Kairotic Design: Building Flexible Networks for Online Composition

Lance Cummings, Renea Frey, Ryan Ireland, Caitlin Martin, Heidi McKee, Jason Palmeri, and James Porter


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.