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Chapter 7: Kairotic Design: Building Flexible Networks for Online Composition
Drawing from instructor narratives, class artifacts, and interviews of and surveys with students, this chapter reports on the results of a six-month study of a fully online composition curriculum at Miami University.
Based on their experiences, the authors argue for a kairotic model of online course design that is flexible, adaptive, and emergent, and that challenges models of online course design that seek to plan all content in advance. In articulating their vision of kairotic design, the authors detail their design process, including how instructors and students perceived and altered online classroom spaces over time.
The chapter concludes with recommendations for how to construct kairotically responsive and pedagogically effective virtual spaces for online composition classes that do not aim to replicate traditional, brick-and-mortar classrooms but instead seek to harness the affordances of distributed, networked interactions.
We open with questions that framed our project and that frame our webtext: How should we design online composition classrooms to make them effective for the teaching and learning of writing? What should the spaces for online writing instruction look like, and, more importantly, what should they help instructors and students do? What kinds of collaborations, dynamics, and interactions should our online composition classrooms support and promote?
In addressing these questions, we advocate for a kairotic approach to online course design. As we explain more fully in the discussion of our design process, kairotic design, as applied to the development of online courses, means an approach to course planning that allows for flexibility and adaptability for audience and context. It acknowledges, first, that the instructor cannot—and indeed, should not—try to control and orchestrate every aspect of student composing and learning in a writing course. Second, it acknowledges that a significant portion of the “content” for any writing course emerges in the unfolding of the course: In a writing course (or any student-centered production course, for that matter) the primary focus is on student writing and work in the course. Thus, much of the content does not exist prior to the course; it is not brought to the course by the instructor. Rather, it emerges from the collaborative interactions among students. A writing course should prompt opportunities and leave open spaces for students to invent and contribute content and processes for interaction. Thus, as our research and teaching confirmed, online social media spaces can be excellent venues for promoting invention, discovery, and interaction in writing classes.
Drawing from instructor narratives and student interviews, we examine in depth what happens when first-year composition moves into online spaces, especially social media spaces such as Google+, YouTube, and WordPress—the spaces that we used in our teaching of online composition. In this chapter, we report on the results of a six-month study at Miami University that involved our working together to design, offer, and study a fully online composition curriculum for one of the first-year required composition courses at Miami (English 111, Composition and Rhetoric). We discuss how we designed the virtual classroom spaces for these courses and how instructors and students perceived and altered those spaces. Questions that guided our study of the course include these: What tools and strategies did instructors and students use to create an interactive online writing environment? What were the benefits and drawbacks of various approaches to kairotic design (e.g., video lectures, multimodal peer response, online discussions, team inquiries, etc.)? What worked well, and what didn’t? What did students think about the experience? We conclude with recommendations for how to construct kairotically responsive and pedagogically effective virtual spaces for online composition classes that do not aim to replicate traditional classrooms but instead to leverage the advantages of distributed, networked interactions.
Although Miami’s Composition Program had never offered composition fully online before the summer of 2012, our teachers had substantial experience with delivering writing instruction in computer-mediated environments (see English 111). In this sense, our development of online English 111 sections might be seen as an extension of our existing digital writing curriculum rather than a radical shift in direction. Yet the shift from teaching with digital tools in physical classrooms to teaching in fully online spaces did ultimately end up requiring a somewhat more radical pedagogical redesign than we initially imagined—a redesign that ultimately caused us all to rethink the ways in which we spatially organize our writing classes both on- and offline. In fact, we came to see the process of designing an online course as an inventive heuristic that caused us to question some of the commonplace pedagogical assumptions (such as the value of whole-class discussion) that we held dear. We are already moving to revise some of our pedagogical strategies for teaching in traditional, brick-and-mortar classrooms on the basis of what we learned teaching online.
It is this story of rethinking, reimaging, and hacking space that we begin to tell here.
- Classroom design is rhetorical.
A key premise underlying our work is that classroom space, both traditional and online, is rhetorical—it shapes and promotes certain kinds of interactions and activities, while it inhibits and discourages others.
Our goal as writing teachers, always, is to make classroom design support our pedagogical goals. Sometimes we do this by fighting the traditional classrooms we are assigned to. For instance, we may, through de Certeauian tactics, thwart the restrictions of spatial design—desks in rows, for example—to achieve the desired collaboration and interaction. Other times we have the opportunity to work proactively to design our classrooms in ways that support our composition instruction—for example, when we collaborate with university classroom designers and instructional technology specialists to design a new computer classroom.
What we must recognize, though, is that however we make, remake, design, or rebel against our assigned classroom space, the design of classroom space matters to the teaching of writing. It can help or hurt our efforts to teach composition well, as many scholars have noted (e.g., Bemer, Moeller, and Ball 2009; DeVoss, Cushman, and Grabill 2007; Fleckenstein, Johnson, and McKinney 2009; Walls, Schopieray, and DeVoss 2009).
- 2. Online classrooms shouldn’t replicate traditional classrooms.
Another key premise underlying our work is that the online classroom space should not aim to replicate the traditional classroom space. By traditional we mean any class taught in a brick-and-mortar space where instructor and students are physically present in the room together at set meeting times in the week and most student-teacher and student-student interaction occurs in that space. Traditional does not refer to pedagogical approach, like “current-traditional.” So no matter one’s pedagogy, if the class meets in a physical room with all members physically present, then that’s a traditional classroom.
Unfortunately some approaches to online course design, including some reputable, popular distance education certification programs (e.g., Quality Matters), rely on the mirror model assumption—that is, the assumption that the goal for online course design should be to re-create the bounded traditional classroom space where instructor and students are all together in one place, virtual desks in a circle, teacher writing on the virtual whiteboard, and so on.
We begin by questioning that assumption: Why replicate the traditional classroom? Has it really worked all that well as a space for teaching writing? Could we do better? We agree very much with Douglas Walls, Scott Schopieray, and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss (2009), who have critiqued the traditional classroom model:
Although we interact, socialize, and otherwise live lives in very flexible and various physical spaces, our classrooms often remain inflexible spaces, typically based in agrarian and industrial revolution era designs [that] assumed that students could be educated in an assembly-line fashion where the instructor held all of the knowledge and transmitted this knowledge to students before moving them along to the next grade level. (271)
We think that the attempt to mirror traditional learning spaces in online learning spaces undercuts the dynamic potential of online learning and the collaborative and social possibilities for online writing spaces.
To fully understand our design process and the perspectives of the instructors and students, it is helpful to know more about Miami University’s first-semester composition requirement, English 111, Composition and Rhetoric.
English 111 offers students a rhetorically grounded, inquiry-based introduction to writing both in the academy and in the broader civic sphere. The curriculum consists of five major assignments (or “inquiries” as we term them). Students compose the following projects:
- Self-Inquiry / Rhetorical Reflection: Reflective narrative about their own rhetorical practices
- Rhetorical Analysis: Rhetorical analysis of a print or digital text
- Public Issue Argument: A research-based argument about a public issue
- Remediation: Transformation of the argument from the previous essay into a digital or multimodal text for a new audience
- Self-Inquiry / Final Reflection: Reflective argument about student’s own writing and rhetoric through analysis of selected writing collected in an e-portfolio.
For all inquiries, when turning in their composing projects, students are also required to submit a “Writer’s Letter,” an analysis and reflection written for their instructor about their experiences researching and writing the inquiry and their perspectives on their project. For inquiry 4, the remediation project, this “Writer’s Letter” is required to be more extensive.
For more about the English 111 course, see a pdf of the English 111 Description and Outcomes.
Integration of Digital Technologies
Prior to 2006, digital technologies were integrated into a handful of English 111 sections as individual instructors chose to have students compose in and with wikis, web-authoring programs, and blogs. But this integration was haphazard and involved fewer than 10 percent of the more than one hundred sections of English 111 we offered on the Oxford campus each year. Starting in 2006, we offered some digital sections of English 111 taught in laptop or hardwired classrooms, raising the percentage each year as classroom spaces were available, as curriculum was revised, and as instructors received training. However, these “digital sections” of English 111 were regarded as special or unusual, not the norm for the class.
Starting in fall 2011, English 111 became fully digitized, in two respects: (1) for the first time, all sections of English 111 were offered in laptop or computer classrooms, thus making it much easier for instructors to integrate digital technologies and also making it so that program-wide we could require a digital composition project (inquiry 4, the remediation project); and, (2) the overall curriculum was redesigned to make “digital writing” one of the key foci and outcomes for the course. The learning outcomes were revised by both layering considerations of writing technologies into existing outcomes (e.g., “Reflection, meta-cognitive awareness: Students apply concepts and terms from the field of rhetoric/composition to reflect critically on their own composing practices and rhetorical decisions, including decisions about the technologies used in the production and reception of their writing”) and in the creation of an entirely new outcome, “Digital and Multimodal Rhetoric.”
Digital and Multimodal Rhetoric
the two paragraphs that follow need to be displayed with some type of display head
Students effectively produce, share, and publish their writing using digital tools for production, editing, commenting, delivery, and sharing of files.
Students demonstrate critical awareness of the unique affordances and limitations of diverse writing technologies and modalities of communication, both digital and nondigital.
To meet these outcomes, all English 111 instructors were prepared to lead discussions with students about writing technologies in relation to composing and research process and in relation to methodologies of rhetorical analysis.
Throughout English 111, students regularly use computers in class to invent ideas through writing, to conduct and critically evaluate online research, to respond to the work of peers, to engage and record the results of collaborative small-group discussion, to complete revision exercises, and to reflect on their learning and composing processes. Much student in-class writing occurs within the blogs and discussion boards of our Sakai-based course management system (which has been branded “Niihka” at Miami University). The majority of 111 teachers also choose to supplement Niihka with free web-writing applications such as Google Drive, WordPress, Twitter, and Wikispaces. In addition to having students write with computers in class, many teachers in our program also have students do informal digital writing for homework and turn in first and final drafts electronically.
Although students employ digital tools for writing throughout the 111 class, their most intensive engagement with digital composing usually comes during inquiry 4, the remediation inquiry. Some instructors choose to require students to work in a particular medium, while others leave the choice open—making reflection about medium choice itself a central outcome of the inquiry. Students tend to compose multimedia texts using free software: iMovie and WeVideo for video; Audacity and Garageband for audio; Prezi for presentations and collages; WordPress, Wix, or Google Sites for web writing. The remediation inquiry is always accompanied by a substantial reflective essay in which students reflect about their rhetorical choices and how these were influenced by the unique constraints and affordances of mediums, modalities, genres, and the kairotic moments in which they were composing.
Thus, given the extensive digitization of the 111 curriculum, the program and the specific instructors were well positioned to move into teaching fully online courses in the summer of 2012.
In addition to developing a student-centered model of online learning, we also developed research and assessment procedures to be used throughout the class. Because we were piloting the course for the first time, we wanted to understand three things in particular: (1) student perspectives on teaching and learning online; (2) instructor perspectives on teaching and learning online; and (3) how well students in online courses were meeting the course outcomes, as demonstrated in their writing.
We decided on three separate research procedures that focused on students: in-class surveys, postcourse focus group interviews, and a direct assessment of student writing. We report student comments on in-class surveys and the postcourse focus group interview in the “Student Perspectives” section. We do not discuss the assessment data in depth in this chapter, but we do present it in the conclusion. We also conducted a focus group interview with the three instructors, each of whom kept a reflective journal throughout the course. We draw from these data in the “Instructor Perspectives” section.
In the first, fourth, and sixth weeks of the summer course, students were invited to complete an anonymous survey about their experiences in the online English 111 course. In the fall 2012 online course, students were invited to complete two surveys, one at midterm and one at the end of the semester.
We elected to use a longitudinal survey design (Seifert et al. 2010) to better understand student learning and growth throughout the course. We asked students the same questions or close to the same questions in each survey so that we could track their perception of specific issues over time. Surveys asked students about their familiarity with the key outcomes of the course, their comfort level with the course technologies, and about their perceptions of composition and the course overall.
In the summer, the first student survey was completed by 75 percent of the students (N = 28); the second survey was completed by 56 percent (N = 21); and the third survey was completed by 54 percent (N = 20). In Fall 2012, the first survey was completed by 90 percent (N = 19 students); the last survey was completed by 33 percent (N = 7). We think the last survey in the fall had a lower response rate because it was administered during finals week when students had exams, papers, and projects due for other courses.
Student Focus Group
At the end of the summer course, students were invited to participate in a focus group interview about their experiences in English 111. We conducted the interview in September 2012, after students had been enrolled in traditional college courses at Miami University for six weeks. Three students participated in the focus group interviews.
Direct Assessment of Student Writing
As part of the final reflective inquiry in the course, students in all online sections compiled e-portfolios of their writing, using Chalk and Wire. After the fall 2012 sections had completed, the portfolios from both fall and summer online sections were read and scored by a team of readers who were not the instructors using a criterion, outcomes-based rubric. The results from this assessment were compared with the results from the last assessment of traditional classrooms conducted from fall 2010 sections.
Instructor Reflective Journals and Focus Group
The three team members teaching English 111 online, Lance Cummings, Renea Frey, and Ryan Ireland, each kept a reflective journal throughout the weeks they taught the summer courses. In addition, after the summer courses were over, Lance, Renea, and Ryan met for a focus group interview held in a Google Hangout and recorded.
Our “Online English 111 Project” began in Spring 2012 when the director of composition (at the time, Jim Porter) assembled a team to develop, offer, and study a fully online version of English 111, Composition and Rhetoric (see English 111). The assembled team consisted of eight members: three faculty (Heidi McKee, Jason Palmeri, and Jim Porter); four graduate students in rhetoric/composition (Lance Cummings, Renea Frey, Ryan Ireland, and Caitlin Martin); and an instructional designer from IT specializing in online course design.
Our plan was to offer three sections of English 111 in summer 2012 (to be taught by Lance, Renea, and Ryan). The team began meeting and planning in February 2012, to prepare for teaching and researching the online course that would begin that June. The English 111 online course—three sections that enrolled a total of thirty-nine students—was offered in a six-week session in Summer 2012.
What follows in this section of our webtext are four subsections: (1) A description of the assets and assumptions we brought to the project; (2) an analysis of some of the dissonances we faced with content-transfer models for course planning; (3) a discussion of some of the decisions we made regarding synchronous class sessions and our network approach to platforms and interfaces; and (4) a reflection on our kairotic approach to course design, what we call kairotic design, and what that means generally for the design of online composition courses.
Starting Assumptions and Assets
Our team came to the project with several pedagogical assumptions about the nature of the composition course:
- That the primary focus of a composition course should be the students’ own writing
- That learning happens not only through information, but also through interaction—that is, that students learn best by interacting, discussing, collaborating, working in groups, and sharing information and ideas among themselves
- That interaction among students has to be purposeful and meaningful (we were suspicious of “fake” or forced interaction—whereby students are required to respond to each other in certain formulaic or regularly scheduled ways)
- That we needed to have some synchronous opportunities, but that we couldn’t schedule them in a fixed way
We also came to the project with some pedagogical assets in hand: (1) We already had a well-developed curriculum for teaching the English 111 course that included significant integration of digital writing technologies (see English 111), and (2) all members of the team had extensive experience integrating digital technologies into teaching and learning, including two members of the team (Jim and Heidi) who had taught fully online courses (although prior to the development of robust video and synchronous chat capabilities).
And, importantly, we also had monetary assets in hand. Both Jim and Jason leveraged the budget of the Composition Program to provide members of the team financial compensation for their time developing and researching the English 111 online curriculum. As anyone knows who has taught online, it takes a lot of time and effort to adapt curriculum for online teaching. This funding, particularly the compensation for the graduate students involved, helped as we developed other assets to be used in the class.
The process of making the artifacts and designing the course raised some interesting issues around the nature of “the course” and different models for online education.
The Nature of “the Course”
We encountered an interesting dissonance about what, exactly, a “course” is and how it should be developed. The instructional designer who consulted with our team initially presented a design model that the course should be thoroughly planned and every distinct class module—every activity of every day—fully developed before the beginning of the course. Our view—more of a composition view—was that the course plan, while developed, would also have a great deal of flexibility built in so that instructors and students could fill in specific activities and interactions as the class unfolded. For example, an instructor may have in mind an activity for “responding to drafts,” but what specifically the content of that response will be is unknown at the start of the class because the students haven’t yet written the drafts to be responded to. Sure, we may know the drafts are rhetorical analyses, but we may need to discuss rhetorical appeals, kairos, integration of quotations, or a myriad of other things depending on what they write in their drafts and what their learning needs are. This open-ended planning may strike some as not a sensible approach to course planning—as being unplanned, in effect—while it struck us as . . . well, the way we always planned composition courses.
Content-Transfer Models and Constructivist Models
At the same time that we were designing and researching the online courses, one member of our team (Jim) completed certification from two popular programs for online learning that universities are adopting—Sloan Consortium and Quality Matters. In his work with those programs, Jim found that there existed in the literature about distance learning and online course design a predominant content-transfer model of what constituted a “course” and how it should it be offered online, and that this model conflicted with, was actually incommensurate with, well-accepted pedagogies and practices for teaching composition (Porter 2013). This predominant model assumes that content preexists the course and that the instructor’s job is to assemble the content prior to the course, to deliver it to students during the course, and to test to ensure student mastery of the content by the end of the course.
Certainly, a composition course does have some preexisting content (e.g., rhetorical theory and methodologies, strategies and heuristics for composing). But that preexisting content is not the entirety of the course content because the students themselves contribute a good amount of the content—for example, when their own writing itself becomes the primary content for a class discussion about a certain rhetorical approach or technique. In fact, for a composition course, the primary content is (or should be) students’ own writing—and that writing does not exist until the course is under way. As composition instructors, we scaffold assignments and plan a process for writing, but the primary content appears in the unfolding of the course, as the students write, exchange writing, discuss their writing, and reflect on their writing. But how can you fully organize the content for a composition course when the primary content—the students’ own writing—doesn’t yet exist?
Our recognition of students as cocreators of content explains some of the dissonance we had, as composition instructors, with aspects of the content-transfer design assumptions that we were reading and hearing about, particularly these: that the online course should be fully designed and developed as a complete package; that the primary “content” was the materials delivered by the instructor through textbooks, handouts, readings, and lectures; that “content” preexists the start date for the course (corollary: students don’t contribute content); and that once a course starts, an instructor merely launches content and administers testing measures at appropriate times.
As we designed the course and made decisions about course delivery and platforms, we resisted a content-transfer model and instead worked very much from an organic, process-based, kairos-based model of course development.
We faced a number of decisions in the process of designing the course, including whether to hold synchronous class sessions, what platforms to use, and how to present lecture/presentation materials in the course.
Synchronous versus Asynchronous Class Sessions
We pondered whether to teach the class using only asynchronous discussion (e.g., discussion boards)—or whether it was important to have synchronous discussion spaces in the class as well (e.g., video conferencing, chats). Given the compressed six-week time frame of the course in the summer, we thought that synchronous class sessions would be very difficult to arrange—and perhaps even unfair to require. At the same time, we were committed to the value of synchronous discussion, both from our teaching experiences and also from the advice of research.
Our experiences as writing teachers told us, and research confirms, that “asynchronous and synchronous e-learning complement each other” (Hrastinski 2008, 55). Synchronous discussion helps build social rapport and supports social interaction that is particularly important for building strong communities. According to Stefan Hrastinski (2008), synchronous interaction enhances student motivation to respond to others and increases personal commitment to others (see also Hrastinski 2007; Hipanis, Kordaki, and Dimitrakopoulou 2006). Synchronous interaction can help create social “glue” that can make asynchronous exchange more productive (see Robert and Dennis 2005).
We finally decided that it was important not only to have synchronous class sessions for our English 111 classes, but it was important enough to require them. But, rather than have a whole-class synchronous video discussion, which was not likely to be feasible given student schedules, we aimed for small-group synchronous discussions, not only because they would be easier to schedule and facilitate, but because they would provide more opportunities for students to participate and engage with each other and with the course materials. In what follows, each instructor briefly reflects on some aspect of their design and use of small group synchronous discussions. (It’s important to note that although a specific platform is named—Google Hangouts—many of these findings carry over to other video-conferencing platforms as well.)
Renea’s perspective: For synchronous group meetings, I used Google Hangouts, largely because of feedback and input from the other instructors. I was not all that familiar with Hangouts going into the design process, and I felt uncertain at first about how well it would work. I was convinced of its usability after trying it out with the rest of the research team in meetings, and by the time the summer course started, I felt proficient and ready to use Google Hangouts as the space for small-group synchronous meetings. Something that really surprised me about it was that meeting in that space allowed me to feel more a part of the group, more like I was leading a workshop than having the sense that I was “The Instructor in Charge.” I wasn’t expecting that, but it was a very pleasant surprise.
Ryan’s perspective: Because of the technology limitations of Google Hangouts (only a maximum of ten participants in a Hangout at a time), I would schedule two Hangouts per day based on results from a survey I sent out a day or two ahead of time. Typically students would end up in a.m. and p.m. groups. Having the two meeting times proved beneficial on several levels. First, it allowed my students to choose when it was best for them to learn. It sounds insignificant until you begin to reflect on the lack of student (and, at times, teacher) energy during a mandatory 8:00 a.m. class. Second, students had the flexibility to fit the Google Hangouts times into their schedules. Several students worked part-time during the summer—and one nontraditional student was working full-time. Making the class meetings flexible avoided pitting school against work; and for the one nontraditional student in my class it meant he could earn his bachelor’s degree after several years of waiting for the opportunity. There were also pedagogical benefits. Smaller class discussions were of course more intimate, and each student had more time to speak. But, as we know from having class conversations in the traditional class, the discussion carves out its own path. Despite posing the same prefacing questions for discussion in both of my Hangouts, some very different points were made in each one. I recognized this as a learning opportunity and created blog posts for students to reflect on the discussions and then communicate with the peers who were not present in their Hangout. The results were notable—students engaged other students, provided summaries, pulled out the key ideas based on summaries, and asked the questions needed to illuminate their ideas.
Lance’s perspective: Though I tried several different ways of using the Google Hangouts space, I found these synchronous meetings most conducive to group activities and discussions. One of my favorite aspects of teaching writing is having students write or revise in class, usually in groups, then talk about some of that writing as a whole class. I mostly followed this model. For example, I might screenshare a document to analyze rhetorically, performing in a sense the act of rhetorical analysis, then let students analyze their own text or texts, while writing up a paragraph together in Google Docs. We could then talk about what they wrote as a group, but they could also share these thoughts with the rest of the class in the Google+ Stream.The Hangouts space is a good example of the flexibility of online spaces, but also shows that they may need to be “hacked.” For example, in the summer courses, I simply scheduled several time and dates and allowed students to sign up for the one that best fit their schedule. But in the fall, when students had a full load of courses, I found it useful to have a scheduled class time where I knew everyone was available. In this case, I scheduled Hangouts during “class time” and rotated through each group, much like I would do in a traditional classroom. Certainly I took time for questions and clarifications, but I did not necessarily have to worry about lecturing or giving instructions, because students had already been assigned to read or watch those before coming to the Hangout.
Synchronous Hangout discussions were not just held in small groups with the instructor present; students also had synchronous discussions among themselves as they worked on team projects. And Lance, Renea, and Ryan held office hours and individual conferences with students in video conferencing.
As we describe in the “Student Perspectives” section, once students got over their initial uncertainty about how to interact in video discussions, they found them, for the most part, beneficial.
The Platform Decision
In the design process, the question of platform arose. First came the question of centralized platforms: Would the instructors use a single online location for all class activities and materials? We quickly decided against that. We wanted instructors and students to have the flexibility to use the best interface they could find for different class activities. We also felt that such a constrained, lockstep narrowing of platforms would merely reify the challenges we often face in the brick-and-mortar spaces in which we teach. Quite simply, it made no sense to straitjacket students or instructors to one platform. The Sakai gradebook works well? Then use it. Prefer WordPress blogs over Sakai’s blog feature? No problem. Facebook is too crowded and too intertwined with most people’s lives? Then use Google+, the network that provides the affordances of a social platform but that can be used in classes because, well, few people and even fewer students really use Google+ for sharing. (As a “failed” social network in terms of number of users and their usage, we discovered Google+ is actually ideal for integration into pedagogy.)
But, without that one platform, would students feel lost and confused? So much of the materials for how online pedagogy (e.g., from Quality Matters, from SLOAN) advocate having a central location. So we did worry and wonder—would students need a central location, a home base, to help orient themselves? What we found, and as we describe in the “Student Perspectives” section, what students needed was not a technological home base, but rather an instructorial home base—they needed to know that their instructor was available regardless of platforms being used.
What we came to is what we think of as a network approach to online platforms and interfaces—using different ones for different kinds of instruction. Lance, Renea, and Ryan had their students using WordPress, our Sakai learning platform, Google, and more. But the instructors also found that Google became the primary linking network, in part because of Miami’s move to Gmail—thus all students had easily usable (and findable) accounts for Google Drive, Google+, and so on. The Google interface proved to be a compromise between centralization and networking. No single interface necessarily became the center; however, the applications and materials would be housed mainly under the Google umbrella. This allowed instructors to create curricula that would be easy to navigate and share, as each instructor explains from an individual perspective.
Renea’s perspective: When choosing the online spaces we would use for this class, I ultimately settled upon a variety of sites, each with a different purpose. For more traditional or linear reading responses, as well as for turning in assignments and doing peer review, I chose the Sakai/Niihka site through Miami. This was largely because of my initial unfamiliarity with all of the Google applications—in the future, I will probably choose to use Google Docs for peer review, as I have seen how well it can work. The Niihka site worked well for “individual” responses—writing that expressed a student’s view but that did not really require feedback from the group. In retrospect, I think this process could have been improved in a more open space, such as Google Drive. I also used a WordPress site to keep the syllabus, schedule, and assignments. My favorite aspect of this was the ability to embed links—students could just click on the assignment and be taken to a reusable video lecture on YouTube, or to the assignment prompt, or to the reading. We also used blogs for research and student-to-student feedback, which seemed to work well. Overall, I’m pleased with the spaces we chose, though in the future I am more likely to utilize spaces that are more “open”—that don’t have to be accessed in a sequential or linear way (and that don’t involve as much downloading and uploading). The more cloud-computing spaces of Google encouraged a networked approach to interaction that I found to be much more productive than the more traditional methods of online textual communication.
Ryan’s perspective: My class space centralized around blogs. Class assignments and the schedule were housed at my Blogger site. Students also composed and maintained their own blogs that were in conversation with other students’ blogs through extensive use of the comment features. For logistical purposes all of the class space elements were housed in the Google network (blogs through Blogger, lectures through YouTube, email in the form of Gmail, discussions in Hangouts).
The movement of students inside the (semiclosed) networked classroom familiarized them with how networks can be navigated. The inquiry assignments I describe in my “Instructor Perspectives” section asked students to move outside the “boundaries” of the class space and into another community of their choosing and then report back. The platform decision, I believe, became one of the first steps in scaffolding one of the goals of my course—realizing websites and their networks as community.
Lance’s perspective: I decided to design my entire course in Google Apps, simply because of how interconnected each of these apps are. In the past, I integrated technology for my face-to-face classroom in somewhat of a hodgepodge style, because no single platform provides the affordances of both a blog and a wiki, for example. I had to balance the affordances I wanted for my class that semester with the amount of required logins and the ability to integrate such spaces into a home base like Sakai/Niihka or Blackboard. I tried the best I could to create the illusion that all these different online apps were interconnected, but most of these sites required separate logins.
Since Miami student IDs and logins are integrated with Gmail, I decided to design my course entirely within the Google system. Instead of using Niihka, I created my course site in Blogger (Google’s blog tool), and the students used Blogger for their own blogs. For the most part, Blogger is not as robust as WordPress, but many of its features are easier to use and the integration with other Google Apps was crucial. Once students publish a blog post, for example, Google automatically asks if they would like to share the post on Google+. This interconnectedness made it easier to discuss specific blogs in the stream, rather than having to click through a list of blogs and comment on each site. Students still tended to complain about how many windows they had to have open at one time, an issue I’m not sure can be solved, but my sense was that once they became acclimated to navigating the network, they began to see the advantages for interactivity and workflow.
While we firmly believe that the primary focus and content of a composition class is the students’ writing and that we are against the banking model of education, we also recognize that there are times in the composition classroom when brief lectures and presentations by instructors can articulate and clarify foundational concepts in rhetoric and composition. Thus, as we planned the course, we also knew that we had to develop some online instructional resources, some artifacts, that would help build foundational knowledge both for students and with students that they could then develop further in their writing projects and class activities.
We didn’t want to create just static alphabetic text materials for students, so, using integrated screen capture, voice, and video platform software (either Screenflow or Camtasia), we developed a series of videos—both what we came to call reusable video lectures and what we came to call ad hoc video lectures.
Reusable video lectures were just that—five- or five-minute presentations by instructors on specific topics (e.g., rhetorical context, strategies for effective peer response, methodologies for audience analysis). Video 7.1 is an example of a reusable video lecture that Renea made called “Introduction to Rhetorical Analysis”:
These reusable video lectures were developed within the program context but are not what we would think of as specific to that one classroom or one instructor. That is, Renea’s video on rhetorical analysis was designed to be used not just in Renea’s class, but also in Ryan’s class and Lance’s class. Even as we designed these videos, we had hopes that they might be used and reused in traditional classrooms as well, and, as we discuss in the “Implications” section, this has indeed turned out to be the case.
The ad hoc video lectures, on the other hand, were not starting assets because instructors could not make them until the course was in progress. These videos are not designed to be reusable across sections in the Composition Program. Rather, these presentations were tailored to the specific classroom and the specific students in that classroom at that specific moment in their learning process. For example, after Lance’s students made their first few blog posts, he made an ad hoc video lecture, discussing and highlighting strategies different students employed. This type of specific feedback to students is not reusable across sections but, importantly, it is reusable by students during the course (and subsequently). Video 7.2 is an example of a kairotic video.
When to make what type of video was a crucial decision for instructors, as articulated in their individual perspectives.
Renea’s perspective: Before the term began, I was really nervous about making videos of both types—it was the source of my biggest concern and anxiety at the beginning of our course design discussions. However, it also turned out to be less difficult than I first imagined, and, I found, incredibly productive for students and for the class dynamic. Instead of sitting in a group passively listening to me, students could listen to what I had to say before we all got together so that, when we were in a class meeting together, students could interact with one another through their shared knowledge. When designing the course, I thought about the topics that I typically covered through lecture and presentation when I was in a traditional classroom, and then I designed reusable video lectures around these areas. When I would make ad hoc video lectures, it was often because students expressed—either through the Niihka discussion board posts or in emails to me—that they were having difficulty understanding a concept or applying it. An example was an ad hoc video lecture that I made about rhetorical analysis. This was an idea that students were having difficulty applying, so I chose a text similar to the ones that they were examining, and made a video of my brainstorming session, picking out the different appeals in the text and highlighting those areas as I went along. This was a much less formal video and not “reusable” in another class, but it helped my students understand how to do a rhetorical analysis in that moment, when they most needed guidance.
Lance’s perspective: Designing this online course has helped me think more deeply about spatial modalities in composition classrooms that I don’t always explicitly think about when teaching in traditional, brick-and-mortar classrooms. For example, how do I use space or course design to help students make the connections between the theory and ideas that we discuss in lecture with their actual writing? Creating the space online for this transfer and connections in learning required me to use all the tools of kairotic design available, including ad hoc video lectures. For example, I might build an ad hoc video using the different student blogs I read that week to directly apply the more general ideas discussed in other lectures. Or I might encounter a really interesting student blog and share with the entire class, so they pay special attention to that particular blog. Or I might decide to discuss bits of writing in Google Hangouts. All these are different ways (and in different places) to accomplish this more collaborative aspect of the writing classroom.
Ryan’s perspective: The range of videos we as a group made fall within the two general categories—reusable video lectures and ad hoc video lectures—but each instructor brought his or her own style and aesthetic to the video—thus enabling for students the sort of changeup in lecture (both in terms of style and delivery from one person and in terms of delivery across persons) that rarely happens in the physical classroom. Before the class started, we realized the need for certain “big” videos and divided up the reusable video lectures based on our interest. These were often more formal and polished.
At the other end of the spectrum were the off-the-cuff video responses. After releasing my first response to students—a video I shot late at night with poor lighting and almost no editing—the response was clear: students found that sort of feedback to be helpful and genuine. While the amateur filmmaker part of me cringed, the teacher part of me loved that students saw this as meaningful and kairotic conversation.
Another type of ad hoc video found its way into my collection. This sort of video acted in response to conversations generated in Google Hangouts conversations. Current topics at the time of the course included the Jerry Sandusky rape case and comedian Jason Alexander’s apology for his remarks on a late night show. I began to weave these ongoing conversations into my more complex ad hoc videos. While I realized this limited the audience to my class—and essentially put an expiration date on the video—these videos helped shape classroom conversation.
Classroom conversation was not only shaped by these ad hoc videos. The impact of the ability to view and review both reusable video lectures and ad hoc video lectures was key to students’ learning, as they discuss in the “Student Perspectives” section.
What we came to realize was that our process of design—both before the classes started and during the classes themselves—was very much a process of kairotic design. Kairos, a rhetorical term deriving from the Greek Sophists (particularly Protagoras, Gorgias, Isocrates, and the anonymous author of Dissoi Logoi), refers to “the opportune moment” (Poulakos 1983; see also Doherty 1996), to the time, timing, and appropriateness of a discourse, for both its rhetorical and cultural context. It is a concept that emphasizes the situated, dynamic, contingent, and interactional nature of communication: how communication is a time-bound, unfolding interaction with an audience. What a communicative act means today for you is not what it will mean for us tomorrow.
Kairotic design, as applied to the development of online courses, means an approach to course planning that arises with a keen sense of timeliness—for this moment at this time. It is one that allows for flexibility and adaptability for audience and context (that is, to a particular group of students taking the course at a particular time and place, for a particular set of outcomes and expectations). It is an acknowledgment that the instructor cannot—and indeed, should not—try to control and orchestrate every step of the students’ writing and learning in a course. The course should, rather, prompt opportunities and leave open spaces for students to invent and contribute their own content.
Certainly, as we describe, we had frames and some preexisting content for the course, but we resisted planning out every detail of every day and every artifact for every module (to use the language of online instructional design). As composition instructors and program administrators, we recognized students as cocontributors of course content. This explains the dissonance we felt, as composition teachers, with some of the content-transfer design assumptions that we were reading and hearing about, particularly these: that the online course should be fully designed and developed as a complete package; that the primary “content” was the materials delivered by the instructor through textbooks, handouts, readings, and lectures; that “content” preexists the start date for the course (corollary: students don’t contribute content); and that, once the course was launched, the instructors’ role during the course was primarily as a launcher of premade content and collector of work to be graded, with perhaps some roles as cheerleader or motivator to keep students engaged and progressing through the preset modules.
What we eventually came to realize is that we had to abandon much of the advice we were getting about online course design and go with our own instincts, experience, and knowledge as composition instructors. We needed a design process for online courses that was more reflective of composition pedagogy and, importantly, one that was more rhetorical. Certainly, as we describe in the “Space Decisions” section, instructors can prepare some content in advance of the course—and we certainly did that, for instance, in creating in advance reusable video lectures for key rhetorical topics, principles, and processes. But we also had to plan for the unplanned in the respect that we had to leave spaces in the schedule for content that was yet to be created—referring to student writing, to be sure, but also to unknown topics and discussions, to unplanned “content” that would emerge from the course and that could not be specifically collected in advance. We sought what Carl Whithaus and Joyce Magnotto Neff (2006) called “moments of liveliness [that] did not emerge from planned discussion points; they resulted from spontaneous student concerns” (449). Our development of kairotic videos, our use of synchronous conferencing, and our integration of collaborative communication tools were key features enabling our approach to kairotic design, as Lance, Renea, and Ryan describe in the “Instructor Perspectives” section.
Our kairotic design process began with our resistance to providing lockstep, prepackaged materials and continued into the course as instructors responded specifically to students’ questions and concerns at the, and in the, moment. But interestingly, what also arose was more kairotic learning, where students were able to access course materials and course discussions at times and places convenient to them when they felt they most needed them to aid their learning and composing process.
Too often instructors have limited opportunities to design the spaces in which they teach. They get their teaching schedule, go check out the classroom, and aim to make the space they’ve been assigned work for their pedagogy and for student learning as shaped by their goals and class outcomes. At Miami, we have some fantastic classrooms for writing pedagogy—large spaces with easily movable and comfortable furniture designed for laptop learning, collaboration, and maximum flexibility, and with the bells and whistles of the latest technology. We also have some so-so spaces that, with some creative rearranging, can be made to work. And then, alas, we still have a few rooms that literally are from the nineteenth century, with furniture and chalkboards that are perhaps from the mid-twentieth century. Teaching composition in those spaces is a challenge, to say the least. So, often in regard to traditional, brick-and-mortar classroom assignments, teaching space is determined by the luck of the draw.
When we began to design for fully online learning, we wanted instructors to have the opportunity to be more proactive in the design process. Thus we aimed to work as a team of administrators and instructors, collaboratively developing the spaces for teaching and providing instructors the opportunity to participate in the classroom design spaces, including making decisions about what online sites to use and how to use them. We actively resisted imposing any singular, all-inclusive platform design because we wanted maximum flexibility.
In the instructor narratives in this section, Lance, Renea, and Ryan share their perspectives on how they approached the design of the classroom space—what worked, how it worked, and why.
Making Space Work (Lance)
Inflexible Classrooms: Online and Virtual
As an instructor at Miami University, I’ve always struggled with classroom space. Due to increased student population and the need for more composition sections, I was assigned classrooms in the Geology building, where I taught first-year composition for both domestic and international students. Although several of these classrooms were mobile and spacious enough, there was one room in the building that gave me problems and felt like the last scrap of space available for teaching.
Desks resembling castaway postwar lab stations created three layers of semicircles in a rather haphazard fashion. Moving such behemoths required a Herculean effort from the students each and every day. Clearly set up as a lecture-centered classroom, the space was hardly conducive to the collaborative workshop I hoped to create with students using laptops. Compounding the complexity was that students gravitated to the back row of the last semicircle, nearly inaccessible to me or any students who needed to collaborate. This type of space was mostly conducive to what Douglas Walls, Scott Schopieray, and Dànielle DeVoss (2009) called “individual isolated learning” (270). Thus, if I wanted to group students together for peer response and other collaborative learning activities, I had to concede the battle with classroom space and find ways to strategically maneuver around the immobile room. To make the classroom work, I needed to “hack” the space in ways that did not require mobile or even circular desks (Walls et al.). I tried to get as many students as possible to sit in the first semicircle, where I could at least walk around and engage individuals or groups. I also could not have groups of more than three students, because it was nearly impossible to huddle around an individual computer on a long table. This room is an example of a system-centered design approach where “the design determines activity and users are forced to adapt” (Walls et al.).
When considering spaces to teach online, logging into Miami’s Sakai-based learning management system, Niihka, felt much like walking into the Geology building. Admittedly, Sakai does allow for design flexibility, but not much of this is passed along from the instructional technology programmers to the instructor—at least not as our LMS is structured at Miami, where the design vision for Niihka seemed to be based on our former LMS, Blackboard, which itself is system-centered, modeled mostly on a lecture classroom. From my experiences with the Geology building and Niihka, I came to realize that spatial conundrums, whether online or elsewhere, lie not necessarily in the space, but the inflexibility of the space, which often makes teaching a writer- and writing-centered course difficult. Many interfaces being developed by universities are set up as online lecture halls, and each element that comprises the online classroom is often just as immovable as the massive desks in the Geology building.
From my experience, there are three spatial modalities to a writing classroom: (1) space for lecturing or providing instruction; (2) space for students to work collaboratively in groups of various sizes and configurations; and (3) space for the instructor to interact with each group and respond to the class as a whole. Obviously, it is the last two that get lost in spaces like the Geology building and online spaces like Niihka, because they require flexible space. Inflexibility often leads to stubbed toes (metaphorical or otherwise). This is why I moved my class completely outside Niihka and into Google+ and Google Apps. I had stubbed enough toes.
Working with Google+ has shown me that flexibility in how space can be used is the most important element to a collaborative classroom. In other words, when designing an online course, I’m not attempting to re-create particular kinds of traditional learning spaces; rather I am using spatial modalities, or ways of using space, to “hack” the classroom space, much like I might hack the Geology building if I had superhuman abilities.
Creating a Stable “Home Space”
As I see it, the typical premise of a lecture hall is that classroom space should be divided into two spaces: student space in seats listening and instructor space on stage talking. Although there may be some interaction between instructor and student, it is usually limited and highly controlled. Obviously, not all traditional classroom spaces are lecture halls, and classrooms can be designed with flexibility in mind. For example, in our laptop classrooms individual desks are very mobile. Desks can be moved in rows, into a circle, or into small-group configurations depending on what kind of interaction we want to create. If we want students to discuss, we change the design of the classroom to help facilitate this. Writing classes, particularly ones emphasizing peer response and interaction, need to facilitate at least these three teaching and learning modalities: lecture or instructional, student collaboration, and instructor-student interaction.
Yet even in flexible classroom spaces, there is usually a sense of where the “front” of the room is—where to direct attention when in doubt. In most online spaces, the front of the room may manifest itself in many different ways . . . or not at all. Often, it is not a space, but a way of using space. Even so, my experience teaching online has shown that students do need a stable space, which usually functions much like the front of the classroom. I use a Blogger site, which integrates well with Google+, while other instructors have used spaces like Niihka. In the Blogger space, I post all the course materials and detailed assignments for each week. I also post short videos about student drafts (called “About Your Writing”) or technology issues (called “Tech Chats”). If students have issues or questions, this is always “home base,” though they often opt to contact me via Google chat or Google+.
Although I leave the commenting feature on and even encourage students to post comments, this happens very rarely. These blog posts usually contain video lectures and assignments for the week with detailed instructions, much of which would have been easily done at the front of a classroom.
The course documents are accessible in the top menu, while each week’s assignments, along with videos about student writing, are posted chronologically on the left side. As an instructor in traditional classrooms, I spend some time at the front of the classroom, conveying knowledge about particular assignments and activities, talking about student writing, and even demoing technology. Online, all this happens on the Blogger site. Unlike in the lecture hall, though, students must actually initiate the videos, click on the readings, or find the information they need, making this a much more interactive space than me standing and delivering information from the front of the room. I also post what we call kairotic video lectures, where I take drafts or activities from the class and discuss what I see or draw together some of the ideas that students are talking about. In part, this is my way of giving them some of this “front of the room” space.
Admittedly, the Blogger site I’ve created may seem like how Miami has structured Niihka, where course material and resources are available in the left menu bar. Announcements and assignments can be easily displayed on the front page for all the students. But my site is different in some key ways. Embedding multimodal materials and encouraging student interaction is difficult in our LMS. In fact, one might note how “My Workspace” is segregated as its own tab (see figure 7.2).
In my Google+ class, individual workspace is networked and shared with the entire class. Obviously, students can have their own personal space in Google Drive, so the expectation of collaboration is more clearly communicated when integrated with this “lecture space.” For example, on my top menu bar there is a link to the shared Google Drive where students post their drafts for peer review.
Creating an Interactive Third Space
When looking at student space in a traditional classroom, it is easy to see that space can be reorganized into something more interactive. But when thinking in online terms, just where is “student space” and how do you reorganize it? In most cases, student space is relegated to discussion boards, which are still inflexible, system-centered spaces. Sharing drafts or multimedia is unwieldy, often requiring downloading. And there is only one structure—linear. Although these spaces allow for discussion and commenting, there is no shared space—each person posting has his or her own space. Although files can be attached and links created, networking information is quite difficult, especially in comparison to social media platforms not traditionally considered as LMSs.
Because I opted to have my class outside of Niihka, I used three Google spaces in various configurations, depending on the need and students’ own workflow: Google+ Stream, Google Hangouts, and Google Docs/Drive. These spaces were not segregated from other space, but often integrated, linked, or networked with each other.
Google+ Stream. Although the course site might be seen as home base for the course—the place to go for just about any type of information—it was not a substitute for interactive aspects of classroom space. The Google+ Stream was mostly where classroom interaction happened, though this manifested in different ways.
Similar to the discussion board space on course sites like Niihka, I assigned many different kinds of discussions. Students could write text, share media, and comment on each other’s posts quite easily. Much like in a physical classroom, I could also sum up some of the discussion and draw ideas together in my own posts. As our proficiency with Google+ developed, it became obvious that the flexibility of this space allowed for more interaction and created more interconnectivity. For example, I could post changes to the course site or +1 a particularly good student blog. In fact, I originally had students comment directly on each other’s blogs, but we found it easier to share the blog in the Google+ Stream and comment there.
Google Hangouts. Video chats in Google Hangouts created a workspace where students could write together. I tried lecturing and peer groups, but I found that writing activities made the best use of the space. Lectures are better suited for unidirectional videos, whereas peer review was much more effective in Google Docs. What makes Hangouts so powerful is that we can have up to nine students participate and Google Drive connects to the Hangouts space. In other words, students can write together, look at each other’s writing, and discuss just like in a traditional classroom—in fact even better than a traditional classroom because nine could be together so much more easily. No stubbed toes moving desks and chairs. Additionally, these peer response sessions could be video-captured and broadcast and recorded on Google+, so even students who can’t attend can watch and participate in the Google+ Stream (see figure 7.3 and video 7.5).
Google Docs. Google Drive (or Google Docs) is where peer review happened. Overwhelmingly, students liked peer review this way the best. Originally, the intent had been to use the Hangouts for peer review, but the process went so well in Google Docs that doing peer review in Hangouts was redundant. In a typical writing classroom, everyone gets a “copy” of the text and makes comments; then the writer reads them all in order to get a general sense of the comments. In Google Docs, everyone’s comments exist side by side (see figure 7.4). In fact, students can respond to each other’s comments. After each peer review, students would send a brief note to each of their peer group members through Google+, summarizing their thoughts.
Permeable and Transformative Space
One reason I chose to discuss spatial modalities (or ways of using space) rather than kinds of spaces is because how I viewed each space shifted and transformed throughout the class. In fact, this still happens as I continue to use these spaces. For example, as I began to look for more ways to engage student writing as a whole class, I relied more on the kairotic lectures that we describe in the “Space Decisions” section. These are lectures that I produce while the class is going on (as opposed to those that I develop before class for multiple uses). Before the summer class, we produced video lectures where the instructor presents ideas or strategies for a specific part of an assignment that are reusable across sections, for example, “What Is Rhetoric?” or “How to Do Research?” One might see this as the vertical aspect of class that goes one way—from teacher to student. Then you have the discussion forums or Google+ for class discussion, adding a horizontal element between students.
But what we’ve come to call kairotic lectures brought horizontal elements to the course site, showing not only how these spaces are permeable, but also how activity in one can transform the other. It’s easy to see the video lectures as a passive student exercise that exists in a separate space ... and in many ways, that is exactly what they are. But I’ve been learning in my online teaching experience that the online lecture shouldn’t really be viewed as self-contained. Rather, the video lectures are networked with the rest of the class. Although the instructor, in most contexts, is the sole creator of video lecture content, students can participate in constructing the video lectures if given the space. So often, when I’m constructing my video lectures, I build them out of content already created by the students themselves, for example, from online discussions, Hangout discussions and activities, rough drafts, blog posts, and so on. These more fluid aspects of space are not restricted to online spaces, but exist even in physical spaces. Teaching online has simply highlighted this fluidity for me.
My greatest joy in teaching writing has always been the unique, the unexpected, and the challenging. As an engaged instructor, every class I teach has its own special ecology—different participation dynamics, different linguistic or cultural backgrounds, different contemporary contexts. Teaching the same topics the same way doesn’t excite me (or the students). Developing strategies that allow me to adapt to these different ecologies and discover new aspects of composition (digital or otherwise) with students is what drives me pedagogically. How I use space, whether online or not, is a component to this strategy.
Ten years ago, if I had been told that I would be teaching writing completely online, I would have said, “No way!” Nothing online could replicate the interactive and engaging environment I found face to face. But now, as online technologies have developed, not only do I “tolerate” teaching writing online, in many ways, I enjoy it more than traditional classroom teaching. My teaching will be forever changed not only by the availability of spaces like Google+, but by what I learned about “hacking” any kind of classroom space. If I was assigned that awful room in the Geology building again, might I be able to hack the physical space using online space? I think so.
Making Space for Collaboration (Renea)
Regardless of pedagogical stance or teaching goals, the spatial constraints of a physical classroom affect the ways that instructors are able to enact pedagogies or meet goals once the class convenes and interacts within that space. For those wishing to enact a pedagogy based upon collaboration and student interaction, facing a room with heavy or immobile desks formed neatly into rows, or small, confined spaces within which free movement is cumbersome or impossible, may serve as an obstacle to enacting these practices within the classroom. As noted by Amanda Bemer, Ryan Moeller, and Cheryl Ball (2009), “Student interaction is affected by the physical space of a room just as much as it is influenced by the presence of a teacher or the technology” (140), though, as they further suggested, this is also an aspect of the teaching environment over which instructors often have little control. Although certainly instructors work creatively to subvert the nineteenth-century classroom model, both spatially and pedagogically, many brick-and-mortar teaching spaces are still designed after the “banking method” of education, where the instructor is at the front and center of the room, consciously and spatially directing the learning taking place.
When faced with the possibility of teaching an online writing course, I wondered how space might be imagined differently so that collaboration and student interaction would have a more central location within it. How might I step away from the front of the class to allow for more networked agency among student participants? How could I plan the class while still leaving space to design parts of the course kairotically, to reflect the students’ work and concerns in the moment? Was it possible to foster these goals in an online course? In a condensed six-week term?
My goal was to create a space that balanced the need for sharing information with students while still supporting a distributed network approach to learning that encouraged collaboration, and also being flexible in the design of the course so that I could alter what we were doing or discussing based upon student writing and needs. The space provided by Google Hangouts allowed for a visual representation of the networked space comprised of multiple participants that I envisioned, rather than a conventional classroom space where students and instructor are clearly defined by their placement within the space provided. We met in the Google Hangouts space each week in small, synchronous groups, to discuss the assigned readings, to discuss the video lectures viewed prior to our Hangouts, and also to write together. This space also provided the most flexible site of kairotic design and invention, as the content of our class meetings would be largely determined by the writing the students were doing, topics from that week’s assignments, and questions or concerns raised by students either during the Hangout itself or previously in emails. These were “open spaces” in our schedule, the content of which would not be determined until shortly before the meeting, thus allowing for in-the-moment instructional choices driven by the students and their writing.
Additionally, the space afforded by the Google Hangouts interface allowed me to be viewed as one of the participants, rather than overprivileging my position within, or at the front of, the classroom, as I was just “one of the speakers” present from a visual perspective: In the Google Hangouts space, each participant “takes turns” being shown on the large, central screen, though participants can click on one speaker to be in that position if they choose; see figure 7.5. Sometimes my image was front and center, but sometimes it was not, and participants had the ability to make choices about this. This space allowed for a more direct visual representation of the distributed network model that I hoped to engender, and moved away from the nineteenth-century model where my voice, and my image, would be front and center for all other participants, regardless of their preference.
When writing together during our asynchronous class meetings, I also experimented with “blacking out” my image from the Hangouts space so that, hopefully, students would feel less watched while they were writing. Although I am unsure how students perceived my “blank image” during these exercises, I myself was acutely aware of my own presence within the space prior to “disappearing” my image from within it. Unlike a conventional classroom space where the presence of the instructor is an assumed figure within it at all times, in the Google Hangouts space, I was very aware of myself as an overseeing, nonparticipating entity while students were writing, and thus removed my visual representation as much as possible. Uncomfortable with the role of overseeing nonparticipant, on my own screen I would often “cover” the Google Hangouts window with another document or site, sometimes preparing for the next part of the discussion, while students were working together.
To build collaborative, networked practices into the course, I experimented with the invention of inquiry groups; each group consisted of two or three students working on similar topics. My goals in structuring the course in this way were to (1) provide a logical progression from one project into the next and (2) encourage students to interact more with one another to promote community, peer-supported learning, and collaborative writing skills, but (3) introduce students to this collaborative/networked aspect of the course over a period of time, allowing students to become more familiar and comfortable with one another before having to work in a wholly collaborative manner.
For the first project, which was the most independently composed, we used the Niihka Forum (see figure 7.6) as the primary space for posting and sharing work. Although this gave access to all documents to all students, the linear format of Niihka made truly networked interaction difficult, and lent itself to a more conventional arrangement of posting and responding specifically and only to very particular parties. The format of Niihka makes it difficult to alter or use in any other manner and is reminiscent of the way a traditional classroom would be designed. The instructor chooses topics, sets up forum threads, and students individually post responses in neat, linear rows. This setup, while not terribly conducive to a more networked approach, was one with which many students were already familiar, and was, at times, the most expedient interface to use for some assignments, such as garnering individual responses to readings or videos.
While the Niihka Forum was useful for turning in or sharing some types of assignments, other spaces—such as blogs—were more conducive for wider interaction. Thus, in the next project, students compiled group blogs and commented on each other’s work in a less linear and more networked way than afforded by Niihka. When it came time to write the major research paper, they had a group of peers who were already well informed about the topic, and with whom they were already accustomed to working. Students reported in their reflective documents that the research blogs and resultant comments allowed them to think about their topics in novel ways, and that the feedback from community members gave them a greater awareness of writing to an audience that was actually responding to the work that they were doing.
By commenting upon each other’s work in various online spaces—through discussion forum posts, comments on research blogs, and live Google Hangouts sessions—students were able to talk about what they were working on and gain different perspectives from a knowledgeable audience. Each of these spaces offered its own constraints and affordances that ranged from the more conventional/linear model of the Niihka Forum, to greater access and networked interaction through blogs, to the decentered conversation available in Google Hangouts. I found that each space was useful for particular types of activities, though the more I moved away from linear spaces such as Niihka, the greater the opportunity for student-to-student interaction and networked learning that I hoped to engender.
Inquiry groups were eventually required to produce a wholly collaborative video project where they presented multiple sides of a controversial topic in the form of a mock talk show. Students chose times and online spaces most conducive to their work when and where I was not present at all. This project also required collaborative writing, producing one document to which all students in the group contributed. For this, most of the groups chose to use Google Docs so that all members could see, edit, and comment upon the draft in progress before deciding upon a final version to turn in for a grade, after which they composed video projects with free screen-capture software while they performed their “talk show” scripts in Google Hangouts. The video projects, while often not technically polished, were generally rhetorically savvy and demonstrated the students’ understanding of audience, purpose, and medium, thus meeting the course 0utcomes set for the English 111 class.
(Virtual) Collaborative Space: Affordances and Constraints
Perhaps the most satisfying (and not wholly expected) aspect of utilizing the inquiry groups in an online space was the decentering effect that it had upon my presence in the class. In a traditional class, even when students work together in peer groups, the instructor is still present, a surveilling force of authority, even if that effect is not intended. While at times, such as in the synchronous Google Hangouts meetings, I was in the space with the students, I was not as visually “central” as I would be in a conventional traditional classroom. By using the video lectures as artifacts that could be viewed prior to our class meetings, the Hangouts allowed me to become more of a participant and less of a totalizing force within the space, as well as to give space to design our class meetings kairotically depending upon student writing and needs.
In the online inquiry groups, students often met and interacted in their own virtual spaces free from my gaze, such as in their own Hangouts, conducted at times and within meeting spaces to which I was not invited. What I saw were the products and traces of those interactions, rather than “overhearing” or “eavesdropping” on them as I would in a traditional classroom where most of the work on their collaborative projects is conducted during class time. This aspect of my periodic absence in the class space allowed for the possibility of more candid or open interaction between the students, though of course I was only an email or Hangout away if they ran into problems or had questions.
Although the online space allowed for a more distributed network approach to the learning environment than I have found possible in traditional courses, the amount of agency and collaboration afforded to students in this configuration should also not be overstated. Students had to make choices within bounds set by me and by the institution (such as the possible controversies they might study) and were still bound to a set of rules and regulatory practices (such as attendance policies and assignment completion schedules). There were also times that I hoped for more student interaction, discussion, or “taking over” of our class meetings, and though this occurred at times, it did seem as though students often awaited my cues just as they would in a conventional physical classroom. Thus, though the material space within which learning occurs certainly affects the way that a course is conducted, as well as the possibilities for student interaction and collaboration, most students have been conditioned to a particular set of expectations of authority and hierarchy that cannot be overcome immediately simply by redefining, expanding, or restructuring the space.
There were also drawbacks similar to those that might be faced in a conventional classroom, although because this was an online course, it was difficult to ascertain if the issues would have been more resolvable had live interaction occurred. As often is the case in traditional courses, there were a couple of students who did not keep up with the work and who did not interface with the rest of the class via Google Hangouts, though not for technical reasons. It is difficult to say whether this would have been different in a traditional class (for instance, the students may have opted to skip class and not respond to emails), or if the interface itself was in some way alienating or difficult to navigate. Although most students who signed up for the course seemed comfortable interacting in the online environment, it is not necessarily a space that is equally comfortable or accessible to all.
Moving Away from Desks in Rows
I know from feedback and reflections from several students that they seemed to form meaningful friendships in their inquiry groups during the six-week term, and many of them were looking forward to meeting “in real life” once they were all on campus. The online spatial affordances, far from putting me “more in the center” as I had feared, actually allowed me to say my piece via the video lectures and then back away, giving more space for student ideas, writing, and interaction. Although many students reported feeling uncertain of how well this would go (and indeed I, too, had my doubts at the beginning), in the end most reported that the experience was positive and helped them foster relationships with their peers that would extend beyond the course. This combination of skills-based confidence and social connection is always my hope for traditional courses, and yet it was in the online venue that students directly reported having met these outcomes.
Although in the summer online composition course we had a slightly lower enrollment cap (eighteen) than would be typical for a regular-session course, the concept of inquiry groups could certainly be applied in other contexts and with variably sized classes. It might be possible to foster more collaboration and a sense of networked agency within the space of the virtual class by creating scaffolded projects that require increasing degrees of collaborative effort to produce. In addition, creating spaces outside of the teacher-student interactive dynamic may promote more networked learning that is not directly “overseen” by a regulatory authority figure, which may encourage more open discussion, social learning, and peer-centered dialogue. In traditional courses, interaction without an instructor present requires students to meet outside of class, typically in physical locations, but the virtual space of the online class may allow for greater flexibility and types of spaces (email, Skype, Google Hangouts, chat, etc.) where students can interact in ways comfortable and conducive to their schedules and interactive styles. In this case, the virtual space of the online composition class, rather than wholly reproducing the dynamics of the conventional classroom, actually provided the ability to move somewhat “beyond the walls” of traditional power dynamics so that students might more fully engage with one another on their own terms, rather than shape their discussion and writing processes to those perceived as preferable by the instructor.
Party Time at Burke’s Place (Ryan)
As rhetoricians we often talk about Kenneth Burke and his parlor—how rhetoric is like a cocktail party with all these people milling about and we have to listen before jumping into a conversation. It’s a common, helpful, and perhaps overused illustration of the rhetorical situation. As much as I still rely on Burke’s metaphor to introduce students to the idea of rhetoric as conversation, I’ve found the focus in the metaphor to be limited. As teachers we tend to talk about the listening and conversational aspects; we don’t really talk about the milling around part—the roving from group to group. We don’t talk about the how, why, and where of the cliques that form during the party. In short, we neglect showing Burke’s parlor as a more nuanced and contextualized space to be navigated and negotiated.
Chances are that guests at the conventional Burkean soiree aren’t going to move the furniture. Instead the guests will rely on their host’s careful (or not so careful) construction of the parlor. Are the drinks centrally located to entice people to move around? Is the host circulating and introducing people? Where are the obstacles and impediments to conversation?
We don’t often talk about anything besides the talking. We talk about the guests and what they talk about. Sure, we want to teach students how to enter the conversation, but rarely do we look at how the conversation comes to be spoken in context. It figures—as teachers, we are often assigned a classroom and we show up to host the party. The layout is fairly predictable: A teacher station with a whiteboard, some desks or computer tables. We show up to this parlor with the mission to get the party started.
And here it occurs to me that there’s a reason that Burke chose a metaphor of a parlor over a classroom to explain the nature of rhetoric. It’s because classrooms make for crappy party locations. More importantly for us as teachers, classrooms as they are laid out make for bad conversation.
Think of the traditional classroom. Chances are you thought of something that looked like the classroom shown in figure 7.8.
Unfortunately, the traditional classroom is also familiar to students. And students know how to act in this context because they’ve grown up doing it. They come in, find a desk, take notes, raise their hands to talk or ask to move around. Most notably in the traditional classroom, students stay quiet. Many classes comprised mainly of first-year students are filled with long silences because the classrooms with which they have become encultured are less participatory—or the participation is controlled by a small number of eager students. Moreover, those classroom spaces are static and closed. They’re not spaces to be navigated or rearranged.
Traditional classroom structures lend themselves to a teacher-centered learning environment. If there is a podium or teacher station, a whiteboard, and a video screen at the “front” of the classroom, a teacher trying to enact a student-centered pedagogy has to try extra hard to subvert the dynamic already physically set in place. Teachers utilize group work and leverage small-group discussion against whole-class discussion—an effort only slightly better than the teacher-centered classroom.
As our team for online teaching began to meet, I quickly realized that we were not just trying to host a party in someone else’s classroom; we were designing our own classrooms from the activities to the desks (if we wanted desks, that is). The discussions we had as classroom designers in the weeks leading up to the launch of the online English 111 course led to critical insights into how nonphysical spaces function. I could design the best party space ever. Then I had a second realization: My ideal parlor party is perhaps a whole lot different from everyone else. The online course couldn’t just be an invitation to attend a party, it needed to be an opportunity to plan a party. I decided students should help shape the space in the same way guests in a parlor sort themselves into groups.
Because students were effectively helping to shape the online class space through their participation, I wanted to emphasize conversations about what it means to learn and interact in an online community. In a way, I hoped to replicate the process of designing spaces that informed how I began to design the class space. I wanted students in the online section I taught to have the same opportunity to interrogate their environment and their role as students and codesigners of the space. On the most basic levels, codesigning happened when they first designed and customized their blog sites. At the start of the course, several students needed clarification during our Google Hangouts sessions about what I was looking for—a notion that smacks of traditional classroom practice and structure. My reply would be that I wanted to learn what they already knew about online communities; I wanted to see how they interact online. Making their process explicit enough for them to teach me is, of course, a revelatory act where they begin to see their agency and begin to question their actions in online communities.
Conceptualizing the online course is where the interrogation of space begins. As instructors, we had to deal with the larger issues of what sort of space we were setting out to create. Would our classrooms be sites of delivery that reflect the banking model of education? Would we have a more open-access course that built knowledge from the community like a wiki? The sort of class space we created would set the tone for the entire course—not to mention that such spaces would also define participation, hierarchy, process, and writing, among many other aspects of the course. From the start, we viewed the spaces we selected and created as loaded with rhetorical and pedagogical implications. It only seemed fair to invite the students into the planning process.
As a team, my fellow teachers and mentors and I began meeting on a regular basis a couple of months before the launch date of the class. These meetings became essential to the formation of my course. We discussed the ways that the classroom could be more active; we figured out how to do more engaging lectures; we shared ideas for online pedagogy. In these few weeks we all learned about new digital classroom interfaces and developed policies specific to the online class. The tools we developed—video lectures, blog prompts, inquiry assignments—laid the groundwork, we hoped, for the class to be less about the teacher and more networked.
As part of my commitment to student-centered pedagogy, I decided I wanted the online course itself—its formation and manifestation and continual growth as an online community—to be the site of inquiry for English 111. Hence the theme of my section became “Composition and Rhetoric in Online Communities.” The basic thought behind this concept was that if I had learned this much about the rhetoric of the digital classroom in preparing to teach the course, then students could also benefit from a similar sort of introspection about their membership in various online communities.
This course was something new to everybody; we had a large number of first-year students taking a first-ever online course at school that was new to them. I felt that the pressures of learning a new system as well as the materials presented in that system might overwhelm students. I began to wonder if analyzing the design of online learning spaces could be a part of the class itself. The basic idea was to examine the class space as a digital environment to help students gain a better understanding of how the class would work and how their role in the class was defined by the tools we used. As the students applied what they know of social networks to the class, the better they understood how the class functions. Just as we, as instructors, did not start without a concept of scaffolding, students would most likely not come to the class without knowledge of the digital sphere.
In setting up the class I took a chance and thought if students in the digital classroom could see the space as an online community in the vein of a social network, they would be more apt to participate and actively engage in it, especially because the class asked how we define community in the digital age. The logic here is that a student taking an online course would already be familiar and active in other online communities, such as Facebook. (Another neglected aside to Burke’s parlor metaphor is that people who go to parties in parlors are probably familiar with parlor parties.)
Demonstrating the digital sphere as a rhetorical space begins with the choice of online community. I wanted to use an already-established social network—something we could build a network within, but I did not act as sole architect of. Students could then transfer the modes of communication from the social network to the class space, using the existing online community as an inventive heuristic. Most importantly, I wanted to give students the agency to choose their own online writing tools and spaces, rather than conforming to my predilections. Within the class, students could move from blog site to blog site, finding the conversations that interested them. And like many parties, the center of discussion did seem to coalesce and move from day to day.
For the rhetorical analysis inquiry, I asked students to home in on an online community and analyze it, considering what values were being promoted, how it targeted particular demographics, what rhetorical moves it made to form a certain type of ethos. Specifically, I asked them to focus on the barriers within the communities, the forms of communication in the community, the role of people’s online and real-world personas, as well as the greater context for the community. They had to learn the lingo of a community and what arguments carried weight—what we academics call “discourse conventions” and “appeals” in our social circles.
In prefacing the rhetorical analysis inquiry, I made it clear that the community they selected would be the topic for their next two inquires. I also instituted a rule that pushed them to look beyond the usual suspects in the online world—effectively outlawing Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. This constraint, I should note, yielded some really nuanced ideas of online communities. Students explored their participation in 1980s music forums, groupthink in Groupon, identity in World of Warcraft, truth in advertising in customer comments on retail websites—some unusual yet familiar sites of inquiry. In exploring these spaces, students began to see their membership in these online communities as having impact. Whether it was rating a product on Amazon or participating in a debate about power ballads, students began to see their presence and participation in these virtual spaces as shaping the space itself.
The public argument inquiry asked students to research more thoroughly how people go about crafting arguments in their online community. Students had to engage in the website itself—looking at comments and user interactions. They also had to go “outside” of the website—reading articles that spoke specifically about their site or type of site—to see what arguments were being made and how they were being argued. The end result of this inquiry was an argumentative essay that became the basis for the next inquiry.
The remediation inquiry then asked students to participate in their online communities with the purpose of driving traffic to their blog page, where they posted a redesigned version of their argument for inquiry 3. They needed to record their interactions using screen capture technology and describe in their reflection how they attempted to drive traffic to their blog site. To borrow the term from Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss (2009), students were examining “rhetorical velocity” or “the strategic theorizing for how a text might be recomposed (and why it might be recomposed) by third parties, and how this recomposing may be useful or not to the short- or long-term rhetorical objectives of the rhetorician.” The focus on rhetorical velocity for English 111 students (both in traditional and in online sections) turned the discussion of modality into a discussion of audience, genre, and delivery. For the online student, rhetorical velocity folded in the concept of community because communities form through the delivery and circulation of web-based materials. For the online students, this meant becoming active on the blog sites they had been studying. They participated in forums and used Twitter and Disqus to engage their communities with the ultimate goal of redirecting people to their remediated blog site. Instead of isolating one conversation from another, students were able to start seeing online interactions as kairotic and interactive. They developed agency to navigate the conversation from one clique to the next.
We could take the assignment sequence I just described and plug it into a traditional English 111 class. The results would meet outcomes. But this assignment sequence, when posed in the digital sphere, went a step further and asked students to look at how we interacted as a class and how our conversations formed. In class discussions I revisited the question, “Are we forming a community?” The students were extremely receptive. I’ll hypothesize that having students examine online participatory culture in tandem with an online course set up through a blog site fostered more critical engagement. The students stopped seeing the desks and the teacher station of the traditional classroom and they started seeing it as a community where they were actively shaping the learning space.
As instructors, we aimed to build learning spaces that would engage, challenge, and support students, that would foster collaboration and interaction, and that would put students and student work at the center of the course. As we describe in the “Instructor Perspectives” section, we felt we had been successful at doing so. But how did the students experience and perceive the online learning spaces? In this section, we draw from interviews and surveys with students to address that key question.
After providing an overview of some demographic information, we discuss key issues students identified about the learning spaces, specifically their initial feelings of uncertainty about online learning and what helped them to become more comfortable in the online spaces; how they learned to interact online and what interfaces they found most effective for that; and their increased sense of agency in the timing of learning activities.
Overview of Student Demographics
In all, 56 students were enrolled in the five online sections we studied: 36 in three summer sections and 21 in two fall sections. Of these students, 47 were first-year, 3 were sophomores, 1 was a junior, and 5 were seniors; 54 were from United States and 2 were from other countries (Belgium and India). As reported in presemester surveys, 72 percent had no experience with online learning, while 28 percent reported having some prior experience with online learning, including using laptops in their school classes, using computers at work, and taking fully online classes. Three students from the summer courses, all from the United States and native speakers of English, participated in the focus group interviews in September: Brandon, a male first-year student; Alexa, a female transfer student; and Kelly, a female first-year student.
Initial Nervousness and Uncertainty
As to be expected with entry into a new learning environment, students reported feeling initially nervous and uncertain about the design of the online courses. Some were worried about the technology, others about if and how they would interact with classmates and the instructor, and others about the workload of an online course (particularly those taking the six-week-long summer course). But in a matter of a few days or within the first week or two, students began to feel more comfortable. As Brandon explained: “I really considered dropping it [the course] toward the beginning because it was kind of nerve-racking that everything was online. I’m not that familiar with blogging, and so when the first week passed, it’s, like, ‘Okay, I can get the hang of this, I can do this.’”
The ability to contact and interact with their instructors in those first few days was key to helping dispel student nervousness. Students appreciated how their instructors were available via email, text, and video chat to answer questions and to help them navigate the online interfaces. Alexa appreciated her instructor’s availability because “if you’re struggling, too, you’re not, like, ‘I have to do this by myself.’ You could always email them or go to office hours [held in Google Hangouts].” Like her peers, Kelly felt that her instructor “was always at his email. So he was really easy to get a hold of.’ And Brandon remarked that it seemed like “the professor was always online . . . you email him at, you know, nine in the morning, and fifteen minutes later he sends you another email answering your question. And it’s like “wow,” I mean, are they really this dedicated to staying online? But it was really nice you never really felt in the dark, you know. It always felt like you were—I guess, in a larger sense, like someone was guiding you through it. And he had no set office hours, so you could always send him like a link for Google+ if you had questions, and very soon he would open that up [call a Hangout] and you would be talking to him, answering your questions, so that was very nice.
Note a recurring refrain of always—“always email,” “always at his email,” “always online.” This may be because of the incredible time and dedication Lance, Renea, and Ryan devoted to their classes, but even with that they were not available 24/7 (we set high goals for ourselves as instructors at Miami, but not that high!); however, perhaps because all of their interactions were online with their instructors, students may have felt that, like the connectivity of a good Internet connection, they were always connected to their instructors. And, in fact, in an end-of-course survey, 86.7 percent (summer only), 50 percent (fall only), 66.7 percent (combined) of students who took the survey (N = 24) reported feeling connected or very connected to their instructor. As one student in the fall section reported in the survey, “I really enjoyed ‘Hangouts’ with my professor because it made me feel closer to him.”
Instructors were also key in helping students learn to interact with each other. A number of the technologies we integrated into the course were unfamiliar to students, particularly synchronous video discussions held in Google Hangouts. Alexa provides an apt picture of the awkward silences and stares of those first Google Hangouts:
Nobody wanted to say anything. The professor was like the big screen at the top and then we had nine or ten people at the bottom, and it was really awkward because you could see each other and where you were and what you were doing. Some people were eating during class—it was kind of awkward. But if no one would talk, [our instructor] would be like, “All right, we’re gonna start at the left of the screen and move right and everyone say something.” Like, it’d be nonsense but everyone had to say something. And once we got over that initial “Okay, we’re all staring at each other and we really don’t know each other and this is awkward,” it actually started to be really helpful because [our instructor] would say something and then someone would have a question, and then like “Building off of that, I have this question” or “I have this suggestion to that question,” so we’d often answer each other’s questions rather than having her answer everything for us or give us guidance.
Because Alexa’s instructor helped students learn to talk—say something, about anything—they were able to develop more robust synchronous discussions spaces. Brandon’s instructor also helped students get over their initial awkwardness online, as Brandon explained, “[In the first Hangouts] no one wanted to say anything and the professor pretty much had to lead the conversation, but once he broke through the awkwardness, it’s, like, everyone just sort of discussing topics and throwing around ideas, so everyone as a whole could build onto better ideas.” But some students in other sections felt that their Google Hangouts never quite got over feeling awkward, and they commented in surveys that they wished more students had participated in the Hangouts. Kelly reflected that she wished her instructor had done more to make students speak in Google Hangouts and to teach them how to interact in online video discussions; she felt the Hangouts were still useful, but she wishes hers had been even more interactive where more students spoke. (She also noted that her Google Hangouts time was in the early morning and perhaps students weren’t awake yet.)
Overall, after they got over their initial nervousness and uncertainty, students found the Google Hangouts to be productive and helpful learning spaces and in the surveys when asked what they found most beneficial to their learning, the Google Hangouts were mentioned most often, with more than 50 percent of students including it in their list of what worked well for them throughout the class. Students’ primary recommendation for instructors planning to teach online in the future was summed up in this survey comment: “At this point, I think more Google Hangouts are an excellent idea. They give the feeling of being more connected with peers and teacher.” In the summer, eighteen students (90 percent) who took the final survey said they agreed or strongly agreed that video chats were helpful to their learning, while twelve students in the fall (83 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that small-group, synchronous meetings were helpful.
The Benefits of Interacting Online: Connecting Visually, Verbally, Textually
In both interviews and surveys, one of the most positive experiences students reported about online learning was their ability to interact with and to get to know their peers in ways that many (although certainly not all) felt was more robust than what they have experienced in traditional classrooms. As numerous students noted in focus group interviews and survey responses:
- I’m a transfer student, so I’m actually an incoming junior. I had already taken an ENG/art kinda combo class at my other school but this class I feel like actually taught me how to write, and there was actually more interaction online through the Google Hangouts than there was in my actual classroom . . . now I actually recognize their [online classmates’] faces from the Google Hangouts, I’m like “Hey!” I feel like the course that we took in English, I know more people in that class than I know in pretty much any other class that I’m taking right now. It’s weird! Like, I felt like I knew them better even though they weren’t actually sitting next to me. (Alexa, interview)
- I like that we had to attend Google Hangouts in groups because this actually helped me to socialize with some of my classmates. I would have never even attempted to talk or video chat with these people if it weren’t for the Google Hangouts. (Survey response)
- I also liked the class video chats because it gave us a chance to come together as a community. (Survey response)
- I think that the synchronous sessions were very helpful because it feels like everyone is in the same room. (Survey response)
- I feel like I know the, knew the students a little better than the students in my current classes simply because I got online and I saw their names. Like every day I saw their names and then I started putting it with their faces, and I was reading their stuff. . . . So in other classes here you’re just, you’re just there in class, for like an hour or two. And then you’re leaving. (Kelly, interview)
But it wasn’t just getting to see and talk with classmates that helped students feel connected; they also appreciated being able to read (and reread) each other’s work. When asked what she found most memorable or most appreciated about the class, Alexa said, “Being able to read each other’s work: [In other classes] you don’t get to read all the pieces of work.” For Brandon, “The blog was the most memorable because you could always go see what the other students had written.” One survey respondent shared this perspective, writing: ‘I really liked using the Blogger posts. At first, I didn’t really see the point in using the blogs, but after the first few weeks, I really enjoyed writing posts and commenting on classmates’ blogs.” Another student said in the final course survey, “I enjoyed the various blog assignments because it gave me an opportunity to see what my classmates were thinking and doing.” Students appreciated being able to read each other’s projects and their reflections on their projects as well.
Agency in the Timing of Learning Activities
Students also appreciated how the design of online learning gave them more agency in when they learned material. They liked being able to read/watch (and reread/rewatch) course materials and classmates’ work at times convenient to them and at times most appropriate for their learning and composing processes. This is illustrated in an interview exchange between Brandon and Alexa that we quote at length because many important themes emerge:
Alexa: I’m taking English 112 right now, and I really wish it would have been like English 111 [online] because we go to class, and it’s like “Oh, here’s how you write an introduction, a really great introduction” and it’s helpful information, but I’m like if I could do this on my own time, like, in my room, I would learn it way better, and I could apply it to what I specifically needed to apply it for, rather than sit and watch a car pulling [on the computer in class, not a class-sanctioned activity], and kind of doze off a bit. So it’s definitely more helpful to do it when I wanted to do it and how I wanted to do it.
Brandon: Yeah, the online atmosphere is like, you work at your speed and sometimes your speed may be faster than other people’s speeds. So you feel like you can accomplish more than just sitting in a classroom all the time . . .
Alexa: Yeah, my professor kept emphasizing that writing is different for every person, in the English 111 class, and now I’m at 112 and it’s like “It’s different for every person, but here are some cookie-cutter molds that you kind of have to fit into,” and so I felt like the online format kind of allowed you to be more different, and allowed you to kind of work the way you wanted to and the way you could, rather than what they thought you should do.
Now, admittedly, some of the differences Brandon feels between an online and traditional classroom certainly could be influenced by differences in instructor pedagogies, but the online environment also appears to be a strong influence. What Brandon and Alexa point to is that instructional delivery on a topic that happens in a traditional classroom on Tuesday at 2:00 p.m. when you’re aiming to write your paper that weekend is just not as helpful as being able to click and watch a video when needed or to be able to view (and review) class discussions as needed. One student explained that “unlike a normal lecture, I could replay a lecture if I felt I didn’t understand it fully, and I could also reference specific points in the lecture more effectively than if I had not had constant access to it.” In fact, students seemed to find the video lectures and online discussions more helpful to their learning than assigned readings. In their suggestions for improving or changing the course, one student said, “Less readings, more videos,” and another student said, “Lots of videos help because it is easier to understand than just text.” (This is a point we return to in the “Implications” section.)
Figure 7.9 shows the percentage of student responses when asked how helpful both assigned readings and video lectures were at the end of their class (N = 24). Although some students reported that the assigned readings were helpful, more students seemed to find the instructors’ video lectures helpful to their learning.
In addition, students felt that using Google’s suite of products, particularly Google Drive, enabled them to collaborate at times when they needed to and in more depth than if they were trying to find a time to meet in person. As Alexa explained:
For Google Docs we used ours as kind of like—we did a lot of group brainstorming, prewriting for inquiry 4, the multimedia one [where] we had to actually collaborate with group members. I had one person in India in my group. She was all the way across the world, and then I had someone from northern Ohio, so there’s no possible way we could even get up [at the same time] if we wanted to. Yet we were able to brainstorm, draft, talk about it, and do everything we could have possibly needed to do, and I’ve actually met them on campus and it’s pretty cool. ’Cause we’re really good friends now.
What Alexa describes—collaborating with partners across the state and around the globe and in time zones where it was difficult to meet synchronously—worked so well for her and her group because of the design of the digital interfaces. She and her partners felt connected and felt they were “talking” together as they left comments for each other Google Docs. Of course this sort of interaction isn’t necessarily different than what students in traditional classrooms do when working on a group project outside of class, but because their only point of connection with their peers was online, students seemed to place a lot of value on the interactive features of interfaces, such as comment features.
Even though many students enrolled in both the summer and fall sections reported liking the online course, some students expressed reservations about online learning. While 67 percent of the summer students reported that they liked taking the class online, 44 percent said they found it “more stressful” than taking a traditional class. This may be, however, because the students were also taking the course in a compressed time frame (six weeks instead of fifteen). Even though these pilot courses were overall quite successful, what aspects challenged students? And what might be done to make the online writing class less stressful?
Changing the Google Hangouts
Although students in both the focus group and surveys commented that the Google Hangouts were a positive aspect of the class, several students still had ideas about improving this component. We mentioned earlier how Kelly felt the Hangouts were sometimes awkward. Other students echoed this sentiment in their survey responses. One student, from the same section as Kelly, reported that “class interactions and short amounts of time are really the only things that did not work well for me . . . I also did not interact with my classmates too much. This is probably because everyone seemed shy and did not talk. If there is any way to fix this in future classes then that would be fantastic!” Echoing this concern, a student from the fall section said, “I suggest maybe changing the synchronous Hangouts a bit. They felt a little awkward most of the time. Maybe have the students take turns answering questions rather than waiting for everyone to answer the question. . . . Interaction between class mates could be encouraged more.”
Mediating Technological Difficulties
Students also expressed concerns about the technological requirements of the course. Because of the use of Google Hangouts, students were informed before enrolling that a robust Internet connection would be required, but some students were still concerned about being able to connect and struggled because of this issue.
Brandon stated that he often had to go to his grandparents’ house to participate in Google Hangouts because the Internet at his home did not support the software well: “Before we had a new fiber optic system, it was not exactly the fastest so when I needed to get online for the Google Hangouts it was so hard to actually get there. . . . I think the hardest thing is [to] make sure you have a good Internet to support the online setting.” Although Brandon’s access problems were solved with the purchase of a new system, many students do not have such options because technological access continues to be unevenly distributed as a result of persistent race, class, and gender inequality (Banks 2006; Moran 1999). Although we found that synchronous video chats were conducive to student learning, we remain concerned that our privileging of bandwidth-intensive technology may have inadvertently excluded some students from taking and succeeding in the course. As we continue to refine our online English 111 sections, we seek to employ a universal design approach (Dolmage 2005) that accounts for differential levels of access by providing more flexible choices for digital interaction and collaboration.
Online course design is a deeply rhetorical, kairotic process. As we collectively composed our online learning spaces, our design choices were not only influenced by the audiences we were addressing (e.g., students, parents, fellow teachers, university administrators), they were also enabled and constrained by the infrastructures (DeVoss, Cushman, and Grabill 2005) we had at our disposal as well the broader technological ecologies (DeVoss, McKee, and Selfe 2009) in which we were situated. Moreover, we adapted our design of online spaces throughout the course as we responded to specific acts of student writing and speaking at particular kairotic moments.
Because we recognize that online course design is a contextual, rhetorical activity, we will not conclude this chapter with a set of “best practices” for effective online instruction that can be applied in all contexts. Instead, we conclude with a series of pedagogical principles that we have developed to guide our ongoing kairotic redesign of learning spaces at Miami University for both fully online and traditional composition courses. Although we recognize that these principles may not be fully applicable to other times and places, we nevertheless hope that readers can employ these principles as inventive heuristics for their own rhetorical thinking about online writing pedagogy.
Principles of Online Course Design
- Employ a participatory, iterative, kairotic design process.
In planning an online course, we do need to make some design choices in advance—crafting reusable video lectures, developing scaffolded assignment prompts, choosing interfaces for collaborative interaction, and so on. Yet we contend that this preplanning is only a small part of a successful online course. Because students play such a key role in shaping the learning that occurs in an inquiry-based writing class, students must also be invited to play a role in reshaping the online learning spaces. In this sense, our vision of kairotic design shares many affinities with the methodology of participatory design (Spinuzzi 2005)—though our approach is more emergent and informal than ethnographic.
In addition to gathering student perspectives on our learning spaces through formal assessments such as surveys and focus groups, we also need to talk informally with students throughout the course about how our online learning spaces could be redesigned to better meet their needs (as Lance did when he reformulated his use of Google Apps as a result of a text chat with a student). To further enable students to play a role in redesigning online learning spaces, we can also engage students in analyzing and participating in a variety of online communities, including but not limited to the community of the online writing class. By allowing students to bring their experiences with other online communities to the course (or “party” as Ryan so aptly names it), we can open a constructive dialogue about what kinds of online writing spaces best support collaborative knowledge generation. Rather than trying to replicate the nineteenth-century classroom for students online, we can instead collaborate with students to research existing online composing spaces that might serve as better spatial models for the online writing class. Because every group of students will bring different literate experiences to the class, every iteration of our online writing courses will necessarily be different. Our goal as teachers is not to develop a “course in a box” that can be reused without alteration, but rather to develop a flexible set of heuristics that teachers and students can use to collectively reinvent spaces for online learning.
- 2. Design the course as a flexible, distributed network for writing and collaborative inquiry.
In our traditional classes, we have always included a large amount of small-group discussion, collaborative writing, and peer response; however, we have tended to focus on the physical classroom as the primary interface and venue for facilitating these interactions. We have come to realize that the physical classroom is not always the most effective interface for facilitating collaborative interaction: Chairs can be difficult to move; it can be hard for the teacher to monitor and engage multiple small groups at the same time; students can get bored listening to each group report back orally on their work; and students all complete tasks at different rates that can make timing small group activities difficult.
When we focused on designing small-group collaboration with online tools (e.g., Google Docs, Google Hangouts, and WordPress), we found that we were able to overcome many of the limitations of the physical classroom interface. By scheduling small group Google Hangouts at different times, the instructor could give full attention to each small group discussion rather than having to circulate among groups. Furthermore, by organizing peer response in Google Docs, the instructor could easily monitor and intervene in student commenting (asking questions in the comment threads to provoke deeper response). Rather than seeing small-group work as an activity that must be completed in a set period of time, we came to think of group work as an activity that produces a collaborative digital text (e.g., response comments, a collaborative research blog) that the teacher can then review and comment upon. By having students collaborate in writing with digital tools, we can also ensure that students are more easily able to draw upon their group collaboration when writing their essays since all their “discussions” are recorded in textual form.
Recognizing the limitations of the physical classroom as an interface for collaborative inquiry, we reject the “mirror model” of online learning in favor of reimagining the online class as a distributed network. Rather than seeking to replicate a bounded classroom space for whole-class interaction, we instead contend that online writing teachers should offer students a wide range of digital tools to facilitate collaborative interaction among small groups. For us, Google Docs and Google Hangouts proved to be particularly conducive for collaborative inquiry among students and teachers, but other tools (discussion boards, blogs) played a role as well. When we imagine our classroom as a distributed network, we gain the kairotic flexibility to adapt our learning spaces in the moment to student needs and interests.
- 3. Recognize that instructor presence and engagement are key for success.
Although we are arguing for the value of distributed networks and student-centered learning in online spaces, we also think it important to note the crucial role that instructor presence and interaction played in the success of our online writing classes. When we abandoned the metaphor of the brick-and-mortar classroom and reimagined the online class as a distributed network, we risked provoking anxiety and confusion among students; however, we found that students were able to tolerate some ambiguity and uncertainty about our diffuse technological interfaces because they had a close relationship with their instructors whom they felt were always present via email and video chat if they ever needed guidance in navigating the network of the class. In this sense, students’ individualized interaction with their instructors functioned as a key “home base” in the distributed network that helped them become comfortable with online writing and learning. Needless to say, this kind of close student-teacher interaction was enabled by a low course enrollment cap, and we would suggest that online classes necessitate even smaller course caps than traditional sections because of the crucial role of the instructor in student success in online learning.
- 4. Build and plan for assessment throughout the process.
At many institutions, online learning is both new and viewed with heightened scrutiny, especially given many of the weak online degree programs being offered by for-profits. Thus, planning for assessment throughout the design and implementation process benefits instructors, learners, and the program. For example, the surveys we conducted during the class helped instructors redesign their delivery and even the curriculum to best meet student needs. The direct assessment we conducted comparing online learning to brick-and-mortar learning has also been beneficial, showing that students in online classes are achieving to the same or higher level.
The twenty-four online portfolios selected from the seventy submitted by students in five online sections of English 111 showed that the average score for all seven course outcomes was 2.64 on a four-point scale with 1 being “does not meet expectations” (see English 111 Rubric). In fall 2010, the same rubric was used in traditional, brick-and-mortar classes; the average for forty portfolios read of the 667 submitted was 2.62. Triangulating the assessment data with both survey data and, if possible, interviews with students provides powerful data on the impact of online course design on student learning.
Rethinking Traditional Writing Instruction
In the process of hacking our online writing courses, we came to rethink many of the sedimented pedagogical assumptions that had governed our work in traditional classrooms. Although the number of students who have directly benefited from enrolling in fully online sections of English 111 is quite small, our online spatial design process has ultimately led us to transform the ways in which we conceptualize and deliver the English 111 curriculum in “traditional” sections; in this sense, the online 111 sections have served as a kind of experimental pedagogical laboratory that has enabled us to employ digital technologies to hack our brick-and-mortar classes in ways that enhance student engagement and collaborative inquiry.
Below are four key ways that the online course design process has transformed how we conceptualize and deliver composition in “traditional” classroom environments.
- Embracing video lectures as a valuable pedagogical tool
In our traditional composition classrooms, we try to lecture as little as possible because we have found that student engagement often wanes when they are simply listening passively. When we have given lectures in traditional classrooms, we have often found that we had to repeat the content of our lectures in individual conferences, small group conversations, and feedback on writing to get the message through. And, not surprisingly, students rarely ever mentioned “lecture” as the most valuable contribution to their learning when we administered anonymous midterm evaluations.
In the online courses, however, we discovered that video lectures were more beneficial for student learning than traditional lectures for several reasons. First, because we shared the labor of producing our reusable lectures, we were able to spend much more time composing and delivering them than we usually can when prepping a one-off lecture for a traditional classroom. We could tweak the visual design to make it more engaging and clear; we could revise our oral presentation for concision; and, we could practice our delivery so that it was more polished. Because the process of digital collaboration allowed us to spend more time on developing and revising lectures (and to get feedback on our lecturing from other experienced teachers), we were able to deliver rhetorically powerful presentations to students more consistently than we had previously in traditional classroom environments.
Most importantly, students in online classes were able to review the content of both our reusable and ad hoc video lectures while they were actually writing—encountering our advice at just the kairotic time when it was most needed. While many of us had been sharing our PowerPoints or Prezis with traditional classroom students for later review, our oral presentations were often ephemeral—captured only in the fragmentary notes taken by a few diligent students. In contrast, the online video lectures enabled us to redeliver a fully multimodal presentation to a student at whatever time he or she decided it would be best to engage it. Based on this experience, we have come to realize that we should consider replacing at least some of our traditional classroom lectures with video lectures, and we have begun to assemble a curated collection of reusable media for our composition teacher’s guide for use in traditional composition sections. Not only will video lectures enable us to free up more time in class for collaborative work, but they will also enable us to deliver information and advice to students in a more engaging, rhetorically meaningful, and timely way.
- 2. Questioning the value of whole-class discussion
In the six weeks of the online English 111 class, the instructors never held a single whole-class discussion, though they did have numerous synchronous, small-group video chats through Google Hangouts. Although our choice to eliminate whole-class discussion was initially driven by practical concerns of scheduling and interface (Google Hangouts could only accommodate ten students at a time), we found that we didn’t miss the whole-class discussions and that students still learned as much if not more about writing than they had in our traditional classes in which whole-class discussion played a more central role.
Although we still believe that whole-class discussion has pedagogical value for some students, we also have come to recognize that it may not be the most effective way to use class time in a writing class (whether online or traditional). In a class of twenty-three, a whole-class discussion is very rarely going to deeply engage all the students at the same time. Even in a whole-class discussion in which a teacher succeeds in breaking the interrogate-respond-evaluate format (Cazden 2001) and gets students to talk directly to one another, it is still not uncommon for some students in the room to zone out or engage in various forms of digital underlife (Mueller 2009). In contrast, when we assign a writing task to a group of twenty-three (e.g., revising a paragraph of a rhetorical analysis draft to add more textual evidence), we can much more clearly see twenty-three students all actively engaging in learning a writing strategy, and we can also assess effectively how well they learned what we hoped to teach. Similarly, when we assign students to collaboratively compose a text in Google Docs or to participate in a small group Google Hangouts, we are much better able to ensure engagement and formatively assess student learning.
Although we have all experienced some whole-class discussions that were deeply transformative and engaging for both students and teachers alike, we increasingly have come to realize that whole-class discussion may not be the best pedagogical strategy for an inquiry-based writing class (whether online or not). As a result, we’ll be revising our composition teacher’s guide to include a much more critical discussion of limitations of whole-class discussion along with suggestions for other strategies for fostering student engagement.
- 3. Reaffirming the importance of appropriate composition class size
One reason our online classes were so successful is because students all received copious, individual feedback and guidance from their instructors. Indeed, our move to dispense with whole-class discussion was transformative precisely because our enrollment limits allowed for even more individualized interaction between teacher and student. In a cultural moment in which online learning is often imagined as a cost-saving way to deliver instruction to large numbers of students with minimal teacher interaction, our experience teaching online suggests that we should be wary of any vision of online writing instruction that foregrounds a labor model that does not allow for close teacher-student interaction. Although there are many differences between traditional and online writing classes, there is one constant: Effective writing instruction requires small class size (Horning 2007). Certainly, we can learn much as a field by engaging with and designing MOOCs, but we also need to work hard to articulate why and how individualized teacher response and guidance continues to matter in online writing courses, and we hope this chapter provides further support for Writing Program Administrators (WPAs) seeking to make that argument.
- 4. Reimagining the traditional classroom as one node in a larger digital, distributed network
Although group work in the traditional class necessarily must be organized somewhat differently than in an online class, we still believe that many of our online collaborative pedagogical practices can be adapted productively for traditional, classroom-based instruction. For example, we are transforming program policies to allow teachers to replace two class sessions each term with small-group, instructor-facilitated Google Hangouts sessions as a way to maximize student-teacher interaction and collaboration. Furthermore, in designing group work and modeling it in teacher training, we have moved toward a programmatic expectation that most small-group collaborative activities should result in the production of a digital text (e.g., a Google Doc, a slideshow presentation, contributions to a discussion board or blog post, an audio file). Although we still do some “reporting back to the whole group” in our traditional classes, our increasing emphasis on collaborative in-class writing means that we still have a record of each group’s conversation (and if one group is unable to finish a task, they can collaboratively complete it for homework).
In our online classes, we did not begin with the question, “What are we going to do in class today?” Instead, we began with the question, “What do students need to learn to do with writing this week and how can we design scaffolded collaborative activities to help them achieve the outcomes of this week’s assignment?” Rather than centering our attention on our teacherly performance in a time- and place-bound class session, we instead centered our attention on designing and hacking a diffuse network of digital spaces to support the students’ own writing and textually mediated collaboration. We believe this kind of shift of frame is key for all writing pedagogy (in both on- and offline environments). In the “traditional” composition class, the physical space and time of the course session is one node in the distributed network, but we would argue that it is not the most important one. As we approach designing instruction for our “traditional” composition sections, we need to stay alert to the many ways we can employ digital tools both in and outside of the set “time for the class” in order to place student writing and collaborative inquiry at the center of the course.
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