Applied Pedagogies: Strategies for Online Writing Instruction232
Applied Pedagogies: Strategies for Online Writing Instruction232
This is a practical text, providing ways to employ the best instructional strategies possible for today’s diverse and dynamic digital writing courses. Organized into three sections—Course Conceptualization and Support, Fostering Student Engagement, and MOOCs—chapters explore principles of rhetorically savvy writing crossed with examples of effective digital teaching contexts and genres of digital text. Contributors consider not only pedagogy but also the demographics of online students and the special constraints of the online environments for common writing assignments.
The scope of online learning and its place within higher education is continually evolving. Applied Pedagogies offers tools for the online writing classrooms of today and anticipates the needs of students in digital contexts yet to come. This book is a valuable resource for established and emerging writing instructors as they continue to transition to the digital learning environment.
Contributors: Kristine L. Blair, Jessie C. Borgman, Mary-Lynn Chambers, Katherine Ericsson, Chris Friend, Tamara Girardi, Heidi Skurat Harris, Kimberley M. Holloway, Angela Laflen, Leni Marshall, Sean Michael Morris, Danielle Nielsen, Dani Nier-Weber, Daniel Ruefman, Abigail G. Scheg, Jesse Stommel
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About the Author
Abigail G. Scheg is a course mentor for composition with Western Governors University. She is the author or editor of several texts and serves as a reviewer for several journals and publications in composition, creative writing, educational technology, and distance education.
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Strategies for Online Writing Instruction
By Daniel Ruefman, Abigail G. Scheg
University Press of ColoradoCopyright © 2016 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
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Aesthetic Experience in Online Writing Instruction
The controversy surrounding the online writing classroom is something that I have been well aware of, ever since I began studying them as a graduate student. One of my mentors at that time informed me of just how online writing instruction was creating a culture of academic mediocrity. At the time, he had never seen a study that indicated definitively that online instruction was more effective than face-to-face, though some studies at the time indicated that students were achieving outcomes in the online classroom at a comparable rate with those in more conventional classrooms.
During the 2009–2010 academic year, I found myself engaged with a series of case studies that would ultimately form my dissertation. The goal was to gain a better understanding of the pedagogical practices implemented by first-year writing instructors in face-to-face, online, and hybrid courses. Over the course of this investigation, I quickly realized the online course I was observing was using far less technology than the instructors who taught in the other two settings (Ruefman 2010). While instructors in the face-to-face and hybrid classrooms freely used a variety of web-based technologies, like YouTube and Second Life, the instructor in the online course provided directions for course activities in the form of cumbersome paragraphs supplemented with PDFs and Word Documents (figure 1.1). Essentially, the instructor whose class existed only because of web-based multimodal technologies created a monomodal, text-heavy course that used these technologies less than the other instructors sampled for these case studies.
Following the defense of my dissertation, I constantly revisited the original case study and began to wonder if these findings were limited to this single instructor or whether they were indicative of a larger trend in online writing instruction. As I continued this line of inquiry, much of what I found mirrored those original findings. Most of the sampled instructors facilitated text-heavy, monomodal courses that embodied a highly transactional pedagogical model. Modules often contained large passages of text and typed course materials that were uploaded on the course management systems (CMS).
These one-dimensional courses are simply not compatible with the way the human brain is wired to learn. Over the millennia, the human brain has been wired to respond to external sensory stimuli; sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell were the primary way that we learned about the world. Scientific discovery is propelled by experimentation and the observations made are often based upon what the scientists see, hear, taste, feel, or smell. When educational environments are devoid of sensory stimuli, they become sterile and inaccessible to many students.
KOLB'S EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING THEORY AND AESTHETIC EXPERIENCE
Before it is possible to comprehend the importance of aesthetic experience in online education, an understanding of the terminology is required. Aesthetics, in contemporary terms, often refers to concepts of pleasure or artistic beauty. Further exploration reveals that the term is actually derived from aesthetikos, a Greek word that translates as "capable of sensory perception" (Uhrmacher 2009). An aesthetic learning experience is therefore not one that is deemed as "pleasurable" or "beautiful," but it is one that is made tangible by the senses — sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell.
Sir Ken Robinson is an educational scholar who has previously touched on the need for aesthetics in American public education. In his presentation entitled "Changing the Paradigm," he explains that "aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak, when you are present in the current moment, when you are resonating with this thing that you are experiencing, when you are fully alive. An anesthetic is when you shut your senses off and deaden yourself to what is happening" (Robinson 2010). By creating one-dimensional, text-heavy online courses, writing instructors are fostering anesthetic, sterile experiences that require students to shut their senses off, depriving them of the learning tools gifted to them by the nature of human biology.
To further understand the role that aesthetic experience plays in learning, it is vital to refer to David A. Kolb's experiential learning theory. Kolb explains that experiential learning is rooted in the concept that "ideas are not fixed and immutable elements of thought but are formed and reformed through experience ... knowledge is continuously derived from and tested out in the experiences of the learner" (Kolb 1984). For him, knowledge stems from a process of active experimentation, whereby the learner continually tests what they know and amends their understanding based on the results.
Learning can be best understood as a cycle. It consists of four different stages: (1) concrete experience, (2) reflective observation, (3) abstract conceptualization, and (4) active experimentation. For Kolb, learning is best thought of as a cycle, that has no definitive beginning or end. Depending on the learning style of the student, their preconceptions, beliefs, or experiences will often cause them to resume their learning process at a different stage of the cycle, but ultimately all four stages must be encountered to truly build knowledge.
To better illustrate the learning process, consider the way you learn a new word. You first encounter that term through one of your senses. Perhaps someone uses it in conversation and you hear it. Maybe you see the written term while reading a book or article. The sensory input serves as a tangible, concrete experience that jumpstarts the learning process. Following that initial experience, a period of reflective observation will usually follow, where your experience is committed to memory. In this process, you begin to store the experience for future recall, remembering how the word looked or how it sounded in that initial context. Once committed to memory, you will transition to a stage of abstract conceptualization where you use the context clues to attribute meaning to the new term you are trying to understand. At this time, you recall things that you have already learned, meaning prefixes, suffixes, root words, and the other words that were mentioned or written around the new term. This is where critical thinking skills enable you to begin theorizing what the new term might mean and you begin to strategize ways that you might use this word in the future. Finally, the cycle proceeds to active experimentation where you put your plan into motion by using the new term in conversation or in your own writing. Often, this use of the new term will lead to another concrete experience. Perhaps feedback from your audience informs you that the term was misspelled or pronounced incorrectly, and that information is processed, building upon the previous lessons to establish a more refined concept of the new word.
Although there are different learning styles that impact how individuals move through these four stages, most true learning seems to conform to the process summarized by Kolb. The reason why is actually found in the more recent work of biologist, James E. Zull. Zull's book, The Art of Changing the Brain, maps many of the mind's structures, illustrating why Kolb's learning process seems to work so well. Zull (2002) argues that humans are simply biologically wired to learn in this way. According to Zull, if we examine the structures and functions of the human brain, we can observe that Kolb's learning process mirrors the organization of the brain's structures.
There are four regions of the cerebral cortex that Zull draws our attention to — the sensory cortex, temporal integrative cortex, frontal integrative cortex, and motor cortex. He goes on to state that "the sensory cortex receives first input from the outside world in form of vision, hearing, touch, position, smells, and taste. This matches with the common definition of concrete experience" (Zull 2002). In short, Zull is tracing the most basic components of Kolb's learning cycle, beginning with a sensory rich, concrete experience. When sensory stimuli are received by the brain, these impulses are concentrated in the sensory cortex, located toward the rear of the brain (encompassing portions of the parietal, occipital, and temporal lobes).
Upon receiving the initial sensory input, the human brain immediately begins processing the information. The first step in doing so is to form a memory of the event. This occurs when "the back integrative cortex is engaged in memory formation and reassembly, language comprehension, developing spatial relationship ... In short it integrates sensory information to create images and meaning" (Zull 2002). Here, Zull matches the functions associated with the back integrative cortex with those that occur during reflective observation (e.g., recalling relevant information, reliving past experiences, creating insights, and analyzing past associations). As the mind moves into this reflective process, neural activity shifts from the rear of the brain to the more centrally located temporal lobe and the information is stored in the hippocampus.
Once a memory is formed, neural activity shifts forward again, this time to the frontal integrative cortex. This region of the brain is responsible for "short-term memory, problem solving, making decisions, assembling plans for action, making judgments, directing the action of the rest of the brain, and organizing actions and activities of the entire body" (Zull 2002). Essentially, the frontal integrative cortex is the center of reason, where critical thinking takes place. These abilities are well suited for abstract conceptualization, where the working memory is reorganized and manipulated to develop working hypotheses and strategies for testing those hypotheses.
Finally, after the frontal integrative cortex has engaged with the short term memory, resulting in an abstract hypothesis, the final stage of the learning cycle involves "active experimentation," where the learner puts a plan into action to test a theory (Kolb 1984). Zull traces this activity to the motor cortex, stating that this region "triggers all coordinated and voluntary muscle contractions made by the body, producing movement. It carries out plans and ideas originating from the front integrative cortex, including the actual production of language through speech and writing" (Zull 2002). In short, Kolb explains that experimentation must take place to develop true knowledge, to validate or refute the hypothesis developed by the learner. This process involves "conversation of ideas into physical action or movements of parts of the body, [including] intellectual activities such as writing, deriving relationships, and talking in debate or conversation" (Zull 2002). As the motor cortex is engaged, a shift in neural activity is observed moving back from the frontal lobe, to the more centrally located border of the parietal lobe, as the learning process completes one cycle, but active experimentation often produces more sensory stimuli, there by moving back to a concrete experience and jumpstarting the cycle again.
Understanding Zull in relation to Kolb is vital to understanding how the brain has been wired to learn, as the proximity of the structures of the brain that are responsible for activities associated with learning are often adjacent to, or overlap one another, making it easy for signals to be sent from one portion of the brain to another. Considering the structures of the brain as they relate to the learning cycle also highlights the transitive nature of sensory experience, as it was described previously in Robinson's work.
The importance of aesthetic learning experience in all educational settings is undeniable. Robust, sensory rich environments and engaging activities that bring students into contact with one another, as well as with the subject matter, is how true learning occurs. However, many online writing courses still adopt a transactional approach to learning, presenting most — if not all — information to students in the form of typed PDF and Word Documents. This sort of passive learning is simply not compatible with the way the human mind processes information.
Aesthetic learning experience is of universal importance for all students, but in an increasingly digital age, dynamic sensory experience is particularly important to the writing classroom. After all, true literacy in the twenty-first century requires readers and writers to continually code -shift between linear (textual) and nonlinear (graphic) components of written texts (George 2002, 16). Writing instructors must encourage their students to create multimodal texts in which the written word is supported by graphic and aural components. In the words of Takayoshi and Selfe (2008):
Whatever profession students hope to enter in the 21st century ... they can be expected to read and be asked to compose multimodal texts of various kinds, texts designed to communicate on multiple semiotic channels, using all available means of creating and conveying meaning ... If composition instruction is to remain relevant, the definition of 'composition' and 'texts' needs to grow and change to reflect peoples' literacy practices in new digital communication environments. (3)
Essentially these scholars are arguing for the inclusion of aesthetic writing assignments that require students to compose documents uniting photographs, animated clips, videos, and audio files with written words to communicate a message in a variety of rhetorical contexts. This allows instructors to tap digital writing skills that students are already adept at using, ultimately increasing student engagement. Moreover, these are the contemporary writing skills demanded by the twenty-first century workplace, which makes these writing courses more relevant.
Given that online writing classes exist wholly within the digital environment, it would seem reasonable to consider them as prime territory for engaging students with web-based, multimodal texts. This class format creates easy access to a variety of media, including video clips, podcasts, blogs, games, and a wealth of web-texts. Furthermore, screen casting, video-editing software, and hosting sites (e.g., Vimeo and YouTube) make it easy for instructors to create their own multimodal resources to engage students more fully. The benefits of doing so was recently captured by a study from Texas Woman's University that examined the impact of personalized, instructor-made videos on student engagement in the online classroom. The study suggested that 88 percent of students who were enrolled in online courses where instructors created their own multimodal texts indicated that those materials enriched the course content; furthermore, students who viewed instructor-created videos expressed a better understanding of who their instructor was and an increased willingness to engage them with comments and questions (Rose 2009). While creating such resources takes time, it is worth it to meet students on a familiar plain.
CONTEXTUALIZING THE PROBLEM
During the 2013 Minnesota Writing and English (MnWE) Conference, I had the opportunity to discuss pedagogical strategies with online instructors, many of whom were adjunct faculty, from a variety of two and four-year institutions. After reflecting on many of these issues, several of the individuals engaged in this discussion admitted that the online courses they had been teaching, or were preparing to teach, were consistent with the monomodal examples I had shared with them during my presentation. One of the participants commented, "I don't teach this way in my face-to -face classes, so why am I teaching this way online?"
Fault does not lay entirely with instructors. The commodification of education has forced the composition classroom to adopt an outcome -based, corporatized model of efficiency. Economic viability is an imperative to most colleges and universities, public, private, and for-profit alike. Institutions increase the number of courses taught by instructors, overload students in each section, and condense academic calendars, limiting the time necessary for instructors to develop an effective pedagogical strategy, specific to the students in each course. This business model breeds a culture of academic mediocrity, as the most efficient means of providing information to students is in the form of text-heavy, skill-and-drill activities, that allow students to demonstrate their level of proficiency with each of the course aims outlined in the syllabus. Often, many educators simply lack the time to develop the instructional resources that effectively engage their students in multiple modes.
Excerpted from Applied Pedagogies by Daniel Ruefman, Abigail G. Scheg. Copyright © 2016 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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