October 27, 2011

Writing Support Online

Back in 2009, I read that the University of Arizona was developing a one-credit online writing course that will be used to supplement their three-credit GenEd (general education) classes.

It's one way to address a problem a problem that occurs on campuses where enrollment is growing and the number of staff and the facilities to support them have not increased.

This is true of many writing centers, and they often have problems meeting the increased demand. For better and for worse, online versions are often seen as an economically feasible solution.

At PCCC, we use eTutoring, but we don't have anything like an online writing center. Since our center only opened in 2009, we are fortunate that our roll out was planned in phases. Since the Center was built to support the writing intensive courses, our student clients increase with each semester. This semester we are running 30 sections of WI courses. By the end of this academic year, we will have about 1000 college-level students in the Center student database.

When the grant ends in September 2012, the Center is designed to become the college-level writing center supporting about 4000 students. (PCCC also has basic skills, EOF and ESL labs.)

An online writing course could be viewed as a form of writing across the disciplines. At UA, the course were introduced as a one-credit supplement to the typical three-credit general education class. It is intended to provide an interactive and self-paced online environment in which students' writing skills are diagnosed and improved.

According to an article on the UA course:
"...the courses will not replace gen-ed classes, but instead will support them with needed writing instruction that is not available in the typical 50 minute lecture period...The online course will offer tutorials on topics in writing not ordinarily covered by professors, such as grammar, drafting a thesis and style and craft. Writing proficiency will be tested by a diagnostic system that will, depending on the student's score, direct him or her signed to target a given problem area. These modules will feature flash animation and other interactive software tailored to the specific skill level of the student.

Thomas Miller, English professor and associate provost of academic affairs, pointed out that the online course will help deal with problems in writing essays before it's too late. He said that students all too often realize they have significant problems in writing only after their papers are returned with a poor grade. Miller added that research on writing pedagogy shows that "students do not read teachers' comments on their papers. They often do not understand comments they read and do not apply them." The online course is intended to remedy this problem by developing students' writing skills before a paper is even assigned to them.The course will "take them through the writing process," Miller said. "It will help them draft a research question or thesis and will include strategic visits to the writing center."
It's an interesting idea. At PCCC, our approach is to try to incorporate these skills into the GenEd courses. We have designed 23 distinct courses so far across al disciplines as writing-intensive. We also strive to better equip those faculty to support their students' writing, as well as sending students to our writing center for face-to-face help and sending them online to use eTutoring.

One reason that we chose this path is because we wanted to also include faculty in the learning process. A good part of our initiative effort goes to professional development. We are trying to help faculty improve their ability to create writing assignments, facilitate assessment and utilize technology to do it.

PCCC, like many other colleges, is looking at putting more courses online each year. Since the Writing Center needs to support them as well as students on two smaller satellite campuses at Wanaque and Passaic, we will also be looking at supplementing writing instruction online.

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