Wednesday, June 11, 2014

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.

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