March 2014
Articles
DISTANCE TUTORING: ONLINE WRITING CENTER FOR L2 UNIVERSITY STUDENTS
J. Elliott Casal & Joseph J. Lee, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, USA


J. Elliott Casal


Joseph J. Lee

University students are asked to act within and master a diverse range of genres as student writers and researchers (Nesi & Gardner, 2012). Although the difficulty in performing such a task is considerable for first language (L1) writers, second language (L2) writers face similar yet also different rhetorical and linguistic demands and challenges. As more L2 students attend U.S. universities and colleges, the need to assist such students become successful increases. In order to receive assistance with various writing assignments, L2 students often turn to the writing center. Intended to help such learners develop writing abilities, writing tutors provide invaluable one-on-one tutoring that is personalized and responsive to students’ individual needs (Reynolds, 2009).

Many L2 students at our institution, however, find it difficult to attend physical centers due to personal, professional, or other obligations. Additionally, the number of off-campus students enrolled in online courses has increased in our context, and some L2 students attend regional campuses that may lack the resources for providing assistance to meet the rhetorical and linguistic needs of L2 writers. In response to these challenges, the English Language Improvement Program (ELIP) Writing Center at Ohio University developed an online tutoring program to afford opportunities for L2 student writers in our context, who are unable to attend our physical center, to also receive individualized writing assistance. In this article, we describe the development and implementation of our synchronous online writing center, and we discuss the benefits and challenges encountered in implementing such a virtual tutoring service.

ELIP Writing Center

Some background on the ELIP Writing Center is useful in understanding our context. Our center is part of ELIP in the Department of Linguistics. ELIP, an academic-literacies-for-specific-purposes program, provides advanced writing, oral communication, and critical reading instruction for matriculated international and domestic graduate and undergraduate students. Although the university provides a writing center at the library for all enrolled students, the ELIP Writing Center is separate and specializes in offering targeted aid specifically for L2 students. Our center’s primary mission is to support students enrolled in ELIP courses, although we also serve any Ohio University student in need of our assistance, even occasionally receiving writers whose L1 is English.

Our writing center opened in Fall 2011, and we have served on average 125–150 undergraduate and 30–40 graduate students each semester, though the number of students attending our center has been steadily increasing. Although our tutors are trained primarily to work with L2 students, they do on rare occasions also help L1 writers. Since our inception, our tutors have mainly assisted L2 writers in our physical center. However, with the challenges we encountered offering only face-to-face (f2f) tutoring, we were compelled to explore alternatives to continue serving L2 writers unable to attend in person. After a semester of needs analysis and technology trials in fall 2012, our solution was to develop and implement a synchronous online writing center that approximates f2f tutoring, which we have been offering to students writers at our institution since spring 2013.

The Technology: Combining Audio, Video, and Text in Real Time

To begin exploring technology options for the online tutoring service we sought, we examined those offered by other university-based writing centers (e.g., Purdue Writing Lab). Similar to Neaderhiser and Wolfe’s (2009) survey, we discovered that the most common online consultation model in use was asynchronous email-based tutoring. However common, Neaderhiser and Wolfe find tutoring interactions via email to be short-lived, as students often simply attach their essays and tutors make comments in isolation before returning feedback through email. This type of interaction more closely resembles question-and-answer sessions than dialogic conferencing. Asynchronous options may be valuable supplements to traditional writing center services, but the limited interaction due to temporal remoteness is a stifling disadvantage if they are to approximate f2f tutoring.

With this limitation in mind, we shifted our focus toward synchronous audio-video-textual conferencing (AVT) media that allows spatially remote negotiation in real time, bringing the dialogic and collaborative nature of f2f meetings into the digital domain (Yergeau, Wozniak, & Vandenberg, 2009). We identified several potential services (e.g., Skype, Adobe Connect, Google Hangouts); however, we discovered that most are severely limited in their treatment of documents. Though many permit users to view a document simultaneously, they grant editing privileges only to a single party; that is, only one participant is free to interact directly with the text. The interaction that these screen-sharing models offer is more akin to a through-the-glass bank teller transaction than social activity focused on a text.

With a clearer idea of the features we desired, we experimented with and ultimately chose Google Hangouts (a video-chat service developed by Google). Crucially, it encourages interactions that are simultaneous, dialogic, and collaborative. Users have access to documents stored in Google’s cloud-based storage system, Google Drive, which boasts simultaneous document editing for all users. As in f2f tutoring, the papers, voices, and individuals are at the center of Google Hangouts tutoring sessions, not the computer screen. An added benefit is that the software is entirely free, which permits users to create dummy accounts to avoid sharing personal information. These features aligned with our goals and are considered essential for effective synchronous AVT tutorials (Yergeau et al., 2009).

The Google Hangouts interface, as seen in Figure 1, is clean and clear, with the document occupying the majority of screen space. Tutor and tutee see the same interface, markings, and highlights, and these elements are instantly updated across users; even blinking cursor positions (within a text) are marked. However, users do not necessarily see the same sections of a document simultaneously. This means the tutor and tutee must communicate to ensure they are viewing the same passage of a text.

Figure 1. Example of tutoring session in Google Hangout (click to enlarge)

As also seen in Figure 1, comments can be inserted, similar to other word-processing software with which many users are familiar. These comments are often used to facilitate communication because some L2 speakers prefer to see questions, new words, or suggestions in writing. Additionally, most menus and bars can be expanded or reduced according to preference, and participants’ faces move in real time.

The Online Tutoring Session

In AVT tutoring sessions, the interaction proceeds similarly to our f2f tutorials. Ideally, writers submit documents in advance, which allow tutors to prepare before meetings. For longer papers (e.g., dissertations), writers are asked to submit the documents in advance and to designate the sections they wish to work on. Due to scheduling pressures, however, most student writers do not send documents in advance. This being the case, sessions often begin with writers explaining their work and session goals, and tutors reading necessary sections. Once prepared, our tutors encourage the writers to direct the sessions according to their difficulties, concerns, and needs. In meetings involving shorter texts or L2 writers who may be unaware of their needs, tutors identify issues that require attention and begin a series of questions. Regardless, real-time feedback is provided through a combination of oral dialogues, Internet resources, and examples or explanations inserted as comments or entered directly in the text.

As participants interact, sections are often highlighted or colored to direct attention and facilitate understanding in the absence of fingers and pencil strokes. As shown in Figure 1, both parties use highlighting and comment features while discussing the writer’s intentions and understanding. These markings may be removed by either user when no longer necessary.

Because the Internet is available, tutors may recommend online resources for further practice, including online citation style guides (e.g., the one offered by Purdue OWL) or corpus tools (e.g., Contemporary Corpus of American English). In this way, writers may be provided with embedded links to tools that can aid them beyond the scope of their current paper and session. These are mostly used when writers have needs which cannot be addressed in the allotted time but seem capable of revising individually, if given support, at a later time. In Figure 2, for example, an APA reference site has been recommended that shows how to appropriately cite sources in a text.

Figure 2. Example of tutor directing L2 writer to online resource (click to enlarge)

When the writer is ready to revise the document, the tutor can follow the reformulations and restructuring and offer live feedback. As Google saves documents automatically and stores version and comment history, it is not necessary to reapply changes in isolation at a later date; the writer can revert to previous versions or revisit past comments at any time. Although the tool set may be distinct from f2f sessions, our online tutoring sessions offer personalized feedback and text-centric dialogue based on similar principles.

Leveling the Playing Field

One of the most exciting features of AVT tutorial, and the primary drive for our extension into digital space, is the ability to provide all students with equal access to our tutoring services. As online courses become more prevalent in many educational contexts, including our own, a greater number of students are not physically on main campuses where such tutoring services are offered. Through our online writing center, we have been able to aid numerous students unable to attend f2f sessions during our regular hours for personal, logistical, or professional reasons. One PhD student in interdisciplinary arts, for example, often prefers to work on her dissertation from home, calling in during scheduled times for feedback and discussion. Another student, who is unable to leave his children unattended, conducts evening sessions online while they are asleep. When necessary, though infrequent, some students have been aided online outside of normal operating hours. Such assistance would be impossible without the online writing center we have established, which permits students access to tutors remotely without compromising the f2f experience. In this way, offering AVT tutorial furthers our mission as educators to provide students with equitable access to educational services, thus somewhat leveling the playing field.

Benefits and Challenges of Online Tutoring

As praise of technology is often idealized, it is important to consider the experiences of those actually involved in online tutoring. In our case, we conducted interviews with two L2 student writers and two tutors who were most actively involved in the online sessions. Because our online tutoring closely approximates f2f meetings, the interviews mostly focused on comparisons between the two approaches, and each individual was interviewed once for about 30 minutes. During the interviews, the student writers and tutors were asked to comment on their expectations prior to beginning online tutoring sessions and the convenience, comfort level, specific difficulties and challenges, and benefits of AVT sessions. Given the small size of our interview pool, it is important to note that these perceptions should not be taken as conclusive.

Beyond accessibility, most themes emerging from our interviews suggest benefits of synchronous online tutoring not present in traditional f2f sessions, though only one of the tutees expressed a clear preference for this medium. Both student writers reported that they felt more comfortable during online interactions than f2f sessions. One student indicated that “communicating from home” was more relaxed and familiar, and therefore preferable to sessions at our physical center. Although the other student agreed that the session itself was comfortable, he also emphasized that travel and wait time was drastically reduced.

Moreover, all interviewees highlighted the productivity of online sessions. According to both writers interviewed, many peripheral distractions occur in an f2f setting, such as people entering the room or other interactions taking place. In online sessions, however, fewer distractions “definitely” exist, as one writer reported. The other student writer explained that online sessions are “even more productive” than f2f meetings for this reason. It seems that participants in AVT tutorials are less likely to stray from the document and more likely to stay focused. For this reason, such tutorials may present productivity benefits as well.

Online tutorial, however, at least through Google Hangouts, presents a few challenges. Formatting and Internet reliability are the most significant and recurring. Although documents composed in Google’s word processor (Google Docs) may be seamlessly edited and uploaded, documents stored in other formats (e.g., MS Word) cannot be edited in the software and must be converted to Google Docs. This is not a major difficulty, but it is an additional “hassle,” according to the tutors. Even though this becomes easier with time, such difficulties do not occur with printed papers. Furthermore, a high-bandwidth Internet connection is required for video streaming. This requirement may not pose an obstacle on many university campuses. However, because online tutoring is aimed at off-campus students, the reliability and performance of Internet connection is a real and relevant concern. Additional technical concerns, such as hardware and software maintenance, may place uncertainties on administrators, tutors, and writers as well.

In terms of interaction, online communication may reduce the nonverbal presence of a speaker and change the focus of a session. Nonverbal cues, which facilitate communication with lower proficiency writers, are more difficult to recognize. While most tutorials occur through live video interactions, video is relegated to a tiny box in favor of a larger document viewing area. In turn, micro-facial expressions and subtle body language may become difficult to interpret. Although one writer described the interaction as “fluid,” the other writer noted the lack of “spontaneity,” referring to unpredictable aspects of interaction such as humor. This could potentially place a greater distance between participants. Although these difficulties may be overcome, they require special awareness and consideration from tutors.

Though not covered in interviews, it is important to note that some writers expressed preferences in online sessions that cannot be easily addressed in f2f sessions. One student, who feels uncomfortable in person and on screen, chooses to conduct the online sessions without video. The presence of real-time audio, even without video, allows for dialogic interaction and collaboration while maintaining low anxiety. Another student, concerned with a lack of oral English proficiency, elected to listen to real-time audio and respond only through text and highlighting.

Conclusion

As online courses become more prevalent and more learners study remotely, the question of how writing centers can equitably offer services to L2 students may become more pressing. To offer these students tutoring experiences that approximate f2f sessions that their peers have access to, we have established an online tutoring program using Google Hangouts, an AVT tool that encourages real-time interaction, dialogue, and collaboration. Although we have offered this form of tutoring for only a little over a year, we have found the interactive and collaborative experience participants encounter in this digital space potentially as effective as the one experienced in our physical center. Perhaps no existing virtual media can truly overcome spatial remoteness, but the synchronous online tutorial we offer seems promising because it approximates f2f tutoring and provides equitable access to those L2 students needing writing assistance from a distance.

References

Neaderhiser, S., & Wolfe, J. (2009). Between technological endorsement and resistance: The state of online writing centers. Writing Center Journal, 29(1), 49–77.

Nesi, H., & Gardner, S. (2012). Genres across the disciplines: Student writing in higher education. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Reynolds, D. (2009). One on one with second language writers: A guide for writing tutors, teachers, and consultants. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Yergeau, M., Wozniak, K., & Vandenberg, P. (2009). Expanding the space of f2f: Writing centers and audio-visual-textual conferencing. Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, 13(1). Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/13.1/topoi/yergeau-et-al


J. Elliott Casal is currently a graduate student in the Department of Linguistics at Ohio University and the assistant coordinator of the English Language Improvement Program Writing Center. His research interests include English for specific/academic purposes, second language writing, and computer-assisted language learning.


Joseph J. Lee is the assistant director of the English Language Improvement Program (ELIP) in the Department of Linguistics at Ohio University and the coordinator of the ELIP Writing Center. His research and teaching interests are English for specific/academic purposes, genre studies, classroom discourse studies, advanced academic literacy, and teacher education.