Parallel On-Line and In-Class Sections of "Writing for the Professions": A Practical Experiment
In fall, 1999, Arizona State University West’s College of Arts and Sciences, through its American Studies Department, offered an on-line section of English 315 (Writing for the Professions), a writing-intensive course that fills the university’s literacy requirement as well as graduation requirements for programs in Management, Education, Human Services, and Arts and Sciences. It represented the college’s first fully on-line course. The university arranged assistance from Mr. Bill Bercu, a doctoral student in distance learning, and from Instructional Technology staff, including Ms. Kathleen A. Grimes. Because the instructors would teach two parallel sections, one in-class and one on-line, they received guidance and advice from Dr. Ann Nevin, an experienced on-line instructor and a specialist in comparative outcome studies. ASU West Honors Student Maria Dong provided research assistance.
ASU West has a largely nontraditional student body of working adults with a broad range of skills: some are sophisticated; others have never used a major research library and need training in critical thinking, composition, and basic style, punctuation, and grammar. Each semester, the authors team-teach two sections of the course using a collaborative, peer-driven approach incorporating influences from Paolo Freire and John Dewey, seasoned with one-on-one guidance that owes something to contemporary learning-style theory. Encouraging students to focus on content related to their majors or to specific interests in their occupations or lives, the instructors assign a series of linked research and writing projects whose purposes are to develop library and on-line research skills; to foster thoughtful and discriminating reading habits; to practice analysis, synthesis, and critical writing; to nurture an economical writing style; and to apply these skills in pragmatic writing targeted at identified audiences.
In granting permission to present the course on-line, American Studies Chair Dottie Broaddus expressed concern that the change not damage academic integrity. Specifically, she wished to see as few compromises as possible in the array of required assignments and skills practiced during the course. She assigned the authors two sections of Writing for the Professions: one in-class and one on-line. She also suggested a comparative outcomes study of the two sections.
Given these concerns and the two identical sections, the authors decided to try to mirror the in-class and on-line formats as much as possible, to simplify comparison of the two classes’ outcomes. This decision was made in full understanding that the approach to the on-line course would need to be modified to accommodate the electronic environment. Both sets of students received the same assignments--four research-based papers plus a cover letter and résumé package, with pass-fail drafts and peer reviews accompanying each. Because no on-line package for library instruction existed and because some of the university’s databases were accessible only from campus computers, on-line students met in a computer classroom for two hands-on library orientation sessions, identical to the instruction given to the in-class section. Like their in-class peers, on-line students received the 150-page printed course packet; in addition, however, they had on-line access to a set of colorful “notes” summarizing the course’s lectures in highly graphical style. Peer reviewing ordinarily done in classroom groups would be accomplished in on-line chat groups; Q-and-A’s and announcements relevant to the entire class would be posted on a bulletin board; and individual consultation would take place through the e-mail.
Demand and Start-Up
Demand for a distance version of English 315 exceeded expectation: the on-line section filled soon after registration opened. When fall semester began, both sections were full, with thirty students apiece. This occurred despite reports (Foley, 1999; Zukas, 1999) that class sizes for on-line courses should be limited--at thirty, even the in-class section exceeds National Council of Teachers of English recommendations (1997) for writing courses by ten.
The semester’s work began with two three-hour library orientation meetings, which for the on-line students also introduced the course software, Blackboard’s CourseInfo.
Teaching Library Literacy On-Line
ASU West’s Fletcher Library is a medium-sized academic library (250,000 volumes in the print monograph collection for a student body of approximately 5,000). But because it is part of a larger system with Arizona State University’s five other libraries at three campuses, and because the ASU Libraries have made a commitment to electronic access and to acquiring as many on-line full-text indexes and collections as possible, students have access to a number of indexes out of proportion to the library’s size. As of December 1999, Fletcher had about 150 electronic indexes and databases, and the number continues to grow. Please browse the library’s site at http://www.west.asu.edu/asuw/campus/lib/ to view the current collection.
Shortly before the Fall 1999 semester, the ASU Libraries secured licensing agreements with database providers that made roughly 40 percent (approximately 60 titles) of the Libraries’ electronic indexes and databases accessible to students from their homes. Suddenly a quality virtual library was within reach for ASU West students and faculty. It came just in time for the new Writing for the Professions on-line class.
This presented an extraordinary opportunity for the on-line students. Working collaboratively, the authors created a new unit designed to teach students how to use an electronic library critically, an approach that incorporated using the ASU Online Catalog, proprietary indexes and databases, and the World Wide Web. Informally called “the library project,” the endeavor spanned four graded assignments: a topic essay (requiring students to identify, focus, and examine a topic for a proposal); a bibliography; critiques of two of bibliography items (incorporating critical reading, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation); and a fully researched proposal.
The Library Research Assignments
Experience has shown that students find it difficult, in the increasingly electronic library, to determine what sources are acceptable for scholarly research. The lines between types of publication are blurring, and the fact that almost all of ASU West’s proprietary indexes are accessed through the Web further confuses students. Thus, the library project’s large goal was to teach students to use an electronic library critically. They were to learn to distinguish among the variety of sources they can find through the library’s system, to evaluate the quality and credibility of sources, and to recognize the various levels of publications (such as scholarly vs. popular).
Research assignments were tailored to the library tools now available and to the mixed environment in which the students find themselves--that is, electronic and print documents in a physical location. Since all the on-line students were local and had access to university or large metropolitan libraries, this seemed manageable.
From the student’s point of view, the assignment that most directly required use of the library was the bibliography, which asked for references to four books; four scholarly journals; four newspaper, popular magazines or trade journals; four Internet documents; and four manuscript or other sources. Directing students to a variety of sources emphasizes the vast array of resources on-line and in print. The subsequent “critique” assignment requires them to select and critically evaluate their findings, applying specific criteria for assessing sources’ reliability and authority.
To assist the online students, who had less direct access to the librarians, Isbell devised an on-line Web Guide, designed to lead students through the research process step by step, from topic selection to finding and evaluating sources (http://www.west.asu.edu/asuw/campus/lib/Learn/ENG315/ENG315.html). In-class students routinely have access to in-person referral services at the library. This service was extended to the on-line students during the two on-campus library orientation meetings; on-line students also were invited to seek assistance through e-mail or in person. Surprisingly, none of the on-line group took advantage of the offer. Possibly this is attributable to on-line students’ desire to work independently from home and to their higher level of comfort as writers. But perhaps once the librarian was out of sight and mind, contacting him was simply forgotten.
The on-campus sessions brought the librarian and the students together on two consecutive Saturdays. He provided intensive instruction on using the library’s on-line system to find books, articles in popular and scholarly periodicals, and Internet documents. The orientation also covered the critical evaluation criteria to use when selecting sources for the bibliography, introduced the Web Guide, and gave students several hours to use campus computers that accessed all the library’s databases, in direct consultation with a librarian.
During the in-person instruction, many students expressed confusion about the types and levels of publications accessible electronically. Some were surprised that the library’s subscription indexes and databases were not freely available to any Web user. Others doubtedthat what they would get from the proprietary indexes would be different from what they would find on the Web. Thus, in-person instruction was especially valuable for addressing these issues and for instruction on the critical evaluation component.
Students were also surprised and sometimes puzzled by the multiple access points available to them and the often mixed information they retrieved from some of the access tools. For example, any Internet search engine will retrieve Web documents and often articles that are parallels of in-print sources. Search engines make no distinctions among sources.
The on-line students’ bibliographies, however, suggested neither of these problems posed a major stumbling block. (See “Assessment,” below.)
On-Line vs. In-Class Students
From the outset, students who registered in the on-line section showed themselves to be of a different order from those who appeared in class. Most were good or excellent writers, highly organized and never missing deadlines. In general, they turned in “B” or “A” work the first time around. Only one on-line student needed special help; she lived too far from campus to use the Writing Center, and so she was connected on-line with an honors student who had taken the course a year earlier. The following semester, one of the on-line students was accepted to Oxford University’s MBA program; he used the paper he wrote for English 315 as his admission essay.
The in-class section, a lively and engaged group, demanded far more coaching. It had several ESL students; one Congolese man faced a real challenge in following the course material and the university culture. This class, too, included a native speaker with exceptionally poor language skills. Overall, the in-class students displayed a tenuous grasp of composition skills, innocence of basic rules concerning style and syntax, and naïveté as critical readers and thinkers. They were, however, as much driven to achieve as their on-line colleagues. Students at West, one should note, measure “achievement” by grades.
This contrast accords with experiences of others who have taught writing-intensive courses on-line. Alex Zukas, for example, remarks that an on-line world history course “seemed to attract students who liked to work independently and who needed little prodding. . .”(1999). So striking was the difference that the students seemed to have self-selected into stronger and weaker groups; that is, the strongest writers, feeling confident, chose the on-line writing course. An initial ungraded, routine diagnostic writing at the start of the term suggested the on-line group was academically stronger from the outset. A semester-end survey tended to confirm this hypothesis. When asked how confident they had felt about their writing before they entered the course, 33 percent of the on-line students described themselves as “very confident,” while only 14 percent of the in-class group felt that way. Nine percent of the in-class group had felt “not confident at all,” but none of the on-line students selected this response.
On-line Grading and Coaching
The most problem-free aspect of on-line presentation was grading papers and advising students. For the previous five years, Writing for the Professions had been taught in ASU West’s computer classrooms, equipped with a PC for every classmate. The instructor routinely uses Word’s “reviewing” feature and has devised a boilerplate file of often-used comments and explanations that can be pasted into student files at appropriate places. Red-lining inserted with the “review” tools converts to rtf (“rich text file”) format, which can be read by current versions of major word processing programs on both Macintosh and PC platforms. Thus, students who used WordPerfect simply uploaded their files in rtf format. The instructor had few problems downloading and reading files, and students received corrected rtf papers without incident.
On the other hand, accommodating to various learning styles proved much easier in the in-class environment. Various graphic images were incorporated in on-line “lecture notes” in an effort to reach visual learners, but certain comparisons, diagrams, and explanations need direct feedback from the student. For example, many readers see a sentence as an undifferentiated line of type extending across a flat white plane. Conventional grammar and style “rules,” which rely on pattern, make little sense in this context; but if you can compare a given sentence to a mathematical equation, or if you can find a way to draw a picture of it, then the scales fall from the student eyes. This is difficult to achieve on-line.
The semester began with Blackboard CourseInfo 2.0, a sophisticated distance-learning package. A month into the term, because of incompatibilities with the instructor’s Web browsers and grading spreadsheets, the team decided to switch to FirstClass. It was a difficult decision. Making such a change risked confusing and alienating students, and it would require even more time than the course already demanded. Although team members expected this maneuver to leave heads spinning and possibly to cause drop-outs, students adapted smoothly. At the end of the semester, when asked which package seemed to work better; 82 percent of classmates preferred FirstClass. Comments generally concurred with one student’s characterization of the CourseInfo site as “a little confusing.”
On-line courses are time-intensive. Zukas (1999) reports investing about 180 hours in developing materials for a history course. Bercu converted Hay’s 150-page class packet into eight graphical html “Lectures” for CourseInfo; in the switch to FirstClass, Grimes re-posted these as rtf files. Creating this material, learning to use the on-line software, and otherwise preparing for the course consumed 398 hours during the spring and summer of 1999. Preparing Fletcher Library material tailored for the on-line course, including the special Web page and links to writing and research sites around the country, took another ten hours. Many library links in the Web Guide existed before the online class was offered; thus, creating a Web Guide from scratch would require even more time.
Once classes got under way, UCLA Instructor Dennis Foley’s remarks about on-line class size proved singularly apposite: “Unless all you are putting out is one-way lecture material,” he notes, “even 15 students is on the verge of unmanageable” (1999). Communication obviously is slower when all messages must be typed and mailed; the instructor must keep meticulous notes about discussions with each student; and minutes spent operating software can, when multiplied by many students, metamorphose into eye-glazing hours. The writing instructor averaged 67 hours a week on the job. In one two-and-a-half-week period (September 2–20), almost twice as much time was devoted to the on-line course (67.18 hours) as to the in-class section (35.62 hours). None of this amounted to paid overtime.
Streamlining and Simplicity
By September 20, it was apparent that the on-line section had created an unsustainable workload. Riding herd on drafts and peer reviews proved especially cumbersome; what can be confirmed at a glance in hard copy required endless downloading, virus-checking, file opening, registering credit, and file closing. Simply to download 30 papers--without reading them--required a half-hour. Nor was peer reviewing working out well: despite extensive instruction in reviewing techniques, too many classmates cheered the excellence of flawed papers, or, even more unnerving, remarked on errors without identifying them. Time lost to checking peer reviews made it difficult to keep up with grading rafts of papers from all four writing courses.
To address these issues, the team decided first to make peer reviewing optional and ungraded; and second to allow the on-line students to turn in papers at any time up to specified deadlines, making the course self-paced within limits. A new contract with on-line students was devised: Early submissions would be graded as quickly as possible, but with no guarantee of a one-week turnaround; all papers would be returned within a week of the final deadline. The in-class schedule remained the same, but peer-reviewing was converted to an optional, extra-credit activity.
Both sets of students adapted well. Some self-directed individuals welcomed relief from drafting and peer-reviewing; others who had foundeffective e-mail partners continued to work together. Several students regretted losinghelpful partners; these were introduced to newpeer reviewers.
Interestingly, on-line students reported more satisfaction with peer-reviewing than did their in-class colleagues. Thirty-four percent of on-line respondents found drafting and peer reviewing “very useful,” as opposed to 15 percent of in-class students.
Although these steps made the workload more manageable, they required some philosophical compromises, because they turned the writing process into a product-oriented rather than a peer-oriented task. However, as Elizabeth Tebeaux notes, “. . . writing in non-academic settings is. . .product oriented. Employees do have to meet deadlines; they have to learn to write quickly and effectively; they do not have time to develop numerous drafts; and they have to concentrate on planning and creating the successful document during the planning stage rather than during multiple revisions” (1995). Probably, requiring students to follow a set of rhetorical guidelines on their own provides more realistic training for workplace writing than does peer review.
Assessment: Academic Rigor
Ridley and Husband (1998) distinguish between “academic rigor” (teaching standards or learning quality) and “academic integrity” (honesty among students). Their study comparing on-line and in-class students suggests that academic rigor is unaffected by distance delivery and that remote students are no more inclined to cheat are than their conventional classmates. The English 315 experience accords with these conclusions. Although the on-line students earned slightly higher grades, the instructor controlled grade inflation by assessing papers according to a set of standards announced to the students. These criteria include standards for basic composition; grammar, punctuation, and style; critical thinking; integration of research; and audience targeting.
Overall, when scores for each assignment are averaged and compared, grades in the two sections are not significantly different, with two exceptions. On-line students scored better on the “critiques,” an assignment that required analysis and evaluation of two documents selected from the previously compiled bibliography. However, the implication that as a group they had stronger critical thinking skills seems negated by the nearly identical scores on the long proposal, which required substantial critical thinking, analysis, and argumentation.
At first glance, final semester averages on graded projects suggest the in-class group did better, because no one in that section failed. (When pass-fail credit was added, many students’ overall grades improved.) The two failing grades in the on-line section reflect students who did not complete the work. Closer examination shows that, on graded assignments, 18 on-line students earned A’s and B’s (82 percent) and only 2 took C’s (9 percent); in-class students scored 15 A’s and B’s (60 percent), with 10 C’s (40 percent). Both classes began with 30 students and lost about the same number over the semester (five for the in-class and eight for the on-line group).
Isbell subjected twenty-one on-line students’ bibliographies to an independent assessment, following four criteria: 1) Appropriate quantity (at least 20), level and variety (four or five of each type outlined in the assignment); 2) Relevance to the topic; 3) Quality of publisher or producer; and 4) Currency, if applicable. He used a four-point scale for measuring the criteria: Superior/Adequate/Weak/Inadequate.
Generally the results were good, indicating that students understood what to look for and grasped methods of assessing a document’s appropriateness:
One weakness of this evaluation is one does not know how the student bibliographies compare with all of the sources available to them and hence cannot know whether students chose the most relevant, or even whether they searched the most relevant indexes.
Students whose bibliographies were weak or inadequate in the appropriate quantity, level and variety of sources had submitted incomplete assignments. More troubling is the number of bibliographies that were weak or inadequate as to the quality of the publisher or producer, 29 percent. In future classes we will devote more attention to teaching students how to evaluate the quality of their sources, especially sources from the World Wide Web.
Assessment: Student Response
In general, students responded positively to the on-line course. Some expressed regret at losing the peer-review process; others felt it unimportant. One student’s overall comment summarizes the general sentiment: “I really enjoyed the online version of this class; however, I do think that it is important to maintain an in-class and an on-line class because some students need the daily interaction. . . . I really enjoyed the peer review process. I found another student in the class and we compared our work often. I think that although it is beneficial, the peer review process that we tried to do in the beginning of class is not practical. In a perfect world, students should be assigned to a buddy and they should peer review each other on their own time.”
With two exceptions, on-line students preferred FirstClass to CourseInfo, perhaps because most were already familiar with the former program. Opinions were divided about the two programs’ ease of use.
When asked to assess their own progress over the semester, more on-line students (27 percent) than in-class (19 percent) felt they had made excellent progress. This outcome may be influenced by the on-line group’s greater confidence in their ability at the outset.
Faculty planning to mount a writing course on-line should bear in mind two paramount concerns: the huge time demand, and the need for extreme simplicity in course design.
The potential for abusive exploitation of non-tenurable and part-time faculty is extremely high. Strong demand and low costs make the temptation to accept large enrollments almost irresistible. Senior faculty and administrators must recognize this and take the lead in setting policies to ensure that junior and non-tenurable faculty are not subject to unreasonable demands. Class sizes must be limited. An on-line writing course should contain no more than twenty students; fifteen is preferable. Teaching loads for those who present on-line courses--particularly start-up courses--should be strictly limited. As noted above, the on-line course demanded twice as much time as an identical in-class section.
Given a choice, writing instructors should select the simplest software package available. One needs a platform that will support small groups or enable students to correspond by e-mail; a place to post assignments, course documents, and announcements; and a place for students to drop finished papers. Involved html pages are unnecessary; instead, link students to the many existing on-line sites that explain writing style, offer learning drills and games, and provide relevant content. The less complicated the software and the site, the better.
Similarly, course design and grading should be radically simple. Avoid cumbersome processes for peer-reviewing and complex weighting of grades. These expand to fill all the instructor’s waking moments, and they may confuse students.
A librarian’s involvement in an on-line writing course provides an opportunity to offer detailed instruction on research and evaluation skills that writers need in all settings where they work. Assignments should be designed to allow students to use and evaluate on-line resources and, wherever possible, to examine print sources, too. Critical evaluation is as crucial to library literacy as to writing and critical thinking.
Custom-designed Web pages, such as Fletcher Library’s Web Guide, are useful; for students who reside in distant locations, these pages may be the only way to learn a specific library.
Writing courses that fulfill general education or program requirements should never be offered in on-line format alone. Many learners need face-to-face contact, particularly in skills courses. An in-class section should always be offered alongside the on-line section. Bear in mind that students may self-select in such a way that the weakest writers appear in the face-to-face section; thus, their instructor should have experience with remediation and be comfortable in addressing cultural and personal learning styles. This potential for self-selection of an on-line “elite” raises a serious policy and ethical issue that should be addressed by each institution’s faculty and administration.