Chats and Webinars–an online writing center discussion

In a previous post,  Dr. Sarah Prince and Beth Nastachowski, MA, of Walden University started a discussion about online writing centers. In addition to starting a new discussion group–the OWC email discussion list–they’re happy to share some thoughts about two of their successful online services: chat and webinars.

Because Walden offers its paper reviews asynchronously, offerings like synchronous chat and live webinars not only provide students with supplemental writing instruction but also give them the rare opportunity to interact in real time. The chat service is designed to quickly answer students’ writing questions while they are actively constructing their drafts. In contrast, Walden Writing Center’s bimonthly webinars offer more in-depth instruction on topics ranging from scholarly writing, style and grammar tips, and practical writing skills. Although these services aim to serve students at different points during the writing process, they both were created with the same goals in mind: to provide human connection and real-time writing instruction to distance students engaged in what can often feel like an isolating writing process.

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Chat Service Overview

screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-11-17-41-amWe use a live Chat feature through LibApps to give students a chance for live interaction and an opportunity to get questions answered immediately. Our Chat widgets are embedded on our writing center’s homepage and in slide-outs on every page of our website to make Chat accessible in multiple places. Because online students often crave immediate, personalized support, this service’s goal is to reach students who may not be inclined to e-mail us with their inquiry (though our policy is to answer all e-mails within 24-hours) or to try to search through our web content.

Before the current successful iteration of Chat, we piloted chat a few times with limited success. It originated as a pilot called Tutor Talk in the summer of 2013 in a separate platform that was not integrated with our website. It was at one set time each week and targeted undergraduate students only. When this pilot did not gain interest, we opened it up to all students toward the end of 2013, but we still had little participation. Finally, when we discovered that our current platform had the option for Chat, we revisited it in early 2015. We offered it at varying times on varying days of the week, and we also were more intentional with the way in which we marketed it (when we had targeted advertising in an all-student communication, we had better results.) Now, in 2016, we’ve had anywhere from 150 to almost 400 students use the Chat service each month (the numbers vary depending on term starts, student communications and advertising, etc.)

Chat sessions are typically 2 hours long and are scheduled on different days of the week at different times of the day to accommodate working students as well as students who live in various time zones. Staff who are assigned to the Chat project let their project lead know if they have any preferences of times/days for their shift. Then, staff typically will work 1-2 chat shifts each week. Each shift spans 2 hours. Staff members volunteer to cover for one another in the case of vacations, sick leave, etc., using a shared calendar to track who is working what shift.

Students send inquiries via Chat, and staff respond with relevant resources, explanations, and website links. Staff have a list of “canned” answers in the chat system to help them quickly and efficiently answer the most frequent inquiries. The system also has a few unique features where staff can set automated messages. For example, if a staff member is busy with another student, if a different student does not get a response within 30 seconds, the system will send an automatic message that explains that we’re helping someone else at the moment; it lets students know that they have the option to wait a bit longer or to e-mail us directly. Staff can also set an away message if they need to step away from the Chat for a  minute or two. Students also have the option to e-mail themselves a transcript of the conversation after they end their chat. Student then not only get their questions answered, but they can take away a resource with the links and information that they need for future reference.

In the future, we are hoping to better align our Chat hours with student need, as well as expand our Chat offerings and increase student participation. You can find our current chat hours on our homepage under the “Chat with Us” heading.

Webinar Service Overview

screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-11-18-42-amWe began offering live webinars in 2009 once a month as a way to provide students with live writing instruction. As an online university, students’ opportunities to interact with staff, faculty, and other students live are limited, so this was a way to engage students synchronously. Since then, we’ve slowly increased the number of webinars each month and we now provide live webinars 5 times a month on a range of topics from grammar and APA to academic writing and specific kinds of assignments. Each webinar is presented live at least once a year and then recorded, posted in our webinar archive, where we have over 50 recordings.

Our webinar series is driven by student, faculty, and staff need and suggestions. Webinars are created in response to common student questions, faculty request, or a need Writing Center staff see in paper review appointments. This is how we’ve developed such a large archive and range of webinars.

Webinars have become an integral part of the Writing Center’s engagement with students and the university. Many faculty use our webinar recordings in their classes, helping them to add audio/visual content to their online courses. Students appreciate the opportunity to talk with each other and the Writing Center live, but they also can watch a webinar recording on their own time. We also incorporate many activities and practice into webinars so students aren’t simply listening to us talk for an hour, but are practicing writing skills and engaging with the content throughout. This has been important to us, because we want students to walk away from each webinar better able to write for their courses. Additionally, webinars are a great way for us to advertise our other services. Our other services don’t generally change each month, so we don’t advertise them as much as we do our webinars, since we have webinars scheduled each month. This means we’re continually bringing in new students through webinars and then pointing them to our other services.

This approach has been successful for us within our context and for our students. We average 600 live student attendees each month and over 50,000 views of our webinar archive. We’ve also had students from other universities attend our webinars, and the 50,000 views per month is more than our student body, so there are probably students from other universities watching our recordings too. We’re really proud of these numbers because they indicate that webinars are filling a need for our students, but also that other students are interested in this kind of instruction too.

 

What are your go-to web services/applications? Any questions for Dr. Prince and the Walden staff? Comment below!

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