Friday, May 20, 2016

OW Instructional Tool Review: Providing Public and Private Online Writing Spaces through WordPress

WordPress is a free blogging and website platform available on the web. Currently, WordPress hosts more than a quarter of content on the web and users create more than 50,000 WordPress sites daily. Users can choose free blog or site hosting to more supported web hosting that can cost up to a few hundred dollars a year. Because this platform is easy to use, it has become popular with businesses, organizations, schools and personal bloggers. Their website,, makes it easy to get started, and after a few clicks and an e-mail address verification, a user can create a blog or website, completely free. While WordPress was not created as an educational tool, educators have been using WordPress for over a decade and have found the benefits of the platform worth its third-party implementation.
My review of WordPress focuses on the “public” and “private” post option the design affords. I am realizing how and why public and private online writing, as in Wordpress blogging, leads to higher quality and/ or more reflective writing especially throughout the drafting phases of a writing project in OWC. And WordPress is the only free blogging software I have looked into that affords students the ability to post both publicly and privately on the same online space. The research concerning public and private online writing spaces was not surprising: writing in public online spaces affords a legitimate audience for student work which leads to higher quality work (Ewing; Foster; Nobles & Paganucci; Novakovich); online writing in private spaces demonstrates more personal risk taking and admission of misconceptions (Foster); and verbalizing (writing about) these misconceptions may lead to / is required for positive growth (Foucault). I propose that one, contained and online space that provides room for both (1) private reflection and (2) public feedback from legitimate audiences will result in more meaningful dialogues about rhetoric and writing processes; this reflection will then lead to higher quality student writing.
As a starting point, writing online in spaces like WordPress serves to meet the students where they are. Certainly, this meets the OWI Principle 3 of “maximizing the distinct opportunities of the electronic writing environment” (52). For example, Ewing develops a case for OWC students to write where they are already selectively reading and writing- online, public spaces - because there is a need to teach students that “their writing can be rhetorical and relevant in cyberspace” (554).
Another possible benefit of composing on WordPress is pointed out by Nobles and Paganucci. They claim that writing classes should incorporate more opportunities for students to compose and provide feedback online, as students perceive their writing of higher quality when writing online. The authors base their study on previous scholarship which indicates that “digital tools positively impact the writing process in three ways: increased feedback, connection to authentic audiences, and opportunities for multi-modal composing” (17). What I appreciated about this study is that the revision/ feedback components were assigned, but the online conversations about writing were observed to gradually become more natural and went beyond the assignment (26). The interaction on customizable third-party blog platforms, like WordPress, afford “personalized and interpersonal online communities to foster student success,” a grounding principle of OWI (Hewett 73). I understand that some instructors perceive assigned comments, like those on blogs, possibly unhelpful; yet the research here leaves skeptic instructors, like myself, with something to consider.
The research by Foster and Novakovich, respectively, seem to provide hopeful conclusions about the benefits of public and private online writing. J. Novakovich discusses her study about how using blogs for writing feedback resulted in higher quality writing and feedback. The conclusions of Novakovich’s study indicates that “when performing on blogs, students engage in more directive and critical feedback then they do when engaged in traditional classroom practices” (25). Despite the small sample size of Novakovich’s study, instructors may correlate her findings with peer feedback assignments posted on platforms like WordPress.
Moreover, WordPress takes the edge off OW instructors’ frustration and disappointment with their efforts to overcome a common OWC difficulty: peer-review. With this challenge in mind, both Foster and Novakovich’s respective results show that writing on public spaces provides a legitimate audience for students, inspiring more risk but also higher quality work. Also, since the blogging group in Novakovich’s study generated more “directive” comments, both the reviewer and writer participated in reflective, text-based dialogues that required critical analysis for implementation.
Theoretically, public and private dialogues are natural techniques for human reflection, so it makes sense to implement this type of composition into OWC. Looking at theoretical frameworks like Michel Foucault’s Technologies of the Self, reminds writing instructors that students may require varying “technologies” to bring forth quality writing , as various technologies, like writing and psychology, work together to provide a manufactured sense of self to the individual and society that is acceptable to the powers that be. Additionally, Foucault understands that within modern times, confession, like the writing done on private blog spaces, is no longer used as a means of repudiation, but as a means of constructing a more “[positive], new self” (49), a result that Foster observes in his experimental private blogging group (111). I appreciate the combination of both private and public writing in OWC, as this mirrors the public and private self that normal humans switch between anyhow. Like Foucault, I wonder how individuals change their [multimodal] representations, including their thoughts, as a reaction to others’ powerful perception.  I consider this a foundational question for writing instructors to ask themselves when they assign reflective and/ or public blogs in class, especially in asynchronous OWC, as face-to-face interaction may be limited or non-existent.
Unfortunately, the tedious and error-prone privacy settings on WordPress don’t make the platform a right fit for my OW courses. Basically, after a user writes a post on WordPress, they have the option to make posts “public,” which allows their peers to read and comment. I do admit that the interaction on customizable third-party blog platforms, like WordPress, afford “personalized and interpersonal online communities to foster student success,” a grounding principle of OWI.
For private posts, students would need to password protect the post. This provides me, the instructor, access to private posts through a non-editor or non-administrator setting, allowing me to view and comment on their site more safely and ethically than Google Sites.

Despite these affordances, there is too much room for error when establishing this setting for each and every post, both for the student and myself. While I appreciate that I can view these posts on the same page as their public drafts (with comments), at this point, I don’t consider the extra steps for the private posts worth the time and effort for both instructor and student. Additionally, although an easier private pre-setting is available, it requires a plug-in, and is only available with paid WordPress plans. If instructors are seeking a user-friendly online public space for student writing, WordPress would be an adequate platform, just as many others.

Works Cited
Ewing, Laura A. “Rhetorically Analyzing Online Composition Spaces.” Pedagogy. 13.3  (2013): 554-561. ProjectMuse. Web. 12 May 2016.
Foster, Drew. "Private Journals versus Public Blogs: The Impact of Peer Readership on Low-stakes Reflective Writing.” Teaching Sociology. 43.2  (2015): 104-114. Sage. Web. 23 March 2016.
Foucault, Michel, et al. Technologies Of The Self : A Seminar With Michel Foucault. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 14 May 2016.
Hewett, Beth L., and DePew, Kevin Eric (Eds.) Foundational Practices of Online Writing Instruction. Fort Collins: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press, 2015. PDF file.
Nobles, Susanne, Laura Paganucci. “Do Digital Writing Tools Deliver? Student Perceptions of Writing Quality Using Digital Tools and Online Writing Environments.” Computers and Composition. 38.1  (2015): 16-31. Elsevier. Web. 12 May 2016.
Novakovich, J. “Fostering critical thinking and reflection through blog-mediated peer feedback.” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning. 32.1  (2016): 16-30. Web. 23 March 2016.

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