COVID-19 has asked writing center administrators to make quick decisions about how to implement writing tutoring on their campuses. While ideally, writing centers should offer a range of tutoring modalities to account for dimensions of access and equity, in this past summer’s rush to move learning resources onto virtual platforms, some writing centers opted to begin by offering all synchronous tutoring in the fall of 2020. This was the decision that my institution made, as did my undergraduate alma mater, both small liberal arts colleges in Pennsylvania. In addition to the need to start somewhere and make sure writing tutoring remained available, however, synchronous online tutoring facilitated via video-conferencing software holds a distinctive appeal: it has the potential to retain elements of a “high-touch” educational experience, the intense, one-on-one mentorship in which small colleges often take pride, and which their students expect.
It goes without saying that video-conferencing software does not produce seamless interactions—in fact, the moments of friction and disjuncture brought about by Zoom and its ilk have prompted the burgeoning of a new “netiquette”: choices about whether to keep self-facing cameras on or off during meetings, for instance, or the dance of muted mics. How can writing wenter work, so deeply rooted in conversation, navigate the unique contours—ruptures, frictions, awkwardnesses— of video conferencing software?
With this question in mind, I undertook a literature review of our field’s best practices in synchronous, online writing tutoring facilitated by video conferencing software like Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangouts. Here, I want to share some of the top things I have learned about designing tutor trainings for synchronous online writing tutoring. They could be applied to beginning-of-semester trainings or to ongoing tutor training throughout the year. Whenever they are applied, they focus on cultivating tutoring that maximizes “high-touch” qualities of immediacy and connection, even across the many possible disruptions of digital boundaries. My tips here are organized chronologically, starting with items writing center directors might take into account in early stages of planning, then moving to later or ongoing considerations.
1. Create the training in the modality that tutors will be using to tutor.
With numerous different modalities and platforms available, it can be challenging to decide which to use for tutor training. Should trainings be synchronous, asynchronous, or hybrid-flexible? While an asynchronous training module may be more inclusive to tutors holding down jobs, or tutors in different time-zones, it’s also important to practice synchronous work if that will be a part of tutors’ responsibilities, and allow tutors to learn from one another in conversation. In “Building Online Trainings for Virtual Workplaces,” Beth Hewett and Christa Ehmann Powers (2008) give guidance for our choice of modality, recommending that trainings be “done through the online medium with which employees will ultimately interact—whether that be e-mail, synchronous chat, listserv discussions, or reference materials” (p. 263). I think we can take this even a step further: training should take place in the same modality that tutors will be tutoring (synchronous, asynchronous, or hybrid-flexible, for instance), and within the same platforms that tutors will ultimately be using to tutor. That is, if your Writing Center will be offering synchronous tutoring sessions using a combination of WCOnline and Zoom, the bulk of your training should take place synchronously using WCOnline and Zoom. This way, tutors can gain confidence with their online tutoring spaces, testing out different functionalities and negotiating problems that may arise routinely. That confidence paves the way towards a smoother first week of tutoring once the semester begins, enabling tutors to focus more on cultivating a sense of peer presence and collaborative dialogue rather than on technological trouble-shooting.
2. Design trainings to be “principle-based” to smooth transitions between platforms and/or modalities.
Instructors and students alike are currently faced with an array of digital tools with which to tutor and organize. Even within one institution, some individuals may prefer Microsoft Teams while others operate exclusively using Moodle or Canvas. Furthermore, the landscape of software is ever-changing, with new platforms coming on the scene and upgrades to older ones happening regularly. How can tutors persevere, thinking through how to achieve their tutees’ session goals even if faced with a quick switch from one platform or modality to another? To answer this question, tutor-trainings need to transcend one or another platform, instead giving tutors portable ways of thinking about online tutoring that can survive many changes of platform. Hewett and Powers (2008) advise training leaders to “identify instructional principles for training that outlive specific technology platforms” (p. 262). I approach this by asking students to think critically about the idea of an “interface” more generally as part of their training, and to consider how they might weigh the affordances and limitations of the many different interface features they may encounter (video and voice, as well as chat, screenshare, whiteboard, and other functionalities) (Feibush). Having practiced this “interface analysis”, tutors can find ways to prioritize constructive dialogue across platforms and modalities.
3. Include opportunities to practice navigating disruptions.
It’s important for tutors to practice navigating different virtual tutoring situations before they experience the real thing. To gain the benefits of practice, consider setting up partnered roleplaying scenarios where tutors encounter various issues related to technology: wi-fi cutting out, the institution’s email server going down, or loud background noise, for instance. How will tutors compensate and find a workaround? In “Consultations Without Bodies”, Rusty Carpenter (2008) suggests that conducting mock online consultations online can help Writing Centers solidify their online identity as tutors practice “creating an inviting online persona” and “keeping the student involved” in online consultations (pp. 3-4). While Carpenter refers mostly to synchronous IM-style chats without a video component, his recommendations ring true for tutoring facilitated via video conferencing software, too. Practicing how to negotiate disruptions helps tutors cultivate the ethos of flexibility they’ll need—finding ways to develop writing center-style relationships with tutees and staying focused on tutees’ writing goals even through technological turbulence.
4. Provide moments for reflection about the technologies of tutoring.
Moments of metacognition allow for richer and deeper learning experiences. Research done by Dianna Winslow and Phil Shaw (2017) at Rochester Institute of Technology, for instance, suggests that “metacognition enhances transfer” (p. 206). When wrapping up modules of your tutor training, consider including brief intervals of informal, reflective writing. You might ask tutors to reflect on the technologies of tutoring, and how those technologies shape their interactions with tutees. They might also reflect on their own attitudes towards the tools they use to tutor, and how those attitudes might affect their tutoring practices.
5. Invite tutors to create knowledge together going forward.
There is always more to learn, especially when tutors and writing center administrators must quickly adapt to new circumstances. Writing center researchers Diane Martinez and Leslie Olson (2015) write that online writing instruction is “not a one-time event, and it should be treated as ongoing professional development for tutors” (p. 200). Consider establishing a webpage (possibly hosted via your institution’s learning management system) to serve as a common space for tutors to discuss their experiences, store resources, and share wisdom in an ongoing way. Going forward, tutors may not have to reinvent the wheel if they encounter a problem brought about by Zoom or GoogleDocs, for instance. Resources and questions compiled by tutors in the Writing Center’s online space could also serve as the basis of future training activities.
Ultimately, directors and tutors alike will need to practice patience, flexibility, and perseverance when facing personal and technological turbulence in the weeks and months ahead. While many factors come into play when designing tutor trainings for synchronous, online tutoring, I hope the principles above provide a framework for minimizing the disruptions that the technologies of online, synchronous tutoring can precipitate, while maximizing their potential for the vibrant conversations that fuel writing tutoring.
Carpenter, R. (2008). Consultations Without Bodies: Technology, Virtual Space, and the Writing Center. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 6.1, 1-5. Retrieved from http://www.praxisuwc.com/links-page-61
Feibush, L. (2018). Gestural Listening and the Writing Center’s Virtual Boundaries. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 15.2. Retrieved from http://www.praxisuwc.com/feibush-152
Hewett, B. & Powers, C. (2008). Building Online Training Programs for Virtual Workplaces. In P. Zemliansky and K. St. Amant (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Virtual Workplaces and the New Nature of Business Practices (pp. 257–271). IGI Global.
Martinez, D. & Olson, L. (2015). Online Writing Labs. In B.L. Hewett & K.E. DePew (Eds.), Foundational Practices of Online Writing Instruction (pp. 183–210). Fort Collins, CO: WAC Clearinghouse.
Winslow, D. & Shaw, P. (2017). Teaching Metacognition to Reinforce Agency and Transfer in Course-Linked First-Year Courses. In P. Portanova, J. Michael Rifenburg, & D. Roen (Eds.), Contemporary Perspectives on Cognition and Writing (pp. 191-209). Fort Collins, CO: WAC Clearinghouse.
Author bio: Laura Feibush is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Juniata College PA, where she teaches courses in public and professional writing, writing across media, and first-year composition. Her research, teaching, and writing focus on the power of listening both inside and outside the classroom. Her work has appeared in Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, Inside Higher Ed, and Women in Higher Education.