Despite the rapid increase in online course availability and variety across post-secondary institutions, and amidst pressures to redesign courses so that they utilize instructional technologies and offer alternate delivery methods, some teachers remain skeptical about the value of online education. Do advances in technology afford opportunities to improve upon what we already do well in our classrooms or just comprise a juggernaut, fueled by economics and an increasingly consumerist model of higher education, that will eventually render our current pedagogical work unrecognizeable? Data acquired by the Sloan National Commission on Online Learning in 2009 suggested that faculty who worry most prioritize teaching effectiveness over the numerous administrative benefits of distance education from student convenience to university budgets. Those faculty worry—even as they themselves teach online, sometimes—that the quality of instruction may be diminished by the very transition to a virtual learning space and wonder whether our pedagogy is keeping pace with the rush to convert courses. Marc Parry (2009) reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education that 70 percent of all faculty respondents to the Sloan Commission study, and 48 percent of those who have actually taught online, “believe the learning outcomes of online courses to be either inferior or somewhat inferior, compared with face-to-face instruction” (n.p.). Nevertheless, it has become a commonplace that “online learning is not going away,” as worded by the reviewer of a 2009 convention panel by the CCCC Committee into Best Practices for Online Writing Instruction (Terry Carter, n.p.). Composition, like many fields, is thus hard pressed to adapt, to develop strategies for the new academy that endeavor to maintain—or improve upon—the work that we do.
The very fact of this journal’s existence belies the notion that composition pedagogy unequivocally resists computer-assisted instruction. On the contrary, compositionists, who have proven themselves as pedagogically creative, innovative, and reflective a group as can be found in the academy, continue to explore and experiment with instructional technology to exciting and productive, not just inevitable, ends. But composition teachers too may struggle with the conversion of successful seated-course methodologies to online formats: in 2011, the CCCC Committee for Best Practices in Online Writing Instruction released an extensive "Report on the State of the Art of OWI,” which indicates that more than 75% of online and hybrid teachers, despite expecting that they would continue to teach in these environments, responded with “near-audible ambiguity” on the success of the endeavors (p. 13). Among that report’s “extremely worrisome” findings were students’ failure to cite “satisfaction with writing instruction or the improvement in their writing” among the benefits of their online class, and faculty’s belief that “students were …disadvantaged by their OWI in such areas as…improvement of critical thinking skills” (p. 11).
It may be that writing pedagogy is uniquely difficult to translate into an online course, particularly when the same economic situation that makes online learning so administratively compelling may also limit the availability of high-tech software, teacher training, and student access to a wide variety of tools. Despite exciting research involving digital classrooms, multimedia approaches, and gaming, much of which has appeared in this very journal over the past few years, some of us are finding that institution-wide belt-tightening leaves us mainly with generic course management technology that only imperfectly replicates—and certainly does little to improve upon—the best seated classroom environments for student writing instruction. Ideally, our students would think and write in environments rich with interpersonal communication, rewarding collaboration, and the formation of productive learning communities. Instead, they may do their coursework alone, situated within rudimentary text-based course management systems (CMS) designed to facilitate content delivery and assessment of information mastery, interacting with others mainly in the form of disembodied typed comments sent in the silence of email. The problem for online composition is fairly simple on its face: the best practices in one endeavor match neither the skill set ostensibly most favorable to success in the other nor the tools readily available, either within university-wide CMS platforms or other accessible, affordable, and user-friendly technology.
The goal of our endeavor as teachers of novice writers complicates the matter with yet another obstacle. Experienced writers may find even a rudimentary technological system sufficiently workable—the emailed comments of various reviewers have helped us revise this article, for instance—but first year composition students’ relative lack of experience or sophistication with rhetoric and text-based communication create a kind of Catch-22 for OWI. One best learns to write within a community of writers, but, because such a community built online is, in large part, built through writing, a weak writer, struggling to write his or her way into a high-functioning community of writers, ends up with limited access to the best ways to improve his or her writing.
There is potential, though, in the very parallels between the multiple goals of the online composition class. By focusing on the common beliefs undergirding our efforts to facilitate a social construction of knowledge, to demonstrate the interconnected multivalence of communication situations, and to deliberately build learning communities in a disembodied space, we may reconceptualize elements of the course so as to productively pursue all of these goals simultaneously. In this paper, we posit one way of “making do,” not by greatly enhancing the technology of the online class but by designing an online assignment sequence that deliberately builds community as it reinforces the fundamental principles of the composition class. Modeling its own philosophical foundations, the assignment sequence is both ecologically interdependent and connected to the varied ecologies of writers, audiences, and ideas.