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Preparing Educators for Online Writing Instruction: Principles and Processes.

Preparing Educators for Online Writing Instruction: Principles and Processes. by Beth L. Hewett and Christa Ehmann NCTE: Urbana, IL 2004. (ISBN: 0814136656; 203 pp., paper, $35.95. Order from NCTE, 1111 W. Kenyon Rd., Urbana, IL 61801)

I must admit, when I opened Beth L. Hewett and Christa Ehmann's Preparing Educators for Online Writing Instruction and read on the permission acknowledgements page that all of the figures and example consultations are borrowed from Smarthinking, Inc., I hesitated. When I further read that "[p]ortions of this book are based on Smarthinking's Orientation Guide for Writing Instructors, originally developed by the authors for Smarthinking, Inc." (ix), I stopped short. "What is this," I asked myself, "a 200-page long NCTE endorsement for Smarthinking, Inc.?" A writing center director myself, I am sensitive to the trend in out-sourcing supplemental writing instruction, and to have in my hands a book that looked as if it were written by online writing instructor trainers for online writing instructor trainers but to learn that it was written by two employees of Smarthinking, Inc. turned my world upside down ... but only momentarily. Hewett and Ehmann's guide for online writing instructor training, regardless of my sensitivity to the problems of outsourcing, outlines a thoughtful approach to preparing teachers and tutors for online writing instruction. Their pedagogy is grounded not only in current rhetoric and composition theory, which they establish in chapter 2, "Theoretical Perspectives for Online Writing Instruction (OWI)," but also in what they term "e-learning" theory. In other words, Hewett and Ehmann steer clear of a common misconception I see in much current thinking about online writing instruction, namely that it mimics (or should mimic) what happens in "real" classrooms and writing centers, that the goals for face-to-face teachers and tutors and online teachers and tutors should mirror one another. Hewett and Ehmann, however, recognize from the beginning of Preparing Educators that "there is something fundamentally different about teaching and learning in the virtual medium" (xiii), and their approach to training online instructors embraces rather than resists this difference, both theoretically and pedagogically.

Divided into two sections, "Part I: Online Writing Instruction Program Development" and "Part II: Principle-Centered Online Training in Asynchronous and Synchronous Environments," Preparing Educators provides sufficient background and theory for beginning online instructors and instructortrainers and includes specific techniques and activities for preparing online educators.

Part I consists of two foundational chapters. Chapter one, "The Online Training Spiral," discusses five pedagogical principles upon which Hewett and Ehmann build their training program: investigation, immersion, individualization, association, and reflection. Investigation involves collecting a variety of quantitative and qualitative data about the training process, "thereby advancing knowledge that can be poured into improved iterations of the training program" (6). Hewett and Ehmann further demonstrate their commitment to sound online instruction training, insisting that online instructors be immersed in the online teaching/learning environment as they train to work with students in that environment. In other words, training for online instruction, they insist, must occur online. Third, Hewett and Ehmann value individualization in online instructor training programs, something that software-based training modules are unable to offer. Fourth, online training must draw on association among trainees, which is, in short, human-interaction (albeit computer-mediated human interaction) that creates a support network for online instructors. Finally, Hewett and Ehmann urge those who plan on establishing online training programs to build into their programs the opportunity for reflection through evaluation and professional development. They argue that evaluation should be viewed by both new online instructors and those preparing them to teach/tutor online as an opportunity for ongoing critical self-reflection.

The second chapter, "Theoretical Perspectives for Online Writing Instruction (OWI)," surveys current relevant scholarship in composition studies, specifically collaborative learning and social constructivist theory. For the purposes of this review, I think it important to note here that chapter two is the point in the book in which Preparing Educators begins to show clear signs of an identity crisis. At the beginning of the chapter, the authors admit that the book has been written for two distinct audiences: online instructors and online writing program directors. They write, "[A]lthough individual instructors may not have a desire nor perceive a need to be intimately familiar with OWI's theoretical underpinnings, we recommend that program directors critically examine this material with an eye toward furthering the collective understanding of OWI's impact on teaching and learning" (31, emphasis in original).

Part Two of Preparing Educators continues in this same vein. The synopsis of chapter three, "Online Writing Instruction in Asynchronous Environments," highlights the book's identity crisis:
 This chapter focuses on (1)
 specific approaches for teaching
 and instruction in the asynchronous
 modality and (2) methods
 for training instructors for this
 modality. ... Finally, this chapter
 is designed to provide program
 directors, trainers, and trainees
 with concrete ways to move
 forward in the development of
 their own programs. (67)


Including information for two distinct audiences is, by itself, not a bad idea. Most writing center directors I know use texts like The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing Center Theory and Practice with undergraduates, but they also find scholarship in the collection that is included primarily for directors. Preparing Educators, however, is a difficult read due in large part to its failure to speak directly to one audience (online instructors) or the other (online program directors/trainers).

For instance, at the beginning of chapter five, "Online Instruction in Synchronous Environments," Hewett and Ehmann explain the chapter's structure:
 As in Chapter 3, we weave
 recommendations about specific
 training methods for new online
 instructors into this chapter. Each
 section is written with trainees as
 the primary audience. However,
 at the start of each section, we
 provide "advice for trainers" that
 demonstrates how to apply the
 principles of investigation,
 immersion, individualization,
 association, and reflection. This
 commentary is designed to help
 inform the development of your
 own online training programs.
 (115)


Hewett and Ehmann do provide "advice for trainers" at the beginning of each section in chapters three and five, with the primary audience being trainees. Isn't Preparing Educators for Online Writing Instruction, however, supposed to target trainers? Furthermore, the two chapters that offer practical training modules for asynchronous and synchronous instruction, chapters four and six, respectively, are written with the trainer/program director as the primary audience. In other words, we have a book whose title speaks to program directors that includes a chapter that trainees might not need and subsequent chapters that are written with trainees as the targeted audience but with "advice for trainers" sections interspersed throughout the chapter. Confused? Wait until you read the book.

All is not lost, though, in Preparing Educators for Online Writing Instruction. Program directors will find sound advice in Part Two for devising specific training activities for new and continuing online instructors, and Hewett and Ehmann's approach to online instruction draws directly from current composition, rhetoric, and "e-learning" theory. However, this is not a book I would recommend assigning to online instructors as part of a training program even though sections of it were written with those instructors in mind. Rather, I would suggest the program director, when preparing materials for an online writing instruction training program, utilize Hewett and Ehmann's extensive references and assign readings written specifically for online instructors.

This is a text that is way in over its own head. By that I mean that the writers of the text make enormous and universal claims about what the book can do, and in making those claims they lay themselves wide open for intense critique--theoretically, pedagogically, philosophically, disciplinarily, and practically. My issues with this text began in the introduction when the authors assert that the five pedagogical practices (investigation, immersion, individualization, association, and reflection) they will use as their framework for online training are "commonly accepted" (xi). As a one-time secondary English educator, and a long-time college English educator, I found that assertion interesting, and though I find no fault with these pedagogical principles as principles, I did wonder where and when and how they found this package of principles "commonly accepted"; whose work were they drawing on? Imagine my surprise when reading a note at the end of the introduction that these five principles were a packaged framework that the authors themselves had put together:
 [I]n our practice together we witnessed
 certain core principles
 emerge regarding training teachers
 for online contexts. These principles
 --investigation, immersion,
 individualization, association, and
 reflection--have remained firm despite
 shifting technology, working
 with teachers of differing backgrounds
 and goals, and our developing
 understanding of OWI [online
 writing instruction]. (xviii)


Again, I have no problem with the principles; what I do have problems with is the rhetorical strategy of promoting one's own package of principles as something the educational community already knows and accepts. Unfortunately, Hewett and Ehmann's textual and rhetorical decisions, like this one, means that we need to read this manual with our analytical, rhetorical, pedagogical, and theoretical lenses at high alert.

Let's begin with rhetorical slippage. One of the five pedagogical terms is "reflection," which sounds very useful for a training guide. And, in the section on reflection, the writers note that "Teachers and trainers widely agree that a key component of any training program involves the critically reflective process of examining notions about teaching and learning in light of one's actual experiences" (20). However, by the end of that first paragraph, the writers say: "In this section, we will discuss how evaluation and professional development are processes of this final principle [reflection]" (21). Suddenly reflection gets turned upside down, no longer working for the person doing the reflection, but tied only to evaluative issues; reflection has become simply a code word for assessment and evaluation. The writers "emphasize ... that when evaluation, or assessment, is approached as an opportunity for critical reflection, it can become a way for trainees to participate in an ongoing discussion about the nature of online teaching and learning with the ultimate aim of improving practice" (21), which, in turn, emphasizes reflection reductively, merely as an assessment tool.

Given this reductive framework, it's not surprising that the text's two keywords are efficiency and efficacy. These terms appear frequently in relation to both training and actual teaching, as well as with the writers' concern with rescuing current-traditional pedagogies of correctness. The writers reiterate that the guide is both principle-centered and problem-centered, which leads them, theoretically, to make some interesting (and problematic) assertions about current pedagogical theories and practices. Thus, the writers' review of the last 20 years or so of composition's pedagogical options leads them towards establishing that most teachers use a blend of all of our known pedagogies. The writers use their own experiences in online training to claim that "even practitioners and institutions whose stated guiding principles point explicitly to social theory probably practice a more implicitly eclectic approach to addressing the writers needs" (54). But what the writers call a "probable practice" of "eclectic" pedagogies at unnamed institutions elides the philosophical and cognitive underpinnings and implications/ consequences of these pedagogies. They seem to not know (or care?) that pedagogies embrace and represent a whole philosophical approach-- definitions, meanings, and functions of the human, of language, of education, and of the writer's relationship to others (language, technologies of writing, self, audiences, meanings). Thus they move quickly and easily from the "probable practice" theory to an emphasis on and a recovery of "more directive teaching methods," the ones that "most likely derive from a problem-centered approach to the student writing that we find invaluable in OWI" (56).

Hewett and Ehmann build their argument for product-centered pedagogies by asserting that current-traditional pedagogies "still thrive in certain developmental writing and test preparation courses, some FYE courses, textbooks (particularly those for underprepared students), and writing centers, including OWLS," since OWLS often provide "sentence-level instructional handouts ... understood as a current-traditional approach to teaching [as] these handouts are developed outside the context of an individual's writing and attend primarily to issues of correctness" (55). From there the writers make the claim that since "such exercises prove to be popular and useful to many students and, given that value, we think they should not be disdained" (55), and they end up asserting that current writing theories that argue against proofreading and editing students' papers "may not be in the online student's best interest" (56).

These problems are fundamental drawbacks to this project, and, in fact, make it almost impossible to want to use some of their seemingly effective and often clearly-articulated training components and exercises. My major question is: if we want to really find ways to use online technologies for teaching writing, shouldn't we want to find ways that don't involve returning to pedagogies that we know are mostly ineffective for teaching writing (though not for teaching a kind of correctness)? Because if this particular technologically-invested "train ... has left the station and is roaring down the tracks" (xv) without a full complement of critical knowledge about the historical, cultural, philosophical, and ideological underpinnings of our pedagogies, then simple transfer of f2f to disembodied interactions may not be in any of our best interests.

As the business of online writing instruction grows, those of us in search of ways to unify technology and composition look to the more experienced to lead the way. Therefore, I was delighted to find in their book entitled Preparing Educators for Online Writing Instruction that both Beth L. Hewett and Christa Ehmann have not only worked in the field of online composition but also work for Smartthinking, Inc. I felt that this book would help me to become an online writing instructor. However, I quickly discovered that Preparing Educators was a "how to develop a training course" book rather than the "how to teach writing online" book I was looking for.

I needed to find a perspective from which to read this book. Since I train tutors for synchronous tutorials and have been an asynchronous tutor, I thought the book would help enhance my current training program. However, upon reading the initial pages of the book, I realized my online tutor trainer perspective would be challenged. The first red flag for me was the second sentence in the second paragraph on page xi: "Considering the infusion of rapidly changing technology in higher education, readers who train professional teachers, graduate teaching assistants, and advanced undergraduate tutors for online writing instructional contexts ... should find this book useful." While Hewett and Ehmann clearly indicate that their book is meant to prepare online writing instructors, it is problematic to include online writing tutors with online writing instructors. Tutors are not instructors and should not be considered instructors. Setting that aside, Hewett and Ehmann have without a doubt invited the online tutor trainer into their book, so I continued to read carefully searching for ways to improve my training program.

As I continued through the book, I found the readability cumbersome. This was my second red flag. The review of literature read like chunks of a dissertation and had little if any discussion of writing centers or tutors. This forced me to read from a different perspective. I then began to read from the perspective of an instructor who incorporates Blackboard into a face-to-face composition course. However, I was jolted back to reading from the perspective of the online tutor trainer by page 52 where Hewett and Ehmann fail to transition between online teaching and online tutoring. In this section of the book, Hewett and Ehmann bemoan that "[Cooper, Bui and Riker] seem to assume that particular principles of face-to-face tutoring should be replicated in the online environment, when, in fact, students and instructors may not be best served by directly comparing online instruction to traditional face-to-face instruction" (52). In fact, Hewett and Ehmann accuse Cooper, Bui, and Riker of sending mixed messages, yet by the end of the paragraph Hewett and Ehmann themselves send a mixed message by beginning the sentence with online tutoring and ending with online instructing. Red flag number one is now flying with red flag number two: the attempt to force together conflicting research resulted in a lack of word flow, severely impeding readability. I often found myself forced to change perspectives, making this book a difficult read.

My most significant troubles as a reader of Preparing Educators for Online Writing Instruction can be found in Chapters 3-6. Hewett and Ehmann appear to use these chapters to provide instruction and specific examples for program directors developing an online composition training program. However, my confusion caused by forcing research together is heightened by the attempt to use certain vocabulary synonymously. For example, instructors/consultants/tutors are often used synonymously. Also used synonymously are sessions/conferences/ instruction. Additionally, the authors discuss a "problem-based approach that starts the instructional interaction," and use Peter North's "Training Tutors to Talk about Writing" as support. On page 74 they provide guiding questions for online instructors that are frequently used in a tutorial session. By page 76, they group tutors and instructors together when they recommend "assessing what the student writer has articulated as the assignment's intent and the areas the student wants to address in the conference." As an online asynchronous or synchronous tutor, I realize the importance of this information, but as an online instructor, I believe I should already know this information because I assigned the writing.

Chapter 6 was the most confusing chapter, requiring me to read from far too many perspectives. Hewett and Ehmann provide examples of responses from the online writing instructor to the student writer, but there doesn't seem to be a teacher/student relationship. Rather, the examples of responses appear to be between a tutor and a writer during a synchronous online tutorial. Adding to the lack of readability caused by having to read from so many perspectives, Hewett and Ehmann briefly and casually include ESOL writers (123), claiming that the major goal of the synchronous OWI is to keep the "student actively engaged in the session" (126), and provide examples of training chat not synchronous writing instruction chat or synchronous tutorial chat (127).

Hewett and Ehmann's attempt to include online tutoring in their book fails for me. From the many perspectives it took for me to read Preparing Educators for Online Writing Instruction, I was confused and discouraged as both an online tutor and a trainer of online tutors. I am perplexed by the need to include online tutoring in the book, and am unenthusiastic to see synchronous and asynchronous writing center research used in a way that muddies the very clear practices and methodologies forged by writing center researchers. I believe there is much to be learned about online writing instruction and online tutoring by blending the research from both. However, the attempt to blend the research in this text causes confusion, because too many perspectives are required in order to read the text. From my perspective, Hewett and Ehmann's Preparing Educators for Online Writing Instruction would better serve their intended audience with a more appropriate title, such as How to Develop a Training Program for Online Writing Instructors, and by avoiding the pairing of online writing instruction and online tutoring.

Christopher Ervin, University of South Dakota, Vermillion, SD Candace Stewart, Ohio University, Athens, OH Nita Danko, Purdue University Calumet, Hammond, IN
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Author:Ervin, Christopher; Stewart, Candace; Danko, Nita
Publication:Writing Lab Newsletter
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2005
Words:3202
Previous Article:Howard Tinberg, writing lab director, wins the 2004 Outstanding Community College Professor of the Year award.
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