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Establishing a Statement of Principles for Online Writing Instruction (OWI)

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s report Online Learning (2011), the number of postsecondary students taking at least one online course has tripled in the past ten years (p. B20). In line with overall trends in online and distance learning in general, exponential growth of online writing instruction (OWI) is in evidence, and the literature surrounding it has begun to proliferate (OWI Bibliography, 2009; Warnock, 2009). With the rise in Internet-based and Intranet-based courses as well as an abundance of mobile mechanisms for teaching and learning, online courses increasingly are a primary means of instruction for many first-year composition students; as a result, OWI rightly has received intensified attention within composition studies. This growth in courses and concurrent need for scholarly attention to OWI have driven the demand for a broadly encompassing statement about how best to teach writing online.

This document describes OWI principles and example effective practices for teaching writing in the online learning contexts common in postsecondary education. First-year writing instruction is one of the most obvious areas requiring such a document; however, other composition courses/levels and writing-intensive courses in various disciplines also will benefit from this document. Designed primarily for teachers and writing program administrators as well as other stakeholders invested in the teaching of writing, this document represents collaboration among hundreds of experienced and expert OWI educators. Indeed, the research process of the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) Committee for Best Practices in Online Writing Instruction (OWI) has included field visits to leading-edge institutions, bibliographic study, national surveys, a published Report of the State-of-the-Art of OWI (CCCC Committee, 2011), Web/phone conferences with identified expert practitioners and stakeholders, and intensive discussion with CCCC members at meetings of the CCCC through panel presentations, discussions, and special interest groups.

Perhaps most importantly, this statement reveals a blueprint for further investigation into OWI. Addressing OWI is complex and challenging, particularly given the vast array of learner settings, needs, circumstances, contexts, and other factors. Fundamentally, however, educators must acknowledge that OWI is not a panacea for any failures in writing instruction more generally. Rather, OWI provides an opportunity for teaching various student populations in a distinctive instructional setting. As educators, it is our responsibility to be frank in our discussions about the realistic limitations of our work with students, and this document is designed to provide a clear entry point into those types of conversations about OWI. In short, with the rapid growth of all distance/online learning, the time has come to identify, develop, and articulate the OWI Principles that ground potentially successful OWI; such principles lead to example effective1 practices as viewed by experts of teaching writing in these environments.

Methods and Processes of Developing OWI Principles and Example Effective Practices

The process of discerning and collating OWI Principles and effective practices began in 2007 when the CCCC Executive Committee decided that a set of “best” practices needed to be developed for OWI to help guide those who teach writing in environments that are:

  • Digital (i.e., using computer-based or other integrated technologies that can be accessed virtually anywhere and anytime), 
  • Online (i.e., Internet- or Intranet-based), and
  • Distributed (i.e., linked through a computer network while being geographically dispersed).

Questions included: What qualities of writing instruction and learning are the same as with onsite settings? What qualities are different? Does OWI itself call for new ideas, pedagogies, or strategies? If so, which ones are necessary to the digital setting? Which ideas, pedagogies, and practices from the traditional onsite setting can be migrated and adapted to the online environment?

Specifically, the CCCC Executive Committee asked that effective strategies be identified and examined for use with various online media and pedagogies primarily for teaching writing in fully online (i.e., having no onsite components) and hybrid (i.e., classes meeting in distance-based and/or computer-mediated settings and in traditional onsite classrooms) writing courses. While the focus of these practices would be on composition classrooms, other college writing courses and levels presumably would benefit from them. Additionally, the CCCC expressed that an effective practices document would be a useful way to share these ideas within the CCCC’s community and also with the many stakeholders and interested audiences outside of that group.

To that end, the Committee was formed in 2007, charged, reconstituted in 2010, and recharged with the following duties:

Charge 1: Identify and examine best strategies for online writing instruction (OWI) using various online media and pedagogies primarily used for the teaching of writing in blended, hybrid, and distance-based writing classrooms, specifically composition classrooms, but including other college writing courses.

Charge 2: Identify best practices for using online instruction specifically for English language learners and individuals with disabilities in coordination with related CCCC committees.

Charge 3: Create a Position Statement on the Principles and Standards for OWI Preparation and Instruction. In consultation with the Assessment Committee and the Task Force on Position Statements, review and update the 2004 Position Statement “Teaching, Learning, and Assessing Writing in Digital Environments.”

Charge 4: Share best practices in OWI with the CCCC membership in a variety of formats.

This document responds to these charges.

In writing this document, the Committee agreed that so-called “best” or effective practices are most usefully shaped in the context of particular institutional settings—such as 2-year colleges, 4-year colleges, state and private universities, and for-profit educational venues. To that end, we conducted our research within these contexts and in consultation with administrators and educators in such settings. The principles and practices outlined and described within this position statement can be used to guide institutions—from the private to the state to the corporate, for-profit—in their OWI programs and work.

Additionally, effective practices tend to be difficult to pin down in a fluid technological world. Yet, they certainly are needed as examples so stakeholders can understand ways to improve and support OWI education. To this end, the Committee first developed a series of grounding OWI Principles that will hold firm regardless of the modality (i.e., asynchronous or synchronous), medium (i.e., text-based, voice/audio, video, graphic), and technology (i.e., learning management system [LMS] or universal access platform). Hence, in this document, the term OWI Principle expresses the baseline requirements for OWI and the term Effective Practice expresses strategies for particular grounding principles. While we recognize that the work of OWI is constantly evolving as new communication and writing technologies are developed, this statement provides foundational principles that we believe will stand.

Finally, we note that similar effective practices often are necessary to address different OWI Principles. To that end, readers will find some redundancy among Effective Practices and overt connections to various OWI Principles in this document.

1 We use the term effective rather than best to describe practices that potentially are strong in more than one setting. Janet Moore (2011) of the Sloane Consortium introduced effective practices to acknowledge the “rapid” changes occurring in online instruction overall (p. 93). The Committee sees such changes as ongoing, which suggests that effective practices will continue to evolve.

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