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