"I enjoyed [the discussions] entirely. It is always interesting to hear what others have to say on some of the most important topics out there."This quote from one of our students suggests that peer collaboration can effectively make the transition from the traditional classroom to an online one. Other students benefited from peer collaboration in different ways:
"I actually liked doing these discussions because I believe that I learned more about my classmates while doing this. Some of the discussions were really personal and I think it is great that none of them got out of hand . . . I am a shy person when it comes to answering questions in class. With this online course I can state my opinion and people respond to it without having me be nervous, while waiting for their response."
"I will take from those discussions the experience of never meeting my classmates in person, but having a sense of who they are just by the words they write."
These two quotes suggest that it may be easier for shy students to become actively involved in writing communities online. Further, it seems clear that these online communities are just as "real" and productive for participants as their face-to-face counterparts are. However, this experience was not shared by all:
"This class challenged me because it was mainly yourself that you had to work with. I have always been an advocate of group work and being able to have face-to-face, emotional feedback. I learned really quickly that the computer certainly does not offer all of those things that I have always loved within my classes...Even though we did have peer reviews, they were not the same as they would have been in an actual classroom atmosphere."
This student clearly found peer review in this online environment less satisfying than face-to-face peer review experiences from a previous class. Perhaps this student's belief that online peer review should function identically to face-to-face peer review is unrealistic. Other students' comments suggest that this activity can be more effective online:
"I remember last semester when we would do peer reviews in class we would sit there and maybe change one sentence and then just talk for the rest of class or just leave . . . I was a little skeptical about going into an internet English class, but I think it really turned out for the better."
"I truly believe that the weaknesses I had at the beginning of the semester have really improved, and I no longer fear those aspects of my writing. I owe a lot of that improvement to A, J, and S who week in and week out gave me great advice on my essays. The advice they gave me pushed me to go further in my research and keep the reader informed. It was nice to have student to student help, instead of student - teacher all the time. I'm really glad I decided to do the internet course, because it was a great experience. Thank you so much everybody."
These quotes suggest that some students found online peer reviews to be more productive than face-to-face reviews. One possible reason may be that the format of online peer review requires students to stay on task and be more deliberate as they compose and read responses. As they become comfortable responding to each other (calling each other by name, thanking group members for their thoughtful participation, etc.), peers begin to take ownership of their revising and editing choices and gain trust in their communal interaction. This de-centering of teacher authority is a goal that has been difficult to obtain in face-to-face writing classrooms.
"I really learned a lot from them. It’s sort of odd, but when you step out of your circle of friends and family you get to see all of the different opinions that are out there, and you can respect them and argue them. It’s a great way to expand your mind and learn new things, and not get offended."
These quotes indicate that many students find online peer collaboration and peer review easier and more helpful than their face-to-face counterparts. Online, some students are less afraid to voice their honest opinions to their peers. Perhaps the difference is in the level of emotional feedback perceived by the student. For one student above, the online course lacked this crucial element. Those students who preferred the online interaction may not need or want this emotional exposure, or may even find it through the online work. At least within the context of these particular classes, it seemed that Bruffee’s notions of peer collaboration could be realized in an online environment. Indeed, this perceived lack of emotional connection might make it easier for online students to be comfortable with dissensus.