Friday, March 31, 2017

Building a prompt: Characteristics of prompts

Last time, I wrote about types of prompts that can help you be successful in starting asynchronous conversations.

As promised, in this post I want to describe several characteristics of good prompts:
  1. A clear, succinct subject line. Also, if your discussion/messaging software allows it, encourage students to change the subject when appropriate, i.e., when the conversation has gone in a different direction.
  2. Clear, direct language. Think about OWI Principle 3 Effective Practice 3.1: “When text is the primary medium, OWI teachers should use written language that is readable and comprehensible” (12).
  3. Salutation/greeting. The salutation/greeting is valuable territory: Don’t waste it. You have a chance to use your voice. Sometimes you may be formal. Sometimes you may be welcoming, friendly, or even playful. Plus, you want students being clear about who the audience of their posts are: Often, they reply to a particular person but don't indicate this in their salutation/greeting. You should model this: “Dear students” or something similar is fine.
  4. Goal or objective. With a few words,  you can make the goal of the prompt clear.
  5. Specific instruction. What are students to do in this thread? Sometimes “just write” is good enough. Sometimes it’s not.
  6. Context. Make it clear how the thread the prompt begins will fit into what is happening in the course.
  7. Minimal number of questions and scaffolding. This is a key area in which teachers get into trouble, I find: they overdo it with prompt complexity and length, forgetting that both they and the students will build the conversation as it goes; you don’t need to front-load everything.
  8. Further anchoring of prompt to material/texts in the course. Many first-year programs in particular have required, program-wide texts, and I have seen teachers struggle to find ways to use these texts in their courses. You can almost always anchor your prompts to some lesson or aspect of the writing book you are using in your course – look for ways to do that. By the way, I find this type of connecting works better in online writing courses than in onsite courses.
  9. Possible broadening of topic. Students’ main goal may be analyzing an argument, but at the end of a prompt, you can also ask their stances on the argument’s subject matter. I find these subtopics get picked up at the end of the week.
  10. Complimentary closing. Like the salutation/greeting, this is valuable space that is often squandered. You can overtly invite questions and comments. You can also get a lot of voice/personality mileage out of a few words: “Interested in what you have to say” can be an encouraging close to a prompt.
  11. Sign off. If you're going to be "Prof. Warnock" to your class, write that. You may be "Dr. Warnock." You may be "Scott."
  12. Works cited. If appropriate, do it. I ask students to cite in their posts, and I think I should model that practice.
Of course, not every characteristic will be included in every prompt. But if you consider this 11-item list as being a basis for constructing prompts, I think you’ll end up with good ways to spur your students’ writing.

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Friday, January 27, 2017

Building a prompt: Types of prompts

I was excited to see that a new journal has gone live, Prompt: A Journal of Academic Writing Assignments. The writing assignment, the prompt, lies at the base of much of the work we do as writing instructors -- and the success of that work.

I think that how you get students started in the conversations they have online, that is, the prompts, is crucial (although, as I'll discuss in my next post, less is often more). Here are several types of prompts that I rely on in OWI.

A primary type is not complicated: It's a prompt designed to help students have a conversation about assigned texts/media. Having such conversations might sound familiar, and it should, because it's what many teachers do in the majority of their onsite courses. You might find in a FYW OWC that many of your prompts are simply designed to help students get talking about a reading.

You can also use writing-to-learn prompts that spur students not only to discuss but learn specific content.

Particularly in persuasive writing-type courses, you can introduce prompts that inspire debate or argument about a topic. These can be straightforward, and the written environment of discussion boards, I think, is particularly well-suited to such student debates.

You can also use prompts to have them work on/explore specific aspects of writing. For instance, they could analyze, using their own texts, all the verbs “to be," and try to replace them (they often find this devilishly difficult) .They can extend this kind of "metawriting" prompt to also discuss texts created by other students

Of course, prompts are often essentially reflective. If you're feeling brave, you can extend this reflection to the course itself -- and maybe even to you, the course's instructor.

You can also use prompts to have students generate ideas for larger project topics in a course. This is a favorite kind of thread of mine, and it builds on the course practice of having them talk about such topics in class: They brainstorm and then propose topics.

Prompts such as icebreakers can develop course community, helping students meet one another and learn about one another's interests and predilections.

Finally (in this hardly exhaustive list), you can use prompts to encourage students to understand/work through course logistics. They can sign up for conferences with you, etc., right through a discussion thread.

These categories have very blurry edges. For instance, many prompts are based in a course text, which then can lead to a dialogue that may focus on metawriting or even debate.

Next time I'm going to offer some specific characteristics of prompts that I think are helpful.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Is OWI fun?

I am sometimes invited to visit -- mostly virtually -- graduate classes focusing on OWI pedagogy. The students ask me questions about teaching OWCs, questions that often only people just embarking on teaching careers can think to ask.

One question I get is a form of this: "Is OWI fun?" It’s a great question. I think teaching itself should be gratifying. How can you dedicate decades of your life to working with students if you're not intrinsically engaged and satisfied?

“Fun” is a special word, though, isn't it? I was hooked on teaching from my first substitute gigs at Eastern High School in the early 90s. When I began teaching composition as a TA at Rutgers Camden in 1993 (after severe initial nervousness), I realized teaching writing was for me, and that feeling strengthened at Temple during my PhD work in the late 90s and early aughts through Penn State Lehigh Valley and now at Drexel.

I think, though, it wasn't until I taught online that I began to understand why.

I always liked the conversations, debates, and dialogues that made up the core of my classes, and I enjoyed coaching student writers and loved seeing their writing evolve. When I first encountered online writing tools, at Temple, I discovered, unaware at the time of course, that those two things I liked so much, the dialogues and writing process, converged brilliantly with ed tech.

Modality of course altered the nature of the dialogue (the technology always changes things), but it was just that: Different, not better or worse. And in OWI, it was all writing. I discovered that cracking open a discussion board was, well, fun for me.

I tell inquisitive graduate students, though, that I do have the benefit of favorable material conditions. For one, reading on a screen is no problem for me, access or otherwise. Also, I type pretty fast. I just took a one-minute typing test at and while I’m not a “pro,” I’m the next category, "fast." Enjoying screen reading and typing fast together mean that the experience interface-wise isn’t onerous for me.

So, having a positive material experience combined with really loving the intellectual journey might equal fun. I tell in-training teachers that it may well be that they only find onsite courses enjoyable. I get it. If you only like being in the room with the students, regardless of the reasons why, then OWI may not appeal to you.

And you should figure that out for yourself. I think a profession like teaching should have not just an element of  satisfaction but play and fun too. Teaching writing is difficult, and it won’t all be giggles. But following students' thinking trajectory across written discussions through bigger written projects? Sounds like fun to me.

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Friday, September 30, 2016

GSOLE: Can we think about it all as literacy?

So I’m posting two consecutive “organizational” posts, but there’s a lot going on in the world of OWI, and I want to get it out there.

It’s not every day that you get to be part of a new organization/society/ association. This past April at the CCCC meeting in Houston, I was honored to take part in the launching of GSOLE, the Global Society for Online Literacy Educators.

GSOLE is the brainchild of my good friend Beth Hewett, and she is our first president. She has developed this idea that OWI should be broadened beyond writing to literacy, including reading and digital composition. From her letter on the homepage (

We are an international organization of teachers, tutors, and researchers dedicated to diversity, inclusivity, and access in literacy-based online education. We share an understanding that the key component linking all of online education is literacy. Although online education tends to remove the immediacy and intimacy of face-to-face instruction, we suggest that successful teaching and learning in online settings are more deeply connected to literacy-based concerns than to physical presence or lack thereof. Three of the core literacies of the 21st century are reading, writing, and digital composition. However, these literacies largely have been studied and taught separately, and the resulting discussions about them have occurred in discrete sub-disciplines where their connections have not been fully explored or acknowledged.
Reading. It gets left out of so many higher ed conversations about learning. We assume students can/should be able to do it or don’t have the expertise to teach it or are too embarrassed to admit we don’t do it well & etc. I am this term again teaching The Peer Reader in Context, the Drexel course that prepares undergraduates to tutor in our writing center. I love our text, Bartholomae & Petrosky's Ways of Reading, which, in its introduction, asks students to focus on their practices and assumptions about reading. Textbooks, they write in that introduction, "are good examples of books that ask little of readers outside of note-taking and memorization" (5). (1) Reading in college is often simply transparent.

Digital composition. While those in the field of comp/rhet have written and investigated multimodality and digital composition for some time, you could argue that alphabetic writing still dominates, not only in pedagogical practice but in what we think of as composition or writing instruction.

The idea behind GSOLE is to bring together writing and reading instruction with digital composition under one inclusive, virtual tent. As I suppose with any new thing, we spent a heck of a lot of time developing the name. We are still developing the organization's structure. We know we will have Webinars and a certification sequence for OWTs. We will have a journal. We will also, through our site, provide an opportunity for developing a community of those interested in online literacy education. We have, in my estimation, the right people involved to get it all done.

GSOLE is exciting because what we’re hoping is the idea of literacy can move to the forefront of OWI conversations. It's not so much that OWI will become OLI by nomenclature, but that our pedagogical and research agendas will reflect this broader concept of literacy. We think this is the future, and we hope you will join us.

1) I still like the 9th edition of this text.

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Monday, July 18, 2016

From OWI Committee to Standing Group, but the work goes on

In April at the CCCC meeting in Houston, the CCCC Committee for Effective Practices in OWI was settling in at 9 AM for its three-hour, packed-agenda annual closed meeting, when its members abruptly learned a surprising thing: Just that Wednesday, the CCCC Executive Committee had voted not to reconstitute us!

This was a tough moment for many committee members, and emotions were visceral for a variety of reasons. We called CCCC President Joyce Carter, who showed great leadership in coming to visit us on the spot. She fielded questions and explained her approach as Chair – a new approach – to committees, and she described the logistics of what had happened. She apologized for the way this occurred, reinforced the value of OWI work, and encouraged us to re-structure the OWI Committee as a CCCC Standing Group.

I do understand it all. Nobody at CCCC was out to get our committee. As many of you know, our committee had gone well beyond the boundaries – all for the good, of course –of a charge-driven, purpose-focused group. Specific, executable charges, Joyce explained, are what should characterize committees and structure their work. Groups with ongoing interests and work need a different structure. This makes sense.

Word of this has trickled out, so I wanted to let people know that our group has been speedily reconstituted as a CCCC Standing Group. CCCC was helpful fast-tracking our group’s application. Our Expert Panel, comprised of more than 30 OWI experts, and our structure are still intact. Our numerous in-progress projects will continue on, especially the OWI bibliography, spearheaded by Heidi Harris, and the survey of student experiences in OWCs, led by Diane Martinez.

I think this moment also helped people think about some of the other new sites for community, conversation, and contact for OWI teachers and scholars, especially The OWI Community, a growing Facebook site set up by Casey McArdle and Jessie Borgman, and the recently formed Global Society for Online Literacy Education, which I'll be talking more about here soon.

For our group, the name changes, but the work goes on. With the Standing Group, we will still have a clear structural connection with CCCC and NCTE. Such a visible, tangible presence is especially valuable to those of you those investing your careers teaching, administering, and researching OWI, people who often need not only a recognizable banner under which to gather to think, talk, and work, but an identifiable gathering “spot” to become life-long friends.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Observing and evaluating online writing courses, part 2

Last July, I wrote some thoughts about peer observations and evaluations of online writing courses (OWCs). I promised -- for you and me -- some further examination of this topic. So, last week, at Computers & Writing at St. John Fisher College in Rochester (a well-run and enjoyable conference -- thanks to the organizers and local hosts) my colleague from Kent State Mahli Mechenbier and I presented about conducting such evaluations.

In my talk I was able to show, I think, some progress on my initial articulation of an Elbowesque “movies-of-the- mind” approach to conducting peer evaluations of OWCs. I opened my session by giving the audience members a “task”: “During my session, take some notes about what happens and then imagine you would turn them into an observation letter you would give to me about the session.” I circled back to the "task" at the end. My point was that observations of things like teaching (or conference talks) are always subjective and related to the relative expertise of both evaluator and evaluatee. By understanding that dynamic, we can avoid the judgment-driven process that has done a bizarrely paradoxical thing: oversimplified evaluations while overcomplicating the evaluation process.

The “how” of this “movies-of-the-mind” approach is straightforward, I said: I simply write a letter to the observed faculty member describing what I see and experience in the course. With an OWC, the whole course is laid out in front of an evaluator, so the evaluation can be broader than the customary one-shot onsite visit. I did mention, though, that although I could see most of the course, I still want the teacher to guide me through, showing me only what they think appropriate.

By using this approach, the evaluator avoids reductive rubrics and metrics and instead simply narrates what they see from a colleague's teaching.

Now, politics do emerge in the process. We conduct these evaluations in the context of the academic hierarchy. Mahli emphasized this in her session, pointing out evaluation “issues” that include rank, power disparities between faculty, lack of a true peer relationship, being unknown to an evaluator, and that the whole process can be viewed as a “waste of time.”

As she does in a lot of her work, Mahli focused on contingent faculty. Especially because so many contingent faculty are asked to teach online, the issue of how such faculty are evaluated and by whom is a big topic, she said. Your campus might use Quality Matters or even (however unlikely) have developed its own approach/methodology of evaluation, but who has the expertise to conduct an evaluation -- especially if all of the online teachers are contingents but the institution requires tenured folks to evaluate!

I ended my talk with a big zoom-out, as the reductive evaluations we do in our classes continue up the ladder until we're creating stupid, standardized test-based metrics of entire schools. Such evaluations have had devastating impact to communities.

We discussed these issues in the direct context of the C&W crowd, and we're going to focus on the administrative side of OWC evaluations in Council of Writing Program Administrators conference in Raleigh in a month and a half.

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Monday, March 28, 2016

Multilingual students as online course moderators

I use student moderators in my online and hybrid courses, as I described here a few years ago. Through time, I think I have improved at defining moderation for my students. I now send them a message like this:

Thank you for signing up to moderate next week. Moderating is not difficult, but it does take some extra work for the moderators that week. I think many of our moderators for the most part have done a good job this term, so you know. 

As moderator, please do NOT start a new thread. Simply post early in the week in one of the existing threads letting everyone know that you will be moderating that thread. Note that you each only need to work in one of the threads in this week’s forum.

You can moderate the conversation in any way you like, but please do the following:
  • As I said, write a short post letting everyone know that you'll be moderating the conversation on your thread. Do this early in the week.
  • Keep up with what's being written.
  • Try to move the conversation forward with questions and new ideas. Basically, your goal is to build the conversation on the thread.
  • **At the end of the week, please post a message summarizing the activity on your thread and your participation on it as moderator.**
Please note that moderating is a 15-point grade and that your moderator posts are separate from your other graded Discussion posts this week. You still must fulfill the other posting requirements for the week.

Again, if you have any questions, please let me know.

As you can see, moderating is a graded assignment. Many student moderators do a superb job, including in their end-of-week wrap-up of their thread. (Some moderators in the first-year writing course I just taught did such a great job that I felt almost intrusive and unnecessary getting involved with their threads.)

Moderating provides teaching advantages, including leveraging teaching time, but, more importantly, it provides many learning opportunities. I wonder if it might particularly help multilingual/ESL students.

There is some debate about the effectiveness of online environments for multilingual writing students. Recently, a multilingual student in my course was straightforward and articulate in describing how the moderating experience helped her in the course and with her writing. In her end-of-week summary (which I quote as is here), she wrote that “as a non-native speaker student, I should take every chance to read, as a way to improve my thinking in English. But in the previous weeks, I failed to force myself to read all the posts because some of them are really long and hard to understand. But as a moderater, it's different. You have to read all the posts and understand them, thun you can ask questions to encourage the discussion going on.”

In this brief metacommentary, the student emphasizes the careful reading and writing she had to do as moderator. She, to me, makes it clear that moderating created a productive pressure for her.

The dialogic exchange of the discussion board and the broadening of audience to include fellow students seem to be what is key here: The inherent written conversation may put productive pressure on students that helps them, as this student says, not just with reading and writing but with thinking through -- rhetorically -- their communicative role in the community of our class.

This is one story, of course, but it may help us think specifically about how moderating -- and similar assignments/roles -- encourages our multilingual learners.

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