Monday, November 14, 2005

Thoughts about OWCs

This week I'll be writing some thoughts about online writing centers (OWCs) as a follow up to my article "The Idea(s) of an Online Writing Center: In Search of a Conceptual Model" which was in the last issue of Writing Center Journal. I'm rather new to blogging and I must admit it feels a bit weird to share my thoughts so publicly, but I also think it will be fun. Here goes!

Today I'm thinking about online writing centers and the connections they have with online education, usability of web sites, and writing workshops. Notice that I did not say "f2f tutoring." I think one of the toughest things about online writing centers is the pressure they experience to be just like a f2f center. In my experience directing an online writing center, training online tutors, and tutoring online, I just came to believe that it was very unlikely that online tutoring could be just like f2f tutoring. It seemed to me, in fact, that making that constant comparison was damaging--online tutoring is often described as "cold" and something "less" than f2f tutoring. I frankly got tired of hearing those arguments. I've seen many wonderful things happen in online tutoring. I've seen many students grateful for the help and advice. And surprisingly, I've seen many repeat visits in online writing centers from students that really take to the medium. There are plenty of good things about online writing centers--but they don't always fit into the "Idea of a Writing Center" ala Stephen North.

What I'm reacting to here is the idea that all writing centers must fit the mold of f2f, non-directive, 30- or 50-minute tutoring session. When you take tutoring online, it just doesn't fit in that mold unless you try really hard--with cameras, synchronous spaces, etc. Most online writing centers are asynchronous, and that conflicts with North's idea. How do you focus on developing "the writer" (not the "writing") online when all you've got online is the student's writing, delivered asynchronously? I think that is a really interesting question that needs much more exploration.

My first shot at answering that question is that in order to "develop the writer" online, online writing centers first need to create a learning environment that is welcoming to the writer. A good online learning environment also needs structure, and context to tell the writer what they can expect during an online tutorial. Context can be created by words, certainly, but it can also communicated through visuals. In addition, it can be communicated through a conceptual model or metaphor. A conceptual model is a mental map that explains how something works. Conceptual models are often communicated through a metaphor that describes how something works: "this [item/product/website] works like a [blank]." Conceptual models are often used in website design, and it makes sense to bring this concept to online writing centers.

Designing online writing centers is hard work. OWCs often start out with the burden of trying to work like a f2f writing center--but then figure out that a f2f writing center is not the right conceptual model for an online writing center. As I wrote in the WCJ article, I explored several online writing centers. But my favorite examples of OWCs are those that are designed around a strong conceptual model. University of Missouri-Columbia's OWC is built around the model of a cafe. There are visuals and even sounds that create the image of a cafe, and these effects set the expectation that students can talk informally with a tutor about their writing, either synchronously or asynchronously. I also like the conceptual model of a studio, which Colorado State uses for its OWC. The studio allows for lots of flexibility: students can post work (like artists post their work in a studio) and receive commentary from lots of people. There are separate "rooms" with different emphases. . . the studio model welcomes constructive critique with a sense of respect for individual and collaborative contributions.

In the remainder of my posts this week, I'll talk about some other models I have been exploring lately. As luck would have it, I'm on sabbatical this year, studying online writers workshops. There are some fabulous models out there that I think apply well to online writing centers. More later!

Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch

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