ATS Annex: Creating Simple and Sustainable Online Writing Courses

ATS Annex: Creating Simple and Sustainable Online Writing Courses

“I live on the Internet now,” I often said to people this summer. In truth, the Internet has long been where I’ve spent the bulk of my time, a fact that likely comes as little surprise to anyone who knows that my job is dedicated to understanding how we learn, read, and write online. But in a moment where PWR pivoted rapidly to online learning, where the world, in fact, is roiling through a constant state of unexpected twists and turns, I felt even more fully invested in understanding how to make online spaces feel like home spaces. 

Home spaces are spaces that feel comfortable. Home spaces are spaces that we can return to, time and again, knowing what to expect. Home spaces are stable spaces. The world may be in a state of unrest, but if there’s one thing I think we can do as we teach online, it’s to create a place for our students that feels, at the very least, livable.

But what does that look like exactly? There are a few key principles I’ve found particularly important to prioritize in my own crafting of online learning support that I hope others might find helpful too. As we look ahead to another full quarter of teaching, learning and, yes, living online, I hope that these ideas are practical, actionable, and reassuring:

1. Create a digital “landing space” that is consistently updated to highlight the most relevant materials your students need throughout the quarter. 

When your students are on campus in a face-to-face environment, they go to their different classes by walking into different rooms. The rooms are probably structured differently; some are lecture halls while others are rooms with long tables, while others still might have couches for students to sit on. Now imagine if, every time a student walked into one of those rooms, they walked into an empty space with no tables or chairs. Their task, in each class, would be to go and find the tables and chairs. They might know exactly where to look to find the chairs (they’re in a closet!), but at other times, they might have no idea where to look. 

This scenario - of constantly hunting for the chairs in a room before even getting into the work of learning - is kind of what it’s like for some students when moving between multiple online classes. In some online classes, they might have a really clear sense of where to “sit” so to speak. A link to a Zoom session is easily findable, for example. Or the home page of the learning management system has clear links right up front about where the syllabus can be found or where assignments can be submitted. But in some of their Canvas course sites, they might click on the class, only to find no information up front and a long list of links on the side. Which one should they click? Where are the chairs?

In teaching online, we are building our classrooms from the ground up, designing an experience for our students without the assumptions and expectations of brick-and-mortar classrooms. When we create “landing pages” that foreground the most relevant content for weekly meetings, it’s kind of like putting handouts and materials right in front of our students without needing to be “dug up.” The landing page gives everyone access to materials consistently so that students don’t have to focus so much cognitive energy on finding what they need. Instead, they can focus on what they need to do to be successful. The chairs will, in other words, already be in the room.

Wondering what this looks like? Here are some examples of Canvas landing pages that offer students some clear grounding in how to find what they need:

 

Image 1: Landing page for Jenae's summer online class during Week 1. 

Image 1 shows what the landing page temporarily looked like for a summer class I taught this summer. When students logged into my class for the very first time, the item that took up the most “real estate” was a short welcome video I made where I introduced the schedule for the class and discussed some of the key learning outcomes. You can see that I also have clear instructions (and links) about where students can find some of the key components of what they’ll need for the rest of the course schedule. After the first week, I switched the home page out to the Modules (see Figure 2).

 

Image 2: The landing page for what Jenae's online class looked like from Weeks 2-5. 

This is what a “landing page” composed of Modules looks like. It’s not the most exciting landing page from a visual perspective. It has a lot of text and the menus are very long. I usually give students both a brief live and a recorded Canvas tour to encourage them to collapse the windows they don’t want open and to keep only a limited number of accordions open depending on the material they need. 

 

Image 3: What a Canvas landing page can look like in Modules with the accordion menus "closed" to look a little less overwhelming. 

What I like about Modules is that I can create clear headers to aggregate and organize the learning materials that I know students will need throughout the course. In all of my course evaluations, students have always expressed gratitude for the Modules. They’re not perfect, though, and I know that others are drawn to layouts that offer a bit more contextualization of the materials, as in the examples below...

 

Image 4: Canvas landing page for Christine Alfano's summer course. 

This is the landing page from Christine’s summer writing class. As you can see, she used the “Pages” function in Canvas to create a weekly schedule that she swapped out as the home page each week. On each weekly landing page, she has links to the most relevant resources within and outside of Canvas (and has a weekly “preview video” to orient students to what to expect each week. The design moves here are really thoughtful; she’s thinking about what students might need or want to find every week from her class and she aggregates the essential materials so that they are easy to find.

Image 5: Landing page for Lisa Swan's PWR 1 spring 2020 class, featuring a "Pages"-designed navigation. 

Lisa Swan’s Canvas site similarly uses pages, maintaining “quick links” at the top to stable resources. When you scroll down, there are weekly pages that she swaps out (much like Christine’s model) so that students find what they need for each week right up front and on the landing page for her course.

Want more about landing pages? Here are a few resources from TeachingWriting: 

 

2. Give clear expectations for when, how, and why students will engage with course material. 

A few questions we ask in any teaching environment is, a.) what kinds of ways do we want students to engage with course material? and b.) when and where will that engagement happen? When we’re online, we have an opportunity to think even more about what can happen “in real time” and what we want students to work on at their own pace. To do so  means thinking about what we value in our classroom environments and when it makes the most sense to engage those most highly valued activities or engagements. Once that decision is made, we can then offer clearer expectations so that all of us know where to go, what to do, and when to engage.

Want more about setting clear expectations? Here are a few resources from TeachingWriting:

3. Keep it simple, not just in terms of the technology, but the core curriculum and activities. 

 

Whenever we learn something new, we feel overwhelmed. When teaching online, pick a few key tools that you know advance your goals and stick with them. In addition to cutting back on using new technology, consider cutting back on the number of activities designed (when possible!). I’m sympathetic to how challenging it is to prune down a full, rich, and meaningful curriculum (and especially a curriculum that’s as full and as rich as PWR’s is by default). It’s easy to feel like all the activities we design are critically important. But teaching and learning online takes more time than we might anticipate (as you might have experienced in the spring).

In my own experience, I’ve found that for PWR, keeping scaffolding assignments that directly support students in completing the major assignment sequence have been the most critical to include. I’ve cut down on “real-time” activities that involve reviewing background knowledge, theme-based information, or research refreshers and allowed those kinds of assignments to be activities that students do in their own time. Live class time is almost completely dedicated to activities where students interact with each other, seek feedback, and work through problems together. Content-based activities become asynchronous work, and I consider which of my content-based activities best help students in the service of completing their major assignments. That might not be a schema that works for everyone, but thinking in that way has been useful for me in making choices about what to include.

Want more about keeping things simple in an online course (especially by turning some “real-time” activities into asynchronous ones?) Here are a few resources from TeachingWriting:


 

I hope that these principles offer you a few guiding reminders as we make our way into the fall. I recognize that we may still be feeling a tremendous amount of loss this year, that this is a year that remains full of uncertainty. But I really believe that our online courses can be spaces that feel good for everyone. The more that we can create our own patterns and rhythms, we can hopefully find some normalcy during an otherwise highly abnormal time. We’re all in this together. Welcome home.