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Writing in Online Spaces

This year, my institution is switching LMS platforms, and this has meant a considerable amount of additional work for me over the summer. It also, however, has provided me with the opportunity to consider and explore the types of online environments I want for my students.

I do not consider online teaching to be an area in which I am particularly strong. When I was still in graduate school, we did not have the option of enrolling in online pedagogy courses. This means the majority of my online pedagogy has been developed by trial and error. My basic goals have been to figure out how I can best replicate my face-to-face classes in my online environment and to try and figure out ways to create community in this environment.

Replicating the face-to-face aspect of the course, believe it or not, has been somewhat easier than figuring out how to develop community—how to create a space that encourages students to dwell in it, to remain present, to ask questions of each other and me, and to attempt to form relationships. I appreciate insights such as those offered by Leslie Blair when she notes that the online environment actually provides students with something of a more genuine audience/rhetor experience than the traditional classroom. Blair points out that students have the opportunity to consider their responses to readings and discussions before providing input, the option of reading and rereading others’ comments prior to making their own responses, and an environment less likely to include interruptions. I agree with these observations, and I would also note that an online environment can be something of a safe space for some students (it also, of course, has the potential to be quite threatening).

And Scott Warnock offers solid and practical pedagogical advice in his 2009 book, Teaching Writing Online: How and Why. His suggestions on migrating our traditional classroom priorities to the online writing environment are interesting and particularly helpful to those who are new to online teaching. (You can read a thoughtful review here), and also be sure to take a look at Warnock’s blog.

In 2014 there were 5.8 million students taking at least one online course, and I appreciate the pedagogical insights offered by teacher scholars such as Blair and Warnock. But I am still struggling with the digital space itself. How does one create an online environment that is appealing to learners? Will digital literacy theory point me in the right direction? Instructional technology?

As someone who is interested in how spaces influence writers and their identities, I suppose it is not surprising that this interest extends to online spaces. But I am also interested because of other online experiences. My volunteer work with a medical advocacy group means I am heavily invested in online communities. Our organization sponsors a member forum in which patients, doctors, and family members can post questions in a private, safe, and secure environment. The forum is monitored and, thus, ensures the civility of the community and, more importantly, that inaccurate information is not presented to patients. Yet most of our members choose not to participate in the forum; instead, they seem to prefer the various Facebook pages that are sponsored by individual patients. The pages are private (by Facebook standards), but they are relatively unmonitored when it comes to accuracy of content, and board members of our organization do not directly respond to posts on these pages unless absolutely necessary because we do not want people to have to work to determine when information is coming from our organization and when it is coming from individuals.

My experiences with our organization and these different online spaces (the same community of people for the most part, but different interfaces) make me wonder about the appeal of the Facebook pages. Are members more drawn to these pages because they are more personal? You can include pictures, and everyone has an easily accessible profile? Are they drawn to them because they are patient run (of course, our forum is also patient/volunteer run, but it is also hosted by 501c3 organization)? Is this more appealing than a more professional space? Perhaps patient voices come across as more legitimate in the Facebook spaces than they do in a more controlled environment? Is it about ease? Everyone checks their Facebook and is therefore automatically aware of whether another patient has posted in the group page (gotta love Facebook notifications)? Perhaps this is simply more reflexive than having to go to a completely different site.

Needless to say, questions such as these are swirling inside my head as I begin the process of redesigning courses for this new LMS. One of the reasons I think they are informing my thinking is that our old LMS is much like the forum (controlled and somewhat static) whereas the new LMS is far more like Facebook (intuitive and personal). The space and what can happen in the space is simply different. What I am interested in is whether or not I can take advantage of the space and create an environment in which students find community making to be worth the effort (because I believe that my students need a community of writers in order to grow as individual writers). What do I need to do to create a space that can then be recreated and revised by students? How can they make the space their space and not my space? In our old LMS, this wasn't really possible, but in our new LMS, I think it might be.

So consider this particular post a shout out for your best practices. What do you do in your online spaces to create community? And, in your opinion, what are the most important “physical” attributes of the course—attributes that make the space appealing to students? And while you are pondering, here is a picture of the awesome header my uber-talented friend, Danielle, created for one of my courses. A header is a good start, isn’t it?

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