Editor’s note: We would like to thank James W. H. Howard, Assistant Director of Tutoring Services at University of North Georgia, Oakwood (Georgia), for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email James W. H. Howard. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
James W. H. Howard
We created an online writing center in two weeks.
When I was hired to lead the Gainesville Writing Center and most writing services across the University of North Georgia in 2018, I knew that I could grow its capacity for online tutoring. Aside from a small asynchronous tutoring service for online graduate students, the Writing Center had no online capacity. This put UNG in the minority of writing centers. In my own context, three reasons prevailed for taking my time with online tutoring:
- Peer and professional tutors were busy delivering in-person sessions. I was not sure I could expand online services without limiting the availability of in-person tutoring.
- A distance education unit was promoting an online tutoring platform, Smarthinking. I wanted to find a way to differentiate our services so that students could benefit from both.
- My previous centers had not done online tutoring. I knew from research that a strong online tutoring program would take months (at least) to implement and involve changes in everything from recruitment and hiring to training and staff procedures. I wanted to understand my center and department before taking them online.
In 2019-2020, I had begun to move forward on online tutoring as a method to support the smallest UNG campus, Blue Ridge. Early work with synchronous tutoring did not pan out—the students did not show up. It was amid reviewing possible synchronous platforms and asynchronous plans that COVID-19 hit. The week before spring break was cancelled, and the university was given two weeks to transition to remote instruction.
Planning turned to triage. Like many other centers, I faced the sudden reality of moving online to meet students where they are. I identified and worked through several factors that had to be understood or in place to proceed:
- Our primary audience were the many students whose primary mode of instruction and tutoring had just been displaced. Whatever I did had to reach them, first and foremost. After that, I also considered how we could simultaneously reach students who already worked remotely, like our online graduate students and students in Blue Ridge. I also had to keep faculty in the loop.
- The writing centers already used WCOnline for scheduling appointments. Even though classes were not in session, I quickly activated the synchronous (Online) and asynchronous (eTutoring) tools in the platform. I then asked my professional staff to see how well these tools worked. Meanwhile, I investigated Microsoft Teams with the larger Tutoring Services staff. While I aided math and other tutoring with implementing Teams as a synchronous platform, I saw that WCOnline worked well enough, reasoned that students were already familiar with the platform, and kept the writing centers in it.
- In such short time, I needed training that was quick and easy. My goal was to give peer and professional tutors the tools and protocols for getting started. I read Beth Hewett’s book The Online Writing Conference (2015) and skimmed a few other chapters and articles. I then wrote a guide for staff. Subsequently, I also offered formative feedback to tutors doing sessions, commenting on the comments they gave in Word documents to encourage building rapport, focusing on key issues, and giving clear explanations.
- Institutional Policy. My dean wanted us up and running ASAP. I also knew there would be restrictions in terms of advertising the shift online – no mass emails without approval, for instance. I had to obtain those permissions and promote the Writing Center with Tutoring Services without letting writing get lost in the noise. After IT sent out an alarming email about only using certified video platforms, I also had to certify that WCOnline could be used as a video platform.
In two weeks, the Writing Center and other tutoring services were up and running. Since then, I have had more time to plan training, marketing, and other items. If I had to develop this program again, I would focus on every factor listed and add one: staff communication. I did communicate with staff—checking in with each tutor, hearing how they are, and figuring out procedures for tutoring remotely that also supported them. That said, if I had thought of staff as a distinct stakeholder from the outset, I wonder how they would have helped the planning process.
Hewett, Beth. The Online Writing Conference: A Guide for Teachers and Tutors. Macmillan, 2015.