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Teaching Writing Online Amid a Pandemic

By Natalie Stillman-Webb


Like many U faculty, I spent spring break moving my courses online, in anticipation of campus being closed due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, I created online migration resources for my colleagues in my role as Online Learning Coordinator in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric Studies. I also spoke with panicked faculty members while hosting webinars for the Global Society of Online Literacy Educators: One professor at a small liberal arts college in New York requested help with recording videos for her students, while an instructor in Australia worried about the best way to move class discussions online.
     Our emergency shift to remote teaching was different from the best practices in online pedagogy that I study. Teaching online is not about hastily uploading files or constructing a correspondence course but instead centers on designing and fostering a digital learning community. Over decades and across disciplines, researchers have found that online students’ sense of social presence—their interaction with an instructor and classmates who they perceive as real people—has been linked to student motivation, satisfaction, retention, perceived learning, and critical thinking.
     My own research has investigated the role of interactivity in online writing instruction. In one study, my research team and I surveyed 669 online and hybrid first-year writing students about their perspectives. We found that students most valued their instructor’s feedback on their work, followed by effective course organization. Students also pointed to peer review and discussions as important ways they learned with their peers. Based on this research, I prioritized collaborative pedagogy as I moved my classes online in March, designing online discussions, group activities, and peer reviews to promote active learning and keep us all connected despite the physical distance.


     Flexibility was also important in adapting to our altered circumstances. In my Visual Rhetoric course, for example, I was able to integrate recent events into the curriculum. I created an assignment called “Visualizing COVID-19,” in which students analyzed and discussed data visualizations of arguments to “flatten the curve.” Many students commented that the assignment helped them evaluate the claims of visualizations they were encountering in the media. I shared this assignment with one of my colleagues, whose student commented, “I just wanted to thank you for keeping the class engaging and relevant to current events. Viewing these events in the light of the class has been fun and engaging.”
     Since we couldn’t hold student presentations of their final projects in the physical classroom as usual, I asked my students to create videos using Adobe Spark. Surprisingly, their projects were the strongest ever in my decade of teaching the course: The video format, I discovered, allowed students to more clearly organize and articulate their ideas. One student remarked that the video presentation “pushed me out of my comfort zone and stretched my artistic abilities.” In this case, our online migration allowed me to experiment with a format that ended up encouraging students’ best work and is a practice I’ll continue next year, regardless of whether my class meets in person, in a hybrid format or online.

Natalie Stillman-Webb

     This is not to say that everything went smoothly as we shifted online. My students were impacted in significant, material ways by the pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn. Those with challenging personal circumstances found it increasingly difficult to complete coursework. One of my students confided that he was experiencing daily, debilitating, panic attacks. Another lost her job; although she was able to find temporary work to support her family, her new position had unpredictable hours. A young father unexpectedly found himself the primary caregiver for his 2-year-old daughter. Yet another student had a family member diagnosed with COVID-19.

Teaching online ... centers on designing and fostering a digital learning community.

     These are the students who felt comfortable reaching out to me about their struggles; no doubt many others grappled with issues like decreased access to the internet or altered living situations. Supporting my students during this time required greater openness and flexibility with deadlines, so they could progress toward their educational goals. Access to technology also became an obstacle for many, and I needed to adjust therequirements for a Digital Storytelling course project to ensure access when students couldn’t use university audiovisual equipment after campus buildings closed.
     The teaching strategies I’ve discussed here—for fostering community, flexibility, and accessibility—are not only important to migrating courses online during a pandemic, but are key to the responsiveness and quality of any learning in digital environments. There is also much to learn from emerging research on best teaching practices. The pandemic has placed a sudden spotlight on online instruction: We have a unique opportunity to employ it as more than simply a backup for in-person teaching but as an effective way to construct knowledge with others.

Last Updated: 10/21/20