Monday, October 28, 2013

Self-, Peer- and Computer-assisted feedback on writing

The teaching profession is traditionally very conservative to take on board new approaches, or explore alternative methodologies. There are good reasons for being wary of new or trendy movements.  However, as we have shown in our brief history of educational technology, there are times when established practices do need to evolve and move on.  One such area in the teaching of English as a foreign language is the use of computer-assisted writing feedback and collaboration in the drafting, revision and rewriting process. Although hard to believe, well into the 21st century, it is not uncommon to find institutions that still insist on all writing being done on paper, in pencil, through all the drafting stages up to and including the final draft. This procedure seems to be grounded in the popular myth of 'no pain, no gain'  and that somehow a spell-checker will encourage students to be lazy and hinder their learning of English.

Not unsurprisingly, there appears to be no evidence in the literature that this popular misconception is the case. However, there are cautionary tales that suggest it is the responsibility of parents and the educational system to teach awareness and digital literacy skills to make students more critical of automated writing aids, such as grammar- and spell-checkers.  Beyond the maligned spell-checker, research suggests that there are great benefits in computer-assisted feedback, and in particular computer-mediated reflection on writing and the process of self- and peer-editing. Research done almost a decade ago in Canada by Li Jan highlights the fact that that language learners paid more attention to higher order thinking activities when using computers to evaluate their written texts. In addition, the level and nature of revisions were significantly more sophisticated when using the computer. What is perhaps most striking is the fact that the computer-assisted revision process resulted in much higher scores in argumentation than the hand-written ones. Li Jan's findings pointed to the fact that educators should seriously consider the impact of computers on writing assessment. In fact, it is obvious that students who are taught at institutions who do not embrace such computer-assisted writing practices are disadvantaged when compared to students in institutions that do.

A more recent study by Yan Yu-Fen demonstrated that the use of reflection in the self- and peer-feedback in the writing process was dramatically enhanced in an online environment. So, it seems that we can have our cake and eat it too when it comes to promoting self- and peer-feedback--combining the use of computers as the medium of communication with face-to-face interaction takes writing to greater heights than just relying on one or the other.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that combining face-to-face feedback with computer-mediated feedback has great advantages. Nowadays, the use of collaborative Web2.0 tools, such as the humble WIKI, is showing great potential. Research published in 2013 by Li, Chu & Woo clearly demonstrates that there is not a 'one-size fits all' approach to developing writing skills, but that traditional face-to-face interaction can be greatly enhanced with computer-mediated avenues to share and collaborate, resulting in a much more productive and enhanced development of language learning.

So, the question really is not whether we should integrate technology and Web2.0 tools into the writing process in foreign language learning, but rather which tools and in what balance should we do this, right from the very beginning of learning English. As Li Jan pointed out in her research almost a decade ago, the inescapable fact is that word processing has become an absolutely essential tool for everyone. Therefore, we as teachers must not only accept the computer as an established writing tool, but actively promote and teach our students the necessary computer-based writing skills and critical awareness of the limitation of certain automated feedback systems. Li, Chu & Woo have gone on to demonstrate that it is not just the humble word-processor, but it is the collaborative environment of wikis (like GOOGLE DOCs) which shows the greatest promise of developing writing skills.  

If we don't rethink the way we teach writing, and the integration of various types of technology into the learning process, then our students will lag behind students who have been taught to engage with and effectively use 21st century writing tools.  Even now as I write, I have begun to notice the emerging use of mobile devices as a language production aid.   What do you think?  Can we continue to consider writing as an activity conducted only with pen and paper?


  1. Hi,
    I think, it's a controversial issue nowadays. Technology, laptops, smartphones, tablets, pods, pads etc are everywhere now. Thus, we have this conflict whether how far we should make use of those and to what extent we should stick to conventional methods. Because new technological advances have started to take their place in the educational context for about the last decade (roughly) one main reason for this conflict or confusion (if you please) is that there isn't enough research to prove either way. However, we cannot deny the fact that younger generations tend to move towards these new technological gadgets on all aspects of life. Thus, we'll have to find ways to move into that in some way. Then again, I shall have to state that many links I've found (so far) seem to be supporting "Handwriting" more when it comes to "learning". Here are some links on the topic:






    1. Hi!

      Thanks for the research into handwriting! Couldn't agree more about the research confirming the importance of handwriting (if I understand correctly, this is related to the fact that learning seems to be reinforced by the physical act of writing). I guess the same could be said of carving letters out of rock, or creating cuneiforms in clay. :)

      Nevertheless, interesting to note that many tablets, like the Samsung Note, actually incorporate a stylus for handwriting which indirectly supports your idea about the importance of handwriting.. So, it would seem like a logical idea to combine handwriting (for a first draft) and then move on to typing (as a final draft). ;) Whether the 'handwriting' actually occurs in ink on paper is another matter. :)

      But your point about the fast pace of change in technology makes me think that in a few years we will be talking to our computers, and will use keyboards less and less. Since actual handwriting (or any kind of writing) has occurred in the the last 0.05% of our evolutionary past, verbal communication would seem to be the 'natural' way we communicate. In the ScienceDaily article, Mangen says "When writing by hand, the movements involved leave a motor memory in the sensorimotor part of the brain, which helps us recognise letters....This also happens when you observe someone doing something. You don't have to do anything yourself. Hearing about or watching some activity is often enough. It may even suffice to observe a familiar tool associated with a particular physical activity." So perhaps technology will soon provide ways for us to input knowledge that are sympathetic to our evolutionary past.

      For now, I agree that research suggests there is value to handwriting, certainly at the early learning stages. However, at a certain point it is necessary to use a keyboard, and it would seem prudent to integrate that into the learning process for adult students who will be writing reports, essays, etc. in less than a year when they are in their departments. The question is about the path we follow and whether we actually need to kill trees to accomplish it. :)

  2. This is a very useful post!

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