Step 2: Technology Rationales

Ideally, composition instructors embrace technology by choice and with defined pedagogical rationales. Unfortunately, the leading rationales for adopting online spaces in higher education, including courses and support centers, seem to be fiscal and competitive (Cook, 2005; Cuban, 2001; Garrison & Vaughan, 2008). Neither of these rationales should drive educational decisions, yet they do. Many institutions are rushing to follow online trends, often at the expense of relationships within those institutions (Wahlstrom & Clemens, 2005). Kelli Carlyle Cook (2005) writes that the desire to create online writing spaces often has little to do with pedagogy. Though the use of a virtual classroom might be forced upon a composition program or individual instructor, we still have a responsibility to apply our best pedagogical practices and ideals within these spaces.

Concurrently, the availability of technology to deliver courses online and the enthusiastic marketing of this technology have encouraged administrators to migrate university instruction to the Internet. Another compelling force behind this movement is the market for online education itself—a workforce whose educational needs continue to grow. (Cook, 2005, p. 50)

Adoption of Online Writing Courses

As stated above, the administrative embrace of online education and academic support represents a response to the challenging financial environment in higher education (Anson, 1999; Cook, 2005). For-profit institutions have become models of online efficiency by serving large communities with part-time instructors. The University of Phoenix enrolled 49,000 online students in 2002. Ninety-five percent of Phoenix faculty were part-time (Wahlstrom & Clemens, 2005). Developing inclusive courses likely asks yet more of a faculty receiving minimal technical training and support.

For a public university illustration of the pressure to migrate writing instruction and supports to virtual spaces, consider the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. Political leaders in Minnesota established a formal goal of migrating a quarter of course credits earned by undergraduate students to online settings by 2015 (Ross, 2008). The university administration believes first-year writing courses and writing lab supports are ideal candidates for virtual spaces at Minnesota campuses, as these courses do not require laboratories, studios, or other physical spaces. First-year composition is, from this viewpoint, among the easiest courses to migrate online and meet the new state mandates for units earned online.

There is little available research to support the belief online education is more cost effective than traditional course development (Cook, 2005). In time, economies of scale might be established, but designing effective and inclusive online spaces requires the investment of time, money, and human expertise. If the adoption of online spaces in higher education is driven by the desire to maintain or increase course enrollments, then the investments in designing virtual writing spaces is justified readily. The best online designs serve the broadest community of students. However, we should acknowledge that verifying virtual writing spaces comply with regulations and inclusive ideals requires testing and ongoing evaluation of designs (Seale, 2006).

Technology trends are often sudden and disruptive. Although scholars had forecast the rise of online writing instruction and virtual writing labs, few predicted the sudden shifts we have witnessed within the last five years. In 1999, the National Center for Educational Statistics predicted that 54 percent of universities and colleges would offer online courses by 2000 (Cook, 2005). Instead, we are approaching near-universal adoption of online education and supports.

A recent survey of e-learning activity at 274 colleges and universities in the United States found that 80 percent of undergraduate and graduate higher education institutions and 93 percent of doctoral institutions offer hybrid or blended learning courses (Atabasz & Baker, 2003). (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008, p. 49)

Pedagogical Rationales

Virtual writing spaces enable alternative views of what constitutes a text and the teaching of composition with digital technologies (Bernhardt, 1993). Our composition pedagogies often embrace these new forms of writing. When we consider the World Wide Web, e-books, smartphone apps, and more, texts have evolved towards hyperlinked, interconnected, and interactive experiences the reader shapes (Bolter, 1991; Bolter, 1999; Kalmbach, 2004; Kress, 2003; Wysocki, Johnson-Eilola, Selfe, & Sirc, 2004). Composition courses historically have embraced new technologies (Bernhardt, 1993).

The rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), iTunes U, Kahn Academy, and the respected Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) indicate our students seek online supports for writing. Virtual writing spaces are the norm, not the exception, as Cynthia Selfe predicated more than a decade ago (C. Selfe, 1999). Writing classrooms and labs often reflect our pedagogical biases, being organized to support peer interactions and collaboration. Virtual composition classrooms enable the collaborative writing and reading our students already experience in online settings. Technology almost invites collaborative pedagogies.

One key to such online pedagogies is the ease with which we can tailor our feedback and discussions to particular classes and individual students. Writing scholars recognize that students perceive writing instructors as wielders of red pens, not as the mentors we seek to be, so we must reassure students that we are working with them (Garrison & Vaughan, 2008; Conrad & Donaldson, 2004). Because research indicates the frequency and quality of input from instructors correlates with student perceptions and satisfaction (Eaton, 2005), virtual composition courses with active discussion forums and online chats nurture this desired connection with instructors and tutors.

The two least-liked features of the online classroom are the lack of face-to-face interaction with classmates (selected by 59% of respondents) and the lack of face-to-face interaction with professors (65%). (Eaton, 2005, p. 36)

Collaboration online does not erase cultural or socioeconomic differences, but it can mitigate those differences if composition instructors mediate discussions and offer positive interactions. In asynchronous virtual composition courses, disabilities are in the background if the course is effectively planned and managed. The goal is to create and foster communities online that might not be as inclusive in the physical composition classroom.

Following this proposed framework for inclusive design, writing instructors should adopt technologies that complement a pedagogical foundation and guide students towards clear learning objectives, regardless of the physical challenges a student might have. Though we often have technologies chosen for us, we should use only those features of online classrooms that align with composition pedagogies and do not isolate students with special needs. We must be advocates for wise technology adoption in our first-year composition programs, sometimes resisting technologies that have no pedagogical rationale.