By Molly Wright Starkweather, KUWC Tutor
When tutoring writing online, I strive for a sense of synchronicity with students in order to foster engaged learning. Synchronicity is a concept I have contemplated for most of my life, starting with synchronizing my vocals in choirs as a schoolgirl. When I got my first iPod, I was fascinated by the process of “syncing” the player to my computer. Now that I tutor writing online, I research the synchronous tutoring experience, even as part of my asynchronous tutoring. A synchronous learning experience is commonly defined among writing pedagogy scholars as taking place in person or online and using some medium or combination of media (face-to-face, chat room, voice chat, video chat, etc.) to facilitate communication between a student and tutor in real time. An asynchronous learning experience does not take place in real time, whether that means a student and tutor communicate via email or another messaging system. I ask myself two questions when considering the role of synchronicity in online tutoring.
Is the immediacy of the synchronous learning experience something we as writing center tutors should provide in an asynchronous learning setting? If so, how?
The answer to the first question is yes and no. On the one hand, we as writing tutors appreciate the back-and-forth nature of conversation with students about their writing in real time. In the immediate learning environment, we can more easily see the “lightbulb moments” when students have a spontaneous realization. On the other hand, there are situations when immediacy and spontaneity are not conducive to student engagement. When students need to absorb lots of information about a project, especially when they need to be in control of pacing that information, we as tutors should provide asynchronous settings for that information. For example, an online student needing feedback on an entire paper should receive an asynchronous review from a tutor, because the tutor can more easily take time to read the student’s work carefully and prepare comments. The tutor can create a more accessible, reusable commentary for the student by typing comments and creating, for example, a video review to be viewed at the student’s convenience. In the same way, writing centers can provide accessible, reusable resources for online use at any time. These resources might include archived presentations, citation examples, or short video lessons. Asynchronous writing center services can (and should) have the atmosphere of dialogue found in real time services in order to achieve a harmony between synchronicity and asynchronicity. Here are three suggestions for achieving that harmony.
1. Use voice and video technologies in responding to student writing. The benefits of these technologies to students include hearing a tutor’s tone of voice and seeing screencast videos that show how to change that running header or where to go on the writing center web site to access that tutorial on verbs. The benefits for tutors include getting to show students what would take so long to explain in text form and getting to verbally ask students questions and invite them to respond to you, whether via email or some other way. Two excellent screencast programs available for free online are Jing (http://www.techsmith.com/jing.html) and Screencast-O-Matic (http://www.screencast-o-matic.com/).
2. Make room for directive and non-directive tutoring language. In other words, make suggestions and ask questions in addition to giving directions. All of the great writing center guides (including Rafoth’s A Tutor’s Guide, The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors, and The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring) tell us that we should move more and more into the background as tutoring goes on, bringing the student writer more and more into the realm of authority. With online tutoring, especially in asynchronous settings, it is good to mix in directive language for students who might need to see a concept modeled. Being descriptive as well as prescriptive provides for a conversation about the writing, allowing students to realize that they are not just following directions, but rather they are making choices with every sentence they write.
3. Give opportunities for students to follow along from an asynchronous setting. In video reviews, show a student how to correct one error, like a comma splice; from there, invite the student to continue looking for such errors. In presentations that are archived for later viewing, tell students watching the recording how they can join in the audience participation that the live attendants experienced. For example, when introducing a template sentence for students to practice incorporating sources, have some time to invite those students watching the presentation recording to email or bring in their filled in template to the writing center for guidance.
With the best of both synchronous and asynchronous worlds, we in online writing centers can engage students (and ourselves) more dynamically in the work of improving student writing.