Editor’s note: We would like to thank Michelle L. Westervelt, Senior Lecturer in English and Director of the Writing Center at Indiana University Kokomo, Kokomo (Indiana), for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email Michelle L. Westervelt. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
Michelle L. Westervelt
As the director of a writing center at a small liberal arts school, I have worked to keep our tutoring sessions personal and intimate to build relationships of trust with our clients. Prior to COVID 19, we offered only in-person sessions. But in recent years, many schools have shifted to online tutoring options, and we want to stay current and meet all our clients’ needs, so it has been on our radar. Although there have been limited requests from our clients for this service, we suspected that if it were available, more would take advantage of it. We were about to find out.
In the fall of 2019, we implemented a new scheduling and reporting system–WCONLINE. The system offers online consultation features that we had not yet explored. After having only one semester to become familiar with the system, in the spring of 2019, the tutors also were asked to acclimate to a new online tutoring platform to finish the semester. They opted for the live-chat feature over audio-visual sessions for our initial rollout. However rushed they may have felt, the tutors were impressive. We met via Zoom over Spring Break, hammered out the logistics, and began offering live-chat online consultations. To prepare, they set up practice sessions among themselves, drafted instructions to distribute to clients, and have made a nearly seamless transition.
We have continued that format through our summer sessions. Although live-chat was sufficient in a crunch, when looking to move all consultations online for an entire semester, as we are slated to do this fall, we needed a way to get back to our goal of keeping sessions more personal. Therefore, this summer our focus has been on transitioning from live-chat format to audio-visual sessions. Fortunately, WCONLINE offers both options. Although our Spanish tutor has been using Zoom very successfully over the summer, the writing tutors wanted to stick with WCONLINE to streamline the process for themselves and the clients. One place to log in and one place to keep records.
Also, for the first time, tutors will be participating in our university’s Key Summer Institute. During this two-day boot camp for incoming freshman, the tutors will meet new students, help them register for an online account, and show them how an online consultation will be conducted. By adding this personal touch, our hope is that students will see a friendly face and feel more comfortable reaching out online once the semester begins. I would like to see this become a regular occurrence. In addition to the benefits to our students, this is a great professional development opportunity for the tutors.
One challenge we have moving forward is finding a balance between offering both online and face-to-face tutoring once we are back on campus full-time. Although there is great deal of convenience in online format, I am still an advocate for in-person tutoring. My experiences have indicated that students often respond better and tutors engage more during face-to-face sessions. Additionally, we have learned anecdotally over the last few months that our non-native speakers prefer in-person consults. In-person tutoring also encourages student engagement on our campus. However, we do have distance learners and others who could greatly benefit from the online tutoring opportunity. As our center is small, and each shift is covered by only one tutor, we will need to explore how to offer some sessions online while maintaining our in-person presence, when we should offer those sessions, and who will staff them. But we are confident that providing a second option for students will get more students through our doors—physically or virtually.
Very importantly, the past five months have reaffirmed for me that tutors are more than tutors. When hiring for this position, I always consider multiple factors: writing skills, inter-personal communications skills, reliability, flexibility, and drive. That has served me well with the current staff. They have been innovative and flexible. They have worked as a team, advised me, and made great strides in making our center accessible to all students during these trying times.
And we learned pretty quickly, if you offer online consultations, people will use them! Our spring 2020 usage numbers were right in line with the previous spring, and our summer numbers are up. This keeps us hopeful that students will find us online this fall, use our services regularly, and ultimately perform better in their classes. Pandemic or no pandemic.