Teaching Technical Writing Courses Online: Challenges And Strategies. William V. Van Pelt Associate Professor University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

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1 For more resources click here -> Teaching Technical Writing Courses Online: Challenges And Strategies William V. Van Pelt Associate Professor Matthias Jonas Graduate Project Assistant This presentation describes the instructional design of advanced technical writing courses taught online as full distance education courses at the, our use of the Blackboard Website, and strategies and techniques developed to make the courses more effective as online courses, including peer editing, collaborative writing, student-centered learning, creating a supportive social environment, and simulating workplace environments. We also discuss examples of assignments, discussion forums, student responses to the on-line learning experience, and positive and negative results. Context of Distance Learning at UWM In the academic year, the professional writing faculty offered the first online technical writing courses intended for the new graduate certificate program in professional writing and communication. To earn the certificate, students complete 15 credits of course work (nine graduate credits in English and six graduate credits in Communication). The courses were taught completely online, with no face-to-face meetings, and use the Web-based Blackboard learning environment. Before the online courses were developed, faculty offered courses in a system-wide BA in Organizational Administration (BAOA) and drove to the satellite campuses in various locations throughout Wisconsin to teach the English writing courses. Increasing student demand for the courses and the growth in the number participating satellite campuses led UWM to shift from face-to-face instruction to Blackboard as a means of offering the courses through distance teaching. The increased demand for distance education courses along with the fact that most professional writing students work full-time and live all over the state or outside of Wisconsin motivated professional writing faculty to develop a Graduate Certificate in Professional Writing and Communication offering technical writing courses online. We expect to reach students who cannot receive traditional on-campus education because of work schedules, family obligations, and other difficulties that prohibit commuting to the UWM campus for face-to-face instruction. In the 2001, four professional writing faculty and a graduate project assistant formed a design team to developed online sections of the technical writing courses. These courses have been taught as a sequence of face-to-face courses for several years, and include: 1) Advanced Professional Writing, 2) Writing for Information Technology, and 3) Advanced Project Management for Professional Writers. The pilot versions of the courses were taught in Fall 2002 and Spring 2003, with a total of 35 students enrolled, or about 12 students in each course. Approach to Developing Online Technical Writing Courses 1 Online instruction may result in isolation among students because of lack of social interaction that normally occurs in face-to-face classes, so that distance learning may require strategies to compensate for a loss of teaming and diminished social skills required for successful collaborative learning. In traditional technical writing pedagogy, students develop essential competencies through peer editing, collaborative learning, and team projects, which prepare them well for the workplace. In designing online technical writing courses, we wondered if the educational objectives we so successfully developed in our

2 For more resources click here -> traditional face-to-face courses would be significantly altered and asked following questions: What are the challenges of developing and teaching a technical writing course for online delivery? Can the traditional pedagogical goals of our technical writing courses be maintained and fulfilled? If so, what new techniques or strategies may be required in the online environment? Keeping these questions in mind, we built and implemented online activities that rely on the following: 1. Comprehensive instructions and preparatory exercises for each assignment. 2. Sequencing writing activities and assignments toward focused course objectives. 3. Initiating writing projects early. 4. Providing detailed critical feedback at each stage of the writing process. 5. Requiring well-structured revising processes for each assignment. Second, we embraced collaborative learning by requiring students to: 1. Get to know each other personally and develop social interaction early in the course. 2. Discuss readings in online group forums. 3. Learn peer editing and respond to and use critical feedback in their rewriting process. 4. Conduct team assignments with well identified roles culminating in peer evaluations. Third, we followed three pedagogical principles: 1. Teachers should facilitate learning and encourage students to take the initiative. 2. Simplify the Blackboard course Web system, technology, and site structure. 3. Engage students in varied activities to overcome online anonymity and enliven collaboration. The highly structured Blackboard Web interface enabled faculty to agree on a shared and relatively consistent site design for all the courses. Implementation, Student Responses, and Results Based on two years of research and course development and one year of teaching experience in implementing the on-line courses, we learned that the primary goals and objectives of the traditional technical writing course can be achieved and maintained in the online distance learning courses. However, we also found that certain pedagogical techniques and strategies must be altered, especially with regard to course planning, teacher and student roles, instructor responsiveness to students, and social interaction in the online environment. To track student responses, we kept all and online discussion postings and asked students to fill out pre- and post-semester attitude surveys that also gathered some demographic data. Course Planning and Development To maintain the pedagogical goals established in our technical writing courses, we found that front end course planning and preparation intensified when developing online versions of the courses. Online education requires a well-organized course structure, reliable technology, clear instructions, and technological training for both instructors and students. Technology must be reliable and adequate, but should not overwhelm students, nor should it present a deterrent to learning. The technology, support, and backup systems should be available for student use 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 2 To ensure the viability of the online course, we reorganized and streamlined the original face-to-face course materials. We narrowed our number of assignments to focus clearly on such tasks as writing, revising, editing, peer collaboration, and teamwork. Since professional writers use attachments, word processing, and the Internet in the "real world," these writing assignments were emulated competencies regularly developed by professionals in workplace settings.

3 For more resources click here -> Students in an online class do not have the opportunity to receive lectures on course work and assignments directly from the teacher or ask questions to clarify assignment goals or course procedures as they often do in the first weeks of a face-to-face class. Therefore, we posted detailed course materials in advance on the site, including syllabi, schedules, assignments, assignment examples, readings in Print Document Format (PDF), clear descriptions of our expectations for online student participation, technological requirements defining computer needs and Internet access, and instructions for finding materials on the site and getting help when difficulties were encountered. Instructions on how to use the system and find materials were crucial to minimizing problems with technology and helping students quickly find their way in the multiple levels of Blackboard's Web interface, which can be confusing to beginners. For example, we sent the following to each student by U. S. Mail one week before the semester started: a welcome letter explaining the course expectations, a full set of instructions on how to logon to the Blackboard and find the course, where and how to get help, and a backup CD containing nearly all of the course materials, readings, and instructions. We sent the same welcome letter and instructions by . When students did not respond to our initial , we tried to contact them by phone. We also devised an initial "scavenger hunt" assignment requiring students to search the site and find key assignment requirements, policies, technical instructions, and other crucial information in the first week of class. All of this required more intense advance planning and preparation before the semester started than we normally engage in a face-to-face course. Contacting students before the semester started worked well since nearly every student responded and began the course work by the beginning of the first week. Student and Teacher Roles While the face-to-face classroom remains predicated upon the authoritative presence of the teacher who disseminates course materials in real time, online instructors must replace their immediate presence with both well-structured and detailed course materials instructions and availability as a consultant and coach to students. We found that the online instructor's role shifts from a performative real-time presenter of information and director of inquiry to that of an instructional planner and consultant who provides a reliable learning environment that enables and encourages self-paced and self-corrective learning among students. To ensure that students do not fall behind, instructors must constantly coach, mentor, and encourage students to take on an active and independent learning role. This is especially important in a technical writing course that requires students to research and plan writing assignments early in the semester, write and revise multiple drafts, solicit and use peer commentary on drafts, and participate in group discussion and collaborative learning and writing projects. As in the workplace, good communications among peers and group leaders is crucial to move assignments and writing progress forward and to meet deadlines. 3 Thus we encouraged students to contact both the instructor and graduate project assistant by when they had questions. We also established a course reflector and a Blackboard discussion group question-and-answer forum where questions about assignments and course procedures could be discussed among all students, the instructor, and the graduate assistant. The exchange and online discussion forum were highly successful. For example, in the "Writing for Information Technology" course, 89% of students preferred these methods of communication and found them successful ("I prefer and BB postings because they allow for quick communication of ideas" and "I used for private communication with the professor and used BB Discussion Board for general comments and thoughts"). This course enrolled 12 students, who sent a total of 407 messages, which averages 35 s per student over the course of about 13 weeks. By comparison, in a face-to-face section of the same course taught during the same semester enrolled 9 students, 85 s were received by the instructor, which averages 9 s per student. Thus the online course produced four times as much traffic as the

4 For more resources click here -> face-to-face course. Students in the online course also posted 85 messages to the Blackboard question-and -answer forum, averaging 7 postings for every student. This forum was especially successful since students voluntarily posted to it and advised each other on technological, research, writing, and procedural matters in the course. This discussion board emulated the kind of exchange you would normally see from professional technical writers in the workplace. Five other discussion forums centered upon individual course assignments (personal introduction, profile of yourself as a writer, critique of Web site designs, writing instructions for users, and creating an educational Web site), required posting drafts of writing, peer response, and revised documents, generating 50 to 83 messages in each forum (averaging from 4 to 7 postings per student). We generally found that assignments which require students to take on a more active, responsive, mature, and disciplined role worked well. In online group discussions, clearly defined roles for participants, such as discussion leader, summarizer, and contributor provide structure and accountability, facilitate discussion, and promote student responsibility. Short annotations for weekly readings, worksheets on writing style, and small quizzes keep students engaged and help instructors recognize when students fall behind, misunderstand materials, or seem disoriented. Online writing instruction created problems in providing detailed markup on student papers. In the "Advanced Professional Writing Course," the students turned in attached Word files and the instructor printed them out, marked them in pen and ink with marginal comments and editing as he normally did in the face-to-face course. A graduate project assistant then scanned the marked pages in as Print Document Format (PDF) files and ed them as attachments to the students, so students could revise and submit rewritten work. The "Writing for Information Technology" course taught students to edit and markup peers' drafts, so that student could use the peers' comments to revise and resubmit a new draft to both students and teacher again for another round of editing and comment. Since not every student would have the ability to create PDF files, we provided instructions on how to use Word tracking and comment features to insert editing advice and commentary into peers' Word files. This enabled students post all the drafts, peer comments, and revisions to the discussion board, so the teacher and every student could see every draft of every other student along with editing comments and revised versions. Postings of drafts, markups, and commentary on the discussion boards proved very popular and resulted in lively discussions in which students praised each others' work, giving encouragement and practical advice throughout the writing process. The instructor rarely intervened in these online exchanges. Social Interaction 4 Social interaction among students is crucial in online courses. We provided a "Social Forum" discussion board and encouraged students to use it to get to know each other through small talk and other social issues. But the social forums were rarely or never used by students in our online courses. We believe there were two reasons for this: First, students enrolled in the online course because their personal schedules were already too crowded to commute to face-to-face courses and used all their online time to "get down to business" and get their work done quickly, so they didn't have extra time to visit purely social forum. Second, we built social interaction into the initial personal introduction assignment, the profile of yourself as a writer, and into other forums as a natural part of the collegial and professional online experience. Thus students quickly got to know each other as professional, online "personalities," using first names in the regular initial assignments and related minor personal issues or individual problems that occurred in their work schedules or with computer systems when they posted assignments or entered a online discussion. Third, students seemed to have low expectations about rewarding social interactions going into the online courses, so they were less disappointed by the lack of face-to-face contact, but enjoyed social exchanges when they did occur. They seemed eager to engage one another in a collegial and affable manner in the forums, using humor and personal background as "immediacy behaviors" that "broke the ice," especially in the initial "personal introduction" exercise which set a friendly and open tone for the remainder of the course.

5 For more resources click here -> Tentative Conclusion and Sample Results Students gave positive feedback about the flexibility of participating in online course work at anytime, night or day, because it enabled them to organize the course around personal work schedules and family responsibilities ("I liked going to class at my own times"; "I could access the system from work or home whenever I had a free moment"; and "I could balance school with other responsibilities such as work and family" were typical comments). Some students, however, simply seemed to thrive in an online environment: "I love online courses. I love going to class whenever I want... I like working independently, and I think I can do a good job of keeping up and turning assignments in on time." Since 65% of our online students claimed to work full-time or have full-time family care responsibilities, 32% claimed similar part-time responsibilities, and only 3% claimed to be full-time students, it seems clear that students with heavy work schedules and family responsibilities self-select for online courses. Negative comments included complaints about the cost and time required to print course materials, lack of face-to-face contact, need for more direction and advice from the teacher, lack of full participation in group work, and computer failures or technical problems. Overall, however, when asked if they would take another online course based on their experience in one of our courses, 71% said "Yes definitely."; 13% said "Probably"; 16% said "Don't Know"; and 0% responded "Not likely" or "No." Based on these tentative results, we conclude that online technical writing courses can achieve and maintain the pedagogical goals of traditional face-to-face courses, but that the online environment requires careful advance planning and preparation, mature and independent student participation, good technical instructions for students, and effective social interaction and group work early in the course. We believe that technical writing, editing, and revising assignments can be especially well-adapted to the online environment and that online courses can successfully emulate the collegiality and professional skills common to workplace settings. Biographical Sketches William V. Van Pelt is an Associate Professor of English at the, where he teaches rhetoric, technical writing, and Romantic literature. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California in Santa Cruz, worked for several years as a technical writer and training specialist, and currently coordinates the distance education initiative in the professional writing program at UWM. Address: English Department, P.O. Box 413 Milwaukee, WI Matthias Jonas is a Graduate Project Assistant in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he received his MA in English Professional Writing. His research interests includes knowledge management, content management systems, and technical writing. Matthias copresented Teaching Knowledge Management: Learning Organizational Communication via Content Management System Development at the 67 th Annual Convention of the Association for Business Communication in Cincinnati, Ohio, in October Being from Germany, he has studied English, Russian, and Business at the University of Giessen, Germany, Wittenberg University, Ohio, and Kasan State University, Russia. 5 Address: English Department, P.O. Box 413 Milwaukee, WI

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