Session M-2: New Possibilities in Online Writing Instruction: Considering Student Backgrounds to Achieve Inclusivity


Presenters: Marcela Hebbard (The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley), Catrina Mitchum (University of Arizona), Janine Morris (Nova Southeastern University)

The presenters began by noting that, despite many institutions offering an increasing number of online courses and the growing body of research on online writing instruction (OWI), student success rates in online courses continue to be lower than in face-to-face classes. While this undoubtedly has several interrelated causes, the presenters suggest learning about students’ backgrounds, expectations, and beliefs about writing to build online courses that celebrate their strengths, support them in developing their weak points, and set them up for success. The panelists presented the results of a survey of 305 students enrolled in an online writing course, using three principles from CCCC’s Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction to demonstrate how an understanding of students’ backgrounds can reveal the need to revise even the most accepted OWI best practices.


The first presenter, Catrina Mitchum, focused on students’ prior experiences with and assumptions about online writing courses, as well as their perceptions of themselves as writers. Interestingly, while 67% of the students surveyed had taken an online class before, respondents were vague when asked to identify the skills they’d learned that would enable them to be successful in their current course. While students identified attributes like time management, technology skills, and self-motivation as necessary for success, there were few concrete examples to indicate how these attributes would manifest as behaviors. Students’ self-report of their past writing experiences and their perceptions of themselves as writers also contained some interesting tensions. For instance, while many students reported positive contributions to their perceptions of themselves as writers (167 reported earning As and Bs in high school English and 155 reported receiving positive feedback on their writing, for instance), 70% labeled themselves as “OK” writers while only 18% labeled themselves as “strong.” Mitchum concluded her portion of the presentation by emphasizing the need for instructors to ask students about their writing experiences and expectations in order to build community, align students’ expectations with course expectations, and ensure the course is inclusive and accessible.

Next, Marcela Hebbard explored the role linguistic backgrounds play in shaping student expectations. Despite the fact that online students’ language backgrounds are as varied as those of students enrolled in face-to-face coursework, most OWI scholarship does not meaningfully engage with students’ languaging. A little over half of the students in the panel’s survey self-identified as monolingual English speakers (119), while 79 indicated they also speak Spanish (some with an additional third language) and 26 reported they are bilingual in English and a language other than Spanish. Yet, to fully appreciate the richness and nuance of the linguistic resources students bring to the online classroom, we must also consider the language varieties students use, such as Pidgin English and American Sign Language (both of which were reported in the survey). In the survey, most multilingual respondents indicated that they felt their linguistic resources were an asset in their writing. With these results in mind, Hebbard called for an inclusive OWI pedagogy that acknowledges and incorporates the translanguaging practices of all students, multilingual and monolingual alike. Standardized English must be approached as one of many Englishes in OWI, not the “best” variety or the default language choice for academic writing.

In the third presentation, Janine Morris discussed students’ technology access and support. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority of students surveyed had access to a laptop and smartphone (95% each). However, Morris cautioned that we need to view these results in light of a 2021 Pew survey that revealed around a quarter of US adults have no broadband Internet access at home; instructors cannot assume that access to devices equals access to course content. Most students also reported familiarity with word processing, presentation, and spreadsheet creation programs, with fewer reporting familiarity with design programs and other technology. Students were also asked in the pre-survey about the level of technological proficiency they assumed they would need to be successful in the course. They were then asked in the post-assessment about the level of proficiency they felt they actually needed. While most students’ expectations of the technological skills required for success were in line with what was actually required, many first-generation students did not anticipate the level of technological proficiency they would need to complete the course. Morris also noted that only three students who spoke Spanish as a first language completed the post-survey, so their perspective is underrepresented. Online writing instructors cannot make assumptions about students’ access to or comfort with technology, and we need to provide access to the technology support they need.


While the presentations themselves were fascinating, informative, and well-designed, the most engaging discussions occurred in between presentations. While the online conference format could easily have stifled or even prevented conversation, the panelists used the virtual format to facilitate one-on-one discussions among attendees. After each presentation, the speaker presented two questions asking attendees to apply the ideas to their own teaching practices. Attendees were then split into pairs to discuss, with instructions to take notes via Padlet. This collected the notes across discussion groups, enabling us to identify common threads and learn from other participants. I found this method of discussion to be more dynamic and engaging than trying to replicate a traditional question-and-answer session in a virtual format, as it gave everybody a chance to speak and build stronger connections with fellow conference attendees. I also appreciated the fact that I was paired with a different person each time, so I was able to meet and learn from several people. While the shortened session length meant there wasn’t as much time for discussion as we would have liked, the slides with the links to the Padlets remain accessible for attendees to review.

The speakers concluded their panel by “call[ing]for a revision of the CCCC OWI principles in the area of technology and to include translingual pedagogy because it considers all student backgrounds, languages, and lived experiences.” This call is much-needed, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic has, at some point, made most writing instructors online writing instructors (if only temporarily). Beyond the level of policy change, we can apply these principles to our own teaching and commit to building online pedagogies that honor our students’ backgrounds. To do this, of course, we must start by asking our students about their backgrounds. The wide-ranging, ambitious study yielded fascinating, sometimes unexpected results, and I often found myself wondering how students at my own university would have responded. I left the panel excited to learn more about my students.

About Author

Amanda Sladek

Amanda Sladek is an Assistant Professor of English and Composition Coordinator at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Her research focuses on multiliteracies and language rights in First-Year Comp and Basic Writing.

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