Asynchronous Affordances: WriteAway’s Pandemic Experience

Megan Robertson
Vol. 2, No. 5 (Fall 2020)

Megan is a BC ELN (British Columbia Electronic Library Network) Coordinator providing support for tutors and coordinators throughout BC and Alberta.

While the rush to emergency remote teaching occurred out of necessity due to the COVID-19 disruption, writing supports already operating only online have an opportunity to reflect on their existing approaches. WriteAway, British Columbia and Alberta’s online asynchronous writing support consortium of post-secondary students, was first piloted in 2012. Through a series of cautious expansions over several years, the service enters this new reality of online tutoring firmly in its operating stage with eighteen participating institutions.

From its inception, the goal of WriteAway has never been to replace in-person services. Rather, the type of feedback and support provided through asynchronous online tutoring is meant to be one of, potentially, several options for students seeking to develop their writing skills.

The effectiveness of online education – and online writing support – that seeks to reproduce live, in-person interaction is often negated because the learning ecology of the in-person interaction, with its specific technologies and modalities, cannot simply be transferred to a new environment that includes completely different technologies and modalities. Karen Milheim’s research supports this notion that effective asynchronous education leans not on replicating in-person interactions in online environments, but rather in carefully considering how student needs may be met in those online environments. The environments in which we support student writers and the tools we use in those environments (in-person, in synchronous online sessions, and in asynchronous interactions) each have particular affordances and limitations. [1]

During the COVID-19 pandemic, writing centres have been challenged to quickly and creatively find ways to support student writing. We have called upon online tools and digital technologies to help us connect with students, but it is important to recognize the distinction between ‘online distance education’ and ‘emergency remote teaching’ (Bozkurt & Sharma). As we rush to adapt to this unprecedented situation, we are not always able to fully develop approaches that offer “learners agency, responsibility, flexibility and choice” through the “careful planning, designing, and determination of aims to create an effective learning ecology” (ii).

The established online ‘environment’ of WriteAway and the approach that tutors are encouraged to adopt when responding to student submissions points to the importance of a community of practice. This sense of community has become especially critical during the pandemic where the community of tutors and coordinators work together in new ways to take full advantage of the service’s affordances and acknowledge the service’s limitations as shared challenges.

WriteAway tutors are trained to provide reader-response feedback that addresses: a) elements a student has addressed as areas of concern, and b) a series of prioritized concerns considered widely applicable to post-secondary writing. This approach provides a common framework for more than 60 tutors to efficiently and effectively provide feedback on undergraduate student writing and to build on previous tutor feedback when reviewing subsequent student drafts. The approach also makes it possible for tutors to provide feedback on a wide range of writing assignments, without requiring expert knowledge of the rhetorical conventions in a particular discipline. This is not to say that genre is discounted. [2] Tutors are encouraged to review assignment instructions that students upload with their writing, identify reputable resources that can help a student understand more about the conventions of a particular assignment, and take the position as a co-learner who encourages the student to consult with the ‘expert in the field’ – the student’s instructor.

By normalizing the act of seeking out guidance from an instructor, WriteAway tutors both model the intersection of elements in the writing process (“the reasoning and understanding” tied to the cognitive process), and encourage students to learn more about the social process involved in “maintain[ing] the values and practices of the communities [that] readers and writers belong to” (Giltrow 310). Through modelling questions that students can pose of their instructors, tutors are also at the intersection of a larger learning community where almost all participants will engage with one another through some asynchronous messaging, such as email and forum posts.

Tutors also model how to use personal voice in discussion about academic issues. Tutors are encouraged to express their own style in their responses, writing in the first-person when offering their feedback and commenting on shared challenges found in the writing process. When tutors join the WriteAway service, time is devoted to reflecting on how offering feedback can be developed as part of a ‘motivational scaffolding,’ drawing on Vygotsky’s theories of proximal development (Mackiewicz and Thompson), which includes – among other considerations – tutoring strategies that maintain and increase student engagement, develop student confidence, recognize strengths, and, of importance for this discussion, use empathy to support students.

It is heartening to see more students make use of the established collaborative service that is WriteAway. One institution joined WriteAway beginning in May and through eight weeks of the summer semester, WriteAway saw a 47% increase in the number of student submissions in 2020, compared to the same time in 2019. While this increase points to the value that students see it WriteAway, it has been critical not to lose sight of the fact that students (and the entire post-secondary community) are being asked to complete work under extraordinary conditions. Though WriteAway tutors do not interact with students in real time or in-person, through their thoughtful asynchronous writing feedback, they can effect meaningful connection. This connection can be summarized in one student’s comments regarding the response they received: “your recommendations are so clear in their details. It seems like we are face to face. I learned a lot! I am so grateful for your help!”

One of the limitations of the WriteAway model is that tutors may not see the type of appreciative feedback described above, partly due to the nature of the tutoring software and partly because tutors do not necessarily work with the same student through different drafts of an assignment. Creating and maintaining communication pathways that allow for sharing of this positive feedback has been important in helping tutors recognize how valuable their work is. This is especially true during the pandemic when we may have fewer opportunities to interact with students. Personalized e-postcards with highlights of student feedback have been created for tutors and monthly updates include highlights from the student experience survey.

The WriteAway Admin Centre continues to stress the unusual and unprecedented nature of our current emergency remote teaching situation. During online synchronous meetings for institutional coordinators and during tutor training sessions, colleagues have been willing (or, sometimes, in the case of those with small children or pets at home, compelled) to share parts of their lives that are normally kept private. During the pandemic, WriteAway tutors have welcomed new babies into their families, cared for family members, completed degrees, weathered illness, and continued their work. As a collaborative consortium, WriteAway functions because its members – which are really the people, the institutional coordinators, and tutors – share the work.

All writing centres will pass through different phases. While the pandemic continues, no pre-existing guide exists that can offer us a clear path through the ongoing uncertainty. [3] The COVID-19 pandemic has altered, and will continue to alter, our learning ecologies. However, by continuing to reach out to others, we share the work. Sharing our work with others is also a reminder that the work we do with students is another opportunity for sharing, of being together despite our physical distance, even in a time of uncertainty.

__________

References

Bozkurt, Aras, and Ramesh C. Sharma. “Emergency Remote Teaching in a Time of Global Crisis due to CoronaVirus Pandemic.” Asian Journal of Distance Education, vol. 15, no. 6, 2020, pp. i-vi.

Gibson, James, J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Classic ed., Psychology Press, 2014.

Giltrow, Janet. Academic Writing: Writing & Reading in the Disciplines. 3rd ed., Broadview Press, 2002.

Mackey, Julie, Fiona Gilmore, Nicki Dabner, “Des Breeze, and Phillipa Buckley. Blended Learning for Academic Resilience in Times of Disaster or Crisis.” MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, vol. 8, no. 2, 2012, pp 122-135.

Mackiewicz, Jo, and Isabelle Kramer Thompson. Talk About Writing: The Tutoring Strategies of Experienced Writing Center Tutors. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2018.

Milheim, Karen, L., “Toward a Better Experience: Examining Student Needs in the Online Classroom through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Model.” MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, vol. 8, no. 2, 2012, pp 159-171.

__________

[1] This notion of affordances and limitations comes from psychologist J.J. Gibson’s work, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, as well as other research, which examines how an individual’s actions are conditioned by one’s perceptions of their environment and the objects in that environment.

[2] The Thompson Writing Program at Duke University (https://twp.duke.edu/twp-writing-studio/resources-students/genres) provides a particularly useful resource for tutors to draw on when seeking information about specific genres and assignment types with forty-four different genres included at the time of writing.

[3] Researchers at the University of Canterbury provide a valuable way of thinking about how post-secondary communities respond in ‘waves’ to emergency disruptions, moving from reacting, to restarting, to reconsolidating, and then ongoing reflecting (Mackey et al). While this work is insightful, the months-long health advisories that have been issued during the pandemic and the uncontrolled spread of the virus in some regions has meant that, often, teachers and learners remain largely in reaction and restart modes.