Discussion of the Annotated Logs
The most basic feature of MOO-based conferencing is that it brings students together with tutors, instructors, and peers, facilitating discussion on writing. For this reason, all written discussion about the writing process is metacognitive--the students are writing about their writing. When Amanda talks to Riceman about her subject's relationship to the community, she discusses the amount of information the audience needs in order to understand the subject, and when she comes to terms with the citation of her sources, she is thinking about and articulating issues in her writing in writing. Likewise, when Flipper attempts to articulate for her tutor precisely what she is trying to get at with her writing, when she tries to gauge the amount of information her audience needs about the setting of her essay, and when she reasons which kinds of interviews and sources will strengthen her presentation, she is practicing writing out the problems and issues that she is facing in her writing situation, and she is articulating how she can resolve those issues with revision.
When I conference with students, I attempt to act as a coach for metacognitive dialogue, raising issues in their writing that could use attention and allowing them to follow through with the reflective (and projective) writing. For example, in my conference with Mindy, I ask her to explain to me what she wants to accomplish with her letter, and she attempts to articulate in writing what she wants to make happen (which she hadn't yet articulated in her paper). Similarly, near the beginning of her conference, Anne reflects on the situation that she is writing about; later, I ask her to work on coming up with some arguments to support her proposal; then, she develops arguments that will refute her audience's possible counter-arguments. After I offer Anne an example of an argument and a refutation and then ask her to think up a few of her own, she is able to revise her earlier attempts into more full and affective arguments, read back through them while online, and further revise immediately with me there. Importantly, the tutor and teacher must facilitate the students' metacognitive writing but let the student do the reflecting; after all, metacognition doesn't refer to a writer's knowledge of how her tutor or teacher writes or learns, it's her knowledge of how she learns.
resembles the familiar patterns of everyday conversation. In a good conversation--in some respects predictable and in others not--participants pick up and develop themes of talk, each spinning out variations on her repertoire of things to say. Conversation is a collective verbal improvisation. . . . [T]here may be surprises, unexpected turns of phrase or directions of development to which participants invent on-the-spot responses. In such examples, the participants are making something. (30-31)
When the students' synchronous reflection works well, they often experience moments of acquired insight (the famed "aha moments"), or they at least appear to put together a lesson about writing that they will carry with them past the current writing project. During my conference with Anne, we talk about the structure of her paper, and after articulating the progression of how she planned to present her argument, she grins, "I think i am starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel :)" I offer a few other possible ways of re-structuring her paper, and she responds, "no i kthink that the background needs to be at the beging to grab the attention of the reader to make them realize that kthey messed up a night that every one remembers ---THE PROM night -----i think that it would have a greater effect." This kind of executive decision on the direction of a paper is what happens in the best writing conferences: the teacher offers some options, and the writer discovers the most effective direction for her paper and clings to it, establishing not only a clear plan for revision, but also the ultimate authority over the writing.
Flipper's session with her tutor, casimar, is full of such reflective learning moments. Early in the conversation, casimar suggests that there are two issues in the paper that Flipper hadn't connected: "casimar says, 'I was kind of wondering--is the paper more about the coffee shop or the boringness?'" Though the paper was really about both issues, casimar finds that she had not explained that the owner of the coffee shop opened his establishment in order to help alleviate "boringness" in Flipper's home town. By probing her with questions, casimar helps Flipper come to her own realization--"ah i see what you are saying now ....i need to ask mike why he chose a coffee shop instead of ...a shoe store." Similarly, earlier in the conversation, casimar asks Flipper several questions about detailed information regarding her town in order to illustrate that her audience needs more detail.
Very often, however, writers learn more and reflect more after the MOO sessions with the logs than while they were online. The post-essay reflections nearly unanimously claim that using the logs after the sessions help them assemble and make use of the conferences. In those responses, Janet explains that the logs helped her "reflect back on and see what people had mentioned that I had forgot"; Mindy claims that having the log with her and highlighting it helped her remember what she needed to work on during revision; Amanda finds that not everything she and her tutor talked about was even clear to her until reading it in the log; Chris writes, "I referred back to my MOO log at least 5 times during the writing of this paper. It was the biggest help of the semester for a paper."
More important than the logs simply serving as a memory-prod is the extended dialogue the students have about the writing issues while they annotate the logs. Often, students will simply write comments in the margins that describe their feelings about the conversations they had online. For example, some of Chris's annotations go no farther than noting that he remembered enjoying writing the paper, explaining his motives for writing what he wrote online, and claiming that the conversation was helpful. But the annotations that benefit the students more are those that actually re-open the conversations that took place online. When Chris reasons that his town's problems actually stem from its growth and money, when he predicts the downfall of the town if crime continues, when he decides that the town council will respond to his letter since they are active, and when he feels positive because he will be doing the town some good with the letter, he is actually re-engaging the conversation and letting his reflection foster new learning.
One of the logs that most dynamically illustrates this re-engagement of the conversation is Amanda's. Amanda comments when she hears interesting use of language on the MOO, important ideas for revision, humorous interaction, and commendation from her tutor. More importantly, she re-addresses nearly every question and issue that she and her tutor raise on the log, sometimes giving new answers, sometimes asking new questions, sometimes expanding on why she finds particular passages important, and almost always re-thinking the content of her writing and the writing conference.
One of the more interesting sets of annotated MOO logs is from the peer group. Reading through the transcript of Janet, Cathy, and April's conversation, I would assess that the peer conference seems somewhat less productive than the other conferences. However, I think that the variety of annotations to the logs of this conference is important to note.
Probably the student whose paper is discussed the most in the conference is Janet. And in her annotating, Janet focuses on why she chose the topic she chose, the status of her subject (her home town), where she intends to look for resource information, some opinions about the topic she is discussing with her peers, and other related comments. Cathy, whose only topic idea was disintegrating, spends her entire annotation process comparing her lack of a topic to Janet's writing success: "She had a lot of things she could do with her topic. Now, I was unsure where to even start." Finally, April, who was quite concerned with the appropriateness of her bibliographic resources, wrote nearly every annotation on the availability of sources for her peers' papers.
Though this peer conference was short and rather limited, the reflection and annotation of the logs illustrated to the students how differently they read the exact same situation: Janet read the log as a testimony to her thriving writing process; Cathy read it as a marker of her current failure to produce a subject to write on; and April read it as a commentary on three different states of resource availability. Seeing the different annotated logs allowed the peers to more fully understand each others' thinking process and to support each with advice and encouragement.
Perhaps even more interestingly, the students' post-essay reflections on the peer conference attests to a situation peculiar to this conference: since the peer conferences occurred in a computer lab during class time, several of the MOO-based peer groups actually sat at adjacent terminals; Janet, Cathy, and April were positioned in this way. In their responses, each student confesses to talking orally often, rather than staying inside the MOO environment. Cathy writes,
we stopped typing and started talking about it, since we were sitting right next to each other. I think that if they had been sitting in different places of the room, it would have been easier to talk about the assignment online instead of face-to-face, which is how it always ended up.
The students seemed to think that talking face-to-face was breaking a rule or conducting the conference "wrong." On the contrary, though talking on the computer and off at the same time might be complicated and somewhat distracting, it seems like it could be a rich way to talk and reflect-in-action with a multi-media approach. The action that Janet, Cathy, and April are describing is to first write about their writing process on the MOO, and when they really get interested in an aspect of the writing process--too interested to let typing slow them down--they jump off of the computers and reflect on the subject face-to-face. They then return to the computer until another subject pulls them into the physical reality to reflect on it offline. Had I been aware of the team's complex version of reflection-in-action, I might have asked them to illustrate their action to the rest of the class, made sure that every peer group was sitting next to each other, and suggested they all leave the MOO for the face-to-face setting if they needed that kind of reflection. It is unfortunately true that the printed logs of the MOO discussions cannot feature the discussion that occurs when the students switch to the face-to-face mode of reflection, but the natural back-and-forth of the media, supporting a rich form of reflection-in-action, might be worth the occasional lack of transcript.
MOO-based Metacognition: Incorporating Online and Offline
Reflection into the Writing Process