Any way I look at it, teaching writing online is more work for faculty than teaching in the face-to-face classroom. It is also more work for students, but this post will be looking at it from the faculty side and counting the costs, most of them personal and paid for by faculty rather than the university. The 2003 Article by Kristine L. Blair and Elizabeth A. Monske in Computers and Composition, “Cui Bono?: Revisiting the Promises and Perials of Online Learning” accurately detailed those costs for that time, but that was thirteen years ago and there is more tech, more options, and potentially more expectations for what can be done in OWI (online writing instruction). It isn’t enough to be as good as a face-to-face classroom anymore. Now we need to do all that, reduce classroom costs for the university, and increase enrollment, all while making education more convenient for students.
One trend that Blair and Monske hoped would stop was the choice of the least prepared and the the least-powerful for online writing instruction. Given that it is harder and takes some individualized pedagogical choices, it only makes sense to have experienced faculty be the ones who teach online. However, grad students are paid less than full time faculty–much less. As a result, second and even some first year MA grad students commonly get the honor and the challenge of teaching writing online, the reasoning usually being something along the lines of, he/she is such a good writer/poet. fiction writer, literary scholar that she/he will do a great job. Often they end up doing a pretty good job, especially if they get faculty mentoring along the way. The dedication that such students bring to their own writing and in the case of second years, what they know or intuit about the face-to-face classroom combine to create a writing teacher ready to overcome obstacles and do a superior job. What this steep learning curve means for their personal life and their own course load is another matter. Monske, Elif Guler, Chris Harris, and I held a roundtable at the 2015 CCCC in Tampa about solutions for this. No one in that room believed that universities will listen to the ethical argument and stop placing inexperienced grad students as primary instructors in online classes. The best solution we could agree on is what my university has done, institute a Teaching Writing Online class. The second part of the roundtable recommendation was to require the course for grad students slated to teach writing online, but that has not happened. To be truthful, it never may. However, I have hope for it happening informally, in the same way the grads chosen to teach basic writing have credit for Theory of Basic Writing. Since that is offered every spring, it is only reasonable to choose GAs who have taken the course over ones who have not. However, Teaching Writing Online is only offered every other spring (odd-numbered years) and is an elective for the MA Writing rather than a required course for the Rhet/Comp track. That means fewer GAs available with course credit and the continued use of GAs without coursework in OWI. Chances are that every single one of our MA students who go on to teach will be teaching online at least part of the time. They need the class. Also, not only composition classes teach writing online. Creative writing and secondary dual credit courses are other venues.
So, what can a course in teaching writing online do? here are a few things:
- Familiarize future teachers with a variety of LMS. These change. If you learn the needed functions rather than the needed steps for a specific software, you will never become outdated.
- Emphasize building in redundancy and different channels of communication. Triangulate. If a student missed the announcement on the site, they might read the email instead. If they miss the email, they may view the video reminder.
- Learn the Discussion Board from the faculty viewpoint, i.e., using open-ended prompts.
- Learn other uses for blogs besides a diary-like personal space.
- An essential view of the online classroom as much more than a container for files.
- A forgiving nature for students who get confused even though the instructions seem obvious to the instructor.
- Learn ways to workshop online
- Learn ways to conference with students online
This is a far from inclusive list. The most important though, I believe, is to see the online writing class as living, breathing space, not a warehouse for files. The most commonly used LMS, Blackboard, was created using the file cabinet paradigm, and remnants of that foundation still haunt it. Learning alternatives and enhancements can only help.