Do You See What I See? Webcourses Peer Review versus Google Docs

From Melissa Ringfield —

I whirled into my 8:30 class with even more enthusiasm than normal (which is already at pretty obnoxious levels, especially that early).

“Wasn’t Webcourses Peer Review excellent?” I asked, pulling up the new schedule I’ve just made with several of our future in-class peer reviews changed to stayhome Webcourses peer reviews.

The voice that speaks up is loud and strong, belonging to one of my brightest, most confident students: “No. Not at all. Worst thing ever.”

Except she said it like this: “Worst. Thing. Ever.” My smile faltered a little, but I was sure this Webcourses peer review had been a success. “Really? But, you guys gave such good feedback.” I opened an example reviewed paper in SpeedGrader, which to me, looked like the solution to many of my peer review woes: a way to increase reviewer accountability and free up class time for individual conferences and extra office hours. Even more importantly, the feedback I had seen on the Webcourses drafts I had seen was strong—much stronger than I had imagined they were writing on each other’s papers in class.

But what I was seeing was not what they were seeing. I was seeing a full screen of SpeedGrader with comments logically placed by sections of their papers. They were seeing a tiny little box embedded into Webcourses, where they had to scroll left and right to see the whole paper and comments. Even with the Canvas Guide Directions and my attempts to supplement those directions, many students complained that they couldn’t find their partner’s paper or comments. One student logged in to show me what it looked like from his account. As soon as I saw it, I knew it wasn’t going to work. I changed the schedule back to in-class peer review as the students watched and muttered.

Having in-class peer reviews for the next couple of units wasn’t much of a problem, but I was determined to keep my plans for
the Portfolio Unit, with two weeks of conferences, at-home peer reviews, and constant revision. I spent the next couple of weeks coming up with alternate solutions: Shorter conferences mixed with some class meetings to exchange take-home peer reviews? Peer review through e-mail or discussion boards? Finally, one of my students suggested Google Docs.

I was worried about trying a new technology, especially so late in the semester, but after looking into it, Google Docs did seem like the best option. With the help of Chris Friend, I set up two weeks of online peer review and conferences.

As I type this, the first week of my Google Docs experiment is over, and I’m impressed with all the benefits I see: Draft changes are saved automatically and can be restored from any previous version. Students can make changes before and between peer reviews and make sure they are always getting feedback on their most current draft. Students can respond to each other’s comments and all comments and response are saved in a comments log, so I can easily see how their revision conversations progressed and how the writers implemented (or didn’t) peer feedback.

I had students submit links to their partners’ papers to Webcourses. SpeedGrader opens directly to their Google Docs, so I can see all comments and give feedback directly on the document so that the writer can see it to (support good advice, counter bad advice) or just to the reviewer through Webcourses.

The biggest hassle so far is getting the students to change the permission to allow me and their partners access to the document. It is the most important step in the whole process, but apparently it is easy to forget—even with it written ninety times all over every piece of direction they had for this assignment, sometimes highlighted, bolded, underlined, and in all caps, and eventually including notes like “FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND PURE IN THIS WORLD, CHANGE YOUR ACCESS TO ANYONE WITH THE LINK CAN COMMENT!!!” (Yes, being driven to all caps and multiple exclamation points is probably one of the low points in my teaching life.)

Besides the permissions problem, I also had to spend a lot of time coordinating and explaining the details for the students, and there was some resistance and skepticism at first. Since we’ve been conferencing, I still haven’t whirled into class to see if their enthusiasm for Google Docs matches mine, but the students I’ve talked to individually have given me positive feedback, and I’m convinced that Google Docs is a much more effective peer review tool than Webcourses and even in-class, one-on-one sessions. I’m hoping that next semester, when this is a part of the course from the beginning, it will be even more successful.

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