Editors’ Note: In this timely piece, Dr. Lisa Bell provides an overview of the strengths/cautions of online tutoring and argues that despite all these changes, what we need to preserve is the writing center’s ethos of being flexible and adapting to the needs of our students. In other words, our aim shouldn’t be to maintain the dynamics of f2f, but rather, to maintain our values as writing center practitioners. The tutoring pedagogies and practices may need to change in online spaces, but it’s our collective openness to change and to meeting our students where they are, that are the constants in our field.

In the early 2000s, moving online felt like a notable step for writing centers and generated much discussion. As a new writing center administrator, I was eager to consider how the dialogue between tutors and writers might be altered by online platforms. I wrote a reflective piece, “Preserving the Rhetorical Nature of Tutoring When Going Online, capturing my experience and thinking about online tutoring during that moment in writing center history (Bell, 2006). A decade and a half later, a global pandemic has sparked another collective discussion about online writing center work. As we think about the essential elements of tutoring, our response should be less about preserving the familiar look and feel of tutorials and more about supporting the work of learners and learning online.[pullquote]As we think about the essential elements of tutoring, our response should be less about preserving the familiar look and feel of tutorials and more about supporting the work of learners and learning online.[/pullquote]

Supporting Learners via Online Tutoring

As this global pandemic has illustrated, online learners are not just those taking online classes. Decisions to engage in online learning have been connected to a range of variables “from individual preferences to situational constraints” (Denton, 2017). Context shapes choices about participating in online tutoring (Prince et al., 2018). Those seeking online writing support have often been caregivers, workers, language learners, those with social anxiety (Hewett et al, 2019; Bell, Van Vleet, & Brantley, n.d.), and it is likely many students now online during the Covid-19 pandemic mirror these demographics of writers.

Although online tutoring may look and feel different from in-person sessions, online sessions may support learners in useful ways. Online tutoring allows writers to connect with tutors in the margins and minutes of their days where there are fewer distractions and demands (Gallagher & Maxfield, 2019; Camarello, 2020). Asynchronous or recorded synchronous online tutoring exchanges enable writers to return to and review feedback in ways that reinforce learning (Mick & Middlebrook, 2015). This ability to review and further reflect on feedback may be especially important to certain demographics of learners, including those identifying as language learners (Cunningham, 2017; Cranny, 2016).Asynchronous tutoring gives writers time and space to respond to tutors’ questions and without the pressure to produce and perform at the tutor’s pace or within the time allotted for a tutoring session, often reducing anxiety within learners and learning interactions (Hamper, 2018; Ries, 2015; Camarillo, 2020). Other learners benefit from and prefer synchronous exchanges or feedback via screencast for personal connection and increased clarity via integrated visual and verbal feedback or real-time communication and increased opportunities to ask questions or further conversations (Anson et al., 2016; Boone & Carlson, 2011; Ene & Upton, 2018; Madson, 2017). For some learners in today’s educational systems, moving online may not have been an optimal move, so overtly asking how the writing center can help these best learn and being sensitive to their needs may improve their interactions with tutors online. Just as with online courses, learners respond to online tutoring based on their needs and preferences, reinforcing the idea that writing centers need to understand the learners they seek to serve and shape their programs accordingly.

While it is common to make general claims about the valuable assistance writing centers provide, research has also shown that writers and learners have varied writing center experiences and do not always find needed support (Raymond & Quinn, 2012; Denny et al., 2018). When it comes to online tutoring, we should be less concerned that writers answer tutors’ questions (Bell, 2006) and more concerned that tutors answer and address writers’ questions. This is not to say writing centers are not supporting writers, but it is important to remember that educational systems and spaces are not neutral, writing center spaces included. Intentionally or unintentionally, writing centers are often designed in ways that benefit students who can wait in-person for a drop-in appointment, who have an open consecutive 30-60 minutes in their schedule, or who have access to technology without data and bandwidth concerns. Access and usability should not be the exception but part of the intentional, responsive design of online learning spaces (Burgstahler, 2015). Even as we celebrate how rapidly we have provided access to writing center services online, we need to ask what kind of learning environment we have created and for whom.[pullquote]Even as we celebrate how rapidly we have provided access to writing center services online, we need to ask what kind of learning environment we have created and for whom.[/pullquote]

Supporting Learning via Online Tutoring 

We know as a community that writing center tutoring is contextual work. Depending on resources, history, student demographics, and a dozen other variables, in-person writing centers look and function in various ways. Likewise, there is no one correct way to provide tutoring online. Online tutoring, like all writing center work, should reflect and be responsive to learners and learning. Tutoring should be a participatory learning exchange and not a performance or checklist. Whether in-person or online, both who we tutor and how we tutor matters.

Writing centers have often described tutoring in terms of talk, but learning encompasses both a broader and more specific range of interactions. In tutoring sessions, participants make meaning and construct knowledge through verbal and nonverbal exchanges. In addition to talk, many interactions—thinking, reading, listening, writing, etc.—encourage learning. This broad range of verbal and nonverbal interactions allow tutors and writers to engage in and make use of the instruction, scaffolding, and motivation needed to produce individual and collaborative learning (Thompson, 2009; Mackiewicz & Thompson, 2014). These strategies are widely accepted across multiple disciplines (education and second language writing for instance) as essential to learning.

The value of online tutoring should be measured by the learning that takes place. Tutoring strategies employed online, such as instruction, scaffolding, and motivation, provide learners with cognitive and affective interaction that helps them know how to move forward in their work and a provides a purpose to do so (Orlando, 2016; Séror, 2013; Dorton & Reis, 2014; Berthold & Renkl, 2010). Consequently, learning-centered online tutoring is less focused on technology and talk and more on the variables that facilitate or frustrate the use of tutoring and learning strategies. We know from time spent online, that not all conversations are dialogs, some of the most effective learning tools are not words, and many of the best learning exchanges do not take place in-person or in real time. The dialog that takes place between learners (e.g., writers and tutors within a tutorial) cannot be reduced to a simple, direct transaction and replication of ideas. Interactions and utterances invite verbal and nonverbal responses based on situational understanding and identity, which allows for multiple voices and interpretations as part of learning (Koschmann, 1999). In short, whether in-person or online, tutors do not dispense knowledge on writers in static moments and spaces. Instead tutors and learners use strategies to increase the effectiveness of their interactions and co-constructed learning.

To encourage multidirectional, participatory online learning for tutors and writers, writing centers must aim beyond replicating in-person tutoring sessions and be responsive to learners and opportunities for learning online. In addition to addressing issues of access and equity, this may mean simplifying technology, so learning strategies can be focused on the writing rather than the tutoring platform (Borup et al., 2015); establishing personal connections (Cranny, 2016; Madson, 2017; Anson et al., 2016, Wolfe & Griffin, 2012), increasing clarity and communication by integrating written responses with audio and visual feedback (Borup et al., 2015; Cranny, 2016; Madson, 2017; ); working to provide a resource-rich online learning environment (Séror, 2013; Anson et al., 2016); and training tutors to make use of tutoring strategies online (Angelov & Ganobcsik-Williams, 2015; Martinez & Olsen, 2015). Writing centers may also choose to offer more than one form of online tutoring to be responsive to learners and learning (Denton, 2017).


In the push of this pandemic when so many writing centers are moving tutoring online, we have been invited once again to reflect on online tutoring within individual programs and our collective community. [pullquote]In the push of this pandemic when so many writing centers are moving tutoring online, we have been invited once again to reflect on online tutoring within individual programs and our collective community.[/pullquote]Our aim should not be to simply replicate or preserve the look and feel of tutorials but to facilitate learning and empower learners through our use of technology, policy, and tutor education. What is worth preserving as writing center work moves online is the way we value and support learners and learning through tutoring.



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Dr. Lisa Bell is President-elect of the Rocky Mountain Writing Centers Association and serves as an At-large Representative for the International Writing Centers Association. She has served as a writing center administrator at both Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University. Her research in writing center studies focus on support for multilingual writers, online tutoring, and writing center administration, and tutor education.