What Do We Teach When We Teach Writing Online

That is the title for module two of my Teaching Writing Online course and it’s a tricky question. We intend to teach students to write, but the core of the answer lies in how we do it. One thing is certain: we cannot teach a process by simply giving students access to materials and expecting them to paint-by-number. In real life, a writing class is every bit a studio class as one where students sit at those funky sawhorses and draw the still life their instructor sets before them. The still life does not teach them how to draw. The instructor’s on-site feedback, the pointing, the guided hand, the scrawled kibitzing–that is where learning and student growth happens.

So, how do we transform an online course from a repository of materials to an interactive space? There are ways, but it takes effort from both sides. Maybe incentives can be built in. For example, I have included hashtagged Twitter conversations as classroom discussion for readings. I set a timeframe and encourage those who are able to participate during a shorter “primetime” with those who simply can’t chiming in before the end of the day. That way they get the benefits of both synchronous and asynchronous communication. My Moodle site, I recently discovered, has chat, but the best part is not the chatting, but how the message is emailed also in case you aren’t on the site. This too, combines synchronous and asynchronous to good effect.

I can’t physically look over a student’s shoulder in an online class, but I can see them through video chat and have them send me a view of their desktop or instantly send the file, the writing, so that I can comment. I could even scrawl on it, draw arrows, or whatever using iAnnotate and then return the file to them, all using Skype video chat. Mandatory conferences for student drafts can happen here too. Of course, this only works if the student is willing, just like face-to-face conferencing only works if students show up at all and even then, only if they show up with their draft, ready to work. Face-to-face time isn’t magic, but neither is technology. The online environment privileges self-starters and those who don’t get upset by the occasional chaos that can creep in. That goes for both instructors and students.

 

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Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

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