An audience has always been a part of any writing. In the past, an audience was an abstract entity or a “work of fiction” (Ong, 1975, p. 9) that was imagined by the writer. This imagined entity determined the form of writing, the voice the writer takes and the genre of the writing.
In an educational setting, traditional student writing has always been to a single reader for a single purpose. The audience is a judge who weighs the merits of argument, form, flow and technicality of the written work and then passes judgment in the form of a grade. This is really a one-way form of communication with minimal interaction and feedback from the reader.
Technology, in the form of social media, has allowed us to change this dynamic. Instead of writing for an audience of one, social media allows schoolwork to be written to an audience of many. In an unbelievable response, many colleges and universities have limited the use of social media on their campuses in an effort to make students focus (during lectures) or not be polluted with non-academic forms of writing – as if academic writing is the ultimate form of communication.
Giving students a wider audience not only motivates them to write, but they write more and interact with their critics with a deeper learning of material in order to defend (or change) their understanding. Given the one-way, single audience member mode of traditional writing, this is impossible to do.
In addition, the generation of students within the halls of academia often use social media as a primary form of communication. One of the findings in the literature has been the burnishing of on-line personas in an effort to impress both peers and anyone else looking. This same phenomenon has been observed in student writing when their peers form a large part of their audience. Their writing improves at an exponential rate when they know that their peers are both reading and critiquing their work. This happens as a byproduct of trying to look perfect online. They airbrush and polish their writing to look good to each other. Although this happens when a closed environment is used (within Moodle of Blackboard for instance), it becomes more pronounced when their writing is open to the entire on-line world. When they share their work with peers on other social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter etc.), their writing takes on an even more polished look.
Why would we ignore this powerful motivator?
In addition, many of the students use their writing as an on-line portfolio of their work that can be referred to within a resume. Posting their work to a professional social media site such as LinkedIn provides them with an opportunity to show their work to professionals and may result in them gaining employment through the work that they present online.
I had a student come to my office one day to let me know that she was frightened that someone was stalking her online. I sat down with her to go over her evidence and pointed out that the comments that the stalker was making were excellent comments about her work. Comments that made her think and engage in good academic discussion. She said that she didn't know who this person was and wanted to know what she should do about it. Together we looked up what we could and found that the stalker was an academic at the University of York. I encouraged her to contact him and let him know that she appreciated his input. He had thought she was a professional writing about her area of expertise. From that contact, she was offered a postgraduate scholarship with a built-in supervisor and lived happily ever after.
A final advantage is that the students’ work is open so that they can read each other’s work. I tell them that the only feedback that I will give them (besides their weekly grade) is a paragraph to the entire group each week commenting on how they have done overall and I will name the two or three blog posts (gets to be more than that as the semester progresses) that I thought were exceptional (A+ posts). I find that at the beginning of the semester there is a wide spread of grades from a few A+ grades to a few D- grades. By the third week, the D- grades are gone and are replaced by C+ grades (either they get better at writing and researching or decide it is too much work and drop the class). By the end of the semester, 85% plus are getting B and A grades. I have students come to me during the semester and ask what they can do to get the allusive A grade and I ask them if they have read Jane Doe’s post this week (one of the posts that I will have mentioned). They will say yes, and I will ask them if their post is as good as Jane’s. When they say no, I will say to them “Jane’s post made me say WOW!, write yours and make me say WOW! When I read it, I’ll give you an A+." When they ask how, I tell them that if I knew I would package it, sell it and make a million. Almost invariably, a few weeks later, they manage to get an A grade.
With all of the attendant advantages, why would there be a drive to “protect” the students by staying within a traditional structure of writing for an audience of one? Exactly what are they being protected from? Reality?
I have used open-to-the-world writing with my students for many years with incredible success. On of my colleagues, after having a look at what some of my students were writing, asked me, “How do you get the exact same students that are in my class to write beautifully for you when they produce mediocre writing for me at best?” As my students have told me on a number of occasions, “Jesse, after a few weeks of producing our work this way you kind of drop out of the picture and we write for each other.” Fine by me. I’m there to foster learning, not cram them full of content.
Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.