I wrote this essay as part of my coursework for the Graduate Certificate in Online Writing Instruction program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Dembsey, J. M. (2017). Blending with time: How changing technologies have influenced pedagogy in asynchronous writing center consultations. Unpublished essay.
Writing center work includes three main types or genres of consulting that have been named and discussed within the literature: face-to-face, synchronous, and asynchronous consulting. The most widely debated and oftentimes controversial genre is asynchronous online consulting. In a writing center context, “asynchronous” refers to consultations in which the consultant and student are not in the same physical space and are not working in real-time. Instead, the consultant is providing feedback (through text, audio, and/or video) that the student will receive and review at a later time.
What we have found in my own writing center is that this traditional understanding of asynchronous consulting—that the consultant and student will not interact in real-time—can be challenged by text-sharing technologies that allow for real-time interaction. In other words, technologies such as Google Docs can allow students to be present in asynchronous consultations, blending the line between asynchronous and synchronous text-chat consultations (Schultz, 2010). Advances in text-sharing, word processing, and recording technologies have also changed pedagogical approaches to asynchronous consultations and inspired new effective practices. In this essay, I will examine discussions of asynchronous consulting over time to track how available technologies have informed and shaped writing center pedagogies for asynchronous consulting.
The Entrance of Asynchronous Consulting
Asynchronous consulting was first mentioned in a writing center publication by Joyce Kinkead (1988) in the late 80s. In her article, Kinkead (1988) described how her center had started to answer student questions over email, through a service she called the “Electronic Tutor.” At this point, Kinkead’s (1988) pedagogical focus was on access and on reaching as many students as possible, including those with full-time jobs, families, broken limbs, or anxiety: “No longer do time and distance restrict learning to a classroom or to a writing center” (p. 4). She also noted the pedagogical value for international students, who could read and reread their consultants’ feedback in their own time. Kinkead (1988) was careful, though, to clarify that asynchronous consulting via email could not replace face-to-face consulting: “Although the electronic tutor cannot duplicate the comprehensiveness of the writing center tutorial or the value of face-to-face dialogue, the service offers an additional way for helping writers write” (p. 5).
Scholars were silent for six years on asynchronous writing center work, until Spooner and Crump (1994) published a back-and-forth conversation that revealed conflicting views on the topic. Spooner (1994) took up argument against asynchronous consulting, arguing that written feedback lacked eye contact and gestures and included only one round of turn-taking between the student and consultant. He ultimately stated: “But I think that encountering a student over a text is best done face-to-face. . . . The teacher or tutor is most helpful to the student when they create a student-centered, non-directive, response-oriented, conference-style dynamic” (p. 7). Crump (1994) responded by arguing that students at this time may have been more quiet and less likely to follow up due to lack of familiarity with these new emailing technologies: “When students feel comfortable communicating that way, they may start writing until their fingers ache” (p. 7). He argued that new technologies are emerging, and young students who are more familiar with them will eventually make their way to higher education. Thus, writing centers also need to use and become more familiar with emerging technologies.
From here, writing center scholarship on asynchronous consulting began to take off, and scholars began to share their ways of doing asynchronous consulting (e.g., Cooper, Bui, & Riker, 2005; Leahy, 1998; Monroe, 1998). More centers began to experiment with accepting questions and full papers via email (Harris & Pemberton, 1995). Early scholars noted that their consultants inserted comments directly within the student’s text and separated them from the text with asterisks (*) and line breaks (Cooper, Bui, & Riker, 2005; Monroe, 1998). It is unclear whether the student’s text and the consultant’s in-text comments are placed within the body of an email or a word processor, but in the early 2000s, Cooper, Bui, and Riker (2005) still warned of compatibility issues with commenting in word processing technologies.
In addition to describing their programs, these scholars began sharing their effective practices for asynchronous consulting. Pedagogies at this time were concerned primarily with the content of the consultants’ written feedback. Scholars commonly addressed introductory comments, ending comments, dialogue, linguistic choice, focus on global vs. local concerns, and grammar feedback (Cooper, Bui, & Riker, 2005; Leahy, 1998; Monroe, 1998). However, they also consistently noted the limitations of these consultations, often attributing these limitations to the asynchronous genre itself rather than the capabilities of technology at the time. Monroe (1998), for example, stated that grammar instruction was less effective in asynchronous consultations as a whole, but her reason is that comments placed within the text cause readability issues: “Indicating errors within the body of the paper, intertextually, impedes readability, especially when a paper has many surface errors” (p. 10). This limitation would fade, however, with advances in word processing technologies.
New Technologies Inspire New Practices
Word processing technologies began to evolve to allow marginal comments and more advanced tools. While some scholars still focused mainly on the content of the consultant’s written feedback (e.g., Peguesse, 2013; Raign, 2013; Remington, 2010), others started to discuss the visual look of the consultant’s written feedback and the use of additional tools. Hewett (2015) argued that “Just as the text becomes the instructional voice in the online setting, placement and formatting provide a sense of vocal tone and emphasis” (p. 137). Hewett (2015) suggested using formatting such as bolding, underlining, italicizing, highlighting, and color to point out similar content and patterns in a student’s text. To prevent comments from being one big block of text, consultants could use white space, bulleted lists, and numbered lists within their comments. Another helpful tool is Track Changes, which allows the student to model a revision and gives the student the opportunity to reject or accept that revision (Hewett, 2015).
In addition to basic word processors, such as Microsoft Word, two other major technologies for asynchronous consulting have been briefly discussed, but underrepresented, in writing center literature. The first is audiovisual technologies. Boone and Carlson (2011) conducted research on the use of Jing, a program that allowed consultants to record their screens and audio, so they could provide visual and auditory instruction. In their study, consultants provided both written feedback in the margins of Microsoft Word and an audiovisual summary of their written feedback, which was linked in their marginal comments. In their survey, Boone and Carlson (2011) found that 78% of students who received this feedback in their study preferred receiving a combination of written and audiovisual feedback. While Boone and Carlson (2011) used their results to argue for audiovisual commentary as more effective than written feedback alone, their results also clarified that students have varying preferences that need to be considered in asynchronous pedagogy.
The second (and possibly most revolutionary) technology for asynchronous consultations is Google Docs. Schultz (2010) is the only scholar so far to discuss this particular use of Google Docs, which allows the student to be present during asynchronous consultations and creates what he calls “semi-synchronous” appointments. Schultz (2010) went into depth on the benefits of Google Docs for students and consultants in asynchronous contexts:
Google Docs offers consultants and writers a number of convenient features that MS Word and email correspondence do not provide: a more collaborative and interactive workspace in which a number of reviewers can comment upon the same draft of an essay simultaneously; an auto-save function that records revisions in 15 second increments, thereby providing consultants with a digital record of a writer’s drafting and revision processes, which allows both writer and reader to have a detailed conversation about specific developments in the writing; and the latest version of the program actually offers synchronous options such as chat and character-by-character real-time co-editing. Google Docs, therefore, gives consultants and writers the option to collaborate both synchronously and asynchronously, depending on the preference and availability without having to train consultants in a number of different online programs.
In my own center at Miami University, we have found similar results from using Google Docs. The majority of our students who schedule asynchronous consultations are fully online, graduate students who often work full-time jobs and don’t know when they can be available. In some cases, students are instructors who will schedule asynchronous appointments during their office hours and will be present in the Google Doc when they aren’t meeting with a student. When in the document, students will reply to the consultant’s comments, revise in real-time based on the consultant’s feedback, chat with the consultant in real-time, and answer any questions that the consultant has about the assignment. As Crump (1994) had suggested, students now have more to say as their familiarity with writing technologies has grown. Student presence in asynchronous consultations has become so common that we have named them “blended” appointments and altered our training program to prepare asynchronous consultants for how to interact with students during the session.
As technologies have become more advanced, pedagogical conversations on asynchronous consulting are once again emphasizing accessibility. This conversation accounts for not only increased access to writing services (similar to Kinkead’s  argument), but also assistive technologies and students with diverse learning needs. In discussing the concept of Universal Design, Martinez and Olsen (2015) stated that “pedagogy should be flexible and employ alternatives for various learners” (p. 187). This can mean providing multiple options for students to receive and process feedback. For example, some students may prefer having their comments in the margins so the consultant’s feedback is visually separated from their text; however, some students may find it easier to revise if the consultant’s feedback is placed right within their text. In addition, some screenreaders can’t access marginal comments, so in-text comments would be necessary for students to access their feedback with these assistive technologies (Hewett, 2015). Hewett (2015) suggested using bolding and brackets to indicate comments placed within the text. Lastly, Martinez and Olsen (2015) explained that consulting technologies should be compatible with a wide range of devices, such as mobile phones and tablets, but should also not place financial burdens on students.
New Technologies Also Demand New Research
So far, research involving asynchronous consulting has focused more on legitimizing (or trying to de-legitimize) asynchronous as an effective genre of writing center consulting. Instead of focusing on whether or not asynchronous consulting is effective, research moving forward should focus on how it is and can be effective in different contexts and how asynchronous pedagogies are built within and from the technologies available. Most importantly, the writing center field needs research on how technology determines the process, practices, and pedagogies of asynchronous consultations in those particular contexts.
Standing in the way of this progress is the fact that writing centers are often disadvantaged in terms of funding, and writing center administrators are often overworked. This means that many administrators are not able to attend conferences, conduct research, or publish, which in turn hides their progress and innovations from others in the field. One way to address this issue is through case study research, where several asynchronous consulting programs can be highlighted and compared in one project. McKinney (2016) explained that “… case studies collect several points of data; most often data includes interviews, artifact or discourse analysis, and fieldwork or surveying” (p. 94). Case studies could reveal the local contexts that have determined the use of particular technologies (email, word processors, text-sharing spaces, and/or audiovisual technologies) and explore the pedagogies that have been shaped and informed by those technologies. Then, the research could compare the similarities and differences between the pedagogies of those local contexts and make conclusions about the impacts of those technologies on asynchronous consulting in those contexts.
Information from such case studies could include interviews with writing center administrators who have chosen the technologies and the consultants who use them on a regular basis. Interviews should also consider the perspectives of the students, who are often absent from asynchronous research. Why have the students chosen (or not chosen) asynchronous feedback in these contexts and how does the technology platform inform those choices? Furthermore, how does the technology used for providing feedback affect how the student receives and interprets that feedback and then revises based on that feedback? Interviews with students, as well as records of their asynchronous feedback and their revisions, would be important in addressing these questions. Other documents that could be collected include consultant training materials, consultant feedback to mock consultations, and instructional materials for students.
Pedagogical discussions on asynchronous consulting have evolved to consider not only content but also formatting, tools, visuals, audio, and real-time interaction. Research that focuses in on the pedagogies and technologies of asynchronous consulting would move the writing center field past conversations of legitimizing asynchronous consultations or comparing them to face-to-face and synchronous consultations. Advances in technology have addressed Spooner’s (1994) (and many others’) common criticisms: audiovisual technologies now allow for eye contact and gestures, and Google Docs allows for multiple rounds of turn-taking between the student and consultant. In building on Schultz’s (2010) experience and on that of my own center, writing centers may need to redefine the meaning of “asynchronous” and consider that the boundaries between face-to-face, synchronous, and asynchronous consulting are becoming less defined and more blended with technological innovation.
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Peguesse, C. L. (2013). Assessing the effectiveness of tutor comments in email sessions. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 44(1), 95-100.
Raign, K. R. (2013). Creating verbal immediacy: The use of immediacy and avoidance techniques in online tutorials. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 10(2). Retrieved from http://www.praxisuwc.com/raign-102/
Remington, T. (2010). But it is rocket science!: E-mail tutoring outside of your comfort zone. The Writing Lab Newsletter, 35(1), 5-8.
Schultz, M. (2010). Synch or swim: (Re)assessing asynchronous online writing lab. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 8(1). Retrieved from http://www.praxisuwc.com/schultz-81
Spooner, M., & Crump., E (1994). A dialogue about OWLing in the writing lab. Writing Lab Newsletter, 18(6), 6-8.