Tuesday, March 31, 2015

In an OWC, reading is an inherent part of the experience

What do your students read in their writing courses, especially their first-year courses? And why are they reading those things?

As a teacher, I always assign a lot of readings in my courses. In fact, my process of designing a course usually starts with the readings; then I construct the assignments and then move on to the rest of the course.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve started wondering about this approach of using lists of prescribed readings in my courses. Particularly in an online writing course (OWC), is this really what I need to do?

This year, at Drexel we hired Irvin Peckham to direct our First-Year Writing Program. Irvin has brought some different approaches to teaching writing. He's focused on student attitudes toward writing, for one thing, and he also has a scaled-down approach to syllabi, which includes sparer required writings in these first-year courses. I’m oversimplifying his thoughts about this – check out his blog Personal Writing in the Classroom -- but he has led me to consider that in a well-run writing course, students’ earnest reading of each others' texts is plenty of great reading work for the term.

Yep. And this is particularly so in an OWC. When I looked closely at things this way, it struck me that students were doing a considerable amount of reading in my OWC courses. I’ve focused on the amounts of writing they are doing, but because so much of that writing is open to all course participants, they also read a great deal. My colleague Beth Hewett makes this argument in her new book Reading to Learn and Writing to Teach: Literacy Strategies for Online Writing Instruction. She points out that good OWI practices include a strong course culture of reading and re-reading.

Research has backed up that the reading in OWCs is quite different compared to onsite first-year writing courses; June Griffin and Deborah Minter compared the reading in fully online vs. onsite writing courses and found that the reading load online was more than 2.75 times greater. (1)

Let’s not get into the “do they read it all?” question right now, because the assumption that students ever experience everything in any class modality is flawed. (As I always say, in my many experiences observing onsite classes, I’m struck by students who aren't paying a lick of attention even though there’s some stranger in a tie sitting directly behind them.) My point here is that the literacy experience in an OWC is intense and rigorous by its very nature. Students in the course will engage in a lot of engaged reading on discussion boards and through peer reviews, reading that often turns directly into writing. They are casting their eyes over many, many words in powerfully engaged and often transactional ways.

Of course, there’s still room for those texts that I like to assign, but in an OWC, you don’t have to overburden them (or yourself) with structured reading. Really, I should have known. Writing courses are different from other courses because their syllabi emerge through the organic development of the students’ writing within them. Online, this is even more so.

1) Griffin, June & Deborah Minter. (2013). The rise of the online writing classroom. College Composition and Communication 65(1), 140-61.

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