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Online Writing Instruction: Different Media, Different Expectations Still Good Teaching, Learning, and Writing

I'm going to talk a little about online writing instruction (OWI). It's a topic of importance to how I see myself as a writing teacher and researcher, and one of growing significance to writing centers and writing programs. Last year, I was fortunate enough to serve as the Coordinator of the Online Writing Center (OWC), and I had the opportunity to seriously consider differences among face-to-face (f2f), synchronous chat, and asynchronous email modes of instruction.

When we begin instructor training we start with stating that online writing instruction differs from f2f, and its the Coordinators task to lead discussions regarding why good teaching, good learning, and good writing can emerge from networked spaces (Harrington, Rickly, & Day, 2000). Online writing instruction is also a topic that I've seen several times on the wcenter list-serv as writing center directors/coordinators explore the possibility of starting OWCs on their campuses, so I hope to explain in the extremely limited scope of this post a few of these differences and address concerns about the effectiveness of OWI.  And at the end, I'll provide a couple resources for online writing instruction.

If you want to read more about OWI, I think a good starter is "Developing Sound Tutor Training for Online Writing Centers: Creating Productive Peer Reviewers," by Kastman-Breuch and Racine (2000). In my reading (which I won't claim is as deep as I would like), they do a wonderful job in comparing f2f with asynchronous email instruction. Important is the fact that they don't apologize for email instruction being different. In fact, they claim that email instruction has strengths that f2f cannot match while it can also facilitate goals of process-based, student-centered pedagogy, but through techniques suited to online environments rather than only to face-to-face environments.

For example, online writing instructors (at least at UW-Madison) are graduate students from the English department and are experienced, as Kastman-Breuch and Racine explain, with working in text-only environments -- for instance, responding to students essays in composition courses or lecture discussion sections. These text-only environments require sensitivity to written requests and the ability to prompt authors for questions or requests on improving their writing" (Kastman-Breuch & Racine 256-257). What email instruction enables, in contrast to f2f or chat instruction, is the opportunity for instructors to provide thorough comments and feedback. In addition, feedback through email instruction shares similarities with peer review as it occurs outside the classroom or writing centers, e.g., professional writing and academic publishing.

I would describe chat instruction as communication that approximates f2f conversation. It's informal and immediate. We can see turn-taking between students and instructors that reminds us of f2f instruction. We also find some of the challenges associated with f2f as well as new challenges. For instance, just as in f2f instruction, a concern with instructors feedback is that it become too directive. Rather than the ideal of asking authentic questions that prompt thinking and revision on the part of the author, we might ask questions or make suggestions that in fact direct an author to make a particular revision (Hewett, 2006) -- even if we don't recognize them as such at the time.

Also, we often take time in face to face meetings to explain to first-time clients how writing center interactions unfold: we discuss the writing task as well as questions and concerns and explain why the author might read-aloud a draft or why it might be best for the instructor to take notes as the author talks through her ideas. In synchronous instruction, instructors and students will have many of the same conversations, but they will also need to take time to talk about the interface: explaining where the chat occurs and where the draft get pasted into; discussing how changes to the text occur and where instructor feedback will appear or who controls the cursor when -- matters controlled by the software used.

I could go on, but what I'd like to end with are principles I think everyone involved in writing center instruction agrees upon. That is, we simply want writers to have access to trained readers who can help students become better writers. Online writing instruction is just another means to that end. In particular, student feedback points to our online writing center as being important to students who do not live in the area any longer or, for many reasons, might find the idea of meeting face-to-face intimidating. The OWC enables us to serve students at a distance, and it can act as a first-step for students who later visit our main location and satellites. If anything, these are reasons to argue for online writing instruction. But beyond access, OWI can offer different kinds of feedback (as that described above) in a setting that might allow for an increased opening up of dialogue that some argue might address matters of inequality (Selfe, 1992) -- a topic that deserves even more than a blog post of its own.

Works Cited

Harrington, Susanmarie, Rebecca Rickly, and Michael Day. The Online Writing Classroom. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc., 2000.

Hewett, Beth L. (2006). "Synchronous online conference-based instruction: A study of whiteboard interactions and student writing." Computers and Composition, 23, 4-31.

Kastman Breuch, Lee-Ann M. and Sam J. Racine (2000). "Developing Sound Tutor Training for Online Writing Centers: Creating Productive Peer Reviewers." Computers and Composition 17, 245263.

Selfe, Cynthia L. "Computer-Based Conversations and the Changing Nature of Collaboration." In Janis Forman (Ed.) New Visions of Collaborative Writing. (pp. 147-169) Portsmouth, NH: Boyton-Cook.


The CCCC Committee on Best Practices for Online Writing Instruction

Annotated Bibliography of OWI (pdf) from The CCCC Committee on Best Practices in Online Writing Instruction


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