WAC as a Force for Change in Online Instruction

As this article is being written, we are in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers and students from kindergarten to graduate programs have found themselves engaging in online learning and teaching, a space many have found unfamiliar and, in many cases, daunting. While much of the instruction taking place in these courses fails to provide a teaching and learning experience comparable to that in online courses developed by instructional designers, instructors are quickly gaining a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of what works—and what does not—in online courses. Given the metaphors underlying the learning management systems (LMS) in use at many schools, colleges, and universities, the tendency is to mirror the types of learning experiences and assessments associated with the traditional lecture-style classroom (Palmquist, 2006). This means, unsurprisingly, that much of the assessment taking place in courses outside of writing studies relies on quizzes and tests.

WAC has much to offer instructors who look to their LMS—such as Canvas, Moodle, BrightSpace, and Blackboard—for tools to support learning assessment. Professional development initiatives can focus on the use of tools that are built into or can be integrated into (via Learning Tools Interoperability, or LTI) the LMS used to deliver their online courses. This includes ePortfolio tools, wikis, and the rudimentary peer-review tools built into leading LMSs, such as the peer review activity that can be required for a Canvas assignment. It also includes a range of tools that can be integrated into an LMS through LTI, such as the more sophisticated peer-review tools available from publishers and software companies, including Macmillan's Achieve, Pearson's MyLab, and Eli Review.

WAC also has important implications for workplace communication or the field of technical communication, particularly in the area of what has been called "technical writing across the curriculum" (Olds, 1998; Carter, Ferzli, & Wiebe, 2007). WAC programs, especially those in schools emphasizing engineering or the sciences, have asked what it means to have a WAC program that connects practical, problem-based learning in applied workplace contexts. Principles of technical communication include assisting users who need directions on completing tasks or projects, using products, operating equipment, and so on. Technical communication informs WAC programs by helping students think about ways to be productive and consumer-oriented, helping students see their work as practical and interdisciplinary in ways that require iterative design based on user feedback, and preparing students to communicate using a variety of genres and modalities, particularly in the areas of communicating about technical topics and documenting work. Students and instructors in WAC, influenced by principles of technical communication and informative rhetoric, focus on measuring goals, engaging with multimodal composing and new media, developing instructional guides and training programs, producing medical instructions or usability studies, and more (Day & Lipson, 2005).

On a fairly basic level, then, WAC specialists might point to these tools to help colleagues across the disciplines increase their repertoire of assessment strategies. Once instructors who are using WAC in their courses have access to these tools, we can draw on the same strategies we've used to support the use of writing to enhance teaching and learning in WAC courses. In this sense, the use of WAC in online courses might follow a path similar to those in more traditional settings.

And just as we see benefits from working with colleagues across the disciplines who teach face-to-face courses, WAC specialists should benefit from their interactions with colleagues who teach online courses. Joan pointed to this in a recent discussion about our work on this article:

The benefits of working with colleagues in other disciplines doesn't disappear as we now shift online. As I created a new theory-into-practice course (grad/undergrad) for writing tutors, I continually drew on WAC knowledge gained, yes, from our own discipline, but also gained just as much from my work with faculty members across the disciplines. . . . As I did with my WAC workshops, I have to think about threads that cross learners rather than how much I want them to know what I know or how much I want them to know about the little boutique area of study I'm focusing on in my course. (personal communication, August 27, 2020)

WAC will also be influenced strongly by larger trends that are shaping the teaching of writing and speaking more broadly, and in particular the increasing use of assignments that involve multimodality. These assignments can align well with online instruction, allowing students to more easily incorporate sources that employ video, audio, animation, and other digital modalities to present their information, ideas, and arguments.

In the longer term, we expect to see WAC play a greater role in the development of courses in which distinctions among the modalities in which they are delivered have become less important. For the past few decades, we've seen a tendency to view face-to-face, on campus courses as significantly different from courses taught online. We believe this sense of difference will diminish in coming years. Mike has argued for several years (in his past administrative work related to course design and development) that the face-to-face classroom should be a superset of all of our teaching strategies and resources. Rather than viewing the development of online courses as separate from the development of face-to-face courses, we should view them as closely linked process. When we develop an online course, we should bring the resources back to the face-to-face courses (see NCTE's Online Writing Instruction position statement, 2013; Bedford/St. Martin's bibliography of online writing instruction research; and the ongoing teaching, research, and certification work of the Global Society of Online Literacy Educators [https://gsole.org]). And as these resources are transformed for use in face-to-face settings, they should be brought back to the online course, in a cycle of continuous improvement. While the idea that online instruction will one day replace campus learning has gained some attention, particularly in the past year, the advantages of being part of a learning community (in a way that is currently difficult when you take your courses largely or solely online) will win out, even if people in the campus community take online courses as part of their overall course schedule. WAC can play a critical role in this, as it ought to play in all substantial course redesign projects at colleges and universities.