The changing nature of peer response: What does Google Docs really mean?

Posted: February 23, 2008 in Brainstorm, Discount Peer Response, iteration, Pedagogy, Usability, writing

Much as I would love this to flow out of me as a fully formed academic argument, complete with support and high enough quality to immediately merit publication (and, as long as I’m dreaming, wide spread accolade), that just isn’t going to happen. So, at best, I can call this a brainstorm that may eventually lead to part of an academic argument.

I have been seriously considering the impact of google docs and other programs of its ilk. These are programs that allow collaborative editing and writing in real time. One person posts a document (or part of a document) and invites collaborators. These collaborators can all change the document as they wish. The program keeps track of the changes and who makes them, and produces a version history through all the changes.

When I consider what this means for peer response, I’m immediately drawn back to Lad Tobin, who suggests that we get rid of peer response in favor of collaborative writing. In a lot of ways, google docs would be helpful to such an idea. Students could all work on the paper as it developed, each one of them contributing as he or she was best suited along the way. The group could then hand in the final paper, and add the professor as a collaborator (or at least a viewer) to the paper, so that the professor could be sure that everyone did, in fact, play an important role in the development of the paper.

That’s all well and good, and a fantastic way to handle collaborative writing. I myself have been providing what feedback I can along the way as the graduate committee at my current institution (to which I am the graduate student rep) develops a new curriculum and new course descriptions. I have been playing the role of both devil’s advocate and ‘stupid student’ (by which I mean looking at the wording and trying to find ways to misunderstand it, loopholes to exploit, and worst case problem scenarios that need to be prepared for). Though I had surprisingly little to do with the actual writing of the proposal, I feel that I contributed quite a bit, in the form of ideas, requests for clarification, and questions for further development. As such, I feel like I deserve to have my name listed as one of the authors of the proposal (and it is. Can I put that on my vita?)

Still, as good as google docs is for collaborative writing, there are problems, as I see it, with collaborative writing as a whole. Maybe, once a student gets to a certain level, they can handle collaboration without having most of the group doing superficial tasks while the one student who is paranoid and worried about his grade, as they say “Resting in the hands of these gibbering simps,” does all the real work. But before they reach that level, does collaborative writing help anyone other than the one student? Collaboration stops students from learning personal authorship, and prevents at least some of them from really learning how to produce a document. Developing a document is very different from originally producing it; as a teacher, I feel that I have to make sure that students know how to do both (this is mainly because I consider it my job, as a teacher of freshmen comp, to teach my students how to write papers in the future, not how to write them for my class).

So I wonder, can Google Docs help with peer response? I think that it can. A student can post his paper on google docs and leave it there for a few days. His peers, the other collaborators, can go through and insert questions and comments, correct minor errors they spot (like typos or punctuation errors), and generally provide an audience for the piece. Since there is a revision history, both the professor and the writer of the paper can see how it has progressed. So can the collaborators. They can see if questions have been answered or if their comments have even been seen (because google tells you when the last person to look at the paper looked). At the very least, this will provide the writer with knowledge that there is an audience (even if no comments are provided), which might be helpful in and of itself.

Is this okay? Well, my first concern was with the idea of collaborators (peers) actually changing things in a paper, like word order, or adding things, like commas. But when I think about how this is handled currently, I’m not as worried. Currently, students write these things on the paper copy they are given, and then the writer makes the changes on the computer at home. Is this so that the writer has to make the effort to make the change, or is it just because the peer can’t change it themselves? I don’t believe that forcing the writer to make the change will necessarily teach them anything, so I don’t see why the peer shouldn’t be able to just change it.

What I like is that there can be comments along the way, and the writer can ask for clarification. I also really like that there isn’t a waste of paper here. The writer hands in one copy of the paper, no more. Everything else is online, and can be examined as needed. I like saving paper; that’s part of why I developed a website for my courses.

The other thing that I really like is that this presents peer response as TRULY part of the process. That’s one of the major problems that has always nagged me about peer response. Students sometimes feel like peer response comes so late in the process that it’s like writing a whole new paper. They tell me that they feel like it’s already done, and having someone find something wrong is like making them start all over. But if they started out by posting thoughts, maybe even a free write or an outline, in google docs and had the rest of their group look at it and make comments, helping them to develop the entire paper from the introduction on up, then revision will just be part of writing, not a separate entity unto itself.

That’s interesting. Maybe I should include a discussion of that particular point in my thesis.

  1. Nice post! I especially enjoyed the provocative suggestions of the way that peer review can actually help during, and not after, the writing process. I agree that I’ve experienced a similar vibe with students where they felt that the feeback they got may have been coming a little too late. On the other hand, I’ve also seen how this kind of feedback has also led to writers completely redoing their pieces and even taking the assignment to new levels.

    The concept of feedback is an interesting one as it applies to writing if writers are thought of as homeostatic systems and the feedback loop influences the system in a way that helps them become an adaptive system (which they are already–but I mean specifically as writers). This idea, I think, is similar to what Kenneth Burke was suggesting with his concept of “Circumference” in _A Grammar of Motives_.

  2. cogitas says:

    I haven’t read _A Grammar of Motives_, but I generally like Burke’s work. I’ll have to look in to it.

    Thank you for the comment. Do you teach?

  3. cutter says:

    Yes, I’m a professor at St. John’s University in Queens, NY. You might be interested in taking a look at the post that I referenced in the post I posted today since the writer I’m referencing Larval Subject actually mentions circumference in his discussion. You can find mine at

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