I was in a composition pedagogy class recently when our professor asked whether the composition classroom could be conducted effectively in a virtual environment. My colleagues were all stating that moving composition to an online space sacrifices some portion of the writing classroom experience that only face-to-face interaction provides. While I do prefer working face-to-face, I have come to realize that online spaces offer many ways to mimic much of the interaction in a classroom, and that students’ performances improve when they experience less of the top-down relationship pressure of most classrooms. For a composition teacher, realizing that students may be better equipped to draft in remote environments with synchronous collaboration from a tutor or instructor made me reevaluate the usefulness of brick and mortar classrooms.
To provide a better context for this observation, I must first go back a few months. Immediately after finishing my masters in English literature at the University of Alabama in Huntsville in the fall 2014 semester, my wife (then several months pregnant) and I moved with her job here to the Atlanta, Georgia area. We lived in a small apartment to scout the area for a house, and amidst all of the prenatal visits, moving, going to storage units, and looking at houses, I had to find an income source while I waited to hear back from Ph.D. applications. One of the first jobs to show up on my radar was as an English tutor through a tutoring website. I signed up and quickly picked up three high school students who wanted help with writing on a weekly basis, first face-to-face and later through online sessions.
My original reason for transitioning to online sessions was logistical, not pedagogical. My wife and I moved to a house about a thirty minute drive away from our tiny apartment, and, as each of my weekly sessions was a thirty minute drive from our apartment in the opposite direction, I had to let my students know that they would either need to switch to an online setup or find a new tutor. Each of them reluctantly agreed and convinced their even more reluctant parents that this would be beneficial. I explained to the students and their parents that my experience teaching college composition courses through Google’s suite of Drive features and working for several years in a call center gave me a unique set of skills that would allow this transition to work well. I continued my online sessions with each of these students from mid-March through mid-June, and I was surprised by the rate of improvement in each one after we changed to an online format.
While each of the three students had different goals ranging from keeping up with an honors ELA class to writing essays for acceptance in a dual credit program, they all struggled with many of the same issues: crafting a thesis and drafting original arguments around the thesis. In addition, each had individual grammatical and syntactical issues that teachers were telling them crippled them as writers, which pulled their focus off of the process of writing and onto overly cautious typing and word choice to avoid making a mistake. When we had met in person, we would work collaboratively on essays, mostly on paper. The students would write slowly and often stop to ask me for a better word or if they had constructed their sentence correctly or used commas in appropriate places. They were not happy to wait until the essay was finished to go back because my physical presence and our time limit of each session added a sense of urgency to the minutiae of their tasks. When I would give them homework to write before the next session, it would normally come hand-written on paper with lines furiously scratched out or layers of liquid paper weighing it down.
With years of experience working in writing centers, I was used to this behavior and considered it part of the tutoring process. When we transitioned to online sessions, however, I noticed several large changes. Without me physically present next to them, their typing skills and drafting speed improved dramatically. We used Skype to communicate orally and Google documents to collaborate on the same document. Admittedly, it did take some time for them to get used to my comments appearing in what they had written previously, but knowing there was a digital record of that comment that would remain after the session ended allowed them to accept it without stopping their drafting process to look at the comment. Synchronous collaboration in their texts became a standard practice. We would set an amount of time for them to draft, during which I would read and add comments related to their arguments or to highlight a specific error. Once they were done drafting, we would discuss the comments together through Skype before the student would alter the text on the document, giving the student further ownership of the revision process.
In-person collaboration looked very different: I would sit and read books or try not to impose on their physical space in our coffee shop booth while they would write. I could not normally read what they were writing until they were done with a page, and even then my active writing would distract them from their drafting and they would want to discuss it without waiting to complete their next page. Moving to online sessions wholly eliminated this type of interaction. At first they would get slightly distracted by comments appearing in what they had previously typed, but they became accustomed to using the “Reply” function on the comments in Drive. This platform for synchronous collaboration during the one hour sessions combined well with the asynchronous ability to reply to comments outside of the session. The synchronous session flowed more smoothly when the students knew that they could resolve smaller concerns asynchronously.
Initially, I did not understand the value of this type of asynchronous collaboration for high school writers. A few of my master’s cohort depended on peer reviewing together in Google Drive asynchronously, because our full time work and school schedule prohibited meeting outside of class. In one of those classic “ivory tower” moments, I had falsely assumed that high school students, even those who had sought tutoring, would not respond well outside of the sessions. I would rarely get to address all of my comments on their writing during the session, so I would go into the document a few days later to see if they had followed up. I was surprised by the fact that normally my students would have already worked on the document, which meant I often had fresh reading or new comments to which to respond! While most of my composition students in brick and mortar classrooms show little engagement with my marginal comments even when they have to revise off of them for a portfolio, these “low performing” high school students actively engaged with the process and were able to spend more time overall on the drafting and revising process during our online sessions.
My students also demonstrated a change in their ability to self-edit. I was stunned when, after spending a few weeks working with two of the students on replacing passive voice with active voice through revising their essays and completing worksheets I had created from their previous writing, both students began catching passive voice during the composition process. Being able to watch them typing in the document in the synchronous sections allowed me to assess their writing process in a very dynamic way. Instead of seeing only the final draft or product, I was able to see the conscious choices they were making for word choice and grammar. Imagine my surprise and relief when I began seeing both of them typing a sentence like “The Renaissance was caused by the changes brought about by the Reformation” and then watching as “was caused by” was deleted. To a degree, I was participating in the pause as the writer silently thought about the structure of the sentence. The student then went and also deleted “brought about by,” when I heard them murmur almost inaudibly that the most common way to reframe a passive construction is to take what appears to be the object and place it in the subject position. We had worked on this for some time, and more recently I had begun eliciting this idea from them while working together to revise identified passive constructions. The student ultimately revised the sentence to “The Reformation caused many social changes that eventually resulted in the Renaissance movement.” Synchronous observation through Google Drive allowed me to participate in this moment of self-revision in a way that I could rarely witness in a brick-and-mortar classroom or coffee shop tutoring appointment.
From my observations remotely tutoring these three students, I believe that synchronous and asynchronous elements unique to online spaces offer a more holistic approach to assessment. Synchronously observing the process provides nuanced information into the individual writer’s process, like the amount of time spent making choices. The added benefit of audio adds further entry for the teacher into the way the individual student encounters not just the text but also previous lessons. I know that my student consciously made a specific move we discussed multiple times because I got to hear her repeat the rule to herself, which provides valuable data about the way the skill we practiced in several sessions transferred to the composition process. Students make these moves in brick-and-mortar classrooms as well, of course, but the teacher’s intimate knowledge of writerly decisions decreases if the teacher cannot limit their presence for the student and still be able to observe editorial changes as they are made.
These features all informed my disagreement with my colleagues in class a few weeks ago. While I love meeting in a brick-and-mortar classroom to discuss writing and model certain writerly behaviors for my freshman composition students, I admit that there are limits to that medium that definitely interfere with my ability to assess their progress as writers. Asking them to compile portfolios complete with graded papers and their revised versions or asking them to evaluate their change through reflection essays is incredibly useful, but not as useful as the ability to watch them compose synchronously and collaborate on documents with them efficiently both synchronously and asynchronously. While I realize that the ratio of students to teachers in the average high school ELA and college composition course make this less practical than in a tutoring session, I think that online spaces like Google Drive allow a unique view of writing as process and offers up a useful alternative method to evaluate or assess student writing that I hope to incorporate more fully into my own pedagogy as a composition instructor. Ultimately, I hope a preference for an environment does not preclude exploring the new options available to students and instructors through online spaces, and I look forward to learning more about how I can use these spaces dynamically as an instructor.