One year on: COVID Snapshot of writing centres in Canada

Vol 2, No. 9 (Spring 2021)
Brian Hotson, Co-Editor, CWCR/RCCR

At the beginning of the lockdown across Canada and the move to online support, we asked our colleagues to provide a snapshot of their centres. These posts from March 2020 (here, here, here, and here) are historical markers and records of an unprecedented time in higher education in Canada. One year on, we’ve asked again for a March snapshot–how have tour centres changed, what have you learned, and where are we going. Here are the responses.

University of Guelph Writing Services
Lenore Latta, 
Acting Manager, Writing Services
University of Guelph
Guelph, ON

We are more than a year into the new normal of working online and from home, and we have been constantly surprised and pleased by students’ willingness to participate in whatever online programming we can offer. We moved online our week-long graduate dissertation-writing camps, faculty writing retreats, and English-as-an-additional-language graduate writing camps using a combination of D2L CourseLink sites, Zoom meetings, group writing rooms using Microsoft Teams, asynchronous recorded presentations, and live check-ins, meetings, and workshops. An advantage is that online we can accommodate more students than we could in the physical space, and participants’ attendance remains fairly high throughout the week. Students have reported that, although they would have liked to do the program face-to-face, they feel that they have gained more than they expected from the online version. 

We now do 100% of our consultations online, whereas previously it was an option that only some students chose. Students have adjusted well to that format. Our graduate and undergraduate writing consultants report that students appreciate the chance not only to work on their writing but to interact socially with a human being, as some may be living alone and this is one of their only opportunities to connect. More of the consultation time than previously is spent in casual discussion so that consultants can get a sense of how the student is actually feeling. Technical issues with our online platform continue to be an ongoing but not overwhelming issue; however, students are navigating those issues with patience. 

We offer group “writing rooms” through Microsoft Teams so that graduate and faculty writers can build a community and find some inspiration in working independently but together on their writing tasks. Writers can introduce themselves and talk about their goals, and then are asked to turn off their microphones as they write. Videos can be turned on to maintain the sense of writing with and being accountable to others. We recommend that one writer set a Pomodoro timer and share the timing with the group, so they break at the same time. 

Due to COVID as well as other staffing changes, we didn’t have the human resources to repurpose our in-class workshops for an online environment, so we didn’t offer in-class workshops as we had done in the past. Therefore, for faculty and instructors, we created asynchronous video workshops by narrating our PowerPoint slides. The video workshops were often accompanied by handouts and worksheets to include an interactive component. We used a D2L CourseLink site to house the materials and provided access to instructors so they could copy the modules to their own CourseLink sites. Students were also able to self-register for the CourseLink site and gain access to the materials. 

As a team, we are using Microsoft Teams to check in daily, and we have a regular weekly social appointment where we talk about things other than work, as we used to do face-to-face in an end-of-day or after-work get-together. That helps us keep motivated in a world that seems not to be moving toward normal at the rate we would wish. 

Overall, things have run relatively smoothly online, but we do miss the collegiality and physicality of leaning over a paper with a student to read the words together, of pointing to a sentence with our finger rather than highlighting it with the mouse, and of drawing helpful diagrams on a notepad rather than trying to convey complex writing principles in a text-based Chat message. Someday soon, we hope.

Jan Waldschutz,
Writing Centre Consultant
University of New Brunswick, Saint John
Saint John, NB

With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, our traditional approach of meeting students in person became unworkable; like other writing centres across the country, we had to develop a new approach to serve students. We had to pivot very quickly; fortunately, our online schedule scheduling software (WCOnline) allowed us to do that without any service interruption.

Our Approach
Since mid-March 2020, we’ve been providing written feedback to students using margin comments and tracked changes on documents that are uploaded to appointments. Students can upload or explain the assignment instructions and raise any questions or concerns in the comments section of the appointment or within the document itself. 

Providing written feedback can be challenging and it has been a learning process for us. Sometimes we must guess the student’s intended meaning, or even the instructions for the assignment if they haven’t been provided. Margin comments can be particularly helpful for asking questions, justifying revisions, sharing links, and explaining concepts like thesis statements and topic sentences. We try to provide balanced feedback by including both positive and corrective comments using a conversational tone. We also write summary comments at the end of the document to share overall impressions and provide a sense of priority for revisions. 

Student Feedback
Part of our transition to online appointments has involved using the post-appointment survey feature in WCOnline, something we had not used before the pandemic. Since we’re not seeing students in person, this ongoing survey allows us to monitor the student experience and quickly address any issues. For instance, at first some students struggled with uploading their documents and did not know how to reach us directly, so we added step-by-step instructions and our email addresses to the top of the schedule and the confirmation email that students receive when they book appointments. In general, student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. 

Lessons Learned
Due to the pandemic, we’ve learned that we can reimagine our service delivery and use technology to help students in new ways. In doing so, we have realized the value of adding more flexibility to our service, which provides benefits to both staff and students. 

We did not offer online appointments before the pandemic, nor would we have considered this option. Our service has always involved in-person appointments with the writing consultant and student working together on a printed document. Like many services, we generally do things the way we have always done them. The pandemic forced us to try something new and we discovered that one size does not always fit all students. 

Our survey results indicate that students appreciate and often prefer receiving written feedback; although in-person appointments usually involve notetaking by the consultant and the student, we cannot capture everything that is discussed. The student must try to remember what was said in the meeting, but written feedback provides a record they can review again and again. If we add video appointments in the future, those meetings could be recorded and replayed as needed. This written record is also helpful for the writing consultant, who can easily look back at feedback provided on an earlier draft in a previous appointment.

UNB Saint John is largely a commuter campus; students appreciate not having to travel to campus for appointments and not needing to work around their class schedules to meet with us in person. Online appointments also mean no snow days and no cancellations due to weather or other campus closures. Distance appointments are both convenient and effective for most students. 

Looking Forward
Even after the pandemic, our Writing Centre plans to offer a variety of appointment formats to give students and staff more flexibility. At this stage, we are thinking about our options for the fall. We plan to continue online appointments until vaccination is widespread, but we don’t intend to fully go back to our old ways. Even after we can return to in-person appointments, at least some of our appointments will be online, involving written feedback and perhaps video as needed. One size does not fit every student, so we need to incorporate more options into our service.

The pandemic has required all of us to become more creative and to make adjustments that we might not have considered otherwise. It has not been ‘business as usual’, resulting in a tremendous learning experience for everyone. 

Writing Services
James Southworth and Ada Sharpe,
Writing Consultants
Wilfrid Laurier University
Waterloo, Ontario

Over the past number of months, we’ve been able to adapt well to the remote and online learning environment, while doing our own learning along the way. 

A significant challenge was restructuring our writing tutor training program. Over four days in late August, we trained 10 undergraduate and 2 graduate students. We knew we wouldn’t be able to replicate the sociability and interpersonal connection of an in-class learning environment, particularly during the more informal team-building exercises. With the sustained screen time, our main concern in developing the online training was tutor (and instructor) burnout. Given that we didn’t want to have tutors on Zoom for four straight days, we opted to record some training materials in advance on topics relating to genre, grammar, and tutoring best practices. We created a schedule whereby tutors would review these prepared resources on their own before meeting as a group online. We would then lead active learning exercises related to the recorded videos, supplemented by other resources. We found that breakout rooms were an especially useful way to deepen tutors’ knowledge while facilitating team building. Toward the end of our training, we conducted a number of mock tutoring exercises that helped acquaint tutors with the online tutoring environment. Based on tutor feedback, this remote and online training proved successful. 

Over the past academic year, the tutoring program, with the exception of a few technical hiccups here and there, has also been a success. With dedication and professionalism, our student writing tutors have adapted very well to the online environment, in which we’ve conducted primarily synchronous appointments using Microsoft Teams and Google docs. We have been able to create a supportive work environment with our tutors through regular email communication, professional development sessions, collaborative problem-solving on emerging issues, appointment observations, and one-on-one check-ins.

The way we work with faculty has also changed significantly in the past academic year. During the Spring and Summer of 2020, there was a push at Laurier – as with most institutions – to ramp up online course development. This resulted in numerous requests to provide course-specific online writing videos. Some faculty teaching non-online courses also requested prerecorded videos to provide their students with a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous content. For the most part though, faculty brought us into their courses in a synchronous fashion, and we provided writing workshops during class time. One challenge we faced was how to best engage students during in-class writing workshops, particularly in larger classes where most students would have cameras off. We found that putting students into breakout rooms with a specific writing-related activity was an effective way to get students engaged. Another effective approach to engagement was to bring our writing tutors into the classroom to work with students in small groups in the breakout rooms. Students received focused writing support, directly related to course assignments, and got a sense of what writing tutoring can offer. 

In an interesting contrast to the culture of cameras off in large undergraduate classes, the graduate seminars we visited tended to be social and engaged, with a strong sense of community. All cameras were on. In classrooms and individual writing appointments alike, graduate students most often approach remote and online writing support as a collaborative endeavour that complements and supports their scholarly development. 

We don’t yet know what our set up will be in September, but we have a sense that once we’re back on campus, online and remote learning will be here to stay. Although it can bring alienation and disengagement for some students, remote and online learning also means unprecedented access for others, particularly for those who have been traditionally excluded from post-secondary education, including Indigenous students living in remote communities, international students unable to come to Canada, and students with familial commitments who need the flexibility to learn from home. As we look ahead to a post-pandemic era, we need to consider how we’ll not only maintain, but enrich access for those who have benefited from learning online and remotely. 

As we look ahead to a post-pandemic era, we need to consider how we’ll not only maintain, but enrich access for those who have benefited from learning online and remotely.

Heather Fitzgerald,
Writing Centre Coordinator + Senior Advisor, Teaching and Learning
Emily Carr University of Art + Design
Victoria, BC

This was a tough year for our Writing Centre as it was for the world. We mourned some lost opportunities, we suffered anxiety about the present and the future. But as I reflect back on this year, I think our community has emerged stronger and with a clearer sense of our value(s) through the process of confronting these difficult working and living conditions. 

Every struggle offers unforeseen opportunities, and we found many this year. Our pivot to 100% online services forced us to confront the discrepancy between how much we had invested in the development of our in-person space versus our online presence. So this COVID year provided the impetus we needed to invest and build out our digital presence, both externally and internally. Our website has become a dynamic, regularly updated source of information about our people, events, resources and programs. We developed a weekly Instagram plan that had tutors contributing photos on various themes throughout the year; this, combined with a popular “tutor takeover” of our Instagram stories made our social media channel truly a two-way communication channel with our users. Finally, to make up for the lost convenience of easy hallway conversations between appointments, we created online discussion channels using Slack that surprised me for being highly dynamic, participatory and accessible–the energy that comes from having ten people engaged in a spirited problem-solving conversation via Slack was wholly unexpected (by me) but exhilarating!

Like many people, it took us a while to find our rhythm doing our team meetings virtually via Zoom, but after a couple of months, we found a way that made us feel connected and enabled us to do our collaborative work. We made liberal use of breakout rooms which made facilitated one-on-one relationship building in ways that doesn’t always happen with communal in-person meetings. We invited tutors to introduce Liberating Structures exercises into our meeting discussions as a way to practice discussion facilitation, and we all appreciated the changeup to our regular discussion formats. We made frequent use of collaboration and whiteboarding tools (Jamboard, Google Doc, Zoom Whiteboard) that were particularly appealing to our visual community. And every week we welcomed backchannel or less informal conversations via the chat that infused a lot of humour and laughter into our gatherings. I am not sure we will ever give up the virtual meetings now that we understand their potential for accessibility and connection.

To balance Zoom fatigue and the many hours we were spending on screens, we also embraced some older, more tactile technologies this year. Old-fashioned letter writing was a constant throughout the year. Our Letter Writing Collective which typically runs events 2-3 times per academic year transformed into the weekly Letter Writing Club where students who love letters could gather to write and share letter-writing love. Over the holidays in December, we ran a holiday pen pal program to help peer tutors stay connected to one another over the break. I sent each tutor a package that contained some stamps and the addresses of two of their colleagues (in addition to some chocolate) –then in January we all showed the letters we had received. 

And then in February, in place of our in-person Valentine’s Day event, we offered Valentine’s letter writing kits to any interested students, and we had 110 students take us up on the offer. 

Valentine’s letter writing kits

We ended this year as we did every meeting with a question: “What are you taking with you, and what are you leaving for the group?” Far and away above every other response, what our tutors are taking with them this year is pride in having contributed to a community and a service that sustained so many students through this difficult year. What they overwhelmingly left behind was gratitude–for all the ways, big and small, we had each others’ backs this year. I share this gratitude, and I couldn’t be prouder of this generous, creative, resilient community.