Synchronous Interventions: Revisiting Web Conferencing in the Composition Classroom

Presentation
(now online)

Introduction

The field of online writing instruction (OWI) has made significant contributions to writing studies scholarship and practice, yet only a fraction of the literature is dedicated to hybrid (also known as blended) writing instruction. As more and more universities turn to technology-mediated instruction for their writing classes, writing studies scholars and practitioners need more examples of research-based, pedagogically sound classroom practices. Nowhere is this more vital than in the area of synchronous online writing instruction, especially given its sudden ubiquity in the post-pandemic landscape. More analysis of and conversation about synchronous online writing instruction, especially when mediated by web conferencing systems, is needed to better understand the unique attributes, affordances, and constraints of this complex learning environment.

The bulk of the research on synchronous online instruction primarily analyzes synchronous chat applications, though researchers have begun to study more robust web conferencing systems and their impact on student satisfaction and success (de Freitas & Neumann, 2009; Falloon, 2011; Giesbers et al., 2014; Martin, Parker, & Deale, 2012; McDaniels, Pfund, & Barnicle, 2016; Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2012; Schutt, Allen, & Laumakis, 2009) as well as pedagogical strategies and challenges to consider (Bower, 2011; Cornelius, 2014). None of the literature that addresses synchronous online writing instruction, however, considers the synchronous online writing classroom in the context of a blended course. The research conducted outside of writing studies on the impact of synchronous teaching interventions on student satisfaction and success is promising, but we do not yet know how their findings may translate to writing courses. We need a better understanding of how the synchronous online environment can be leveraged in writing courses to foster an accessible, interactive, and supportive community of inquiry (Ehmann & Hewett, 2015; Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 1999).

This webtext will address the gap in online writing instruction literature by analyzing how the synchronous online learning environment can be used in technology-mediated writing classes. To do so, I provide examples of synchronous online teaching with four video recordings (Artifacts 1–4) from former classes. Through these Artifacts, I demonstrate how web conferencing and collaborative word processing platforms can be used to bolster interactivity, teaching presence, and social presence in synchronous online writing classes.

Navigation

This webtext is structured to mimic the Adobe Connect interface I used from 2013–2017. Readers may move through this webtext in any order they wish by clicking on the section titles in the Index, which is in the center of the right-hand column. Readers may also proceed linearly through the text by clicking on the directional arrows at the bottom of each page.

The Artifacts are short video excerpts from class recordings. I provide context for each Artifact, explaining the learning outcomes for the class session, where the class session falls in the semester schedule, and how the class activities relate to students' recent or subsequent homework activities. I follow each Artifact with discussions that ground my reflections in the literature of both distance education and online writing instruction.

In this webtext, I argue that synchronous online environments, especially those mediated by web conferencing technologies, are effective, engaging, and well-suited for composition courses. I hope that readers come away from this webtext with a better grasp of what is possible in synchronous online environments as well as a rationale for using synchronous online technologies in writing classes. My hope is that readers will be inspired to take another look at synchronous online teaching and build on this work by creating innovative synchronous online pedagogies of their own.

Definitions

Hybrid Learning

Broadly speaking, hybrid, or blended, learning combines face-to-face with online learning such that in-person classroom time is reduced from anywhere between 30–79% (Allen & Seaman, 2016). The bulk of the literature on hybrid learning comes from education and distance education research. In these fields, researchers use "blended learning." Writing studies and online writing instruction (OWI) have adopted "hybrid learning," however, so I use our term throughout this webtext.

Hybrid learning scholars and practitioners maintain that hybrid learning isn't merely a "best of both worlds" approach; it's an entirely new approach altogether (Bonk & Graham, 2006; Garrison & Vaughan, 2008; McGee & Reis, 2012; Stein & Graham, 2013). As D. Randy Garrison and Norman Vaughan (2008) attested, hybrid learning "is a fundamental redesign that transforms the structure of, and approach to, teaching and learning" (p. 5). Curtis Bonk and Charles Graham (2006) also used this language, explaining that "transforming blends allow a radical transformation of the pedagogy" such that they "enable intellectual activity that was not practically possible without the technology" (p. 13). This "radical transformation of the pedagogy" is what animates much of OWI scholarship on hybrid pedagogy (see especially Hewett & Warnock, 2015; Snart, 2010, 2015).

Despite such unbridled enthusiasm for hybrid learning to transform our pedagogy, too many hybrid practitioners remain trapped by traditional notions of what can, or "should," happen in-person and online. Distance education scholarship overwhelmingly assigns active learning to the face-to-face environment and reflective learning to the online environment (Alberts, Murray, & Stephenson, 2010; Garrison & Vaughan, 2008). For example, the face-to-face environment is privileged for building group cohesion (So & Brush, 2008) and providing "social and emotional support" (Picciano, 2009, p. 14) while the online environment is heralded for its ability to foster critical thinking and reflection through asynchronous discussion forums (Garrison & Kanuka, 2004).

We see this bifurcation in writing studies, as well. In his 2016 Computers and Composition article, Jason Dockter investigated why his online teaching presence was not as effective as he had thought, even after ten years of developing his online pedagogy (p. 82). As he analyzes Michael G. Moore's (1997) transactional distance theory, Dockter (2016) considered the constraints of his online course in light of the affordances of face-to-face courses: "face to face, learner autonomy can increase due to the opportunities for immediate dialogue between participants, an increased number of participants sharing an immediate experience, [and] an increased ability to alter a class session spontaneously" (p. 77). Here, Dockter linked learner autonomy to immediacy, an affordance that asynchronicity, by its very definition, cannot provide. In so doing, Dockter reinforced the narrative that online environments often compromise the teacher–student and student–student relationships we deeply value.

This narrative likely perseveres because hybrid and online learning scholarship is rooted in online pedagogies that predate Web 2.0 technology. Dockter himself, in the above-quoted section, moved from Moore to OWI scholarship published in 2000 and 2001. Yet today's hybrid (and online) learning classes look vastly different than they did 20 years ago. Our understanding of what today's hybrid classes can and do look like is a necessary step towards eradicating unhelpful bifurcations of "online" and "onsite" place- and time-based learning and their traditionally assigned pedagogies.

Synchronous Online Learning Environments

Synchronous online learning environments are those in which students and instructors meet together at the same time while physically separated. These classes are most often mediated by "virtual classrooms," or web conferencing platforms. Platforms built for synchronous online meetings include learning management system (LMS) platforms such as Blackboard's Elluminate and Canvas's BigBlueButton; robust, business-oriented platforms like Adobe's Connect and Cisco's WebEx; and more widely available platforms such as GoTo Meeting and Zoom. Web conferencing systems such as these can be used in tandem with other tools like Google Documents (hereafter referred to as Google Docs) to facilitate highly interactive, collaborative classes that are ideal for writing courses.

In hybrid classes that reserve the online class day and time in students' schedules just like in-person classes, instructors have the option to conduct their online classes asynchronously or synchronously. This gives instructors and students three primary classroom environments: the brick and mortar classroom, the asynchronous online environment, and the synchronous online environment. While they are discrete environments, the boundaries between can be—and ought to be—porous. Designed well, each of the three learning environments can inform the others to create a tightly integrated and cohesive course, especially when the online environment is expanded to incorporate technologies that enable—and pedagogies that promote—immediacy and interactivity (Hilliard & Stewart, 2019).

For example, conversations that begin in person can be extended in online discussion forums and Twitter; textual analysis can be conducted independently through social annotation tools such as hypothes.is or kami and discussed synchronously in breakout rooms or in person; group activities conducted in Google Docs can begin in online breakout rooms and finish in-person; peer review can be broken down into separate stages that are sequenced across all three learning environments so that students benefit from instant verbal (and nonverbal) feedback in person and more carefully considered, written feedback conducted asynchronously and posted online; and live sentence-level edits of each other's near-final drafts synchronously in Google Docs.

By widening the view from the single class session to the week or unit in which that class occurs, we can see how the synchronous online learning environment can be implemented to "enable intellectual activity that was not practically possible without the technology" (Bonk & Graham, 2006, p. 13). As such, I submit that teaching writing in the synchronous online environment is an example of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (2013) OWI Principle 3: "Appropriate composition teaching/learning strategies should be developed for the unique features of the online instructional environment," and specifically, "New pedagogies should be explored and implemented to leverage the inherent benefits of the electronic environment in relation to composition instruction." We will examine these pedagogies further in each of the Artifacts.

Artifacts

Artifact 1: Building a Learning Community

Context

Artifact 1 is from the second day of an English 101 class in the fall 2015 semester. This class met from 2:00–3:15 p.m. on a Tuesday/Thursday (TR) schedule. Tuesdays were face-to-face; Thursdays were online. The first day was face-to-face, which enabled students to experience an "initial face-to-face meeting where relationships and a comfort level can be established" (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 1999, p. 97). In the face-to-face environment, desks are arranged in a horseshoe so that everyone can see each other as well as me and my teaching assistant, who also sit in desks at the front, closing the horseshoe into a circle. During the first day of this class, we started with a free write, a think-pair-share, and a conversation about what academic writing and inquiry are. Next, we did a simple icebreaker activity and discussed how the blended format worked. I then pulled up our course page in the LMS and showed them how to log in to our virtual classroom. Finally, I explained how the homework would prepare students for Day 2 in Adobe Connect:

List of homework tasks for week one
Figure 1. Homework for Day 2.

The reading guide for Day 2 prompted students to type some quick notes on the readings that they would copy and paste during our Adobe Connect class on Thursday. We'll see that in this video:

Artifact 1 Video

Figure 2. Artifact 1 video. (Read PDF of transcript)

Discussion

About five minutes before class started, I logged into our Adobe Connect classroom and saw that students had already begun talking with each other:

Adobe Connect chat conversation before class started
Figure 3. Screenshot of chat thread before class started. Note that when I make recordings of each class, I select the "hide names during playback" feature in Adobe Connect. During the live class, we see everyone's actual names. The instructional prompts at the bottom of this thread are from the TA, seen here as "User 13."

The screenshot of students' dialogue before class began (Figure 3) illustrates how web conferencing can be "a synchronous source of information delivery on one level [and also] a space for social interactions between learners and between learners and tutor" (de Freitas & Neumann, 2009, p. 993). This was only the second class of the semester and the first one held in Adobe Connect. Students' willingness to exchange questions and answers on logistics like microphones and font colors established a student-led communication channel that they would continue to use throughout the class—and the semester.

In their study investigating the relationship between social presence and interaction in online courses, Chih-Hsiung Tu and Marina McIssac (2002) found that familiarity and trust impacted interactivity: The more familiar students were with each other, the more they interacted with each other on a more personal, informal level. Based on this, Tu and McIssac recommended that "a dedicated time for introductions be integrated into the course design at the beginning of the semester" (p. 142). The interactions that occurred before I entered the room on the second day of class came after two rounds of introductions: the face-to-face introductions on the first day of class and the asynchronous "Introductions" discussion board that they posted in as homework between the two classes. The discussion board prompt included a reference to "today's class," tying the online homework activity to the Day 1 face-to-face activity. After this Day 2 class in Adobe Connect in which they interacted with each other through live chat, students returned to that discussion board to respond to each other's initial posts. This close integration of the face-to-face, online asynchronous, and online synchronous environments reinforces social presence while establishing course cohesion across the multiple environments that comprise this course.

This recording opens with me entering the room and greeting the class with a wave. I asked if everyone can hear me and see me, and I oriented students to Adobe Connect. At 00:54, I switched layouts and show students that the main chat area is now to the far right of the screen. I then explained the upcoming activity during twenty heavily edited seconds between 01:08 and 01:22.

When I switch layouts to set up the second activity at 01:19, we see one student wrote, "dang this is tight" in the chat box, a spontaneous comment that demonstrates a high degree of both immediacy and social presence. Tu and McIssac (2002) found that informal online communication "decreased the psychological distance and people felt closer to each other" (p. 144). In this example, the writer demonstrated that he felt comfortable enough to use slang in a positive response to a teacher intervention (changing the classroom layout). In doing so, he effectively encouraged his peers to take advantage of the running commentary synchronous text affords to convey humor and promote social presence. This moment also echoes Charlotte Gunawardena and Frank Zittle's (1997) widely cited study on the relationship between social presence and satisfaction in online environments. In analyzing students' use of emoticons, they found evidence that "suggest[ed] that participants who perceived a high level of Social Presence seemed to want to enhance their experience (and satisfaction) by utilizing alternative forms of socio-emotional expression—a kind of 'rich-get-richer' scenario" (p. 22). Given how ubiquitous emoticon use has become, which is seen across the Artifacts in this webtext, I maintain that these findings are every bit as relevant today as they were 20 years ago.

Social presence has been shown to impact academic performance, as well. When students "feel real" to each other (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 1999, p. 89) and feel that they matter, they are more likely to report that they engaged in "meaningful learning" (Shea & Bidjerano, 2013, p. 367). In this way, "the concept of social presence highlights the ideal that we should encourage social interaction as the underpinnings of critical thinking and higher-level learning for students" (Richardson et al., 2017, p. 412). The more students interact with each other, the more they can take charge of their own learning.

Once students began the activity in the chat columns, I turned off my webcam so that students can focus exclusively on their work. In real time, the full activity took about two minutes; I've edited it down to 30 seconds for this webtext.

At 01:59, I re-entered the class by turning on my webcam. I addressed some of the students' work in the chat columns and then explained how this activity related to what students would be doing in the next class, which was face-to-face. At 02:53, I wrapped up the class. I first told students that I would remain in Adobe Connect for a few minutes if anyone had any questions. I then asked students to "write two things in the chat box before you log out. Number one: write one thing in the chat box that you've learned today, and two, just say something nice as you leave the room."

Screenshot of exit tickets showing many responses from students
Figure 4. Screenshot of exit tickets.

Prompting students to write "one thing you've learned today" and "something nice as you leave the room" reinforces both social presence and cognitive presence (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 1999). Quick comments like "my group is awesome," and "yea group 2!" reflect Mark Mabrito's (2006) findings that "Opportunities for interaction in an online course can lead to an increase in positive attitudes about the class and an increase in students' motivation to succeed" (p. 94). These comments aren't solely about social attributes; rather, they are about cognitive ability and social ability in terms of being able to work well in a group, which students needed to do for the short activity in this class and will need to do during the next face-to-face class in the same groups for a longer, higher-stakes activity (the group summary).

The public nature of these exit tickets is consistent with the quick "chat column" activity seen earlier in this class. In both examples, students were asked to make their learning visible to everyone in class. This is in contrast to what this lesson plan would likely look like face-to-face; in person, exit tickets would have been written on paper only to be seen by me and my TA. In the virtual classroom, however, students are encouraged to share what they didn't know, as User 4 did: "that summaries were alot more planned out than i originally thought (i know nothing :))." Sharing what they've learned in front of the whole class requires a degree of vulnerability, which is a vital component of a supportive learning environment.

Artifact 2: Designing for Immediacy

Context

This recording is from Week 3 of the same English 101 class as Artifact 1. Students were learning stasis theory and were finalizing their research topics for their semester projects. In this class, we focused on crafting good research questions and finding initial sources for their upcoming inquiry essays.

List of homework tasks for week three
Figure 5. Homework for Day 6.

Figure 5 shows that the first two homework tasks for Day 6 (9/17) were accompanied by tips to help students prepare for class. Students see here that they will be asked to enter examples and questions when prompted in Adobe Connect.

Artifact 2 Video

Figure 6. Artifact 2 video. (Read PDF of transcript)

Discussion

The warm-up activity that students completed before I turned on my webcam and microphone asked students to enter at least three different questions about their research topics into the correct stasis category (#2 from the homework in Figure 5). At the opening of the video, I provided feedback to Ethan on one of his questions. I then asked students to figure out where a miscategorized question—"Can students abilities be tested another way?"—could go.

Adobe Connect is the only web conferencing platform I've used that allows hosts to customize pods and layouts. A "pod" is a function-specific area of the Adobe Connect interface, akin to widgets in website-building platforms. In these Artifacts, I use "video" to display my webcam, "attendees" to display participant names, "chat" to facilitate the main chat area, and "share" to display my PowerPoint files. Adobe Connect has several other pod functions that I don't use in these Artifacts, such as polls, whiteboards, and notes. While function-specific areas such as "share" and "chat" are common to most web conferencing platforms, as of the time of this writing, only Adobe Connect allows hosts to create multiple pods of the same function. This affordance enabled me to design activities with multiple chat columns, which I set up with prompts before class begins. Adobe Connect also enables facilitators to create multiple layouts in advance, which is how I switch so quickly between layouts.

In these ways, I manipulated Adobe Connect's interface to make students' learning visible, thereby creating a "learning culture or community that is interactive, egalitarian, and unthreatening" (Finlay, Desmet, & Evans, 2004, p. 175). The strategy of using multiple chat areas for activities while maintaining the main chat area for a backchannel disproves Scott Warnock's (2009) argument that "synchronous discourse" is "fairly linear, almost always meaning that not everyone can participate" (pp. 69–70). In fact, not only does this strategy disprove that argument, it's a clear example of a pedagogy that is native to web conferencing, which meets OWI Principle 3: "Appropriate composition teaching/learning strategies should be developed for the unique features of the online instructional environment" (CCCC, 2013). The ability to provide immediate feedback, "which allows the participants to correct themselves immediately and strengthen their learning" is one of the "most promising" (Martin, Parker, & Deale, 2012, p. 246) and, I would argue, most compelling reason to consider synchronous online teaching.

This activity can easily translate to web conferencing platforms that don't have customizable layouts, such as Zoom. I switched over to Zoom in 2017 and have done activities like this in a couple of different ways. The simplest way to do this is to stay within the Zoom interface and use the single chat column. Instead of having students work in six areas simultaneously, I can ask about each stasis category one at a time. Not as cool, but it works.

A more proximate alternative would be to use a second platform such as Google Jamboard or Google Docs. For this activity, I would create a classwide Google Doc in advance of class with six text boxes for each stasis category. When we transition to the activity during class, I would share the link to the Google Doc in the Zoom chat and assign half the class to fill out the first three columns and the other half to fill out the latter three columns. While they filled out the text boxes, I would share my screen so that when we resume as a full class, students would be able to follow along on my screen as I review each category.

At 00:20, which in real time occurred about 10 minutes into class, I responded to a question a student wrote in the main chat area. I don't stop for all questions; my TAs monitor the chat area, and I encourage students to respond to each other's questions, too. Yet this question was important, so I stopped to draw everyone's attention to the question and my response to it, which included positive feedback to the student himself.

In their research on interaction in distance learning, Shauna Schullo et al. (2007) found that "learners are motivated through frequent, structured contact with the instructor" (p. 332). While asynchronous online learning provides many ways for instructors to interact with their students, I submit that in certain situations, immediacy or near-immediacy is paramount. Michael G. Moore (1989) contended that "the instructor is especially valuable in responding to the learners' application of new knowledge. Whatever self-directed learners can do alone for self-motivation and interaction with content presented, they are vulnerable at the point of application.... It is for reality testing and feedback that interaction with the instructor is likely most valuable" (p. 2). The exercise in which I have students find "good" popular sources on Google is a case in point. The ability to find and evaluate quality online sources is one of the most challenging, yet most important, skills our students must develop. Being able to provide instant feedback during an information literacy activity is invaluable, especially when, as in this example, that activity prepares students for an upcoming homework assignment that they will use in the following class.

At 00:42, we skipped ahead to a short activity in which students were asked to search and find popular sources on that day's topic, which was laptops in the classroom. Prior to this, I had gone over tips and tricks for conducting more effective, efficient Google searches and showed students how to scan sources for rhetorical context and credibility. I again gave corrective feedback to a student who has found a scholarly source instead of a popular one.

Being able to see everyone's responses in real time is one of the greatest advantages of synchronous online learning environments. The immediacy raises the stakes: Everyone is expected to contribute, and I call on students when I don't see them participating. Yet this same immediacy also lowers the stakes, for students are all expected to respond to activity prompts and many of my questions throughout class simultaneously. Even if they're not sure of the answers, they're all in the same boat. Furthermore, because everyone can see everyone's responses, I (and, for that matter, the students) can provide corrective feedback instantly, as I did with Ethan and Joe. These instances of "just-in-time clarification" (Pan & Sullivan, 2005, p. 30) are riskier in person and impossible asynchronously. If we had been in person, Ethan and Joe would have been temporarily singled out as I corrected them, a phenomenon that prevents many students from speaking up in person at all. If this lesson were facilitated asynchronously, Ethan and Joe would have waited for hours, if not days, for corrective feedback—and only they, not their peers, would have benefitted from that one-to-one feedback.

Artifact 3: Constructing Knowledge

Context

Most of my synchronous online classes include independent and group activities in Google Docs that range from 20–40 minutes. Incorporating these activities aligns with Jo Jakupcak and Mary Susan Fishbaugh's (1998) recommendation that in synchronous, tech-mediated sessions, "one-third to one-half of class time" be reserved for interactive activities (abstract). Google Docs is integrated into Canvas, our LMS, so I create Google Docs for each group through the "Collaborations" feature of Canvas. When students open their Google Docs through this "Collaborations" feature, they are automatically logged in to Google. This is important because it enables students' names to be visible in Google's native chat area.

This Google Doc activity took place in an English 101 class on April 13, 2017. The task was to apply the "MEAL plan" heuristic, which we just reviewed in Adobe Connect, to two paragraphs of a sample student paper. The "MEAL Plan" heuristic helps students identify four components of argument paragraphs: Main idea, Evidence, Analysis, and Link (transition) to the next paragraph. As a group, they then revised the paragraphs for concision by reducing the two paragraphs into one. Here's the prompt:

see prompt text in figure caption
Figure 7. Prompt for Google Docs group activity. It reads:
Below you will find two paragraphs and the beginning of a third paragraph. Your task is to combine the first two paragraphs into one paragraph that follows the MEAL plan structure. You are combining the first two paragraphs, and then finishing with a link to the third paragraph. You are not responsible for changing anything about the third paragraph. It is just there to provide information on what you are 'linking' to. Once you have finished combining the two paragraphs, color code them for the four MEAL plan structure components. The color coding uses read, yellow, light blue, and dark blue.

For this video, I recorded my desktop during the Google Docs activity to show what managing multiple Google Doc groups looks like from the instructor's perspective. Viewers will see me move from one group to the next, like I would if this were being conducted in a brick-and-mortar classroom. As with the other video artifacts, this artifact is edited to provide highlights. Below, I use Arthur W. Chickering's and Zelda F. Gamson's (1987) "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education" to contextualize each of the time stamps.

Artifact 3 Video

Figure 8. Artifact 3 video. (Read PDF of transcript)

Description

02:40 Encourage Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Students

Within the first 30 seconds of the class recording, I wrote to a group in the chat area—"Use this chat area to talk with each other! This is a group process. :-)"—and then copy and paste that message in the other groups' chat areas. At 2:50, I clicked on Group 2, saw that the group members are already talking with each other, and elected not to paste the message to this group.

03:04 Encourage Contact Between Students and Faculty

Here, I pasted a second message to each group: "(Hint: you could color code the sentences to see everything more clearly, like what's a quote, what's analysis, etc.)."

03:12 Check for Understanding and Provide Prompt Feedback

I returned to Group 2 and scrolled through their chat conversation to catch up on what they'd said so far. The chat below (Figures 9 and 10), which is excerpted from the full conversation during these few minutes, transpired between 10:00 and 10:04 a.m.

10:01 a.m.
Screenshot of chat. Transcript in figure capture.
Figure 9. Excerpt #1 from Group 2 Google Doc instant chat. Transcript:
L: What does the E stand for?
A: Evidence. So Like what I just highlight I think would be evidence in the first paragraph.
L: Sounds good! Maybe also the first sentence of the second paragraph.
A: Yeah I'm going to do the evidence for that one now. A is analysis so do you want to find that I blank?
L: Yup.
10:03 a.m.–10:04 a.m. (~3:39 in video)
Screenshot of chat. Transcript in figure capture.
Figure 10. Excerpt #2 from Group 2 Google Doc instant chat. Transcript:
L: There isn't much analysis here...A did you find anything?
H: The whole second paragraph is pretty much just evidence.
A: Yeah I'm looking and I feel like there isn't much.
H: That makes it kinda easy to combine.
A: Are we supposed to throw in some analysis or are we simply just combining the two paragraphs?
L: I think combining. Lyra: Just combining.

At the end of this chat exchange, I confirmed that L's understanding of the activity is correct. For the next 30 seconds, I clicked through the four group documents to see how each group was doing.

04:01 Emphasize Time on Task

Here, viewers will hear me offer tips and give a 4-minute warning. I am able to do this because we are all still logged into our Adobe Connect virtual classroom.

05:10 Encourage Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Students

At 10:05 a.m., students shifted from figuring out the logistics of the activity to doing the activity itself: analyzing and annotating the sample text, which will then enable them to revise the two paragraphs into one:

10:05 a.m. (~5:10 in video)
Screenshot of chat. Transcript in figure capture.
Figure 11. Excerpt #3 from Group 2 Google Doc instant chat. Transcript:
A: How does that sound for the M?
L: Awesome! What should we do for L?
10:07 a.m.:
A: It's the link to the next paragraph but I kinda don't even see it in here.
L: I think the thing I highlighted is analysis but its not from the authors own words...he uses another source to analyze.
10:09 a.m.:
A: I think that actually his way of analysis.
H: Is the beginning of the yllow analysis?
A: Like using other quotes to explain what the purpose of olives satire is.
1 minute warning.
L: kk do you guys wnat to chagne that transition (the last sentence of the second paragraph?).
A: No I think that's good! L do you care if I change the yellow you highlighted to blue?
L: Nope. Sorry I didn't notice that the meal plan thing was color coded a certain way.

Discussion

Google Docs is a powerful tool to use for group work in a writing classroom. In addition to its ubiquity and ease of use, Google Docs has two key affordances that distinguish it from other platforms: 1) It enables simultaneous editing, and 2) it includes an instant messaging area so that students can negotiate the activity in a parallel writing space. In his study comparing asynchronous and synchronous online group work, Mark Mabrito (2006) found that the synchronous chat feature enabled students to exchange nontask related messages, which promoted group bonding and satisfaction (pp. 100–104).

The distance between student and instructor in Google Docs is slightly greater than it is in Adobe Connect. In Adobe Connect, students see and hear me while being able to ask questions that they or my TA can answer in the main chat area. Once we move into Google Docs, however, students are looking at a different window on their screens, one that does not contain a small square for my video feed. While the TA and I have each of the group's Google Docs open and are therefore visible as squares in the upper right hand corner of the screen, we are less visible to students than they are to each other. Students who are active in Google Docs are visible to each other in three ways: 1) the squares in the upper right hand corner, 2) their colored cursors in the body of the document, and 3) their messages to each other in the native chat area. These multiple visual cues encourage students to direct questions to each other instead of me or the TA.

We see evidence of this early on in the task, when students were figuring out what to do. L asked her group members about the heuristic: "what does the E stand for?" and A responded, "Evidence[.] So like what I just highlight I think would be evidence in the first paragraph." A few lines later, A asked a question about the task: "are we supposed to throw in some analysis or are we simply just combining the two paragraphs,s" and L responded, "I think just combining." Interactions like this "reflect forms of learner self- and co-regulation and highlight the role of effective learners as distinct from effective teachers" (Shea, Hayes, & Vickers, 2010, p. 141). In Google Docs, students can't quickly call on me or my TA for help—it wouldn't be as instantaneous as simply asking each other and negotiating the solution themselves. While I saw this exchange and reinforced L's correct response to A, they weren't waiting for me to do so. This is in contrast to the student–teacher dynamics in the face-to-face classroom. In person, students can raise their hands and expect that I or the TA will immediately walk over to them to answer their questions. Not so in Google Docs. For this reason, I posit that doing an activity like this synchronously online is more effective than doing it face-to-face, for students are more likely to remember what they've learned when they've figured it out on their own.

By focusing on the process (the students' chat about the text they compose) rather than the product (the coauthored text itself), Artifact 3 highlights what students do in order to complete this activity. Using the instant chat feature native in Google Docs, students are able to clarify the instructions with each other, negotiate the logistics of the activity, analyze the text, and come to consensus on the collaborative text while creating the text in the main document area. According to Beth L. Brunk-Chavez and Shawn J. Miller (2006), this activity is genuinely collaborative because "the 'answers' are not predetermined" (p. 5). There is no "right way" to combine two paragraphs into one, nor is there even a "right way" to code this sample text according to the MEAL plan heuristic. Rather, I'm interested in the "unexpected, unforeseen, or even conflicting solutions" (p. 5) that each of the four groups negotiates and presents to the class when we reconvene in Adobe Connect.

Pre-pandemic, I never asked students to turn on their webcams or even use their microphones during class, mostly because I wanted them to be as comfortable as possible in what was then a novel learning environment. Because of this, I did not use breakout rooms in either Adobe Connect or Zoom. I simply asked students to communicate with each other in their group's Google chat function inside of their group Google Doc. As the Artifact 3 demonstrates, however, the extent to which students genuinely collaborated and chatted varied greatly. Once we were all forced online in 2020, I immediately took advantage of Zoom's breakout rooms to give students as many opportunities as possible to connect, chat, and work with each other in small groups. I continue to send students into Zoom breakout rooms for group Google Doc activities.

Artifact 4: Establishing Presence

Context

This recording is from the same class as the one seen in Artifact 2. Here, we are returning to Adobe Connect from Google Docs, and then we skip ahead to the end of class.

Artifact 4 Video

Figure 12. Artifact 4 video. (Read PDF of transcript)

Discussion

In their study of the impact of teacher immediacy behaviors in audio- and video-enhanced computer conferencing environments, Maria Schutt, Brock S. Allen, and Mark A. Laumakis (2009) found that while "the use of video may reduce the psychological distance between the instructor and the online learners" (p. 144), this was only true with instructors who engaged in high immediacy behaviors, including verbal behaviors such as using varied vocal expressions, employing humor, and calling students by their names, as well as nonverbal behaviors such as gesturing, adopting a relaxed body position, and smiling (p. 136, p. 144). It was the high immediacy behaviors themselves, not the technology used, that most positively impacted students' perceptions of instructor social presence (p. 146). Based on these findings, the authors suggested that "what seems particularly relevant in an age of new media machines, is to better understand the role of ancient forms of human expression that communicate interest, enthusiasm, empathy, concern, and recognition—the forms of expression that help real students and real teachers to project their personal presence through electronic pathways" (p. 146).

I communicate high interest and enthusiasm in response to students' group findings. When we returned to Adobe Connect, I asked one person from each group to write their group number and the question they came up with in Chat 12. I specified Chat 12 to separate the activity findings from the main chat area so that the latter could still be used as a backchannel. At 00:41, I exclaimed, "Oh my gosh—look at these questions!" and signaled my enthusiasm with nonverbal behaviors like widening my eyes and raising both of my hands. Then, I closed two of the chat columns we had used earlier in the class and expanded Chat 12 to draw students' attention to the correct chat area. Students picked up on my enthusiasm and carried it into the main chat: "How did we get these questions all from the same article?" This moment captures the "sense of excitement and spontaneity" afforded by synchronous online learning environments (Hrastinski, Keller, & Carlsson, 2010, p. 654).

In reflecting on teaching presence and transactional distance in his online writing courses, Jason Dockter (2016) suggested that when students see their teachers on video, "the environment that a video is shot in can help students to fill in the gaps of the teacher's presence in their own mind with details of what the teacher is like" (p. 84). While Dockter was referring to 100% asynchronous online teaching, I submit that the same holds true for synchronous online instruction that includes video conferencing. When I facilitate synchronous online classes, students see me in my home office and therefore see more of me than they do when we are in our brick-and-mortar classroom on campus, enabling me to "convey [my] authenticity and tell [my] story" (Marquart et al., 2016, p. 194). An example of this is seen at 01:14 as I invited students to write their exit tickets in the main chat area. I was holding my cat, Helix, who had just jumped onto my desk. Students responded to Helix's sudden appearance with enthusiasm; interspersed with "i learned how to search more effectively on google" and "the quotation marks on google can help narrow a search" were comments like "KITTY," "when will Helix be for sell," and "BRING HELIX TO CLASS ON TUESDAY PLEASE."

Adobe Connect end of class chat. The instructor's cat jumps into the video and students show their enthusiasm alongside what they learned about research
Figure 13. Screenshot of Artifact 4 exit tickets

Takeaways

Synchronous Constraints

Technology

I concede that these are not small concerns. The success of the synchronous online learning environment is contingent on multiple technological factors working properly. Students—and instructors—can and do suddenly get kicked out of web conferencing systems for no apparent reason. Even more accessible platforms like Google Docs are not infallible: The native chat feature in Docs is only available to those signed in with a Google account. While all students at my institution have Google accounts through their university emails, many students don't use these accounts. When they open their Google Docs, they appear as anonymous "Jackal" or "Walrus" and can't access the Chat feature. I then need to remind them to sign into their Google account and re-enter their group Google Docs in order to fully participate in the activity as designed.

In addition, the synchronous online environment by its very nature is precarious, for its effectiveness is only as good as everyone's Internet connection, including the instructor's. Even campus-based students who rely on the university's well-supported wireless network are at the mercy of sudden connectivity failures. We can encourage students to use broadband access or a more stable wireless network, but that's impractical. Students should be able to access their virtual classrooms with the minimum amount of cognitive overhead possible.

Access

An even greater barrier to synchronous online teaching is one of resources. I have the privilege of being at a well-funded institution invested in providing instructors access to expensive programs like Adobe Connect or WebEx. I now use Zoom, a modestly priced application available without an institutional license that has a friendlier interface than WebEx. Yet Zoom has its own limitations; I cannot, for example, upload files to share with students. I instead need to share my screen in its entirety, which interferes with my view of the interface. As of the time of this publication, none of the available alternatives to Adobe Connect allow facilitators to create additional chat boxes and layouts in advance of the session.

I also enjoy the benefits of longevity in a highly supportive department. I was part of the team that redesigned our FYC course for the hybrid format, which we piloted in the spring of 2012. During our fall 2011 planning sessions, I learned about the web conferencing feature available in our then-LMS. While my colleagues were not interested in exploring synchronous online teaching, our team leader, who was also our FYC program director at the time, allowed me to try it in my sections. I've been coordinating our hybrid and online FYC courses since 2013; over the years, I've convinced and mentored several of my colleagues to teach some of their online classes synchronously. They can do this because, with the help of our department's scheduling coordinator, we've increased the number of hybrid FYC courses that lock the online class day in the registration system. Students can't register for a discussion section or lab during their online class time; those 75 minutes are automatically reserved for their English class. Without this registration lock, synchronous online teaching would be impossible.

I am acutely aware that synchronous online teaching is improbable for many instructors, especially those without access to the types of resources described in this webtext. At the same time, I'll humbly offer that improbable doesn't have to mean impossible. Furthermore, no learning environment is impervious to technological problems. In brick-and-mortar classrooms, the projector may not work, or the Internet may be down—or students haven't read or done their homework, making the planned lesson impossible to facilitate. In asynchronous online environments, we can and occasionally do forget to publish a page in the LMS, or set up an assignment incorrectly, or send an announcement with incorrect information.

When faced with these challenges in face-to-face environments, the transactional distance is low, yet we need to troubleshoot the problem on the fly. Asynchronously online, the transactional distance is high: We're at the mercy of students contacting us to alert us to the problem, which they don't always do. Synchronously online, the transactional distance is lower. Technological problems may feel scarier, for we can't see our students' faces, so we can't gauge their willingness to stay present while we troubleshoot the problem. Yet even when I get kicked out of the web conferencing platform entirely, it only takes about 15 seconds to get back in. And, while hardly ideal, if students get kicked out, they can watch the recording of the session later, which is not something they can do with face-to-face classes.

Synchronous Affordances

Student Engagement (Social Presence)

The affordances of the synchronous online environment enable students to engage with each other, the material, and the instructor in different ways than they can face-to-face or asynchronously online. Beth L. Brunk-Chavez and Shawn J. Miller (2006) stated simply "that a digitized class creates and maintains shared spaces in ways that a f2f classroom cannot" (p. 8). As the artifacts demonstrate, the ability of students to talk with each other during a presentation enhances social presence in a way not possible face-to-face. Many students feel more comfortable writing to each other in front of everyone instead of speaking in front of everyone in class. Students get to know each other in different ways synchronously online, which strengthens their connections to each other when they work together face-to-face.

Immediate Feedback (Cognitive Presence)

The instant feedback I am able to provide to students' in-class work is incomparable to what is possible face-to-face. To be sure, I can and do respond to students' work face-to-face, but walking around the room and giving feedback to work in 19 notebooks or laptops is very different than giving feedback to work in a single shared space. In person, unless students are working in a Google Doc that is projected onto a screen, there's no way students can see and hear me respond to one student's work while seeing that student's work exactly like I am. I cannot overemphasize this advantage. It's the one that students most frequently comment on in their end-of-semester course evaluations. Being able to see what everyone else is doing helps them check for understanding even before I do, increasing both cognitive presence and learner autonomy. By comparing their responses to each other's, students are quickly able to see if they're on track, or, in one student's words, "if you're doing it right." Moreover, by creating multiple opportunities for students to share their work—both prepared work that they did for homework and can copy and paste into the chat and new work that they're asked to do in real time—along with everyone else, students are quickly accustomed to sharing their work in front of their peers, an invaluable advantage in a writing class that extensively uses peer review.

Students share their work in front of each other in Google Docs, as well. While many of my Google Doc activities are group activities, some are independent. I may ask students to do some invention work during class, and I have them do so in Google Docs so that I can check for understanding as they're working. Again, this would be impossible face-to-face. It is possible asynchronously, of course, but I'm not going to be able to respond to them instantly; it may take me up to 24 hours to do so, which, frankly, is too late for invention work. The kairotic moment has passed. Having them complete small, in-class writing activities and exercises in Google Docs emphasizes time on task, one of Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson's (1987) widely-cited effective practices. It also demonstrates that this work matters enough to be seen and returned to when they prepare the next stage of the larger assignment that the exercise supports.

Instructor Ethos (Teacher Presence)

Finally, teaching synchronously online gives students a chance to see me in a different way than they do face-to-face. I like to think that I am a friendly, accessible instructor, though I know that both my age and the inherent power imbalance separates me from my students more than I'd like to admit. Seeing me in my home office gives students a peek into who I am outside of the formal, brick-and-mortar classroom. They frequently hear emergency vehicle sirens outside of my window, as I live in the heart of a major city. They see my cluttered bulletin board and my books. They see my cats when they wander into the room and jump up to my desk, as they are wont to do. In these ways, students see a slightly different part of me, which I like to believe helps them feel more comfortable when they see me in person or in my on-campus office.

I believe that it is my responsibility as an educator to figure out how best to meet students' needs using all available means. This means continually experimenting with everything—lesson plans, assignments, activities—and, as a blended teacher, environments. As Cheryl Hawkinson Melkun (2011) wrote, "Web conferencing techniques, like courses, improve with every iteration. As instructors, we expect to continually revise the content and delivery of our courses. The same process applies to our use of learning technologies. We must observe how these technologies are being used by our students, develop best practices, and continually improve on those practices" (p. 138). I don't always get it right—far from it—but I always do my best to do so.

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Author's Statement

In 2019, when I first drafted this article, I knew very few writing instructors who taught synchronously online via web conferencing. At the time, most of the literature in online writing instruction and blended learning questioned the value of synchronous online instruction. To both scholars and practitioners, online learning's benefits were inextricably linked to its asynchronicity: Online courses were designed to be fully asynchronous, and blended or hybrid courses were designed to take advantage of in-person synchronicity and online asynchronicity. There didn't seem to be a place for synchronous online learning.

Then COVID-19 hit. Suddenly, everyone was teaching on Zoom.

I've revised this during the period in which instructors were forced to learn how to teach synchronously online under extreme duress. Instructors rose to the challenge admirably; many of them grew to like teaching on Zoom, at least sometimes. Some instructors developed innovative synchronous online pedagogies; others chose to teach asynchronously online as often as possible, and many—though not all—have welcomed the return to in-person instruction.

As I look back at the artifacts in this webtext, I recognize that most readers will be intimately familiar with the tools I use, such as Zoom and Google Docs. Yet this webtext isn't about tools. It's about pedagogy. It's about leveraging a given tool's affordances to improve student learning. This means identifying not just what we want students to learn but how best to facilitate that learning. To that end, I maintain that these artifacts, and this webtext as whole, are still salient, even five years after data collection.

Artifact 3, which focuses on collaborative learning in Google Docs, hasn't aged as well as the others. I no longer need to coax students to talk with each other via the native chat feature in their Google Doc, for I now use breakout rooms, where students actually do talk with each other. Yet the takeaways in that section still hold up: Low-stakes collaborative writing boosts both social and cognitive presence. And it's nice to be able to watch students cocreate knowledge together in real time, in the native Google Doc chat feature, which is an affordance that's no longer available to me. Those conversations now happen in breakout rooms, so they're no longer transparent.

Artifacts 1, 2, and 4, which focus on one-to-many instruction mediated through webconferencing platforms, still hold up. Encouraging students to use the chat area liberally is perhaps something that most instructors do in Zoom, though I'm not sure. I encourage backchannel conversations when I'm lecturing to boost social presence; I also ask everyone to type something in the chat every couple of minutes to sustain engagement.

Perhaps my favorite synchronous online teaching affordance is the one I still don't see a lot of, even post-pandemic. I don't see instructors building what I'll dub "independent yet visible" activities in which students post their responses somewhere publicly so that everyone in class can quickly see everyone else's work. I would like to see more instructors take advantage of this and to do so in areas beyond the Zoom chat area, which moves too quickly to track easily, or tools like Padlet, which are anonymous. The idea behind many of these activities, as I design them, is to foster both cognitive and social presence: cognitive through immediate feedback from me; social through a sense of solidarity among peers, which will further enhance their learning when they break off into groups. While switching screen layouts instantaneously is only possible in Adobe Connect, it's easy to replicate these activities in Zoom and Google Docs. For example, I could design a table in Google Docs for everyone to populate, signing off their work with their initials. During the activity, I would encourage students to turn their webcams off, for it's an independent activity and they don't need to see anyone, and I would screenshare so that the activity they're working on is visible in the Zoom interface. One advantage with this method is that the Google Doc table can be accessed after the class session, which isn't something that was possible in Adobe Connect. And then that table becomes part of the class notes.

While most instructors who taught in-person prior to the pandemic are back in the classroom, and most fully online classes are fully asynchronous, I believe that all instructors—fully online, hybrid, and even face-to-face instructors—will continue to teach synchronously online in some capacity. Of this I am certain.

Some of this will be born out of just-in-time necessity, such as an instructor's need to quarantine during illness; some will be planned in advance to accommodate extended travel, like conferences, so that instructors can retain a synchronous class session instead of putting a whole week online asynchronously. Most importantly, I believe that more instructors will occasionally choose to teach synchronously online because sometimes, the pedagogical benefits of doing so exceed what is possible either in person or online asynchronously. As many instructors now know from direct experience, there are countless advantages of teaching synchronously online, such as the ones I emphasize in this webext: increased social and teacher presence, immediacy, instant feedback. And sometimes, these advantages are more effectively realized in Zoom than in person.

Ultimately, my hope is that this webtext may serve as a resource for instructors as they continue to develop their online synchronous pedagogy, as well as a resource for WPAs as they consider whether and why to further develop their online and hybrid writing programs and help instructors learn how to teach effectively in these modalities.

Instructor: Lyra Hilliard
Office: 2203 Tawes Hall University of Maryland
Twitter: @lyrahilliard
Video   (interactive)
Chat   (Everyone)

Lyra: Welcome! To get started from the "beginning," you may press play on the video above or start reading the Introduction in the main content window.

Lyra: You are welcome to explore this webtext by clicking on any of the links above under "Topics." You may also proceed linearly by clicking the arrows at the bottom of each page in the main content window.

Lyra: See how I manipulate Connect layouts!

User 5: This is cool

User 4: this is fun. i dont wana go

Lyra: You are welcome to explore this webtext by clicking on any of the links above under "Topics." You may also proceed linearly by clicking the arrows at the bottom of each page in the main content window.

Lyra: See how I manipulate Connect layouts!

User 5: This is cool

User 4: this is fun. i dont wana go

Lyra: Watch me give instant feedback during two independent activities!

User 11: Yeah I agree I just placed it in the wrong spot

User 19: action

User 9: action I agree now

User 5: action?

Lyra: Watch me manage 4 group Google Docs in real time!

User 23: i got into the doc!

User 6: got it

User 23: yeah!

User 5: YAY

Lyra: Come wrap up class with Helix the cat!

User 13: Bye everyone, I have to run, class was awesome

User 19: yea my group was great

User 20: bye

User 16: have a great weekend!

User 27: All of this looks cool, but it seems complicated. Is this really worth the trouble?

User 34: Can I really do this in my institutional context?

User 28: Is synchronous online teaching well suited for FYC courses?

Lyra: Yes, probably, and absolutely!

Lyra: Check out all of these fabulous resources!

Lyra:  How the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted these findings.