Note to those teaching writing online as Graduate Teaching Assistants this fall

I originally wrote this as a note to the graduate teaching assistants in my department who will be getting the one-two punch this falI–they will be teaching Writing II instead of Writing I for the first time and they will be teaching writing online for the first time. You may feel that one of those two things is enough and I share your feelings, but also like you, I know that this is the reality we live with now. Potentially, we may always do it this way from now on. It could also be one, two years, just a semester–we don’t know! I react badly to the unknown. I basically want to know it. I deal with that by finding out what I can and then doing the best I can with the tools at hand. I write this in order to help you do the same.

If you are reading this and want to take a class in teaching writing online, I teach ENG 704: Teaching Writing Online every other spring at Missouri State University and this spring is the year.  One of the main things I stress in the class is that there is more than one right way to do this. The following is what I do and it is based on both teaching writing online since 1999 and continued scholarship in the field. One thing that I do in that class is have students do conferences online with current writing students and give access to my current writing class. I shared my current Writing II build as I prep for summer with the GAs teaching that class for fall and hope it is some help. Of course, seeing someone’s LMS (Learning Management System) is very helpful, but not something I can do on this blog. Instead, here is some very general advice.The assumption with this advice is that you will be using Blackboard, but I have used a number of different LMSs  including  Moodle, Drupal Ed,  and even Wordpress. That made me very open to the idea of supplementing Blackboard (or Canvas or whatever LMS) with other tools like WordPress for student blogs. You might also use little apps for multimodal components to assignments like with memes, comics, or storyboards.

Before we get to the list, I sincerely want you to remember that you have taught before. Moving online does not change  that. You know things. When planning the course, play to your strengths. For example, I know that one of the GAs is a video pro. She should definitely use short videos, fro 90 seconds to 3 minutes or at most, 5 minutes. Others may have never made a video ever, even for Facebook. In that case, take it easy on yourself this time and don’t feel like you have to learn everything RIGHT NOW. Start with what you know and what you have experience with. For example, you probably do know discussion boards well, so set them up. 

Here are some general things to keep in mind when teaching writing online:

  • Think function rather than tool when planning. What are you trying to do? How could one of Blackboard’s tools be used for that? One example is using the Discussion Board for workshops. Each assignment gets a forum and each student posts their draft. Feedback comes in the replies.  I think three responses is a good number and Blackboard will track this for you if you give workshop points. I’ve also used Blackboard’s Blog to do this and each student  posts their draft in their blog. The first is organized by assignment and second by student. Blackboard also has groups and you can set up  workshops that way and have your choice of tools within the groups.
  • Consider completing your university’s Blackboard Black Belt Series this summer. it is all online and really is not a huge time investment.  I can testify that even with 20-plus years experience teaching online, it was time well spent.
  • Modules are the way to go. You don’t have to call them that, but chunking out the semester based on main assignments or concepts works well online. It also helps if you have the start date for each module be on the same day of the week and have all the main assignments due on the same day of the week. In my upcoming summer class, I have modules start on Mondays with the due date for the previous module’s assignment due on the Monday that starts the next module.
  • Many paths make it easier, not harder, for students to find things. Redundancy is the probably the most important element for successful online teaching. Think in threes. For example, when you have something important to say, you would create an announcement, check the checkbox so that it is emailed too, and have a short (1-3 minute) video in the module. That way, the student who never checks email even though the syllabus says that is a course requirement may also be a student who does not read announcements. That student might though, view the video. Alternately, non-video people could duplicate the text announcement in the module. I just think that it is good to think of different modes of expression so that at least one will hit.
  • Redundancy for how to find due dates– The module will tell, but I also have a section entitled “Upload Assignments Here” where all the assignment uploads are found. The third place is Blackboard Calendar. It’s worth having it in the left column of links and telling students it has all the main assignments. Do not assume they know what it does. many may not.
  • Hassled about what textbook to use? Consider the resources in the WAC Clearinghouse. They definitely have choices. Here is their Open Access Textbooks page. I use the Writing Spaces Series. some of the readings in this series will work for Writing I also. These are all accessible PDF files too, not the image-only ones that are so problematic  for students with disabilities.
  • Have a “Got Questions?” thread and check it regularly. I tell them I check it once a day during business hours, M-F. I may check weekends too at the beginning when there are more questions. This is a Discussion Board forum and will show up there, but I also set up a “course link” for it in the left column. Can’t figure out how to add things to the left column? There is a tiny box in the uppermost left corner of the main page. Click it and the drop-down menu of choices appears.
  • To Zoom or not to Zoom–your choice. Zoom is now an option under Course Tools and I set it up for this summer. Blackboard also has Collaborate Ultra and I’ve used it for at least five years for student conferences. For whatever reason–I think student bandwidth has a lot to do with it–it fails more often than I’d like so I am happily switching. Zoom can fail too, so if that happens, have a backup plan that you and your students both know going into it. I give conference attendees my phone number (Google Voice) in advance and they then call me when it becomes clear the streaming video is not going to work. If you have the draft in a shared folder (my university provides OneDrive), you can still talk and work on the draft together in real time.
  • Don’t forget the syllabus. It can and should touch on the things that are different with an online course. For example, what about attendance? There are several ways to approach that. What you want to avoid is the student who shows up a month into the class because “I didn’t have money for a computer until now” or simply “I’ve been busy.” Your syllabus can and should deal with those issues. Late work is another. My summer 210 syllabus using a Provost Office provided fall contingency wording will be posted today . I find that writing the syllabus is a good planning tool. It reminds me to think about many aspects of the course.

So, don’t feel you have to change everything about how you teach in order to teach online. You can still be you! Just remember what functions you want to happen and see what tools will do that. It’s also okay to bring in other tools if Blackboard isn’t doing what you want, but be very aware of proprietary concerns and student access. Above all, don’t stress yourself over this. You’ve taught before! You’ve got this. 

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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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