“Writing the writing course”: Online Courses Make the Writing Requirement More Accessible
Winter term 2018 marks a new era in the UO Composition Department: Online writing courses. Composition instructors Kara Clevinger and Nick Recktenwald are currently piloting the first online writing courses at UO for second-level writing requirements, including WR122 and WR123. Online writing courses offer students from a wide array of backgrounds more accessible options for fulfilling their general education requirements. This ensures students can successfully meet their educational goals and graduate on time.
The online writing classes lift scheduling or travel barriers that some students face when getting a college education. Students juggling job and family commitments outside the classroom, or those hailing from remote locations across the state or even around the world, can more easily meet their writing requirements with online classes.
“The more I thought about online teaching,” Nick notes, “the more I thought it was a good chance to seriously consider how we can offer our writing classes to students with significant barriers to campus attendance or participation.”
Seconding these insights, Kara added that the new online classes offer scheduling flexibility throughout the course. “It’s the same as a regular writing class,” Kara explains, “so students still have to submit assignments and drafts on a schedule. But the online format offers students more flexibility each week for doing the work.”
Increasing accessibility and streamlining students’ time-to-degree isn’t all that the online classes have proven to do. The online format also lets students engage with their instructors and their peers through Canvas discussion boards in unexpected ways that open up the possibilities for reading, reasoning, and writing. Kara explains:
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised and encouraged by how well the discussion board cultivates community in the online course. It has been so helpful for students to head into their drafting with some ideas about what their potential readers are expecting and what they then need to address in their essay. Because all of the discussion happens in writing and students have easy access to each other’s writing on Canvas, I decided to create an assignment asking them to synthesize the points of view of two of the assigned readings and one of their peer’s. Their pieces were truly wonderful to read as they referred to and quoted each other just as they would an expert. They genuinely enacted one of my goals for the writing course: that students see themselves as intellectuals in the university community contributing to the production of knowledge.”
Nick also remarks on the discussion boards in online classes: “They are seriously great.” Nick goes on to describe how the online format actually means students are doing more writing and reading than ever: “It’s not a stretch to imagine my students doing almost as much low-stakes writing in the online discussion boards as in their formal assignments. By removing some of the intimidation students face when writing and requiring participation (where otherwise they might be able to sit quietly in the back of the room, we’ve confirmed what we suspected all along: our students are really thoughtful and interesting people!”
Kara agrees: “I’m thinking more about the way that in the online format, where class discussion is largely written and archived, we are actually writing the writing course!”
Although Kara and Nick attended a CAS/TEP/CMET training to learn the best approaches to designing and developing quality online courses and are now some of the most expert Canvas users on campus, they still want to improve their online classrooms. One thing they both plan to do in future is to incorporate more media into the Canvas pages.
“I’ve been able to embed a video here and there from the library, but it’s light on multimedia,” Nick concedes. “This text-based approach may change with more time and resource support though.”
Kara remarks on her own plans to incorporate more multimedia material: “I see opportunities here for creating exciting writing tutorials on various rhetorical concepts and writing process components. I also want to continue to think about cultivating my teacher presence in an online format.”
Both instructors explain that they’ve had to rethink their teaching personas as they engage with their students almost exclusively in writing. Yet teaching the online writing class has also shown them that they can cultivate new ways of teaching and interacting with students that help them grow professionally.
As Kara sums up: “One of the most important things I’ve learned in my work on the pilot and in conversation with other faculty teaching online courses at UO is that there is no ‘plug-and-play’ template for any online course. There are some organizing structures that can be templated to a degree—and we are, of course, staying in line with the program’s pedagogy and learning outcomes—but individual teaching presence is so important to students in their experience and success with online education that each online course must be truly unique.”