Saturday, September 10, 2005

Notes on Creating an Online Writing Class

Just posted a version of this on WPA-L in response to a query on setting up an online course.

1. Put the goals of the writing course first. What do you want students to learn about writing; how do you want them to think about writing?

2. Online courses struggle most often to sustain a sense of learning community. Without proper activities that require student to student interaction -- discussion, peer review, meeting at the same time -- it's easy for the course to devolve into a situation where one teacher is responding to 30 students. (Though truth be told, many f2f classes come down to that as well; the sight of students sitting in the same room can delude the casual observer into thinking there is a learning community in the room.)

3. Sequence things. Move from informal to formal. Opinion and first thoughts to more reasoned argument. The nice thing about an online learning setting is that technology facilitates this. Conversations and first thoughts are in writing -- whether in a chat or IM space; in a discussion board; in a blog and its comments; in an email thread. Ideas are recorded and expanded and refined.

4. Give clear guidelines and expectations and hold to them. Some are procedural matters; some are behavioral; some are managerial. Set office hours and times you will be available, as well as times you won't be. Set guidelines for when and how you'll answer email. Find ways to have students help one another as much as possible -- set them to helping one another on as many levels as are possible, from logging on, to reminding each other of due dates. Don't become the answer everything person. In order to make this happen, you need to make it an expectation and you will need to set up places and ways and guidelines for students to turn to one another.

5. Keep track of and measure (and include in your course's grading ecology/economy) student to student interaction. Ideally you'd like students to help one another and be good peer reviewers and discussants out of the vibrancy of the readings you require or questions you and they pose. But students are also living lives outside the course and unlike a list such as WPA-L aren't in the class for more direct professional and personal reasons. They're going to time manage. So let
them know what the participation requirements are; why you require that participation; and how you will figure them into the course grade.

That said, work to make sure discussions and activities you assign lead to something. In too many classes, including f2f, a discussion of a reading or issue that might occur will often go nowhere or not be tied back into the course in a way students can see, and so the act feels like busy work or an empty exercise. Students are busy anyway, as are teachers, so make sure there's no busy work. Explain where things are going, why a discussion matters in the larger scheme of things in the course.

6. Arrange for timely and regular feedback on students work and not just from you. Constant feedback and response is key, but it doesn't all have to come from you. Teach students how to read classmates' words and how to respond honestly but constructively.

7. Do one or two collaborative assignments. Since students aren't in the same place, doing some group assignments at a larger than peer review and discussion level can help them focus in a learning community. It's not easy to do this and much will depend on the technology you're going to teach in, but it's so important that students get a sense of belonging to a class in order from them to stay in it.

8. Encourage/enable students to communicate on their own. Some course management systems don't let students set up discussion spaces; some do, but teachers need to flip a switch making it possible; others do by default. Figure out what you can do with the technology you have. But in
a f2f class, students can choose to meet in the library, get a cup of coffee after class, do all kinds of extra-class meeting --both for attending to the work in the class and to just become friends. If you don't have a CMS or learning solution that allows for that, it might be worth pointing students to places. For example, you can go to and set up a blog for free and then email all students to join the blog as contributors. This can be a space outside of class that
they can use as they want. They might not use it all, but who knows. Or set up an IM buddy list and distribute. They can then use that on their own. Or not. They don't have to do this kind of extra-class thing f2f either. But helping to make things possible gives them that option.