In A Guide to Composition Pedagogies, Beth Hewett covers some background and the pedagogical components of online and hybrid education. She begins by summarizing the history of writing instruction, focusing on the transition from oral to print to digital learning. She points out how Socrates feared the written word would detract from student learning and how later rhetoricians used writing as a way to support orality (194). As paper, pens, ink, and printing technology became better and more available, education switched from an oral to written focus (195). Throughout this history, Hewett notes, “Educators employed new communication-conveying tools by requiring typed essays, for example, over handwritten ones” (195).
Hewett observes that distance education is not a new invention. At one point, “Educators used written materials and mail to teach far-flung student who otherwise had no access to traditional oral, onsite instructional settings” (Hewett 195). Eventually, non-text instructional materials and methods were added: movies, radio and television programs, cassette and video tapes, etc. The Internet made it possible to “revive and extend” distance education, supporting the need for writing instruction outside the normal classroom (195).
While many believed computers would change how writing was taught for the better, these new online pedagogical practices are not without critics. Some feared “the potential to restrict empathetic contact within a faceless, body-less environment” (Hewett 195). Finally, as we enter an age of digital rhetoric, Hewett declares that Online Writing Instruction “is both a distinctive pedagogical approach and one who benefits remain too little understood from empirical and theoretical research” (196).
Hewett lists five components or “building blocks” of Online Writing Instruction that teachers must consider as they develop computer-mediated courses (196-203):
- Course Setting: Courses can be fully online or hybrid/blended. Fully online classes include no face-to-face or on-ground meeting time. Hybrid classes require some computer-mediated instruction and face-to-face meetings.
- Pedagogical Purpose: Online Writing Instruction can be used to teach any genre of writing. Moreover, other pedagogical theories–such as expressivism and rhetorical argument–can be employed in online environments.
- Digital Modality: Online instruction generally occurs in one of two modalities. It can by asynchronous, with each student working on their own at different times, or it can be synchronous, with all students using technology that allows them to meet as a group.
- Medium: Online Writing Instruction can occur using different methods. While the predominate method remains alphabetic text, audio, video, games, blogs, wikis and collaborative whiteboards are other possibilities.
- Student Audience: While some students want, need, or choose an online environment, many do not. A student’s lack of skills or special learning needs can negatively affect their ability to learn online.
Hewett provides two questions that instructors should be asking about each component:
- What course setting/pedagogical purpose/digital modality/medium/student audience will I have?
- Do I have any choice when considering these components?
She also recommends asking a series of further questions about each component to help instructors put the building blocks together in an effective manner (204-205).
I’ve been teaching writing online since 2001, and I’ve been teaching in the hybrid/blended format since 2002. Several of Hewett’s points made incredible sense, based on my experience.
First, Hewett believes that online “teachers and tutors need new strategies for teaching students through written responses, particularly language that has semantic integrity” (197). Learning to read and respond to essays using a computer was a long and time-consuming process. I went through several iterations before I found something that was effective, both for me and my students. Currently, I use Microsoft’s “autocomplete” tool to quickly add my comments that occur most often; I’ve also recorded macros that let me add arrows and other symbols quickly. Unlike, many instructors, I don’t use the comment bubbles; instead, I adjust the settings on the “track changes” tool so that it looks like I’m simply responding in-line to the students’ work. Adapting Microsoft Word to my own uses took some time, but it was well worth it. Plus, because I can type faster than I can hand write, my students receive the kind of feedback that Hewett recommends. Now, I also digitally collect and respond to essays from my face-to-face students, which has also improved my feedback for them since I used the tools developed for my online/hybrid students.
Second, I agree with Hewett when she emphasizes that “the most fundamental principle for OWI is one of maximum access” (207). I learned this one the hard way–just this past spring. I switched most of my online “lectures” to videos about three years ago and never found the time to caption the videos. When two sign language interpreters showed up at my hybrid course in January, my heart sank: I was going to be spending my weekends captioning my instructional videos. Given that experience, I’ve committed to making sure that all of my instructional materials (even simple handouts) are accessible by the end of this year.
Third, she notes that online teachers should be provided with “technology-focused, instructional training using the same online modalities that they will use in the classroom” as well as “individual attention that supports their strengths and mentors their weaknesses” (208). I am proud the say (especially since I am the director) that my college’s Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) does provide a 12-week course required of all faculty who wish to teach online or hybrid classes. Moreover, we would also like to start a mentoring program for new online faculty, but the college is not willing to fund pay for participants. And like the CCCC’s online instruction committee insists–faculty should be compensated (208).
Fourth, Hewett warns against changing educational goals to match the affordances of a course management system that has been adopted college-wide. In other words, we should not “let the technology drive the educational experience” (204). As she notes, this rule can be hard to follow sometimes. However, I think it’s important to have highly digitally literate faculty teaching online. For instance, I don’t believe one should be able to do so until some very basic HTML literacy is documented. Knowing the language of the web helps instructors work around the limitations of their course management system so that they’re not bypassing educational goals because the system isn’t immediately set up how they need it to be.
Finally, I want to touch a point by J. Elizabeth Clark: the idea that traditional academic writing should “be replaced by an intentional pedagogy of digital rhetoric” (qtd. in Hewett 197). To which I say, “Yes, a thousand times yes!” The print world of language and the digital world of language are different. They both depend on alphabetic text, but Web 2.0 tools especially have changed communication forever–and our students need to become responsible users of that communication system. Closed-off course management systems and disposable essays largely make no sense to them because they belong to a different era. Consequently, I have become a proponent of “Open Education,” digital technologies and pedagogy that create the kind of democratic learning that Paulo Freire dreamed about (George 80). Open Education advocate Gardner Campbell describes the learning process as “narrating, curating, and sharing.” However, he notes that most educational practices, even those online courses we’ve given a “digital face lift,” limit an individual’s ability to do the basic elements of narrating, curating, and sharing learning. On the other hand, Campbell asserts, “One of the great things about the technology we use, these information and communication technologies, is that they not only allow these things, they amplify them. They augment them. They turn them up to 11.”
In fact, I’m such a big believer in having students write in open spaces that I require my “faculty students” in the 12-week seminar I conduct as the CTE director to keep a literary journal of inspirational teaching stories, called The Most Powerful 400 Words in Teaching.
Campbell, Gardner and Jim Groom. “No Digital Facelifts: Thinking the Unthinkable about Open Education.” YouTube. 3 May 2010. Web. 22 July 2017.
George, Ann. “Critical Pedagogies: Dreaming of Democracy.” A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. Eds. Gary Tate, et al. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. 770-93. Print.
Hewett, Beth L. “Fully Online and Hybrid Writing Instruction.” A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. Eds. Gary Tate, et al. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. 194-211. Print.