Online Appointments, Synchronicity, and Hyperlocality

As the spring semester draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on the changes I have seen over the last few months. With one week left in the semester, our center has held 814 total appointments.  When looking over new trends and tendencies, one stat stood out: there has been a 17% increase in the number of online sessions when compared to spring 2016.  At our center, we hold synchronous online appointments through Writing Center Online (WC Online). These appointments are entirely text based; no audio or video is available.

During class visits, we tell students to imagine online appointments as something akin to Google chat or texting. In online appointments, students are able to upload their work onto an interactive screen where they and tutors can make comments and changes. A vertical chat window runs alongside this main screen.

In practice, my tutors and I have found ourselves using many of the useful tips from  The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors: Practice and Research: prioritizing our objectives, understanding the ways in which medium can muddle message, and re-conceptualizing our student audience.

The authors of The Oxford Guide also rightly observe that “even the best technology will impose some limits on the information that can be shared between tutor and writer” (178). These “limits” and the ways in which they manifest themselves can vary from institution to institution. As Dr. Eduardo Martí points out“Unlike other postsecondary institutions, our [community] colleges are characterized by the hyperlocal needs of our communities” (2).

Martí’s observation that colleges must address the “hyperlocal needs” of their respective communities is especially apropos in the case of Wallace Community College. At times, our online appointment system can get in the way of meeting these needs.

For example, one of the first things students in our developmental writing program and English 101 courses are asked to master is formatting a document in MLA style. If a student who has spent time changing the font (go away, calibri!) and ticking the box about an extra space after paragraphs in the same style (gross!) makes an online appointment with the writing center, he or she will be in for quite a shock: WC Online will alter the format of the paper. We spend the start of many sessions reassuring students that their MLA-related endeavors have not been lost. Therefore, before we are able to dive in and examine the paper proper, the medium has imposed itself on the session.

If students need help understanding a particular grammatical concept such as comma splices or subordinate clauses, we will ask for permission to type out an explanation and some sample sentences underneath the essay. After breaking down a particular concept, we will ask students to review a sentence or paragraph; we even sometimes underline key sentences to direct students’ attention.

Furthermore, scholarship on online writing instruction assumes that tutors and students are discussing a piece of writing; however, many of our online appointments are spent brainstorming ideas or discussing the requirements of an essay. Such sessions present quite a challenge, even for seasoned tutors. Without the aid of non-linguistic cues, tutors must ask creative questions to try to connect with students.

I am very invested in examining the ways new media can better facilitate writing instructions because our center has just purchased the Adobe Captivate Suite. While I am excited to create new multimodal resources that meet the “hyperlocal needs” of our student body, I have learned many lessons from observing the pros and cons of online appointments and instructional programs such as Pearson’s My Writing Lab.

In the coming months, keep an eye out for new materials in the resources tab.


Works Cited:

Fitzgerald, Lauren, and Melissa Ianetta. The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors: Practice and Resarch. Oxford UP, 2016.

Martí, Eduardo. America’s Broken Promise: Bridging the Community College Achievement Gap. Hudson Whitman Excelsior College Press, 2016.