Benefits to Students: Peer Support


As Palloff and Pratt (1999) emphasize, "The online environment is perfect for the development of collaborative skills. Students learn to work with and depend on each other to reach their learning objectives and enhance the outcome of the process" (p. 125).

At their best, online collaborative assignments encourage a high quality of peer support that can keep students engaged. While online instructors should always provide scaffolding for collaborative assignments, it's safe to assume that students nowadays often bring well developed peer-support skills to online environments. Almost gone are the days when students needed to be told how to interact with others online, send e-mails, and use discussion forums. Students are increasingly keeping blogs, joining communities like MySpace or Facebook, and/or designing innovative web spaces. Thus, they're not only importing fairly sophisticated online social and even design skills to virtual learning communities but are even surpassing their instructors in practical knowledge of Web 2.0 environments and applications.

Student comment:
Overall, completing this assignment was a very positive experience. Collaborating with [my teammates] was fruitful and interesting, as each brought a great deal of knowledge and many ideas to the project.
~"Anonymous"

Online writing instructors tend to be fixated on text. That's our area of expertise, but we can encourage students to teach and support each other in "Web 2.0" skills. We also have much to learn from our students in this respect. (Just as an aside, it's amusing to see that to keep students informed, post-secondary administrators still rely on e-mail, static web pages, and in some cases that cutting-edge technology from the late 1990s, the CD-ROM.)

Student comment:
There was never a moment where I truly disagreed with my members and I was seriously impressed with how well we functioned and pulled it together under various time crunches.
~Brittany

Quite aside from the social/interpersonal and skill-based support students can and do give each other online, the support of peers also engages students in a dynamic rhetorical situation: they must answer to a variety of demanding readers who may (in the case of co-authorship) also have a real stake in the outcome. As one scholar who has studied peer groups argues, "[P]eer groups offer student writers a genuine audience that can ask for clarification, point to discursive gaps, find errors, and provide purposes for writing beyond performance and evaluation" (Spigelman (2000), cited by Breuch (2004, p. 84). Thus, peer support--especially embedded within collaborative writing--helps ensure that students don't lose sight of audience, purpose, and exigency.

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References:

Breuch, L. K. (2004). Virtual peer review: teaching and learning about writing in online environments. Albany: State University of New York, Albany.

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace: effective strategies for the online classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.