It is easy, as an educator, to view online learning spaces as purely digital places of interaction and learning. And with the plethora of course management software that creates virtual meeting places for students across a spectrum of backgrounds, one could argue that it is only digital in nature. But from my own experience as an online instructor, the online classroom is, and can be, a space of interpersonal connection that reaches beyond technology.
Online education still has a very real connection to the physical world. While we may only see the digital aspects of a student’s work, they are still very much grounded in the physical world around them before, during, and after they access our classes. While digital spaces create transactional distances between instructor and student (Doktor, 2016), and between the student their peers, I believe that we can overcome these obstacles. In my online classes, I combat the transactional distance, this lack of physical and emotional connection within the classroom, through organization, teacher presence, and through assignments that require students to move beyond words on a page to higher levels of interaction—such as interviews and low-bridge technologies.
For me, the idea of connection is at the core of online teaching. It is what most students are afraid that they will not have when engaging in online learning spaces; and I believe connection is vital to success and retention in an online class. Encouraging interaction in my online classroom starts with what Mary Stewart (2017) describes as “activity-level design,” where I design the course with multiple layers of activities that promote human interaction, including increased social presence responding to student discussion boards, workshops, and peer reviews; teaching presence through facilitating student collaboration, creating video lectures and instructions, live one-on-one and group instructor conferences; all of which support cognitive presence as students begin to make meaning and learn the course materials in an interactive way. This not only lessens the transactional distance between myself, the student, and their peers, but provides real connections with the student and their work.
I recognize that the rhetorical and situational environments that students engage with are ever changing, and I encourage multimodal work that meets those changes (Shipka, 2009) I also emphasize student autonomy and risk taking, allowing students to choices of different modes as I emphasize rhetorical skills and assist students through scaffolded assignments (Hewett, Bourelle, and Warnock).
I require student self-reflection and use it to measure students’ cognitive use of rhetorical tools and their understanding of writing as a process. (Shipka, 2009; Hewett, Bourelle, and Warnock). I follow Borton and Huot’s (2007) style of assessing the “rhetorical understanding” of the text creation process and the product (p.101) while incorporating low bridge technology assignments, so that the emphasis remains on writing and composing, rather than on technological tools (CCCC, OWI 2).
As an online instructor, I have seen the incredible power that technology has to bring education to spaces where it might not be readily available due to physical location and other circumstances. And while I recognize that a digital divide still exists along lines of race and poverty, online classes generally make education more accessible to nontraditional students. Accessibility of the course is important to me, so I recognize that some students may be less privileged in their access. I proactively build alternatives into my courses to desegregate and destigmatize the online classroom (Gos, 2015) in addition to making the course accessible and inclusive for all students (CCCC, OWI 1).
When all is said and done at the end of the semester, my students’ reflections convey that the steps I take to promote interconnection, inclusiveness, and flexibility are helpful and guide them to learn rhetorical skills effectively. As an educator, I am constantly learning from my student’s experiences in online learning spaces. Because of this, I commit to evaluating my practices against the current research in an effort to provide the best, interactive online experience for students.
Bort, S.C. & B. Huot. (2007) “Responding and Assessing” in C. L. Selfe (Ed.) Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.
Conference on College Composition and Communication, A Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction (OWI). (2018, August 14). Retrieved from https://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/owiprinciples.
Dockter, J. (2016). The Problem of Teaching Presence in Transactional Theories of Distance Education. Computers and Composition, 40, 73–86. doi: 10.1016/j.compcom.2016.03.009
Gos, M.W. (2015) “Nontraditional Student Access to OWI” in B. L. Hewett and K. E. DePew, (Eds.) Foundational Practices of Online Writing Instruction (pp. 309-346). Fort Collins, CO: WAC Clearinghouse.
Hewett, Bourelle, and Warnock. (n.d.) “Designing and Scaffolding Assignments” in A Rhetoric for Twenty-First-Century Writing Instruction.
Shipka, J. (2009) Negotiating Rhetorical, Material, Methodological, and Technological Difference: Evaluating Multimodal Designs. College Composition and Communication, 61, 343-366. http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/CCC/0611-sep09/CCC0611Negotiating.pdf
Stewart, M. (2017) Communities of Inquiry: A Heuristic for Designing and Assessing Interactive Learning Activities in Technology-Mediated FYC. Computers and Composition, 45, 67-84.