Both composition and course design present particular dilemmas that prevent online composition courses from matching quality of experience seen in standard face-to-face classes. Additionally, classes taught via computer should be able to use the medium as a tool to better understand and work with the act of writing, which is now done using those same computers. Online composition courses need to employ a system that allows composition teachers to witness the process of writing without needing to rely on formal draft stages and provides a forum for true peer-to-peer collaboration instead of simply communication. Using the theories of Nancy Sommers, Sally J. McMillan, and Robert R. Johnson, I will show that such a system (previously available with Google’s Wave platform) would appropriately address current course-design concerns, support the pressing need for social and collaborative learning in online environments, and emphasize the role of revision in writing.
Early research into the process of writing involved asking students to “think out loud” while composing essays, journal entries, or other specific assignments given by either instructors or researchers (Crowley, 1977; Emig, 1971; Perl, 1979). In order to better understand the writing process used by students outside a laboratory environment, researchers developed studies that addressed the artificial nature of previous work and drew attention to the variety of steps involved in creating a written work (Berkenkotter & Murray, 1983; Flower & Hayes, 1981; Rose, 1980). Despite efforts to the contrary, researchers continued to confess that the only observable element in the writing process is the product it created. The continued emphasis on researching process, rather than the observable product, created some dissension (Horowitz, 1986). However, the focus of research turned from the overall writing process to a particular interest in revision, now accepted as a critical step in the production of good writing (Hawkins, 1980; Sommers, 1980; Yagelski, 1995). The meaning of the word “revision” differs between students and teachers: student revisions tend toward the surface level only, while teachers expect deeper and more thorough changes. More recent research has focused on helping students understand the benefits of deep revision, and one common instructional method is the use of peer revision, which is effective in regular, ESOL, and special-education courses (Ferris, 1997; Haaga, 1993; McGroarty & Zhu, 1997; Paulus, 1999; Stoddard & MacArthur, 1993; Topping, 1998; Wallace & Hayes, 1991). By evaluating the papers of their peers, students become more critical of their own writing and more aware of the expectations of the writing situation. Paradoxically, as distance learning grows in popularity, composition students are increasingly distanced from peer review, often writing alone and submitting without input from classmates. Students need a system for facilitating online collaborative writing, and instructors need a system that emphasizes revision over completion. As I will show, Google’s discontinued Wave platform provided such a solution. I will argue that a similar platform would benefit both classroom practice and composition research.