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Digital Writing

This page serves as the online “home base” for the CFT workshop titled “Digital Writing: Using Social Media to Enhance the Teaching of Writing” held on Thursday, February 11, 2010.

Please note that the CFT is holding another workshop on the topic of using blogs in teaching.  CFT Educational Technologist Rhett McDaniel is facilitating a “virtual brownbag” on teaching with blogs on February 25th.  More details are available here.


In a world of text-messaging, Facebook status updates, and Twitter, students are used to expressing themselves 140 characters or so at a time.  What kind of impact does this have on the teaching of writing to today’s college students?  When students post their essays on class blogs, making them visible to their peers and the open Web, what kind of effect does that kind of audience have on their writing?  Might students learn to write more effectively when they work together on written assignments using collaborative writing tools like Google Docs?

On Thursday, February 11th the CFT, in co-sponsorship with the Undergraduate Writing Program, will host the Conversation on Teaching Digital Writing: Using Social Media to Enhance the Teaching of Writing in order to begin dialogue to answer the questions above. To be held in Buttrick Hall, Room 205 from 4:10 – 5:30PM, the workshop will feature faculty panelists Jay Clayton, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor and Chair, Department of English; Jane Robbins, Senior Lecturer, Organizational Leadership; and Gabe Cervantes, Postdoctoral Fellow, English. Panelists will discuss how they have integrated various forms of digital writing in their courses, reflecting on best practices and digital writing’s potential to deepen and enrich student learning, as well as the challenges and pitfalls it can pose to students and instructors.

Panelist Resources

Session Highlights

During the workshop, CFT Assistant Director Derek Bruff tweeted some highlights from the panelist remarks and subsequent conversation.  For those of you not following the CFT on Twitter, here are Derek’s comments.

  • English prof Jay Clayton talking about his “Worlds of Wordcraft” course on narrative and virtual worlds. Course blog:
  • Jay had students use own blogs the 1st time, but that led to too many tech problems. Upshot: Don’t let the tech get in the way of learning.
  • Jay shares his blog traffic stats w/his students (up to 30-40K hits over the life of the blog). Gives the students a real sense of audience.
  • Another takeaway from Jay: *Informal* blog writing helped students better understand the *formal writing* they did in the course.
  • Jay’s students’ posts were informal, but not sloppy. Grammar, spelling, mechanical errors weren’t allowed.
  • Jay’s current course is on genetics and literature. Here’s the course blog: Blog categories generated from student tags.
  • Jay wants his students to tag their posts. It helps them contextualize their contributions and drives blog traffic.
  • Now hearing from Jane Robbins from Leadership, Policy, & Organizations at Peabody College. Leadership course blog:
  • Here are the slides Jane is using: [PPTX]. And here’s her Innovation course blog:
  • Jane gives her students a strict word count limit. Wants her students to practice concise, professional writing. But 250 words is too few.
  • Jane Robbins: Brings student blog posts into the classroom discussion. This keeps the blog work from being disconnected to rest of class.
  • Jane requires students to subscribe to the blog via email or RSS. That way they stay more regularly involved in the blog discussion.
  • Here’s a great post from Jane’s leadership course blog on superhero leadership: Lots of peer comments.
  • Jane: Course blogs do a great job of creating community among students, extending and applying the in-class discussion.
  • Next up: Gabe Cervantes on using Twitter in his “Lives of Slavery” course, an upper-level writing course on bios and autobios.
  • Gabe showing what’s out on Twitter by searching for #literature and showing the user @EmersonRalphyW.
  • Gabe: I’ve been commuting to and from school as a student or teacher for as long as Lady Gaga has been alive.
  • Gabe on Twitter vs. email: Twitter better for short, timely messages. Also puts more responsibility on students to stay current.
  • Gabe Cervantes now analyzing the Twitter bird as a metaphor. Drawing connections to Emerson’s writing and nature.
  • Emerson: “Language must be raked…” Language is something that has to be worked on, managed, curated, patterned.
  • Gabe’s next course will require students to post quotes from the reading on a course Twitter account.
  • Why? Should capture ephemeral responses to reading–what usually receives highlighting, underlining, or margin comments.
  • Also, literarary writers work by quoting and integrating the works of others. Students tweeting quotes brings them into this tradition.
  • Hmm, that should have been “literary” not “literarary.” Will Gabe count off for typos in his course?
  • Interesting comments about the public nature of course blogs. Students are writing to each other, but the public can “listen in.”
  • Jay Clayton: Course blogs, esp. w/large readerships, help students see themselves as producers, not just consumers, of knowledge.
  • Jay: When students see what search terrms are leading visitors to the blog, they find out that, say, high school students are reading them.
  • Jay Clayton creates categories for the course blog, like a table of contents. Students can make up their own tags, however.
  • Great discussion on the use of tags (students tagging their own posts, others’ posts) to help students synthesize course material.
  • One idea: No tags throughout the semester on course blog. Then give each student a copy of the whole blog & have them retroactively tag it.


  • Check out this short video from CommonCraft, “Blogs in Plain English,” for a quick introduction to blogs.  Or read EDUCAUSE’s two-page “7 Things You Should Know about Blogs” handout.


  • Check out this short video from CommonCraft, “Twitter Search in Plain English,” to get a sense of what kinds of productive conversations can happen on Twitter.  Or read EDUCAUSE’s “7 Things You Should Know about Twitter” two-page handout.

Google Docs

  • Check out this short video from CommonCraft, “Google Docs in Plain English,” for an easy-to-understand introduction to collaborative document writing via Google Docs.

Research on Digital Writing

FERPA Concerns

What about FERPA?  The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is designed to give students (and their families, when those students are in K-12 settings) control over their own academic data.  Following this federal law means that, for instance, you can’t post student grades outside your office door or return tests by putting them in a pile at the front of the room and having students look through the pile to find their own.  The decision to disclose a student’s grade to someone else should reside with the student, not with you.

How does FERPA apply to online writing done by students?  That’s a frequent worry by instructors interested in digital writing.  Here’s what the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative says:

Institutions should seek advice from their campus general counsel about potential liabilities associated with student speech and potential violations of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). If a course is required for graduation, the instructor may be violating FERPA by insisting that students submit their work to a public site—giving up a privacy right—as a condition of enrollment. FERPA legislation does not explicitly address these and other questions involving emerging technologies. For this reason, it is important that institutions seek the advice of legal counsel to ensure that their student privacy policies take into account emerging technologies such as blogging.

How do other institutions deal with this question?  North Carolina State University has a policy addressing this question, available in this Word document.  (A sample student consent form is included in there, as well.)  You can see Colorado Community Colleges Online’s take on the issue in this interactive quiz.

For some articulate student thoughts on this question, see the comments on this post on the Instructional Design and Development Blog of DePaul University.

Other Resources