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Navigating Tensions When Connecting Classrooms to Online Communities

By Jayne C. Lammers
 | Sep 14, 2018

Facebook FrustrationsI have long advocated that our literacy classrooms would do well to design instructional opportunities that connect students with online writing communities. Doing so gives students authentic audiences for their creative work, helps them develop important digital literacy practices, and bridges in- and out-of-school literacies in meaningful ways. In particular, I have argued that fanfiction spaces such as archiveofourown.org and fanfiction.net, where writers post creative works based on their interest in storylines, settings, characters, and worlds from existing books, television shows, and other media, offer important scaffolds for writers and allow teachers to meet literacy standards as they guide youth to write for online audiences.

My continued research in this area and my role as a literacy teacher educator have also helped me grapple with the myriad challenges that teachers face when trying to incorporate online communities into their writing instruction. For example, I have written about the privacy concerns that teachers face when they consider whether to recommend that youth participate in a particular digital space.

In an article published in the October 2017 issue of Literacy, my coauthors and I shared about our experiences with bringing digital spaces into more formal learning environments. We pooled the lessons learned from Alecia Magnifico’s work with preservice and inservice English teachers who participated in the #walkmyworld project, Deborah Fields’s use of Scratch-based collaborative design challenges in an elective computing class, and my experience teaching a three-week high school elective class that guided students in publishing their fanfiction and other creative writing in online communities.

Our collaboration helped us better understand the tensions that arise when educators seek to take advantage of informal online spaces within their classrooms. We recognized that, although much of the research about online communities highlights success stories, when all students are required to participate in an online space, experiences will be mixed. Not every student will feel comfortable sharing his or her writing with strangers. Not every student will receive constructive feedback from the online audience. Although many online communities welcome the posting of works-in-progress, not every student will want to share such projects when they know their teachers and classmates might also see this unfinished work. These and other tensions emerged when we examined our experiences.

I offer the following tips for teachers to consider as they design opportunities for students to share their writing in online communities.

  • Guide students in examining a variety of online communities. Rather than mandating that all students share their writing on the same site, scaffold students’ evaluation of many different sites and empower them to choose whichever one best suits their expectations as well as genre and interaction preferences.
  • Tap into students’ expertise about online communities. Although it may be beneficial for teachers themselves to have some familiarity with sharing writing in an online community, it is not a requirement. Learning who among your students might already participate as readers or writers in online communities allows a teacher to leverage that experience. Give knowledgeable students roles as mentors or guides who introduce their classmates to the inner workings of their preferred online community.
  • Explore authentic assessment opportunities. Online writing communities have their own ways of assessing quality, often through narrative reviews and less descriptive rating systems (including giving “likes” or “favoriting” a piece of writing). Rather than assessing their contributions to an online community using school-based norms or rubrics, students can submit evidence of community engagement. 

I offer these suggestions to help interested literacy teachers connect their students to online writing communities in ways that begin to navigate the tensions revealed in our research.

Jayne C. Lammers is an associate professor and director of the secondary English teacher preparation program at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education in New York. She can also be reached on Twitter.

This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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