that “faculty engagement on the platform is essential in order to impact student outcomes” (284). This article would be especially helpful to anyone interested in the pedagogical uses and benefits of Twitter. The authors clearly outline an effective strategy for use: requiring student use, meaningful course integration, and faculty interaction. I also recommend this article as an example of a systematic study of a pedagogical tool. Often studies of classroom techniques and tools rely on qualitative analyses only, such as anecdotal narratives. However, when arguing for the introduction of new tools in a department or asking for funding, quantitative or “hard” data is usually more convincing. Having a study like this that controls for external factors and uses reliable statistical analysis to show an unequivocal improvement in engagement and achievement is particularly useful. I also find this article helpful in supporting a position that faculty interaction is often the key ingredient in student success and building a sense of community.