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When Writing Class Moves Online

March 19, 2010

LOUISVILLE -- For first-year students at many colleges and universities, the single course that everyone takes and the course with the greatest chance for personal interaction with an instructor is writing. So what happens when that key part of the curriculum moves online?

The Conference on College Composition and Communication is trying to find out -- and also trying to develop "best practices" guidelines to assure quality as this significant shift takes place. Leaders of the association, gathered here for the group's annual meeting, on Thursday presented preliminary results of national surveys and in-depth focus groups that they have conducted with online writing instructors.

The early results show some encouraging signs (such as better course retention rates that some might expect) but also some findings that worried some here (such as a minimalist approach to training instructors and little evidence that colleges are thinking about the pedagogical implications of the shift).

And there are signs that a pattern that has long been a reality for classroom writing instruction -- in which colleges ignore guidelines about recommended class sizes -- may be repeating itself online.

The association does not have data on what percentage of introductory writing courses -- whether the basic first-year course or business writing or creative writing -- are taught online. But the consensus here is that the figure is a significant minority. While some traditional liberal arts colleges may not offer any of these courses online, other institutions report offering 15-20 percent of their introductory writing courses fully online, with another significant percent of writing courses taught in a "hybrid" method combining online and traditional instruction. And the figure is of course 100 percent at exclusively online programs.

Here are some of the preliminary results of the survey:

  • Class sizes range from 11 to 30, with most respondents on the high end of the scale. (The 4C's, as the composition group is known, recommends no more than 15 students in a section so that instructors can both assign a lot of writing and grade it promptly, although that standard was developed with in-person classes in mind.)
  • Most of the instructors said that they considered the ideal size for their writing courses online to be in the range of 11-20.
  • Dropout rates in the courses are generally being reported at below 20 percent, which would make attrition rates lower than in typical online courses at most of the institutions surveyed.
  • Most of the instructors reported that the impetus for shifting some writing sections completely online came from the administration, not from the faculty.
  • Most instructors reported that their online writing courses do not include some features that are common and generally considered central to introductory writing instruction: student presentations, student conferences with the instructors and collaborative writing exercises. On the other hand, the instructors said that they made considerable use of asynchronous discussions.
  • Training of instructors to teach online -- if it exists at all -- tends to focus on the technology involved, not the educational issues.

The survey results were presented by Christa Ehmann Powers, a member of the 4C's committee on online instruction and vice president of Smarthinking.com, an online tutoring company. She noted that there could be a credibility problem if online writing sections are seen as "imposed on the faculty" rather than the result of genuine faculty interest.

Deborah Minter, associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and another committee member, said she was concerned "that we're not seeing more discussion of online writing instruction theorized as online writing instruction." While there are some instructional tactics from in-person instruction that may not translate well, "there may be aspects of online teaching that we could be deploying," but to do so, "we need to think about online instruction in and of itself," not just "migrating" the same curriculum from the classroom to the Internet.

Minter also presented results of focus groups that the 4C's has conducted with online instructors. Many reported feeling positive about the quality of the courses, but common complaints focused on feeling that they "struggled" to "be a presence" to students and "to convey to students that they were really there." Others expressed concerns about the technology used, saying that they were not consulted on those choices, and that their perspectives differed from those of whoever made the key decisions.

While members of the 4C's panel have not yet determined what "best practice" would look like for online writing, there was a strong consensus here that their colleagues need some guidelines. Several noted that much writing instruction (in person or online) is done by adjuncts who many administrators ignore and who need all the back-up they can get. And several in the audience noted the potential for abuse in that while many people who teach online say that it takes as much if not more time than teaching in person, some administrators seem to assume the opposite.

Susan K. Miller-Cochran, another panel member and director of first-year writing at North Carolina State University, said she realized that "every institutional context is unique," so any guidelines that the association develops can't be too detailed. But she said it was important to take strong stands on issues such as class size.

Writing program directors need not only guidelines but research that shows the impact of having too many students in online courses, she said. "If a writing program director wants to advocate for online class size of 15, there's going to be a bit of a fight ahead," she said.

 

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