Pedometers and Paragraphs and Social Online Writing Networks

Joe Moses

The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.
~Edwin Schlossberg

When we consider the meager affordances of the writing classroom versus the complexity of the tasks we ask students to perform while confined there, we might marvel at how low we have been willing to set our sights on behalf of innovative environments for students of writing. When we determined that writing is a social act and sought to reflect that reality in our writing classrooms, we arranged students in circles. In light of a conviction about the power of social forums for writing, and with steadfast determination to infuse college writing with transformative experiences founded on principles of social-epistemic rhetoric, we resolved to move the furniture.

Challenges to the reign of the traditional classroom and its hierarchies of time and space are important for what they can bring to debates about the value of social media, for example, to teaching and learning. They lead to smart classrooms, with their powers of connectivity and visualization and responsiveness. All are steps in the direction of reformation, but in the interregnum before who-knows-what shakes out as a new instructional paradigm, students already have connectivity enough in each of their mobile devices and tablets and laptops to be productive on their own time in environments that may easily be more supportive of their work than a classroom. From within a complex of social relationships we have yet to mine for instructional treasure, students educated in where to look and what to ask can give expression to their developing identities, their knowledge, assumptions, and beliefs—to interrogate who they are and what they know—without traditional interventions doled out to everyone at once in short classroom spurts. We don’t yet know what configurations of time and space best support student achievement in writing.

This short chapter asks how social online writing network (SOWN) designs that include project-management tools to compensate for lapses in traditional classroom instruction can improve the timely completion and quality of students’ writing projects. In response to the editors of this collection who have asked for stories, I tell three that overlap in time during spring semester of 2012 and conclude with directions for research on the impacts of SOWN designs on teaching and learning.

Paragraphs: writing in the presence of others
In January of 2012, the Center for Writing at the University of Minnesota sponsors a hunker in which a dozen faculty and staff from across the university convene daily for a week to work on individual writing projects during the break between semesters. (To hunker: committing to meet with others for fixed periods of time dedicated solely to writing). A dozen or so people sit at conference tables in front of laptops and tablets, paging through notes and books, typing, staring at screens and, occasionally, out through the twelfth-floor windows of Heller Hall overlooking the Mississippi River, downtown Minneapolis, and points west.

The rules of hunkering are few. Participants agree to show up, talk about writing during AM and lunchtime sessions, and work on writing projects for three-hour chunks in between. Productivity varies but it doesn’t matter. We’re writing. We’re working away from office phones and other distractions. And we’re not writing alone. Unable even to distract ourselves without breaking the tacit pledge to write, we have few choices but to create text (I don’t assume all writers approach their writing on the lookout for reasons not to write, but one history professor did confess that during writing time alone at home the spice collection has several times been carefully alphabetized).

Social Online Writing Network Design
During a break between writing sessions, Colleen Manchester, Assistant Professor and honors faculty representative in the Carlson School of Management, discusses a problem common to her honors students: they have a hard time staying motivated to work on their lengthy thesis-writing projects.

Students convene for an 8-week spring-term session in their junior year and a second 8-week spring-term session a year later, and in the interim they are to make progress on their honors research. But they have difficulty taking advantage of the time they have between terms: too many distractions or not enough direction, but certainly (according to informal surveys of junior and senior cohorts) not enough motivation for most students to return to the hard work of research and writing between sessions without some kind of near-term payoff.

Pedometers: setting goals, tracking progress 
Meanwhile, the University’s Wellness Program kicks off. It’s an ambitious campaign designed to get University employees to exercise by offering incentives. Participants earn points for walking, biking, visiting the gym, not smoking, managing diet and weight loss, having cholesterol checked, and lots more. And when participants reach program goals, they save money on next year’s health insurance premiums.

In addition to incentives, the program provides ways to set goals and track progress. When commuters ride their bikes by one of the designated spots on campus, an antenna identifies the radio-frequency tag glued between spokes and sounds a feedback beep, and online daily mileage is recorded along with calories burned (the system is not intrusive enough to know where participants have been or where they’re going—everyone enters a mileage estimate between home and campus when they register for the program).

My pedometer arrives in the mail and the Step-It-Up program literature says a good goal is walking 10,000 steps. After a few weeks I’m finding ways to reach 10,000 several days per week (at two steps per second, 10,000 steps is eighty-three minutes of walking). Like others, I find that exercise is more palatable when it kills at least two birds, so taking the dog on longer walks has become easier. On occasion we get back to the front door and find I’m in the 9,000-step range, so I walk around the block again. Being rewarded for doing what I already do but better feels perfectly satisfying.

SOWN design for honors thesis writers
Given my interest in online writing instruction and the impact of incentives on teaching and learning, and given Colleen’s interest in supporting her students throughout their eighteen-month research process even when she cannot be available to them, we have been working together to create a social online writing network designed to help students on their thesis-writing process. Partnering to devise site architecture and to study the impact of SOWN environments is University of Minnesota Writing Studies Professor Ann Hill Duin. Our work is supported by instructional development funding from the Carlson School of Management.

These are the three primary goals of SOWN designs for the Carlson honors thesis students:
  1. To capitalize on the integration of social media in the lives of students by connecting thesis-writers during the research and writing processes in order to advance progress on their relatively solitary pursuits. Our experience with hunkering has convinced us that social commitments among writers can be powerful incentives to productivity.
  2. To provide project-management tools that track student’s individual progress in order to provide near-term goals that motivate. Project management of writing tasks is an unexplored area of scholarship that can be explored thanks to efficiencies of learning analytics. If counting steps and tracking daily progress helps exercise the body, how can similar tools be employed to exercise the mind? 
  3. To network students with resources that help students address problems they face in the writing and research process. How can online social networks impact writing support by and for students? 
Course-specific goals, purposes, and metrics derived from existing thesis-writing course design give us project management milestones (progress) and benchmarks (standards of achievement) to use as motivational tools for students.

The first SOWN website will launch in the fall of 2012. Metrics for measuring impact include administrative data on retention rates, third-party assessment of thesis quality in terms of meeting University Honors Program and Carlson learning outcomes, and self-reported quality of honors thesis experience and time use by students.

Why SOWN designs are worth launching and evaluating 
The Committee on Best Practices for Online Writing Instruction (Beth Hewett, Co-Chair and NCTE Professional Development Consultant, Scott Warnock, Co-Chair) determined that what students like least about online writing instruction is the struggle to maintain on their own a desire to progress while engaging in online courses (10). As more courses come online, course-specific and assignment-specific tools will be needed to address the motivational need.

Engaging with others throughout the university to deepen an understanding of challenges that undermine faculty support for high-value writing-based projects expands our understanding of the promise and limitations of mediated instruction and student engagement with it.

By trying to address two issues of concern to departments and the wider University—student retention and timely completion of degrees—SOWN designs aim to support institution-wide efforts to infuse writing into the curriculum by providing support to instructors and models for increasing student motivation without increased commitments from faculty. Student support comes from a structured network of peers working in parallel on writing projects and using a familiar tool—social networking—to manage projects.

The impact of technology-mediated writing environments on student productivity have been explored—the use of pseudonyms as a factor in predicting the quantity of written work produced by students (Miyazoe and Anderson) being one case; SOWN design builds on that work by focusing on an unstudied affordance of social media: its potential for supporting productivity on specific writing projects. In an accessible SOWN environment students can locate themselves in relation to each other, to tasks completed, to tasks yet to be completed, and to achievement—all goals derived from recent theorizing about the metaphors we use to describe our relationship to the internet (Gordon 2007, 2011) and what Eric Gordon calls users’ impulses to locate themselves in relation to others (“Mapping” 886).

In sum, SOWN designs hope to create project-specific social online writing environments that support timely completion of high-quality writing projects. Its project orientation gives emphasis to discrete tasks of a writing process designed by course instructors; its social dimensions extend classroom benefits of collaboration, conversation, and peer review, among others, by providing an online environment, using Moodle content management, in which those activities may take place when needed, not only when scheduled.

Research directions

Gordon, Eric (2007) 'MAPPING DIGITAL NETWORKS From cyberspace to Google', Information, Communication & Society, 10:6, 885 – 901.

Gordon, Eric and Adriana de Souza e Silva. Netlocality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World. New York: Wiley, 2011.

Hewett, Beth L. "Committee on Best Practices for Online Writing Instruction (March 2013)."National Council of Teachers of English. National Council of Teachers of English, 12 Apr. 2011. Web. 18 Apr. 2012. <>.

Miyazoe, T., & Anderson, T. (2011). Anonymity in Blended Learning: Who Would You Like to Be? Educational Technology & Society, 14 (2), 175–187.


Joe Moses <>
Joe Moses is Senior Lecturer and Assistant Director of Graduate Studies for the Master of Science and Certificate Programs in Scientific and Technical Communication in the Department Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota. Joe works with faculty to develop course-specific SOWN design projects and study their impact.