How an Online Tech Writing Instructor Got Their Groove Back


I am not Stella but this is the story of how I got my groove back. By me I really mean my classes and I, and by groove I mean our sense of connection and community.

I taught 2 sections of Technical Writing (TW) in face-to-face (FTF) format when I arrived at my first full-time lecturer gig after the Ph.D. was completed. This felt natural to me as I had been teaching composition courses for about 8 years prior to this point. I teach in a collaborative project-centered environment because I have seen the difference community makes for learners. Wrestling with the textbook, the concepts of Writing, and the challenges of the projects in community is a very different thing than to wrestling with them alone. I have come to rely on the affordances that the community of learners provided me as well, both in the way I structured the course and in how I performed the work of teaching and assessment.

The second year, however, I was given two sections of online TW. I struggled to make the courses work the way my classroom classes had worked but quickly realized that online synchronous was quite different in the way learners accessed the material and engaged with the composition concepts I was presenting to them. I moved to an asynchronous delivery paradigm to accommodate these differences but I still felt like something was missing. Several students also mentioned at various times that the discussion boards were fine but they still felt isolated.

I was faced with an important question: How could I facilitate group work in an online format that wasn’t also the “wild wild west” of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram? Since I am old(er) and a player of Dungeons & Dragons, I went in search of TeamSpeak. I soon realized that there weren’t readily available transcripts and other options that I was seeking—like video conferencing—at that time, so I kept searching. Then, in a very special Technical Editing class in which, the editors from my course were embedded with engineering students as they worked on their capstone project—designing the vehicle and flight for an autonomous science mission to another celestial body in our solar system—one of the teams of engineers was using Discord to coordinate their work. I asked them what it was and they simply replied: “You mean you don’t know? It’s what gamers do.”

“Oh.” I said abashed.

There is a visual metaphor somewhere for what followed but . . . it’s kind of an insider reference.

Scott Pilgrim plot as relationships with Tech-- Pictured are Characters from the film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Scott (labeled as ME), Ramon (labeled as Discord), Kim (labeled as Canvas), Julie (labeled as Twitter), Todd (labeled as Instagram), and Envy (labeled as Facebook)

And then . . . COVID-19.


Since we began using Discord, I also created, planned, taught, and coordinated, into this course, a service-learning project that performs a User Experience (UX) study for our Library website. The UX project occupies weeks 8-15 of a 16-week term. We have a warm-up team exercise in which we build and unbox the rubric for the course.

Because the UX is so massive, we also have another smaller team project before the UX project begins. The students explain the Rubric to each other through a class-wide collaborative document on which I serve as editor. (I sometimes engage my EH302 Students to help them learn editing as well.) The document Rubric becomes a reference for all of my EH 301 students: one that they are invested in because they wrote it for a real audience. The other warm-up is a WordPress startup guide in which the students explore and teach themselves (with my guidance) the program that they will use for their assessment Portfolio while learning the writing genre of “start-up guide”. This is a kind of variation on Writing About Writing (WAW). This scaffolded approach of group assignments that places them as both writer and audience allows students to get to know their team members, come to understand basic roles of teamwork, and familiarize themselves with course technology like the communication platform Discord: the new landscape of our community. Canvas is still the hub for assignments and instructions and such but Discord is the digital space where we create our place as a reflexive community of practitioners.

I usually have two or three sections of the Intro to Tech Writing course, each section with 4 teams, and each team has 4-5 students. I create a separate Discord server for each section of the course and invite the members to the platform in Week 2. Each server contains many channels a General Chat Channel, an Off-Topic Channel for sharing interests and jokes to foster community, a Links and References Channel for important information distribution from the instructor, and a Voice/Video Channel for conferencing.
Each team is encoded into the server with a role and the leaders get an additional encoding/role, which provides some extra permissions and they get access to the leaders lounge: a place for leaders to share tips and tricks about leadership. The teams are also given private team space on a Discord server that the instructor maintains. Each team receives a Chat channel for asynchronous communication and a voice/video channel for conferencing. The instructor does not enter these private workspaces unless summoned by the team that owns the space. It looks a little something like this:

During the project, teams collaborate to create a proposal, two progress reports, a rough draft, a final draft, a remote presentation using MS Sway, peer performance evaluations, and a project debrief report. Teams produce these genres in a true to life remote-work setting, within a collaborative group, which is part of a larger community, using technology, digital composition, and communication skills, and rhetorical theory. They have a real audience to anchor their work and a real community attached to that work. This would not be possible if we didn’t have a discourse community. Without the platform Discord, our community would not be as rich and the interactions between members would be reduced to emails and chat over the documents we work on in Google docs.

If collaboration and community are my groove—and they are—then Discord is how I got my groove back when I moved online.

About Author

Joseph W. Robertshaw

Joseph W. Robertshaw (he/him) is a Lecturer at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

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