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Online Classes

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This blog was originally posted on February 25th, 2015.

It’s always surprised me that I don’t teach online.  I am a tech-heavy guy, often an early adopter, and much of my work has involved computers and composition. But I tried teaching a writing course online once and, frankly, I thought it was a disaster.  Granted, I was doing it somewhere around the turn of the millennium; I’m certain the technology has changed since then.  But I’ve been stubbornly dead set against writing instruction online for most of my career.

That must change.

In part, it’s my whole “teachability” thing: I think I need to look back and reexamine old conclusions.  A more pressing part, though, is a new mandate from our school to get our FYC courses online.  It’s not entirely clear where the pressure is coming from: eLearning, the Dean of Undergraduate Studies, the Provost.  Dunno.  But the orders have come and now the challenge is making it happen in a way that maximizes student learning and success.

My basic objections have always been related to two points.  First, composition classes are process-based classes, not content-based.  Sure, I can see how it would be easy to put a video lecture on Blackboard, toss up some quizzes, add an exam and be done with it.  It seems easy to me to deliver content through Content Management Systems (duh). But how does one teach process online?  It strikes me as being as odd as trying to teach sculpture online.

My limited experience suggests that any attempt to do so triggers my second objection: time.  Specifically, it feels like writing courses takes a lot more time online.  If I am having discussion in a 50-minute class it takes 50 minutes.  Move that discussion onto a discussion board, though, and I have to read each student response, engage appropriately, and redirect or respond, a process which I think ends up taking a lot longer than 50 minutes.

Maybe I am wrong.  I have to be.  I know that lots of schools teach writing online.  I’m just not sure how they do it effectively.

I may be signing up for the Cs workshop on the topic and you can bet I’ll be reading widely in the field.  But if you’ve taught online and feel that you’ve found a way that really works, let me know, OK?

1 Comment


This blog post is over a year old, so you might have either figured it out or given up by now. But I found this in a search and wanted to throw out a few ways that I find online classes MORE process-based and MORE collaborative than f2f classes.

Use synchronous/asynchronous drafting tools (preferably in the cloud): I don't know if you are at a Google School or use Google (or another such product), but I use Google Docs extensively in my online classes so that students can draft collaboratively or work through steps in a process. For example, if a students posts a Google Doc and shares it with me, I can review the "revision history" of the document to see how students worked through editing a draft. I ask them to use the comments feature to describe the rhetorical moves they made and why they made them. Then, I can go into that document, reply directly to the student's text and have a conversation about the moves that the student made, in essence embedding process with product. You can ask students to have synchronous conversations in the chat tool right next to the document as well. I use this for one-on-one drafting, revision, and tutoring as well as group work.

Discussions Online Allow Extroverts AND Introverts Space to Participate: In any given f2f classroom, a handful of students, generally extroverts, might participate in any conversation. However, in an online classroom, you immediately see 1) who is participating and 2) whether or not they understand the text/topics and can articulate that understanding. I am sometimes lulled into the self-congratulatory "that was a great discussion!" mode after 50 minutes of a "really great!" discussion. But one time, I had a colleague observe one of my "really great!" discussion classes, and she counted that really, less than half of the students participated in the discussion. In an online classroom, extroverts can participate to their heart's content, and introverts have the time and space to digest and reply thoughtfully, which they might not do in a 50-minute discussion in a f2f classroom. 

I short, once I started teaching online, I had a huge shift in how I looked at teaching f2f. Now that I teach primarily online and only f2f once every two or three years, I feel like I have no idea whether the majority of my f2f students understand what we were talking about in a class period because I don't hear from them. I don't feel like I know their process because I see only "products" or drafts that they turn in; unless they turn them in the the same Google Docs, I don't know what their "process" really is, only the points in the process that they submit to me. With the drafting and commenting capabilities of interactive online tools, I feel like I am much more familiar with the processes of my students in my online classes.

About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.