Employability and writing online
One priority of teachers in higher education is to prepare learners for the careers that lie ahead of them. This article focuses on technical communication instruction for students in engineering and similar fields. The students will enter professional positions where they will often interact purely online with colleagues and clients from cultures which are different from their own. In these positions, the ability to provide effective feedback, peer review, will be critical to career success. This paper describes an online peer review exchange between students based in Sweden and students in the USA which aims to prepare engineering students for their future careers. In particular, this paper discusses how the online, intercultural nature of the peer review affected the comments students made and how students interpreted these comments. Finally, this paper offers advice for teachers embarking on similar projects.
Intercultural aspects of peer review online
A key aspect of collaboration online is that it enables individuals and groups to connect easily with people in other cultures through so-called telecollaboration (Guth and Helm, 2010; O’Dowd, 2006) or Globally Networked Learning Environments (GNLEs) (Starke-Meyerring and Wilson, 2008), where two or more groups in different locations communicate monolingually, bilingually or multilingually via the Internet. Intercultural communication has been identified as one of three key aspects in telecollaboration, the others being language learning and online literacies (Guth and Helm, 2010). To this end, Byram (1997) suggests that requirements for intercultural communicative competence, where the goal is no longer educating non-native speakers to achieve near-native speaking proficiency but rather educating intercultural speakers who are able ‘to see and manage the relationships between themselves and their own cultural beliefs, behaviours and meanings…and those of their interlocutors’ (1997, p. 12). However, as Downey et al. point out, ‘it is increasingly difficult, and, indeed, problematic to characterize people as members of different cultures’(2006, p. 108). Many projects describe connecting students in one country with another (see Thorne, 2003; O’Dowd, 2006; Starke–Meyerring and Wilson, 2008) but few where students give each other peer response and even fewer where native speakers of English (NS) give response to non-native speakers of English (NNS). However, this is likely to be a professional reality that many graduates will experience, and engineers in particular (Nelson, 2000). Research investigating the dynamics of peer review between NS and NNS speakers can provide an interesting insight into the practices of these two groups since the groups are likely to come from educational systems and cultures which employ different peer response practices.
Our exchange involved two groups of students, one in Sweden and one in the USA. The former are fourth-and fifth-year Master’s students in engineering at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden, where all of their classes are taught in English. These students are from a variety of countries including Spain, Germany, China and Iran. The latter are undergraduates and nearly all US citizens who are native speakers of English attending either Miami University, Ohio, or Elon University, North Carolina. Over a semester, the students in the exchange posted three drafts of texts (two of which represented different stages of the same project) for comments from the students in the other university. The students based in the US and in Sweden worked on different projects, they exchanged drafts asynchronously, and also engaged in face-to-face peer review sessions with colleagues in their own classes. The tutors in each country, who are also the authors of this article, devoted time to teaching their students how to provide effective review comments in a professional setting (Anderson, 2014). They used a variety of platforms for the exchange, including GoogleDocs and Wikispaces.
Throughout the six years of the exchange, the authors studied the comments the two groups of students made. Volunteers were interviewed, asking about their general approach to commenting, and then about each comment they had made or received. In total, 20 students in Sweden and 17 students in the USA were interviewed between 2010 and 2014. All procedures were conducted in accordance with the regulations governing the use of human participants in research that apply in both the US and Sweden. The authors noted both similarities and differences in the feedback provided by students from the two groups (Anderson, et al., 2010). Overall, the comments included several types, including praise, questions, and suggestions for revisions. Both groups made a majority of revision comments (77% for the NNS and 74% for the NS). Most of these comments were global (comments that refer to units larger than a sentence) rather than local comments (comments that refer to a particular word or phrase), particularly for the NNS (cf. Bradley, 2014). These results contrast to other studies of online peer response (Liu and Sadler, 2003; Tuzi, 2004), which show that local comments are more common online. The types of comments made by the NS and NNS groups also differed. The most notable difference was that the NS students had a much greater focus on language than expected: 44% language comments and 48% content comments compared to the NNS students’31% language comments and 63% content comments. This pattern of commenting for both groups was contrary to our classroom instruction, which emphasised the importance of providing mostly specific comments on content that could help the writers take specific actions to improve the substance of their drafts. This disparity between what was taught, and what the students did led us to our current research question concerning the reasons behind students’ comments.
Exploring reasons for students’ comments
As mentioned, interviews were carried out with some of the participants in the exchange to investigate the reasons behind their comments. The students were asked to discuss both the comments they gave, and the ones they received. They were also asked explicitly about the impact of the intercultural nature of the exchange, their use of the internet, and the fact that they and their peer review partners did not know each other. This lack of previous knowledge about each other differed from the peer reviewing that takes place within a single classroom, where all the students become acquainted with one another in person. When asked about the impact of the intercultural nature of the exchange, students in both groups generally responded that it had little impact, and many equated the intercultural nature of the exchange with language proficiency alone. One Chalmers student commented:
So I think the phenomena that are concerning education level or language level or like the discipline you’re working in are much more important than the cultural differences (Student 1, Sweden).
On the other hand, almost all students mentioned thinking about cultural differences in communicative practices when discussing their comments, or interpreting comments they received. For example, a Chalmers student concluded that he received a lot of positive comments from his American peers because ‘there’s some cultural differences…they’re more positive’ (Student 2, Sweden). When asked about the impact of use of the Internet on their decisions about commenting, most students minimised this. The main issues they discussed were whether the impersonality made it easier or more difficult to be direct – a question about which the students at both universities were divided. A US student said:
If I am here editing one of my friends’ papers, I’m going to be brutally honest because they know I’m just trying to help them out. And you don’t really know that the people from Chalmers, so you don’t want to be coming across as rude (Student 1, USA).
Representing those who hold the other view at both universities, a Chalmers student commented: Some people find it easier to get critic[isms] via an interface where you do not have maybe the direct eye contact (Student 3, Sweden). These comments reveal some of the challenges such an environment produces. A number of studies have argued that the ideal scenario is asynchronous feedback followed by face-to-face feedback, which would give students time to reflect on the comments before discussing them with their reviewers (Liu and Sadler, 2003; Ho and Savignon, 2007). In the international environment of our exchange, however, it is not possible to meet in person, so participants are entirely dependent on online communication. Other scholars have argued that peer response is easiest within homogenous groups (Carson and Nelson, 1996) since this makes it easier to interpret what a peer means. In this heterogeneous environment, it can become more complex to understand the reasons behind the comments given. In order to function successfully in such an environment, both students and teachers need to understand fully the complexities that this activity entails. Training for peer response is crucial for effective student engagement in the classroom (Berg, 1999). In a multicultural online peer response exchange, students need more time in order to create a relationship with fellow writers. They need to be encouraged to explain their comments in greater detail because there is no possibility of discussing and clarifying them in person. Students should also be taught the crucial role of positive comments in creating a person-to-person relationship, an important part of intercultural competence. Finally, they should discuss the fact that there can be real differences among different cultures regarding writing and commenting on writing, even in professional settings. Our study is exploratory. There is much more to be learned about how to prepare students for intercultural peer review, and other collaborative activities. Supporting students to undertake peer review online across national boundaries is a fruitful way to begin teaching them about the habits, assumptions, and biases that they and other writers bring to collaborative projects. More research on this phenomenon would help students, educators, and professionals to function in this complex global work environment.
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