The All Digital Distance Writing Course

The student-writing workflow at the university level is typicallya four-phase cycle: (1) a professor issues a set of instructions fora writing assignment; (2) a student constructs a document; (3) theprofessor reviews and comments upon the document; and (4) theprofessor returns the document to the student. This writing workflowis gradually being computerized, but for the time being isuncomfortably suspended between electronic processing and thepre-digital information technologies of paper and pencil. That is,most university students write their many required reports on wordprocessors. Then they convert the reports to paper so that aprofessor can read them and provide feedback in the form of scribbledmarginal and interlinear comments.

This hybrid process is with us (despite its many drawbacks) for asimple reason: It is very easy for a professor to write on studentpapers, much easier than any of the computer-mediated alternatives.At least that was the case when, in 1996, I started to think aboutteaching a distance course in advanced business writing. The mainimpediment: How could I eliminate paper from the student-writingworkflow process and still be able to provide my students the kind offeedback that is precisely focused on specific words, phrases andsentences?

This article is about that course (which I have now taught twotimes) and the software tools that eliminated paper from the processand enhanced my ability to provide constructive feedback. Though myexperience is based in the work life of the university, I believe thelessons learned are relevant to the pedagogical uses of writing onany level. 

Time Efficiencies

Undergraduate writing courses are among the most labor intensiveof the typical offerings at the junior college and university levels.This fact was in the foreground of my thinking as I firstcontemplated the possible mode and methods of a distance "English302: Advanced Business Writing." I didn't want to undertake a venturethat would increase my workload. Rather I wanted the technologies ofdistance learning to reallocate the time required to teach andadminister a course. The result I looked for was a distance coursethat would produce time efficiencies that could then be used toenhance the learning process.

That's not so much an ideal view of the matter as it is acontinuous improvement goal. The increasing constraints on the timeand energies of students and professors require that we wring out thewaste in the learning process. For me, the starting point in theredesign of my English 302 was my own travel time. The 30 miles oftraffic clogged space that separate my home in Maryland and myclassroom in Northern Virginia represented 90 minutes of daily effortthat could be liberated for better educational uses. I just needed tofigure out how to get myself off of the Capital beltway and onto theinformation super highway.

I had some of the tools. To supplement George Mason University'sdependable but clunky Unix e-mail system (Pine), I had learned how todownload, configure and employ the much friendlier and moresophisticated Eudora. Eudora's filters, in particular, offered a wayto route and organize incoming student e-mail. I had also learned thebasics of HTML and had quickly realized (despite the admonitions ofHTML purists) that Claris PageMaker (and Microsoft FrontPage) couldautomate the Web construction process without any loss ofquality.

Two English adjunct professors were already teaching computermediated distance-writing courses and I knew I could depend on themfor support and guidance. A summer course offering, lasting only fiveweeks, promised ease of design and a significant savings in traveltime &emdash; 25 trips times two beltway hours equals about a week ofworking hours freed up for better pedagogical uses. The only apparentobstacle to the undertaking was the writing workflow feedback system.How could digital tools reproduce the ease with which I wroteinterlinear and marginal commentary on my students' documents?

It took me a while to find an acceptable solution. ProfessorsCrouch and Montecino, my pioneering colleagues whose distanceteaching efforts served to benchmark my own efforts, had studentspost their essays on Web pages. Then they provided commentary andrequests for revision either via e-mail or on the asynchronousconferencing tool, Town Hall. The problem is it's very difficult touse these tools to insert commentary in a student report. It can bedone, but the procedure and the product are (to my mind) both clumsyand inefficient. The consequence: Professors Crouch and Montecinolimited their feedback to holistic comments that were not directlylinked to specific parts of student texts. I felt that I could not dodistance learning until I could find a way to liberate myself fromthis constraint. 

Enter CommonSpace

Fortunately, I got my hands on a collaborative writing programthat appeared in an educational technology publication. My firstdiscovery was the utter friendliness of the software. This I regardas the critical virtue of any software I plan to use with mystudents. When help is not immediately available and deadlines aretight, the tools with which we do our work must be dependable andpredictable. Otherwise, the emotional costs outweigh thebenefits.

As a collaborative writing tool, CommonSpace is firstly a powerfulword processor that students can learn to use in about 15 minutes.Anyone who has worked with Microsoft Word or Corel WordPerfect willfind CommonSpace's drop down menus familiar and easy to use. Thebasic functions &emdash; open and close documents, import text, cut,copy and paste &emdash; are all readily available, as are thecontrols for line spacing, margin justification, word count,spellcheck, font selection, italics, underlining and text color.

But CommonSpace's comprehensive word processing capabilities arejust the necessary background for the functions that make the programunique among any potential competitors. Its linked column feature iswhat makes the tool able to reproduce the writing workflow feedbackpractices that I regard as an indispensable part of professors'relationships with their students.

Inorder to explain how the linked column function works, I need todepict the way that CommonSpace organizes the writing workflow in myEnglish 302. In the first of four phases, the student writer &emdash;call her Helga &emdash; opens a CommonSpace document just as onewould with Word or WordPerfect. The one notable difference is thatthe CommonSpace document includes a horizontal bar at the top,immediately under the drop down menus. This bar serves to identifyand distinguish between different document spaces, which CommonSpacerefers to as "columns."

With a new column before her, Helga accesses the settings in thecolumn menu and gives the column a name, in this case "Helga 2,"which indicates that this is the first draft of the second report.This naming procedure is a critical administrative procedure: itorganizes the file routing process and enables the sorting of themany incoming and outgoing documents generated by a class of 22writing students. If naming procedures aren't worked out in advance,a professor will waste a significant amount of time just identifyingthe contents of various documents.

For"Helga 2," Helga writes a 1,000 word research report on a topic suchas "virtual organization" or "business process engineering." Sheattends to formatting as usual, and then saves the document to herhard drive before routing it (via the WWW) to me. The means ofexchange is a Web site to which files are uploaded and downloaded. Tocomplete the writing workflow process, Helga and I will exchange herdocument four times. Each exchange requires a new name. Thus, after Ihave reviewed and commented upon "Helga 2," I send it back as "Helga2 + JF." Her subsequent revision (a required part of the course)comes back to me as "Helga 2R." In the last phase, I review and grade"Helga 2R" and return it as "Helga 2R + JF." Note also that eachversion of the report is stored in a folder on my hard drive so thatI maintain a complete (and easy to access) archival record of theentire writing process.

Linked Comments

So that we can see the role that linked columns play in theworkflow, let me return to the moment when I receive a first studentdraft, in this case, "Helga 2 ." After downloading the report andopening it in CommonSpace, I click on "new column" to create a seconddocument space right next to Helga's. Just imagine a vertically splitscreen with Helga's text and its own column bar on the left, and anew column with its own column bar on the right. In this new space,which I name "Helga 2 + JF," I write comments and requests forrevisions. Thus when Helga receives my work, what she sees when shescrolls down the page is a set of comments that are linked to herfirst draft.

As noted, such links are easy to make with pen and paper. This isa familiar and obvious process for anyone who has ever reviewed andgraded student writing. The commentator underlines or encircles asection of text to be commented upon and then uses a graphic device(perhaps an arrow or a line) to connect the selected text to themarginal comment. CommonSpace digitally reproduces thistechnique.

First, I identify a part of Helga's text that deserves commentary.(I may want to praise the shape of a particular sentence or tosuggest that a paragraph be positioned elsewhere in the report.)Second, I drag the cursor over the words in question in order to markthem and, third, I click the cursor in the column next to Helga'sdraft. Whatever I then type will be linked to the words I selected inHelga's text. The process reverses itself when Helga reviews mycomments. When she clicks on a comment in my column, a box appearsaround the linked text in her column.

Two additional features are worth noting here. Both address theissue of repeatability and time. Throughout my career I have writtenthe same comments (e.g., "this paragraph lacks coherence") thousandsof times. CommonSpace simplifies the process by allowing acommentator to construct a library of frequently used comments. Thistakes an upfront investment but it pays off every time anoft-repeated phrase, rather than being rewritten yet again, isdragged from the library and used as a linked comment. The otherfeature allows a commentator to hyperlink a phrase (e.g., "commasplice") to a section of CommonSpace's embedded writing handbook. Thestudent clicks on the hot phrase and calls up a discussion of theproblem with examples of correct and incorrect usage.

I have learned that the digital production of linked commentstakes longer than the older pen and paper process. I can't type asfast as I write and I need to spellcheck my comments to pick uptypographical errors. But in this case, very real benefits derivefrom the additional time invested. First, Helga d'esn't have tocontend with my handwriting, which is often cryptic. Second, I havean easily retrievable record (as d'es the student) of my commentary.Third, consider what happens when I review Helga's revision, "Helga2R." At this point in the workflow, the file contains three parallelcolumns: Helga's first draft, my linked comments and her revision.With such a display before me, I don't have to remember what kind ofchanges I called for: I just look at my comments and compare them toHelga's responsive revisions. Imagine how difficult this would bewith paper.

The point is, CommonSpace reproduces the virtues of paper basedmarginal commentary and then exceeds them. A comparison of apaper-based draft with its revision is cumbersome at best.CommonSpace simplifies the task with a "compare" feature thatdisplays all the deletions and additions made by a student. Thefeature d'es not eliminate the need for a careful review of therevision but it d'es give a quick sense of the extent andsignificance of the student effort. In some cases, for example, theinstructor sees that a student's revisions are limited to theaddition and deletion of a few phrases here and there.

Continuous Improvement

One of the joys of teaching (especially with IT tools) is thediscovery of better ways to achieve learning objectives. During mysecond outing with CommonSpace I adopted a couple of new learningenhancements and began to see how I could add a new wrinkle the nexttime I teach English 302.

The first enhancement was made possible by CommonSpace's hot linkfeature. All but one of my assignments requires research on the Weband an appropriate bibliography. Such student research anddocumentation efforts are always problematic because students willfudge their results, for example, by citing resources that aren'trelevant or that they've never really used. They know that theprofessor usually d'esn't have the time to track down the sources tocheck out the authenticity of their references. A hotlinked URL instudent bibliographies minimizes the problem. Reading their reportswhile I'm linked to the Web, I can click on their references, godirectly to the Web site from which they have (supposedly) drawnmaterial, and quickly determine if in fact the reference isauthentic. Once the students realize how easy it is for me to checktheir research, I see a significant improvement in their researchassignments.

The second enhancement is a digitized record of each student'sspecific learning needs. Once again, we will need to compare thismethod to paper-based approaches. A writing instructor develops anddeepens her understanding of students' learning needs as she readstheir assignments. If she's methodical and well organized, she willtake a moment, after grading an assignment, to note strengths andweaknesses. The resulting record allows the instructor to besystematic about designing individualized learning programs andtracking student performance.

What happens in fact is that many writing instructors don't takethe time to keep such a record, preferring instead to depend uponmemory. With CommonSpace, however, such a record exists in the nicelydigitized marginal feedback an instructor provides her students.Realizing that this was the case, I made it a habit to copy mymarginal comments into a separate file and thereby created an easilyaccessible assignment-by-assignment record of student needs andstudent development. Whenever I wanted to assess student learning, Iwould refer to this file for an accurate picture of performance.

Having learned how to use CommonSpace to teach a summer distancewriting course, I'm now starting to design a full blown, regularsemester, 14-week English 302B. One of its central features will be astudent peer review, an activity for which there is little time in asummer distance course. Given the longer time frame, I plan to havestudents exchange drafts for review and critique by members of theirgroup. Using the CommonSpace linked columns, the students willprovide their peers with feedback to be acted upon well before anassignment reaches me. The product I finally receive will consist ofa first draft column, one or more columns with linked peer comments,and a revision column, all neatly bundled in a single digitalfile.

This vision of my next distance writing course is pretty modest inthat it just projects current classroom-based practices intocyberspace. Surely the digital revolution is going to produce muchmore significant transformations in the way we teach writing. Thus asI contemplate digital files speeding their way through future nets offiber optic, I'm trying to imagine what megabit/second transferspeeds and online multimedia presentations are going to do to and forthe business of writing instruction. Will the evaluation of studentwriting be outsourced to anglophonic readers in other countries? Willthe pictorial attributes of the WWW require that we instruct studentsin the rhetorical uses of graphic elements, audio and streamingvideo? Will the virtual distribution of the writing classroommotivate vendor developed online systems to aid invention, to supportthe learning of grammar, or to address ESL needs? Will writingstudents in one part of the nation, such as Seattle, certify theirown writing abilities by helping student writers via videoconferencein, say, Miami? All this, and technovisions now unimaginable, timewill unfold.


J'el Foreman is an Associate Professor at George Mason Universityin Fairfax, Va., where he holds a joint appointment with the EnglishDepartment and the Program on Social and Organizational Learning. Hisareas of special interest are popular culture and the organization ofdistance learning experiences. Foreman teaches distance courses inadvanced business writing and "The Virtual Organization." E-mail:[email protected]

Editor's note: CommonSpace is published by Sixth Floor Media, aneducational software group within Houghton Mifflin's CollegeDivision. Educators can test the product for up to 90 days, theneither purchase or return it. For details, call (800) 565-6247 orvisit

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.