Preface

I wrote this report in Summer 2017, while working as the Coordinator for Technology and Accessibility at Miami University. The purpose of this report was to

  1. identify online consulting problems and solutions for the 2017-18 academic year
  2. suggest ways to better integrate online consulting into the larger writing center, which includes suggesting ways to update the training course for new consultants

Overall Recommendations

Our online consulting program has had a lot of strengths in the 2016-17 academic year, but some issues have become clear. I have the following recommendations, which will be discussed in more detail within this report.

  • Require online training for student leaders and graduate assistants. For online consultants to have more mentors and support and for online consulting to be discussed alongside face-to-face consulting in seminars and training, all consultants in leadership and mentoring roles should be online consultants.
  • Create benefits to being an online consultant. To encourage consultants to work both face-to-face and online, being an online consultant could be a pre-requisite for certain positions and opportunities in the center, such as being an undergraduate student leader or working over the summer. This makes logical sense moving forward as we try to integrate online consulting into the overall center.
  • Offer online training for past cohorts during the first 2 weeks of Fall 2017. Past consultant cohorts still need an opportunity to participate in online training, and I suggest that this training take place when the center has historically slow student traffic and can afford to set aside hours for training. Consultants could train together in groups of 2 or 4, in two-hour blocks.
  • Incorporate both synchronous and asynchronous consulting into the full length of the training course. New consultants in the training course should participate in a course-long discussion of transfer between face-to-face and online consulting and leave the course with a full understanding of all 3 genres of consulting that we offer. Different genres hone in on particular consulting practices and skills, which benefits even those who do not prefer to consult online after the course. I give suggestions for scaffolding this discussion within the course.

What Worked Well This Year

We made several additions or changes that have worked very well in improving online consulting and training this year.

Switch to Google Hangouts

For our synchronous consultations, we switched to using Google Hangouts before Fall 2016 and have found this video technology to be far more reliable than WCOnline. Google Hangouts has given us the additional feature of screen-sharing, which is one of our effective practices for visual communication and learning in synchronous contexts. Half-way through the Spring semester, Firefox stopped supporting Google Hangouts, so consultants and students have had to use Google Chrome for their video calls. While inconvenient, this hasn’t been a major issue. We will continue to use Google Hangouts in the next academic year.

Writer’s Notes

Pre-writer’s notes (notes written by students before their appointment) have been successful in getting the majority of asynchronous students to both send their assignment guidelines and describe the context of their concerns. Our post-writer’s notes (notes written by students after their appointment) have encouraged follow-up questions to consultants, and students have given positive responses to their consultants’ feedback. Not often, though, do students tell us how they will specifically revise based on the feedback they received. We will re-think this question for next year and also think about asking different questions to students who schedule with the same consultant(s) regularly. 

Online Observation Sheets

Our online observation forms in Google Sheets have allowed me and all onliners (abbreviation for online consultants) to access everyone’s observation feedback, which makes it easier for onliners-in-training to receive feedback from multiple people. Google Sheets also allows us to see how a consultant has evolved over their time in training and could allow for a research project in the future.

Requests for Online Hours on the Scheduling Form

Asking for interest in online consulting on the scheduling availability form was an easy way to know who was interested and account for that when scheduling hours. This is also a low-pressure way for consultants to say they are not interested, even if they have already been through online training.

Current Problems to Be Solved

The following new or continuing problems will need to be addressed in the 2017-18 academic year.

Integration

Lack of Support

Currently, the only space that onliners have to discuss online-specific concerns and practices are in online consultant meetings with me and other onliners. However, these meetings are held only twice a semester, and the agendas are already too long for in-depth conversations. Online consultants are aware that other full-time administrators, graduate assistants, most student leaders, and most of their fellow consultants cannot help them with online consulting processes, practices, or technology issues.

Lack of Administrators and Leaders Who Can Discuss Online

Currently, I am the only administrator (including graduate assistants) who has regularly consulted online, can mentor online consultants, and can bring online consulting into a conversation. Thus, if I’m not a part of a meeting or collaboration (and many times I’m not), online consulting is simply not considered in the overall plan for training, mentoring, seminars, etc.

Face-to-Face Consulting as the Norm

When the majority of persons in the center can only discuss face-to-face consulting, this conveys the idea that face-to-face consulting is the norm, the usual, and the preferred. For instance, seminar discussions revolved solely around strategies and practices for face-to-face contexts, without considering how these ideas can also inform online consulting. Similarly, the training course limited its discussion of online consulting to 2 weeks, again giving the idea that it is something extra and less important while also requiring interested consultants to attend additional, in-depth training outside of the course.

Training

Lack of Interest

The majority of consultants have not indicated interest in training online. From what the consultants have told me, I see two reasons for this. (1) Past consultant cohorts have not had an opportunity to see and learn what online consultants actually do. (2) Some consultants, who seem interested, have said that they are too busy with coursework and other obligations to go through online training. This says to me that they think online training would either add extra hours to their consulting schedules or the process of learning new consultation genres would add extra stress.

Interested Consultants Don’t Necessarily Work Online

Consultants who indicate interest in online do not necessarily become scheduled for online training or online appointments. For instance, [name] completed synchronous training in Winter 2017 and requested to be scheduled for online hours in Spring 2017. However, he was scheduled only for face-to-face hours. If he requests online hours again for Fall 2017, I will likely need to retrain him.

Unsustainable Training Model

Our current online training model is not sustainable, as we have already discussed. A reasonable alternative was not available during Spring 2017, so I tried to schedule group training times (which failed due to conflicting schedules) and ended up doing most training individually during each consultant’s regular online hours. Because most of them worked only one hour a week, training took long amounts of time, and doing training on nights and weekends in addition to my regular hours became exhausting.

Integration of Online into the Center

The key to better integrating online into the center is to have more people in the center who are doing online consultations and can talk about them. I suggest the following.

Introductory Online Training for Full-Time Administrators

I could train all full-time administrators on the basics of our online consulting process, so they can accurately convey this information to consultants, students, and faculty. It should be understood, though, that knowing the general process is not equivalent to doing online consultations on a regular basis, so I and/or an online consultant should still be involved in collaborations where online consulting is or may be relevant.

Full Online Training for Graduate Assistants and Student Leaders

Knowing the general process of our online consulting program is also not enough to understand online consulting strategies, discuss transfer of skills, or mentor online consultants. Thus, anyone in a mentoring or leadership role within the center should both complete online training and regularly consult online. To further help with integrating online consulting, all graduate assistants should also be online consultants so they can assist with online training, help to handle technology issues, and lead seminar discussions that acknowledge all 3 genres of consulting.

Additional Opportunities for Online Consultants

I suggest attaching the following opportunities or benefits to being an online consultant, to gauge more genuine interest. These opportunities should be communicated at the beginning of the 2017-18 academic year, on the scheduling availability form and during our welcome meetings .

  • Working over the summer. We have more online appointments over summer than face-to-face appointments, so it benefits us to have consultants who are flexible and can be moved between online and face-to-face schedules when needed. Moving forward, summer work could be available only to online consultants: if this is communicated at the beginning of the academic year, consultants could be motivated to train online in fall or spring if they might want summer work.
  • Working with graduate students. As we try to reach more graduate students, we will need to train undergraduate consultants to respond to graduate-level research. It makes sense to lump training on graduate work with online training, since online consultants already work mostly with graduate students. Those who are trained online can then be listed as available for graduate work in the face-to-face schedules as well. This is a good option for consultants who become burnt out on reading introductory English assignments and want more variety. Onliners have found graduate work to be more interesting to read and respond to.
  • Being an embedded consultant. In terms of flexibility, online consultants can be embedded in on-campus, hybrid, and fully online courses. They can also work within current and future models of embedded consulting, which could involve leading workshops on written peer review or facilitating peer review groups that provide written and verbal discussions.
  • Participating in assignment review. In assignment review, consultants are providing written feedback to an instructor on the clarity and format of their assignment sheets. Asynchronous training provides prior knowledge for framing these suggestions clearly, concisely, and directly.

Current State of Training

Before going into my recommendations for online training in 2017-18, I wanted to clarify the current learning outcomes and tasks for synchronous and asynchronous training.

Consultants usually go through synchronous training first, followed by asynchronous training, simply because they are more familiar with verbal forms of feedback after leaving the training course. I will suggest a different order for the course in the next section.

Observation Process

In both synchronous and asynchronous consulting, consultants are required to be observed during their first 2 online appointments, by the coordinator or a veteran onliner. They can request additional observations for more feedback, if needed. I see these observations not as evaluations of performance but as feedback for improvement and, in the case of synchronous consulting, a form of support if the onliner-in-training becomes nervous and forgets how to handle technology issues.

All observations are recorded in Google Sheets, in a Google Drive folder that is both in the writing center email account and shared with all onliners’ personal accounts. Each onliner has their own observation Google Sheet, with one tab for synchronous observations and another for asynchronous observations. The criteria is provided within the observation sheet, and each observer is given a place to provide both praise and suggestions for each criteria. All observations for that onliner are recorded in the same document, for easy comparison over time. This summer, we will be revising the criteria and adding a brief reflection component for the onliner-in-training.

  • Synchronous. The observer is present and sits off screen, out of the student’s view. While the session is taking place, the observer records written notes in the onliner-in-training’s observation sheet and can assist with technology issues or other problems, when needed. After the appointment is over, the observer and the onliner-in-training review the observation sheet together and verbally discuss the feedback.
  • Asynchronous. The observer is not present during the appointment and is instead scheduled at a later time to read the written feedback and watch the video summary. They then provide written feedback in the onliner-in-training’s observation sheet, which I later send by email. Revisions for next year will incorporate an aspect that is similar to the writer’s notes: onliners-in-training will create a to-do list for themselves based on this feedback and record questions or concerns for the coordinator.

Synchronous Training Components

See description below image
Figure 1. The 7 Parts of Synchronous Training.

Image Description. A series of blue icons in a row that indicate the 7 stages in synchronous training:

  1. Introduction (icon with computer power symbol)
  2. Mock 1 (icon with chat bubble and clock)
  3. Technology Agenda (question mark icon)
  4. Mock 2 (icon with chat bubble and clock)
  5. Text-Chat (icon with 2 overlapping chat bubbles containing ellipses)
  6. Mock 3 (icon with chat bubble and clock)
  7. Appointments (calendar icon)

Part 1: Introduction to Online Consulting and Synchronous Processes

  1. Overview the process of synchronous consultations
  2. Complete scavenger hunt in the writing center email account
  3. Discuss transfer of processes and strategies from face-to-face consulting
  4. Discuss and record ways to apply effective practices for different types of student concerns

Part 2: Synchronous Mock 1

  1. Practice being consultant for 40-50 minutes, with a veteran onliner or the coordinator as a “student” who is already familiar with the technology

Part 3: Technology Agenda

  1. Discuss processes of contacting missing students and establishing student familiarity with the technology
  2. Discuss common technology issues and their solutions
  3. Diagnose and solve each technology issue in real-time with a mischievous “student”

Part 4: Synchronous Mock 2

  1. Practice being consultant for 40-50 minutes, with a veteran onliner or the coordinator as a “student” who experiences technology issues

Part 5: Synchronous Mock 3 (text-chat only)

  1. Read sample text-chat appointment
  2. Discuss effective practices and transfer of practices from face-to-face and verbal synchronous consulting
  3. Practice as consultant for 30 minutes in a text-chat session, with veteran onliner or the coordinator as “student”

Part 6: Additional Mock

  1. Practice as consultant for 40-50 minutes in a video or text-chat session, with a veteran onliner or the coordinator as “student”

Asynchronous Training Components

See description below image
Figure 2. The 7 Parts of Asynchronous Training.

Image Description. A series of green icons in a row that indicate the 7 stages in asynchronous training:

  1. Introduction (icon with computer power symbol)
  2. Mock 1 (icon with comment bubble)
  3. Mock 2 (icon with comment bubble)
  4. Recording (microphone icon)
  5. Mock 3 (icon with comment bubble and clock)
  6. Mock 4 (icon with comment bubble and clock)
  7. Appointments (calendar icon)

Part 1: Introduction to Asynchronous Process

  1. Overview the process of asynchronous consultations
  2. Discuss effective practices for asynchronous consulting and transfer of processes and strategies from face-to-face and synchronous consulting
  3. Analyze effective written comments
  4. Revise ineffective written comments
  5. Write effective comments from scratch

Part 2: Asynchronous Mock 1

  1. Read writer’s note, set consultation agenda, and write introductory comment for Mock 1 (4-page personal statement)
  2. Discuss time management and focus
  3. Provide written feedback to Mock 1
  4. Discuss reading and writing strategies

Part 3: Asynchronous Mock 2

  1. Discuss basic parts of graduate research
  2. Read writer’s note, set consultation agenda, and write introductory comment for Mock 2 (8-page graduate paper)
  3. Provide written feedback to Mock 2
  4. Discuss reading and writing strategies

Part 4: Recording

  1. Create outline to guide audio feedback for Mock 1 or 2
  2. Practice audio feedback, without recording
  3. Overview of Screencast-O-Matic
  4. Record video with Screencast-O-Matic
  5. Watch video and discuss revisions

Part 5: Asynchronous Mock 3

  1. Provide written and audio feedback to Mock 3 (10-page graduate research paper)

Part 6: Asynchronous Mock 4

  1. Provide written and audio feedback to Mock 4 (4-page article for publication)

Future State of Training

After adding an audiovisual component to asynchronous consulting this past Spring, I have noticed several areas in which asynchronous training needs to be revised. The following aspects have been added to the revised training above and will need to be considered for future online training:

  • Experimentation with reading and writing strategies, for time management
  • Response to graduate student work and research
  • General familiarity with thesis “chapters” and common sections: literature reviews, methodology, results, and discussion

Training for Past Cohorts

For now, online training will still need to take place outside of the course for past consultant cohorts. As shown above, new onliners have needed more training, not less, so restricting hours on online training is not an option. Thus, I suggest taking the current training components outlined in the previous section and turning them into small group training that takes place fully over Weeks 1 and 2 at the beginning of Fall 2017.

Table 1. Online Training for Weeks 1 and 2 in Fall 2017.

Training Day Week 1
(Synchronous)
Week 2
(Asynchronous)
Day 1
(2 hours)
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Mock 1
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Mock 1
Day 2
(2 hours)
Part 3: Tech Agenda
Part 4: Mock 2
Part 3: Mock 2
Part 4: Recording
Day 3
(2 hours)
Part 5: Mock 3 (text-chat)
Part 6: Mock 4
Part 5: Mock 3
Part 6: Mock 4

Because past consultant cohorts are more familiar with consulting verbally, synchronous training would occur first over Week 1, followed by asynchronous training over Week 2. Consultants would preferably be scheduled in two-hour blocks of training over 3 days, pending availability. They would also be scheduled in groups of 2 or 4. For groups of 4, I would need a graduate assistant or veteran onliner to assist. 

Consultants can be informed of online training via email beforehand. Their interest in training and their availability for Weeks 1 and 2 can be collected on the scheduling availability form. Consider the following benefits:

  • Weeks 1 and 2 for Fall semesters are historically slow in percentage of use, showing that we can afford to schedule training hours instead
    • Fall 2016, Week 1: 63 unused appointment slots
    • Fall 2016, Week 2: 43 unused appointment slots
  • If the center is closed or has reduced hours during these weeks, online training is a way for consultants to still work and be paid during this time (6 hours of training per week)
  • Consultants can finish synchronous and/or asynchronous training over 1-2 weeks and be ready for online appointments and observations starting Week 3
  • If consultants can train at the slowest time of the semester, without also consulting, they may be less likely to see online training as overwhelming and stressful

Training for Future Cohorts

Online training for future consultant cohorts should take place as much within the training course as possible, to convey that all 3 consultation genres are “normal” for this center and reduce additional training for a consultant to work online. Placing online training fully within the course also allows all consultants (even those who don’t decide to work online) to benefit from the skills that are honed in asynchronous and synchronous environments. I suggest that the course be structured as follows:

See description below image
Figure 3. Suggested Order of Asynchronous, Face-to-Face, and Synchronous Consulting in the Consultant Training Course.

Image Description. Figure 3 contains a series of boxes that suggest the following order for consulting in the training course.

  1. Asynchronous consulting
  2. Face-to-face consulting
    1. Reflection on asynchronous consulting
  3. Synchronous consulting
    1. Reflection on face-to-face and asynchronous consulting

Asynchronous Consulting

Asynchronous consulting as a genre involves primarily written feedback, which is likely familiar to new consultants who have experienced peer review, instructor written comments, or editing for friends. To build on this familiarity, the course should begin with asynchronous consulting.

Rapport and Agenda Setting

  1. Consultation agenda is already set in writing by student, through writer’s note
  2. Writer’s note provides sample questions that can be asked in other contexts
  3. Consultant learns importance of agenda setting and ways to use this information for focusing time and feedback in an appointment

Reading Student Writing

  1. Consultant reads the paper at their pace, with time management in mind
  2. Consultant learns reading methods or strategies to focus in on student concerns from the agenda

Feedback to Student

  1. Consultant provides mostly written feedback in comment bubbles and uses tools such as highlighting and Track Changes for visual communication and brief modeling
  2. Consultant learns to use writing to provide feedback on writing

Face-to-Face Consulting

Face-to-face consulting as a genre involves verbal, in-person feedback, which is likely unfamiliar to new consultants. As such, I suggest that face-to-face consulting should be introduced second, after consultants have practiced asynchronously.

Rapport and Agenda Setting

  1. Consultant must engage student in verbal conversation to set consultation agenda
  2. Consultant learns to ask initial and follow-up questions to get student to talk about their writing

Reading Student Writing

  1. Consultant reads the paper alongside the student and must account for the student’s reading pace
  2. Consultant is introduced to the practice of reading aloud and when this may or may not be helpful

Feedback to Student

  1. Consultant provides mostly verbal feedback, with written notes
  2. Consultant uses tone, facial expressions, and body language as part of communication
  3. Consultant learns to balance verbal back-and-forth conversation with silence and writing time, when needed
  4. Consultant learns to engage the student in reflection about their next steps for revision

Synchronous Consulting

Synchronous consulting as a genre involves navigating between verbal communication, written communication, and technology issues, which makes it the most difficult of all 3 consulting genres. Because asynchronous and face-to-face consulting provide a solid foundation for this genre, I suggest that synchronous consulting be introduced last in the course.

Rapport and Agenda Setting

  1. Consultant first sets technology agenda, by solving any technology issues, gauging student familiarity with the technology, and introducing the technology if needed
  2. Consultant then engages student in verbal or written conversation to set the consultation agenda
  3. Consultant learns to balance/set a double agenda and use the technology to record student concerns

Reading Student Writing

  1. Consultant reads the paper either verbally with the student over video or silently over text-chat conversation
  2. Consultant learns to use technological tools to engage student while reading and later guide the conversation

Feedback to Student

  1. Consultant provides verbal and/or written feedback, depending on the student’s preference or their access to technology
  2. Consultant uses tools such as selecting text, highlighting, and commenting for visual communication, in combination with tone or facial expressions when video allows
  3. Consultant learns to communicate through different forms of technology and to change their method of communication when technology issues arise