Preparing the Future Virtual Workforce: Changing the Virtual Writing Classroom into a Training Site

Concurrent Session 5
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Brief Abstract

This proposal explores alternative pedagogy that leverages online writing classrooms as training sites for future remote employees. We propose using non-traditional strategies, such as cognitive modeling and collective feedback, to align the ways we teach the writing process to that which students will engage with as the future remote workforce. 


Meredith Singleton, Ph.D. has been teaching online for more than ten years in Technical and Professional Communication. As an instructional designer and elearning consultant, Dr. Singleton has worked with a variety of institutions and clients to build online courses for disciplines ranging from finance to education to history to biology. Dr. Singleton has also spent many years as a higher education administrator, overseeing online undergraduate and graduate degree programs and course developments. She is a certified OLC Advanced Online Instructor and a certified Quality Matters peer reviewer and currently serves as the Head of Education Services at Untold Content, LLC where she assists clients in building engaging courses focused on using the best practices in online pedagogy.
Dr. Suzanne Ehrlich is an Assistant Professor in the Educational Technology, Training and Development program at the University of North Florida. She has presented nationally/internationally on the topics of e-learning, implementing the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework for improved learner engagement and learning design. Her recent research focuses on university faculty members and student mindsets and experiences with UDL. Her latest publications include her co-PI pilot study on: Increasing Learner Engagement in Online Learning through the Use of Interactive Feedback, a co-authored article: Accommodating in the Online Course Environment for Students who are Deaf/Hard of Hearing, and: The Use of iPads to Bridge Education for Post-secondary Deaf Students. Her service includes university-wide committees focused on faculty enhancement and distance learning, statewide groups for workplace learning, and national groups including Educause (ID2ID) and Designers for Learning. She is a Quality Matters (QM) certified reviewer and Voicethread Certified educator, among others.

Extended Abstract

As online learning researchers and practitioners, we place extreme value on course alignment. And rightfully so. Pedagogical alignment in online learning is crucial to achieving learning objectives and long-term student success. Quality Matters (2018), the global leader and authority on quality within online learning, and the OLC place alignment as a central requirement for a successfully designed course. While much scholarship exists surrounding the significance of alignment in online learning (Cohen, 1987; Reeves, 2006; Blumberg, 2009; Polikoff & Porter, 2014; Biggs, 1996), less exists that discusses the importance of online pedagogy aligning with workplace practice (Cook, 2002; McWilliam & Dawson, 2008; Paretti, 2006)). More specifically, an even smaller portion is devoted to the intersection of writing pedagogy, professional writing practices and online learning. This proposal will explore alternative methods to writing instruction in the online environment that more strongly align with virtual workplace practices.

What do we know about current practices around writing in the virtual classroom? Currently, by and large, online instructors fall back on the traditional approaches to writing pedagogy stemming from the fields of composition and rhetoric. The process of student draft, individualized feedback, final draft, grade, is one that many instructors—even those outside writing—know all too well. What they also know is that the feedback is often ignored or misunderstood (Beason, 1993; Connors & Lunsford, 1993; Straub, 1997; Smith, 1997; Hyland, 1998; Knoblauch & Brannon, 1981; Kramer-Simpson, 2012), leaving instructors frustrated and time deficient and the students no more familiar with what actual workplace writing looks like. 

In most cases, those writing in the workplace are not submitting a draft to an expert writer who will provide them detailed, individualized feedback. In today’s technology-enhanced, virtually connected world, writers often write in real-time with collaborators or in a solitary way working through their own revisions as they go, in accordance with feedback received from experts or clients whose specialties lie in other areas. Frequently, writers must conform all future writing to feedback provided on a past document. Yet, these practices, and subsequent processes for writing, aren’t often what students see when working on their own writing in the classroom. How can online instructors create a stronger alignment between virtual classroom pedagogy and remote workplace practice?

Alternative forms of writing instruction provide opportunities to engage students differently with what the writing process actually resembles in the remote workplace: cognitive apprenticeship and collective feedback. First, we return to our roots in learning theory to the intersection of Jonassen’s (1991) constructivist learning, Lave and Wenger’s (1991) situated learning, and Vygotsky’s (1978) social learning to land us in the territory of Brown, Collins and Duguid’s (1989) cognitive apprenticeship. The art and pedagogy of teaching writing is not new in terms of theory, but our rapidly advancing technology which provides opportunities for visualization is in terms of making thinking visible for students. Cognitive apprenticeship proposes a tiered model in which a particular cognitive task can be articulated for the transfer of skill. In the context of writing, no longer can learners be told “just write” and be expected to produce a final product without the scaffolded approach of cognitive apprenticeship which guides their thought processes in alignment with the physical task of producing documents.

While cognitive apprenticeship is not a new pedagogical framework, it has seen a recent resurgence. The emergence of technology and advanced tools which support visualization have provided new mechanisms for displaying the process through visual displays (collaborative documents, interactive whiteboards, screen-sharing, etc.). As a result, the opportunity to guide writing pedagogy through an iterative process supported by cognitive apprenticeship is even greater. CA is comprised of seven (7) steps, including modeling, coaching, scaffolding, articulation, reflection, and exploration (Emmons, 2017). It is through this process that learners are able to observe and apply complex cognitive tasks that may typically not be visible due to their cognitive nature. With a traditional apprenticeship at the root, it is instructors guiding and demonstrating writing practices in real-time that learners are able to acquire a particular skill with the augmented through the process required to complete such a task. The value-added of cognitive apprenticeship as applied to online, tech-enhanced writing instruction is that it provides students with an opportunity to observe the process of professional writing in action. By making the cognitive processes that lead to writing visible, students are then able to see how professionals move through the process of writing, regardless of that professional’s expertise. This process versus product approach to writing pedagogy bridges the long “you should already know how to write” with the “how do I write” expectations. Courses that apply writing assessment may consider the practice of CA over the more traditional writing approaches to improve the value of process and skill transfer.

Secondly, we offer the practice of collective feedback as an alternative strategy for providing students with feedback during writing assessments. As noted above, scholars have intensely studied how students engage with instructor feedback in the traditional classroom, and more recent scholarship also explores how students engage with feedback in the online space (Beetham & Sharpe, 2008; Gallien & Oomen_Early, 20089; Getzlaf et. al, 2009). Yet, even with a more nuanced understanding of what kind of comments work, the method of delivery has largely stayed the same - individualized comments noting common mistakes that often become copied and pasted from draft to draft. This process is both time-consuming and often disappointing for instructors, as they quickly realize students submit drafts that have failed to address large, comprehensive issues in their writing. Again, while students know they need to write, they lack an understanding of how to write and revise. 

However, collective feedback is delivered one time, in a centralized location through a “Feedback File” that includes samples of the issue coupled with detailed instructions of how to address it, in addition to other supplemental materials including visuals and links. Similar to the professional practice of using a style guide to model writing, Feedback Files engage students in metacognitive awareness of their writing as they review their own work for similar issues. While not a traditional method of delivering feedback to students, collective feedback more closely aligns with workplace writing practices and engages students in cognitive processes that build skills more likely to transfer to writing as a professional.

This presentation will explore the misalignment of practices between virtual writing classrooms and remote workplaces. We will present two pedagogical alternatives to traditional writing instruction practices that can be used in the online classroom to better align course activities with professional practice: cognitive apprenticeship and collective feedback. These two approaches provide meta-cognitive benefits to the learners and improved pedagogical results to the instructors. Additionally, participants will engage in group discussion, considering how they can engage with cognitive apprenticeship or collective feedback within their own courses. As a group, we will discuss how current, traditional practices can be altered or enhanced to employ such strategies.