TEACHING WRITING IN THE PROFESSIONS ONLINE: A CASE STUDY
PROBLEM: The online division of an urban university in North America wanted to add a writing course to its undergraduate offerings. Students would be seeking an elective online to address scheduling problems. The online unit specifically wanted a course that addressed technical writing. No specific course existed in the academic curriculum but an undergraduate course called Educational Communication from the Education Department and intended for instructional-designers-in-training, was being proposed already. The online unit and the Education Department teamed up to develop this course as an online offering. SOLUTION: Fortunately, a large body of literature supports the instruction of writing on and off-line. It suggests that students first need to learn that writing for practical purposes differs substantially from academic and creative writing. Students also need to learn how to write in specific forms (genres). Courses typically start with the simple genres, like definitions, and work to complex ones (which are built from simpler ones), such as how-to articles. The introduction of each genre needs to emphasize its purpose, provide learners with guidelines for effectively writing that in that genre, an opportunity to see effective and ineffective examples, and the opportunity to prepare an assignment in the form. Nearly all of the literature emphasizes the importance of using practical, real-world content that is relevant to learners for both examples and learning activities. The course ultimately designed consisted of eight lessons. Some were intended to last one week, others for two. The first lesson orients students to the practical writing common to technical writing. Each of the remaining lessons addressed a different genre of writing. Because this course focused on communicating for educational purposes, each of the forms pertained to an instructional context, though they were broad enough to apply to other contexts. Genres covered included definitions, descriptions, procedures, reference entries, how-to articles, and feedback. Each lesson consisted of several parts that, together, would build the desired competencies. Each started with a video introduction, which defined the genre and provided an overview of the content for the lesson and its direct relevance to learners. Next, students performed an opening activity, in which they would experience the form in a practical way. A follow-up video debriefed that activity, identifying first the likely incorrect answers, why learners might choose them, but what would makes these responses incorrect. The video closed by identifying the correct response, explaining what made that response correct, and then referring learners to read the assigned selections. A Reading Guidesheet with leading questions that learners were expected to answer, guided learners through the readings and were collected to ensure students completed them. A recorded lecture followed, which first emphasized and extended the key points of the readings. A second part of each lecture addressed a related issue of writing style, ranging from points of grammar and usage to the design of effective pages and screens. An exercise following the lecture asked learners to classify examples as effective or not. Most units closed with a graded assignment. Students are pleased with the course, commenting that it involves more work than initially but, in the end, provides them a new view of writing and skills to match it.