An Experiment Using Penzu for Extensive Writing
By Cathrine-Mette (Trine) Mork, Assistant Professor, Miyazaki International College, Japan.
Like extensive reading, extensive writing in foreign language learning steers student focus toward fluency and a higher quantity of text. This is opposed to intensive reading or writing, in which the focus is accuracy (in writing) and meaning (in reading) coupled with less content. The characteristics of extensive writing, according to Sun (2014), include:
(1) writing as much as possible both in and out of class;
(2) writing on a wide range of topics;
(3) writing for different reasons and in different ways;
(4) student-made decisions as to what to write about;
(5) writing at one’s own pace; and
(6) writing faster than normal.
The objective of extensive writing is to help students become comfortable writing larger volumes on a consistent basis, thereby more efficiently and effectively expressing their ideas. As the focus is on fluency, teacher correction is not common in extensive writing. Correction is not only inconsistent with its goals, but might serve to undermine them. Truscott (1996) further notes that grammatical aspects of students’ writing seem to improve more from regular practice than they do as a result of having errors corrected. In the EFL context, extensive writing allows learners to practice a variety of language they know or are learning in a natural context.
The most obvious way to become a good writer is through writing. It is not surprising then that extensive writing should positively impact the acquisition of writing skills. Journal writing, in which writers keep a personal record of events, experiences, and reflections on a regular basis, allows for such practice. Studies in extensive writing have shown that positive changes in fluency are evident in student writing when word count is used as a measure (Fellner, 2006; Patterson, 2013; Sun, 2010; Tuan, 2010). Tin further notes that when students have freedom to be creative in their writing, “writing activities can change students’ perceptions not merely on writing but also on themselves and the world they live in, lower their anxiety, and develop their writing proficiency, accuracy and personalities” (2004).
In journal writing, learners traditionally write through use of a dedicated exercise book or binder with loose leaf, and regularly write about different topics. Writing extensively online, however, offers additional benefits, the first of which is the improvement of typing and general computing skills. Though incoming Japanese university students at my institution have experience with mobile devices, many lack basic computing skills and may not even have had experience using a QWERTY keyboard. Furthermore, online journaling can be more sociable and encourage greater volume of writing (Braine et al., 1998), is accessible at different times and from different places, and offers archiving capabilities that allow for counting and analyzing data (Lavin & Beaufait, 2003). Web-based journaling can also be more student-centered. In Kami-Stein’s analysis of online bulletin board discussions, it was noted that, “the instructor played less of a role in Web-based BB discussions than the students did [whereas in face-to-face discussions contributions were] distributed evenly between the instructor and the students” (2000). Then there are practical advantages, as noted by blogger Bakari Chavanu, who adds in his list of reasons for online journaling (2014): the appreciated productivity benefits of tagging, audio-visual additions, voice-to-text dictation capabilities, access through multiple platforms, spell and grammar checks, automatic backups, social media functions, and more. Finally, if the writer is a minimalist and prefers not to keep hardcopies of previous work, the online option is the obvious choice, though of course, one could choose to digitalize the physical versions through photographing or scanning after the fact.
All of the above provided incentive for me to test the free, online journaling system Penzu as a platform for extensive writing practice in one of my freshman English writing course of 20 Japanese students in the first semester of their academic career. In this experiment, I had students create weekly journal entries online of about 200 words on any topic they wished, though they were given the option of choosing from an extensive list of over 50 everyday topics. Much of the impetus behind journal writing in this course was to accustom students to writing regularly and to improve their writing speed and fluency, preparing them to write more challenging assignments in their future courses. During the first part of the semester, students simply wrote entries on papers that they kept in a binder. They switched to Penzu a few weeks into the semester after they had settled into university life. I did not offer students any formal instruction on how to operate the system, but encouraged them to troubleshoot with peers and to consult with me if needed. What follows is a description and assessment of the Penzu journaling system.
Penzu is a cloud-based tool specifically designed for creating private journals. It is indeed free, but users can upgrade to different premium accounts for more functionality. Using the system, students can keep an online journal to write about any topic, and can provide access to it through a ‘Share’ function. Entry dates are recorded automatically, and writers can add images to their entries and print them out.
My first reason for choosing Penzu was its relative ease of use. While blogging platforms such as Blogger and WordPress and learning management systems (LMSs) such as Edmodo and Moodle are reasonable choices for journaling platforms, students with emerging language skills may struggle with their more complex controls and interfaces. Technical barriers can intimidate even higher-level English language students who have less digital learning experience. Penzu offers a graphic interface that is intuitive to use and does not employ technical vocabulary. Basic operations do not require expertise and controls are simple and easily identifiable. At the top of each journal entry page, an icon bar allows one to add a new journal entry, save, print, add images and hyperlinks, change the font or font size, email, or comment. You can also change to a “zen” mode that has an even less cluttered screen. In addition, unlike sophisticated blogging platforms, Penzu offers seamless integration between the front and back ends of its interface. In contrast, systems such as WordPress have a separation between ‘dashboard’ controls and the journal as it appears to the writer. There is a notable lack of ‘look and feel’ customization options on Penzu. While some might perceive this as a bane, the lack of optional layouts and themes simplifies the platform’s use and can arguably help the user focus on writing.
My other rationale for adopting Penzu is related to privacy. Although privacy settings in many modern blogging platforms can be changed, blogs are inherently public forums, and again, the technical skills needed to adjust these settings can be daunting to users even when working in their language. Many students are also not prepared to share their writing with a wider audience. It is highly desirable to reduce apprehensiveness, especially for freshmen Japanese students who tend to be intimidated from the start. While opting to use an LMS or e-portfolio system for journaling does address the issue of privacy, Penzu’s simplicity and ease of use made it attractive. Googledocs, though offering privacy, was not under consideration for the journaling project because I wanted students to have a system that automatically organized their entries and offered a clean and minimal interface, uncluttered with all their other work for different courses. Also, experience from having used Googledocs the previous year in other courses showed that many first-semester freshman students had difficulty managing their files.
In the course in which Penzu was trialed, I did not require students to give feedback to each other’s journal entries in the form of comments, though the system does provide such facility. This was a lost opportunity, as not only is peer feedback beneficial pedagogically, but by sharing and commenting on each other’s work, students can also learn about each other and form a stronger group connection (Hyland & Hyland, 2006; Lundstrom & Baker, 2009, Rollinson, 2005; Tsui & Ng, 2000). Not requiring peer comments, though lamentable, was intentional. First, I simply wanted to keep the project as simple as possible. My intention was to add such a requirement in the second semester of writing class, gradually easing students into peer commenting and online journaling in general. Second, the free version of the software was employed, rather than the ‘Classroom’ (paid) edition. This paid version of the software would have offered more seamless sharing, commenting, and even grading functions. Were peer comments encouraged or required in the free standard version for this course, students would have had to mail their entries to other students, requiring them to enter the email address of each person with whom they shared an entry. I predicted this could be rather chaotic and result in busy work of me. In retrospect, I could have created a master email list and peer commenting scheme, but this would have been cumbersome and time-consuming for me as well. Likewise, I did not access student entries online, though this would have reduced paper use. Students instead printed out each of their Penzu entries to add to the journal binder they had already started in the first part of the semester. Sticking to a traditional paper-filled binder format was thought to be simpler for the teacher to manage than keeping track of emails from students, even if students were to email collections of journal entries as opposed to single pages. Having used Penzu for a few months, students were rewarded with a clean and separate digital record of their work and could continue to journal should they so choose after completion of the course.
In line with the objectives of extensive writing, I did not grade student entries based on content, but did make non-evaluative comments on printed journal pages. However, Penzu does afford teachers the ability to comment on or grade journal entries, which may be useful depending on the instructor’s goals. Instead of requiring students to email entries or collections of entries, teachers could also make use of a separate shared folder in Penzu: Every time a student shares their journal with a teacher, it goes into that folder, where the teachers can see the user name, journal entry title, and the date and time it was put there. However, to comment on and grade this work it is required that the teacher be logged into the system, which may not be desirable for teachers who cannot or do not wish to be online when doing such work. Comments on journal entries in Penzu are visible to all those with whom that entry is shared.
Student perceptions on Penzu were collected via an online questionnaire at the end of the semester. Only a weak preference for the online experience over handwriting was evident, and any one, or combination of the following (or other reasons), could explain why a stronger bias toward Penzu did not manifest: A lack of access to devices and a stable on-campus Internet connection; a lack of formal instruction on Penzu; a lack of QWERTY knowledge and typing skills; intimidation in using purely English-based software; a general lack of experience with and/or hesitancy toward using computers and/or online systems; and a desire to write by hand.
Despite the relative ease of use of the Penzu system, about 25% of students indicated that they thought the system was difficult. Some of the reasons stated above could account for this. Nonetheless, a few students expressed the need to become more computer literate in general, and that Penzu opened a door for them. Several students also commented on the advantage of easy access to grammar and spell checking when journaling online, as well as easy access to their work regardless of location.
The strongest student-perceived benefit of using Penzu was typing skills. All students reported a belief that using the system helped to improve their typing skills. When asked if they thought Penzu helped to improve their writing skills, almost 70% positively responded, though comments suggest students were probably thinking of typing skills rather than actual composition skills.
It is likely that all the student-reported pros and cons of the experiment journaling online with Penzu could probably be said of other online writing systems as well, so student feedback on the system was not regarded as particularly helpful.
The following semester I did continue having students journal online, but this time using the Mahara e-portfolio system adopted by our institution. This proved a much better online journaling alternative. Management of the system was much easier from the teacher management perspective, and students could now easily interact and comment on each other’s journal posts. In addition, since the system was adopted by the whole institution, formal training was offered outside of my writing class to all freshmen students. As the Mahara system (integrated with Moodle) is much more complex and multifunctional, this training was crucial.
Overall, I don’t feel the free version of Penzu is ideal as a journaling system since (a) the commonly desired interactivity among students is not simple and (b) management of the system can be time-consuming and cumbersome. However, the system is indeed relatively simple, even though some of my students reported otherwise. If you are willing to pay the small fee for a classroom account, do not have access to more robust systems, and/or prefer a stand-alone journaling system, Penzu should more than adequately meet your needs and those of your students.
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