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8.5: Anyone Can Teach an Online Writing Course

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    Author: Beth L. Hewett, Global Society for Online Literacy Educators

    Online writing instruction (OWI) is an offshoot of traditional writing instruction that occurs in classroom settings. Students prior to the 1990s learned to write with a teacher in the physical classroom; they composed their research papers and other essays in the on-site setting, too. The use of computers and learning management systems (the software that contains the course) for teaching writing was somewhat experimental in the 1980s; however, it is more common now, and more people are learning to write for their courses online. Twenty-first-century writing instruction—which occurs both in writing-specific courses and in other disciplines where students write to demonstrate understanding of course material—is increasingly offered online. Writing instruction can be engaged in fully online settings, where teachers and students meet solely online and at a distance using either the asynchronous (occurring in non-real time and with a time lag between interactions) or synchronous (occurring in real time and simultaneously) modalities. In these cases, all of the teaching and learning occur without any in-person, face-to-face interactions. Writing instruction also can be engaged in hybrid settings, where teachers and students sometimes meet in person and other times interact via computer. When an unprepared teacher—or just anyone—is assigned to teach writing-intensive courses online, problems abound. Teaching writing online—in any subject, including a writing course itself—requires extensive disciplinary knowledge, frequent online interaction with students, and professional skills beyond those that are needed in traditional, on-site classroom settings.

    The increasing popularity of OWI is partially due to educators recognizing a global need for distributed education that digital technologies fill. It is also due to decreasing education budgets, where fewer teachers are being asked to teach more students without adding to the on-site institution’s infrastructure. And, it can be connected to a jump-on-the-bandwagon approach in that, “If other institutions are offering online instruction, we should, too.” Finally, the popularity of OWI is influenced by students who want to take courses online for convenience or necessity.

    Unfortunately, a top-down, administratively driven requirement for online writing-intensive instruction reveals an implicit, pervasive belief that to teach writing online is intuitive and therefore simple to do. This belief results in pre-service online training limited to the learning management system and how to complete such tasks as providing content to students, collecting assignments, offering exams, and posting grades. For example, writing itself is a discipline with its own content and skills. However, professional development for OWI rarely addresses it as a discipline, subject, or skill. In an online history course, teachers need to be able to teach and write about history sufficiently well that students learn the appropriate content. Asking students to write papers, respond to short-answer prompts, and conduct contentrich online discussions is a primary way to ensure some level of content mastery. Therefore, history teachers (as well as chemistry, sociology, mathematics, psychology, and any content-rich course instructors) need to learn how to help students read and write well in online settings. They also need to be able to read students’ sometimes weak writing well enough to understand their meaning and to write well enough to communicate clearly with their students. This essential literacy work is their job as much as it is the job of English instructors.

    In a recent survey about OWI training at the college level, writing instructors expressed that they may receive online teacher training more appropriate to other disciplines, such as how to quiz for content knowledge through multiple choice and other tests. And, although training in generalized online course design is often provided to new online faculty, workshops regarding how to teach writing online are rare. This lack of discipline-specific and writing-focused online training and professional development suggests that administrators may have an idealized belief that instructors are innately able to migrate writing instruction from the traditional on-site to the online setting. Such reasoning implicitly suggests that anyone can teach online writing-intensive courses. To teach writing online (especially asynchronously), people often think that teachers just need to frontload the content into the learning management system, grade the papers, and check the discussion boards for whether students are participating. This reasoning has the unfortunate result of placing unprepared teachers in online writing-focused courses.

    Administrators may wrongly believe there is little work for writing teachers to do, leading them to dismiss the heavy literacy load of such courses. In fact, online teachers—especially those who teach writing online—both read and write a great deal, in part because teachers must write to students what they would normally say orally in class. There is an intensive reading and writing cycle of teachers writing instructions, reading papers, providing feedback primarily through writing, and reading and responding to written discussions. Any of these options require teachers to be especially conversant with writing instruction, to be explicit and clear writers, and to be able to see what is occurring in student writing without the opportunity to conference in person. Therefore, when administrators do not recognize this heavy literacy load, they may increase course sizes, wrongly thinking that since teachers are not physically meeting students, they don’t have much to do and they can teach more students. Such ideas about teaching writing online are both widespread and wrong, and they impede student success just when more people are taking online courses that require them to write.

    On the contrary, educators need extensive OWI-focused training. Effective online writing teachers need three types of skills: They must be able to (1) teach writing, (2) specifically in a digital environment, and (3) primarily through written communication.

    The first critical skill set is especially important to all teachers who address literacy. Students learn to write by having opportunities to read, think, write, reflect, receive feedback, and write again. Someone who teaches writing in any discipline should be a good writing teacher with abundant knowledge and what might be called a full toolbox of literacy skills and abilities. Unfortunately, all too often, writing instruction is viewed as a lower-level skill set designated to writing teachers alone or a subject most suited to inexperienced graduate students and underpaid, often undertrained part-time faculty. Furthermore, teachers of disciplines other than writing often are not aware of or refuse to believe that their job is also to teach and reinforce reading and writing literacies. Among the knowledge all teachers need are basic theories of reading and writing, such as how to teach students to annotate their books and to summarize important concepts. All teachers should know how to assign papers with identified steps (called scaffolding) like writing a proposal and a series of increasingly stronger drafts. Teachers should know how to create writing assignments that require students to learn the desired material efficiently, how to provide useful feedback to help students improve their writing, and when to address higher-level concerns like content and organization versus when to address lower-level concerns like style and grammar. Furthermore, teachers need to develop content, instructions, and assignments that make sense for their writing outcomes. This core literacy knowledge and these skills are ones that training can offer and reinforce, helping instructors to teach writing in any content area more successfully. Without them, teachers cannot move to an online setting successfully.

    The second critical skill set requires that teachers be able to teach reading and writing in an online setting. The basics of teaching these skills online begin with an understanding of the learning management system the school uses (there are a variety of such applications, including Canvas, Blackboard, and eLogic). All of these systems have course spaces for providing announcements, posting assignments, prompting discussions, enabling group work, and returning completed assignments and papers—all of which would be handled orally and with handouts in an on-site classroom. To know the learning management system also means to think differently—less linearly and more three-dimensionally—to connect and scaffold discrete actions into a series of intuitive, integrated interactions. Beyond thinking they can just migrate their teaching from the traditional classroom setting to the online one, teachers must learn when, why, and how their communication should be addressed individually to one student or through the larger class or small peer group. Using digital applications requires learning their functionality for learning success. Equally important, online teachers must understand both the legal and moral requirements of equal access as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. They must be able to understand how to use digital tools to enhance learning for students with physical disabilities, emotional challenges, learning differences, multilingual abilities, and varied socioeconomic backgrounds. These are learned, not inherent, digital teaching skills.

    The third critical skill set requires that teachers use text, or writing itself, as the primary means of communication in the online environment. Although online teachers can offer video and audio recordings and they can phone the student, their work typically occurs through their own writing; similarly, students learn through their own abilities to read and write. There is, therefore, a heavy literacy load for both, which means that the teaching and learning are readingand writing-intensive and primarily without benefit of voice, facial expressions, and body language. Online writing-intensive courses therefore force students to read content, instructions, peer writing and comments, and teacher feedback; in other words, they get to read a lot. Online writing courses also enable students to write much more than in traditional on-site courses. They write their essays, respond to discussions in writing rather than through talking, write comments about each other’s essays, and write to teachers and peers to communicate. Similarly, their instructors teach primarily through writing and mostly in response to student writing. Whereas in a traditional face-to-face setting, the writing teacher certainly must know the qualities of good writing, there are more opportunities for talking with students and determining together where there are problems and what writers need to strengthen. In an online writing course, however, such opportunities for individual, oral conferences are fewer—sometimes nonexistent—and teachers’ written feedback and instruction must correctly and clearly convey all of that crucial information. Furthermore, teachers must write especially comprehensible assignments and instructions, use vocabulary about writing that students can understand, write about the most important elements that will take the students to the next proficiency level in subsequent drafts, and do all this work using written language that conveys the teaching intention clearly. Even experienced teachers need professional development in how to write for students who may read at suboptimal levels.

    Because teaching students to write about their subject matter online is more complex than merely taking a traditional course and migrating it to the learning management system, teachers and their supervisors benefit by actively learning from skilled OWI teachers. Both initial training and ongoing professional development opportunities help them grow as online educators and increase their chances of retaining students who are improving their skills. Students can have good experiences in online writing-intensive settings, and they can improve their knowledge and writing abilities in online courses. As long as their teachers—of all disciplines—receive appropriate training, professional development opportunities, and instructive assessment that help them to improve their online teaching skills, students will receive useful writing-intensive instruction.

    Further Reading

    For more information about online students’ literacy needs, see Beth L. Hewett’s Reading to Learn and Writing to Teach: Literacy Strategies for Online Writing Instruction (Macmillan); Alice S. Horning’s Reading, Writing, and Digitizing: Understanding Literacy in the Electronic Age (Cambridge Scholars Publishing); Daniel Keller’s Chasing Literacy: Reading and Writing in an Age of Acceleration (Utah State University Press); Ian Jukes, Ted McCain, and Lee Crockett’s Understanding the Digital Generation: Teaching and Learning in the New Digital Landscape (21st Century Fluency Project); and Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (HarperCollins).

    For more information about skills specific to teaching writing online, see the CCCC Committee for Effective Practices in Online Writing Instruction’s “A Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction”; Beth L. Hewett’s The Online Writing Conference: A Guide for Teachers and Tutors (Macmillan); Beth L. Hewett and Kevin Eric DePew’s edited volume Foundational Practices in Online Writing Instruction (WAC Clearinghouse) (with special attention to Lee-Ann Kastner Breuch’s “Faculty Preparation for OWI” and Scott Warnock’s “Teaching an OWI Course”); Beth L. Hewett and Christa Ehmann’s Preparing Educators for Online Writing Instruction: Principles and Processes (NCTE); and Scott Warnock’s Teaching Writing Online: How & Why (NCTE).


    online learning, online writing instruction, OWI, reading online, reading to learn, writing feedback, writing online, writing process

    Author Bio

    Beth L. Hewett is an expert in training teachers and tutors for online writing and reading instruction, and she is the president of the Global Society for Online Literacy Educators. She has served on a national committee for researching online instructional practices and developing principles and effective practices that guide online teachers in literacy instruction. Hewett provides educational consulting and online literacy instruction. She also coaches academic dissertation, book, and article writers primarily using online technologies through her company, Defend & Publish.