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Cloud-Based Platforms in the Writing Classroom

The coronavirus pandemic has made remote teaching the norm—and not the exception—for many instructors and students. Naturally, this has necessitated a closer look into the available technologies for interacting and writing online. Cloud-based platforms like Google Drive or Microsoft Office Online, which are widely available and which many students are already somewhat familiar with, are a natural choice for replicating writing classroom experiences in remote teaching contexts. This article provides general guidance for instructors new to using cloud technology in the writing classroom.

Choosing a Platform

Familiarity, ease of use, and accessibility are key considerations when deciding which cloud service is best for your course. All other things being equal, platforms that your students are already familiar with, that are easy to use, and that do not require payment or a powerful internet connection will tend to be best for classroom applications. It's also generally wise to take advantage of cloud services that your institution already has a contract with, since these options are likely to be free, available, and familiar for students. 

Deciding on one effective platform and sticking with it is likely to be the safest approach, as managing multiple interfaces and accounts can be overwhelming for students (and you). Google Docs is one cloud-based platform that is free and widely known, making it a natural choice. However, though there are also a handful of alternatives to experiment with, including Office Online and Dropbox Paper (among others). No matter which platform you choose, however try to provide detailed tutorial content to students and solicit feedback about the platform early on. Technical difficulties, which pose challenges to student engagement and progress in any online course, can be inevitable. However, regularly checking in with students about their experiences using the technology will help you identify issues that need to be addressed and will remind the studentsthat they have support.

Beyond these suggestions, you should feel free experiment with your chosen cloud platform in order to utilize its full potential. Here a few ways that the cloud can be integrated into an online writing course. 

Online Writing Groups

One approach to help students realize the collaborative potential of online learning is to use them for writing groups. These groups (typically 3-5 students each) can easily collaborate on a single document via the cloud. In this way, activities like free writing, journaling, and prompt-driven discussion activities can easily become small-group assignments.

Online writing groups can also be useful for longer projects, collaborative workshops specific to a particular lesson or practice, and more. In any case, however, it is important to sort out logistical issues as early as possible. For example, students may be working in different time zones, which can pose difficulties for any synchronous activity. Thus, students may benefit from having predetermined times to join a shared document. While you may need to reserve time to sort out these sorts of problems, in general, cloud-based writing spaces like Google Docs make it possible for students to continuously add to, respond to, and return to auto-saved work.

Cloud-linked Feedback

Many instructors pride themselves on being a resource for their students. However, being a resource can look different online than in person. For example, students in online courses may feel less comfortable asking instructors about their project drafts in remote classrooms, where technical constraints can make conversation stilted and awkward. As a result, they may not seek help as often as they would like to. Thus, the feedback instructors do provide becomes more vital to students’ progress.

When making comments on a cloud-based platform, you might try including linked references to lectures, notes, and other materials relevant to the feedback being given. Ensuring that these files are available in student-accessible folders on the same cloud platform provides a connection between what you’re referencing and important locations in your online workspace. When possible, comments should be resource-generous and should function as toolkits that students can return to during the revision process. Whether the linked materials are documents, webpages, videos, or otherwise, making these references clear and accessible strengthens the cohesion of your overall units and course when teaching with the cloud.

Peer Review

Not all institutions have access to dedicated online peer review software. Thankfully, the collaborative capabilities of cloud technology makes peer review possible from a distance. Because it can be tricky for students to coordinate on their own, however, it is vital to make expectations for peer review clear.

Designing a peer review guide for students can help with this. As a handout available in the cloud, this guide should describe what is expected from individual respondents, should list important dates and times, and should give best practices for using platform features for feedback. These handouts can even change with each new assignment, highlighting the kind of feedback students should prioritize given the new objectives and rubrics. Working in a cloud document lets students in a peer review group consistently see the comments being made on one draft, adding to, building on, and learning from them along the way. This keeps things organized for everyone, helping you keep track of the progress students are making and allowing you to add comments that help guide peer review discussions as needed.

Office Hours and Student Conferencing

As an alternative or complement to video conferencing, the chat functionality afforded by most cloud-based platforms is a useful tool for quick dialogue so that questions can be asked and answered as needed. Ensuring that students understand the platform as a tool for time-sensitive meetings may require you to design a document describing best practices for cloud conferencing and house it online from the start of the semester.

Being prepared for these meetings is a practice in time management for instructors and students alike. A few simple measures can improve workflow . For example, having students upload the appropriate document with conferencing questions ahead of time is a preparatory step that can help make the most of the time available. Depending on the purpose for a given meeting, a cloud conference may work in a manner similar to the method of providing feedback on a draft. Responding to the questions that students have, providing necessary resources, and guiding the conversation according to a priority list of concerns are reasonable goals for meetings that are limited to a brief time frame.

Final Thoughts

In sum, cloud-based technologies have a lot to offer remote writing teachers, but they are not without their own potential complications. Being upfront about your intent to ensure your students' success is crucial in any remote learning environment. When you teach from afar, you can best fulfill your commitments to students by being flexible, understanding, and honest. When necessary, be willing to change your plans or offer workarounds you hadn't originally envisioned.

Instructors hoping to match the creative and collaborative workflows they may be accustomed to in brick-and-mortar teaching should remember that the cloud is not a perfect replica of face-to-face interactions. However, using the cloud in the ways described above can help you gesture toward the importance of collaboration that many students may feel is absent in online learning. Collaboration is also important for teachers—don't hesitate to work with other instructors to find out if and how they use the cloud for their courses. Combining your own experiences with your students’ and other instructors’ experiences will continue to help you design meaningful, engaging activities for your online classes regardless of the technological tools you use.