What Happens When Teaching Writing Online?

J. Paul Johnson
Winona State University

This past summer, over a ten-week period, I taught an online section of first-year composition for the first time.  The experience went well, for me and my students, but at the same time the venture raised dozens of questions about technology, literacy, and pedagogy.  My home institution – Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota, one of seven state universities in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system — is probably not too unlike many others at which computers are playing an increasingly omnipresent role in nearly every facet of university life, including writing instruction.  And I suppose that WSU is like many other institutions in wanting to provide (or at least experiment with) online courses.  Your own institutions may exhibit similar desires.

While I’d written my PhD dissertation on electronic writing technologies and experimented with online forums, electronic response, file sharing, and other such technologies for years, this past summer marked my first foray into teaching a course fully online.  Some would find such an experience disorienting: no classroom, no meetings, no office hours, no face-to-face conversations.  (I would not recommend anyone to teach online without incorporating technologies into their regular classes beforehand.)  In higher education, we’re no strangers to discourses of crisis about technology, and we’re pulled constantly between claims that tout the virtues of technology and those that bemoan the loss of the human contact.  Teaching online puts that tension in focus, and as I began to design the course, I worried: Would the course “work”? Would the networks and interfaces sustain the interactions we needed for purposeful reading and writing? Would students be able to navigate the course design and learn its content? Would the course lack the human content and contact that so marks my other composition teaching?

Getting Started

Twenty-two students initially enrolled in the ten-week course; of those, sixteen students completed the course, earning a normal distribution of grades.  Student were enrolled primarily from WSU, though some students took the course to complete requirements at their home university. Approximately half the students were non-traditional students, many of them completing the course while working and/or parenting.  Four students were non-native speakers of English.  Students completed the course while living in Canada, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois.  Each student passing the course completed all the required work: reading three nonfiction prose books, writing four major projects, completing 20 minor homework assignments, and submitting a course portfolio of revised and expanded research work.

To provide an introduction to the course, I composed a “Getting Started with … English 111, College Reading and Writing Online” document six weeks before the course’s start date, distributing print versions via mail and electronic copy via the web and email to all enrolled (and interested) students.  That document described the course assignments and pedagogy, and it provided the basic instructions for the course’s initial activities.  The “Getting Started” document was absolutely necessary to a smooth start to the course, and it serves as but one example of the many ways in which teaching online demands additional foresight and preparation.  In my nearly twenty years of teaching, I’d never had to prepare students simply to be able to conduct the first class day’s work.

The course consisted of reading and writing assignments posted every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the duration of the term.  I posted announcements and kept “virtual office hours” each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning (though I often checked email and other communications more frequently).  For a given “session,” a student might be expected to post a rhetorical analysis, complete a book, analyze a set of essays, submit a draft, post workshop responses, complete a revision exercise, or finish an online grammar unit.  In our discussion boards, I responded (publicly) to the content of students’ posts as a means of “lecturing” about rhetorical concepts or elaborating on project goals: these posts were required reading for students, the equivalent of “whole-class address” in a bricks-and-mortar classroom.

Challenges and Rewards

Aside from designing the course and its projects, the bulk of my efforts were spent (not surprisingly!) on response to student work-in-progress.  After an anonymous (blind review) workshop, each student submitted a revision using Blackboard’s “Digital Drop Box”; I used Word’s “Reviewing” feature to comment on the revision, and the Drop Box to return it.  (I have used computers for submission and commentary for years, and felt quite comfortable—even relatively efficient—with this process; a computer novice would find it tedious, I’m sure.)  It was not at all difficult to provide students with elaborate feedback on their developing essays using Word and Blackboard, and to judge from students’ evaluations, the feedback was a clear strength of the course.

Frankly, I found most of the challenges and rewards similar to those faced in any composition classroom: how to engage students in the readings, how to challenge students to higher levels of rhetorical sophistication, how to encourage mechanical correctness without browbeating, etc.  It was a challenge to try to “know” my students without seeing them, but to be honest, most of what I know about my students in any composition course comes from reading their writing anyway—and students in this online section wrote, by my estimate, triple what they would in one of my face-to-face sections.  For me, being able to teach from home in the summer was, admittedly, rewarding.  But just as I wouldn’t advocate for students’ taking all courses online, I wouldn’t want to do more than a fraction of my teaching this way, either.  This kind of course will work only for faculty with expertise and experience and for students with initiative and motivation. 

A Few Problems: Power, Preparation, and Plagiarism

A few problems beset us along the way. A storm knocked out campus power for nearly a full weekend in June.  One student did not check her registration, email, phone messages, or postal mail, and thus was unable to begin the class.  A couple of students simply quit submitting work after a few weeks.  One student plagiarized published material.  Viewing this list, though, it should be obvious that none of these problems is particular to an online class: they all could happen—and many have happened—in any section of any course. 

However, some students were clearly less prepared than others for an online course.  In particular, novice college students taking their first university course struggled with an online section.  At WSU, English 111 often provides an introduction to the discourse of the academy in a general way, orienting students to the culture and goals of the university.  Students lacking such an orientation may suffer without the physical orientation (to the library, to preregistration advising, etc.) that more typical courses provide.  On the other hand, taking the course online proved an excellent solution for working adults, off-campus students, high achievers, and busy parents, all of whom appreciated the opportunity to complete assignments and projects on their own—and not the university’s—schedule: many such students who could not attend weekly morning sessions completed this online section with considerable success.

Teaching students to use sources purposefully and responsibly is central to my pedagogy.  Nevertheless, I was prepared, as I always am, to witness instances of plagiarism. When one student submitted a draft for workshopping that was patchwritten from other sources, I turned the episode into a “teaching moment” that provided a good object lesson in the ethics and consequences of plagiarism. But I was stunned by a second episode when another student posted a similarly-cribbed draft. In an online course, teaching research writing was made more difficult by students not all having access to the same physical library, nor even to the same databases. Partly as a safeguard against potential plagiarism, I chose to have students incorporate researched evidence into existing drafts of course projects.  While students thus couldn’t submit papers downloaded wholly from another source, it was still possible for a student to try to “patch” her essay together with strings of copied material from published reviews of one of the assigned books. Ironically, though the course’s online nature might have helped prompt her act, the fact that I’d read some 10,000 words of her writing in the course by that time (as all our class discourse was text) made her plagiarism all the more obvious.

A Final Thought: What Makes a Class a Class?

Having had time to reflect on the course at some remove, now, my conclusion is this: the distinguishing feature of the course was not that it was taught online, or used computers, or that we didn’t “meet” as a group.  The course was, more so than anything else, defined by the intersections of students and professor, texts and projects, comments and responses, feedback and revision: each class is its own unique confluence of people and ideas, and this online section was no different.  We simply exchanged those ideas through different means than is—than has been, for centuries—the norm.

For Your Further Consideration and Discussion:

Endeavors like this one raise so many questions beyond those few I’ve hoped to prompt above:


Resources for Teachers of Online Courses

For Further Reading

Teaching Compositon

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