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Introducing Students to Writing on the Web

by Jason Custer

Publication Details

 OLOR Series:  OLOR Effective Practices
 Author(s):  Jason Custer
 Original Publication Date:  27 August 2020



Writing on the Web builds on decades of traditional composition theory that suggests students learn more and become better writers by participating in the process of writing (Berlin, 1987; Britton, 1982; Murray, 2011). The waves of scholarship that brought this thinking to the forefront of composition studies, however, came at a time when composition studies only just started to wrestle with supporting digital writing (Holmes, 1985; Summerfield, 1988). While this activity builds on the aforementioned tradition in composition studies of encouraging students to develop writing skills and metacognition through the practice of writing, it presents a way to do that task in online environments. Contrary to the insistence of some pundits that modern students are “digital natives” whose computer skills are well beyond our own (Prensky, 2001), I find that a low-stakes activity like Writing on the Web helps students better understand how writing online differs from writing on a standard page in a word processor.

Resource Contents

1. Overview

[1] Different media come bundled with a range of possibilities, affordances, and constraints, and depending on what a student may want to communicate, one medium may better suit their ideas and audience than another. With this in mind, I believe it is vital to encourage students to gain experience with writing in multiple media, especially those they may not be acquainted with, to help them understand the possibilities presented by different methods of delivery. In this case specifically, I ask students to gain experience with writing for an online interface by setting up a very basic website using a simple, free, template-driven WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) platform like Wix or Weebly.

[2] The common structure of my writing courses focuses on working with predominantly alphabetic text first, but moves into increasingly digital and multimodal texts as the semester progresses. I adapt this activity—which I call Writing on the Web, and which builds on the work of folks such as Patricia Sullivan (2001) and Judy Gregory (2004), whose work focuses on writing on/for the web—across multiple courses, such as FYC and Technical Writing. I designed this activity to help students gain experience with—and understanding of—how the conventions of writing and communication shift across different media. As we move into projects where designing a website might make sense (e.g. instructional documentation online, blogging, or online portfolios), I ask students to complete this task either asynchronously in an online class, or for a full class period in my face to face courses where I also provide direct technical support. This activity helps students familiarize themselves with options available to them for presenting their writing online, and encourages metacognition by asking them to enact essential principles of online writing by creating a simple guide for how to effectively write text for the web. The version of this activity I am sharing in this post comes from my technical writing course; as noted previously, this is one of many permutations of the same activity that I use across multiple writing courses, and can be adapted to fit the needs of several courses and instructors.

2. Writing Skills for Online Environments

[3] Writing on the Web builds on decades of traditional composition theory that suggests students learn more and become better writers by participating in the process of writing (Berlin, 1987; Britton, 1982; Murray, 2011). The waves of scholarship that brought this thinking to the forefront of composition studies, however, came at a time when composition studies only just started to wrestle with supporting digital writing (Holmes, 1985; Summerfield, 1988). While this activity builds on the aforementioned tradition in composition studies of encouraging students to develop writing skills and metacognition through the practice of writing, it presents a way to do that task in online environments. Contrary to the insistence of some pundits that modern students are “digital natives” whose computer skills are well beyond our own (Prensky, 2001), I find that a low-stakes activity like Writing on the Web helps students better understand how writing online differs from writing on a standard page in a word processor.

[4] Some of the core differences between writing for print and the web that this activity is designed to help students understand through the experience of creating their own website include:

  • How arranging and organizing content on a web page differs from writing paragraphs and content in an 8.5” x 11” document.
  • The structural difference working in a networked environment provides, and the need to consider how content is linked and represented across multiple sites and tabs.
  • The importance of writing in shorter sentences and paragraphs to make reading and scanning content on a screen easier.
  • How to properly link to content found on their own website and also to information on other locations on the web.
  • The need to balance content like images, text, and graphics on a web page, and choose the size of their web page based on those needs.
  • ​Above all else, on a very practical level, this activity shows students that creating content on the web is something they can do even if they don’t know how to code or consider themselves particularly tech savvy.

[5] As Gregory (2004) notes in “Writing for the Web Versus Writing for Print: Are They Really So Different?” there are overlaps between writing in both contexts, however, for students who may only have experience writing traditional papers in a word processor, the relative freedom afforded by creating content with website editors can prove overwhelming. Combining appropriate reading on web design with an activity like Writing on the Web can help students learn and judge for themselves how writing differs across media.

3. Relevant Literature

[6] This activity is designed around foundational work done in writing studies that influenced the rise of digital and multimodal composing in the field. In particular, Anne Wysocki and her 2001 article “Impossibly Distinct: On Form/Content and Word/Image in Two Pieces of Computer-based Interactive Multimedia” shaped how I approach form and content in my pedagogy. Wysocki argues that how meaning is made and translated across media is inherently unique and that reading/writing successfully in these contexts necessitates an awareness of that fact (2001). Kathy Yancey’s (2004) “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key” serves as another major influence on my pedagogy and this lesson plan in particular—her CCCC address and the subsequent article emphasize the importance of acknowledging the kinds of writing students do outside our classrooms. In that way, Yancey and this activity also build on the work of Cynthia Selfe (2004) in “Students Who Teach Us: A Case Study of a New Media Text Designer” and the historical moment in writing studies in which she wrote—leading the charge on a movement toward paying attention to digital media, digital literacies, and new ways of making meaning in writing pedagogy. These, among other foundational texts in this area—like the New London Group’s “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures” (1996) and Gunther Kress’s (2010) Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication —all inform the theoretical basis for my pedagogy, which is well-represented in Writing on the Web.

[7] The value of designing/adapting an activity like also extends to more recent work in writing studies as well. In Kory Lawson Ching’s (2018) study on the writing interfaces used by a sample of graduate student writers, they discovered that where and how students write can shape their writing habits to a significant degree (p. 357). After participants selected a new writing platform outside of their usual Microsoft Word or Google Docs, they reportedly “struggled with a perceived disruption in the way they ordinarily construed their own texts. Renee, for example, reported feeling as if ‘the text I was producing was somehow less polished and that it belonged more in a free writing space and not in a completed draft’” (2018, p. 364). In Ching’s case, asking students to write with new writing software led to the study’s participants having several interesting revelations on their writing and writing process. Like Ching’s work, Writing on the Web emphasizes getting students hands-on experience writing and designing in a new space, like a basic website editor, can prompt a similar experience—and perhaps similar revelations—for student writers. It is worth emphasizing that “our personal histories and engagements with [writing] technologies can have a lasting impact. In short, we need to pay more attention to our writing tools, because tools matter” (2018, p. 372).

[8] Further building on Yancey and Selfe’s work, tasks like web design may feel like they exist outside the space of a writing classroom, but it is vital that we effectively bridge that gap. In Ryan Shepherd’s (2018) study on the connections between composition and online composing, Shepherd found that:

[9] Students may not perceive connections between writing they do in digital spaces and writing they do in the classroom. In fact, digital and multimodal writing might not be perceived as valuable or might not be perceived as writing at all. If students do not perceive a connection between in-school and out-of-school writing, it will make learning transfer between these contexts difficult (Shepherd, 2018, p. 112). ​

[10] Thus, building an awareness of how students’ experiences writing in print and digital contexts can build their awareness of how writing differs across contexts, and may lead to better transfer between the kinds of writing and design they do on their own, and what they do in our classrooms. More recent work by Matthew Overstreet (2020) further argues for the importance of bringing together writing pedagogy and digital literacies: “It seems to me that the first step in designing a writing pedagogy for the age of metastasized media is to rethink the relationship between digital media literacy and writing instruction. In short, I’d suggest that we need to dissolve any perceived boundary between the two” (p. 57). If anything, these more recent examples take a more definitive approach to incorporating digital literacies and digital composing than the foundational texts in multimodality and new media studies in composition.

[11] While many foundational texts argued more so for “paying attention” (Selfe, 1999), more recent scholarship focused on writing in digital interfaces argues in favor of how different and essential it is. Some scholars like Overstreet (2020) even go as far as to say that “to understand or teach everyday digital media literacy, writing scholars need insight into consumption and cognition, insight that, at the moment, our literature can’t provide,” and “suggest we turn to media studies scholarship” to address where writing studies is lacking (p. 53). Writing on the Web combines the concerns of the foundational texts in multimodal composition scholarship that inform my pedagogy with enacting the more recent calls to bring together digital writing, an emphasis on interfaces in writing, and more traditional writing practices. As Ching (2018) demonstrates, blending these approaches together and asking students to reflect on them can lead to important realizations for our students about processes and materialities of writing. To mesh the work of Ching (2018) and Overstreet (2020) together, I would argue that both tools and interfaces matter when we ask students to write—we need to put students in situations that help them see the importance of writing tools and interfaces, and understand how those ideas can shape and improve their writing across contexts.

4. Implementation

[12] Implementing this activity does require a degree of preparation beforehand for both instructors and students. In this section, I will focus on how to prepare students for this activity—for those looking for more information about what instructors may need to know, I will cover that with more depth in the final section before my sources below. For now, I will focus on how to assign Writing on the Web as a task for students to complete in a writing course.

[13] First, students should be asked to read something outside the classroom that focuses on the basic principles of writing for web-based environments. For FYC courses, I supply PDF copies of excerpts from a design-focused text to read before they complete this activity; in the past I used Robin Williams’ (2004) The Non-Designer’s Design Book which lays out a series of core design principles (contrast, repetition, alignment, proximity) for readers to consider. I also typically ask FYC courses to focus on broad concepts and learning how to use web design platforms. In my technical writing courses, however, we go further; for the course I assign the sixth edition of Richard Johnson-Sheehan’s (2021) Technical Communication Today, which contains a chapter entitled “Writing for the Internet,” which more specifically focuses on the act of writing in online spaces. I ask students to read and think about that chapter before completing this activity. In both cases, students perform a combination of reading and synthesizing content designing and writing for the web before I ask them to do so themselves.

[14] How this activity is delivered and supported varies depending on the context in which it is offered. When I ask students to complete this activity in a face-to-face environment, we first discuss the design reading as a larger group to help them process and synthesize the reading before I ask them to demonstrate it. From there, I provide students with an in-class assignment sheet that breaks down what I want them to do, step-by-step. One of the core advantages of completing this activity in class is the ability to provide students with assistance and support in real time; while I have assigned this activity to several online courses and seldom receive concerned emails from students who cannot get platforms like Wix or Weebly to function properly, I do find that when working with students face-to-face, students ask far more questions and need help troubleshooting. The combination of synthesis and engagement with writing online fits into a single 75-minute class pretty easily in my own experience, though I imagine it could also be expanded for additional polishing of the web texts, discussion of the process of creating websites and the differences between platforms like Wix and Weebly, and the final products themselves. After our discussion and giving students time to design on their computers, I ask students to submit the URLs for the sites they created on D2L, the Learning Management System my campus uses. This activity, like all others we work on in class, is factored into their Participation assessment for the class as a simple completion grade.

[15] For online students in my technical writing course, I typically ask them to complete this activity sheet. Students engage in this activity at the start of our third project of the semester: the Designing Technical Instructions assignment. For this assignment, I ask students to create instructions for something they consider themselves to be an expert in, and they must demonstrate an awareness of how concepts like audience, medium, and genre factor into the design for their instructions. Considering the number of students that decide to create texts like cooking blogs with recipes and how-to starter guides for hobbies like frisbee golf, the audiences and genres that make the most sense for them welcome several students to make a basic website. I ask my online students to complete their reading and web writing tasks asynchronously and submit the URLs for the sites they created on a discussion board. There, they also write a quick reflection on how the process went, comment on the work of their peers, and ask any questions they may have about the experience they would like me to answer. Like my face-to-face classes, this task is intended to take at most 2 total hours of a student’s time outside of class or reading, design, and writing, and uses a simple completion grading model.

[16] In short, to successfully integrate this activity into any course where students may be expected to—or have the option of—creating a web-based text, instructors can do the following:

  1. Assign a reading of their choosing focused on design and/or writing online.
  2. Foster a discussion about that reading in person or online.
  3. Modify this activity sheet to fit your specific class needs, adding or removing sections or content as needed.
  4. Ask students to submit links to what they created.
  5. Discuss the process and look at others’ examples.

[17] When assigning this task for both face-to-face and online students, my goal is to help them gain experience with writing online and learn from experience that creating and writing on a website—something that may otherwise seem like a daunting task that requires advanced coding knowledge—is actually much simpler than they may have initially thought. Following the approach outlined above should help scaffold digital or online writing students may be asked to complete.

[18] This activity requires access to a computer, a web browser capable of running a WYSIWYG web design platform, and a way to share the links to student sites with the instructor (e.g. email, an LMS, discussion boards, etc.). There are several alternative platforms for creating websites without coding knowledge—such as Google Sites and Wordpress—so instructors may want to seek alternatives if Wix and Weebly do not match the needs for a specific assignment or class.

5. Additional Considerations

[19] As noted previously, I wanted to take this opportunity to briefly address what instructors may want or need to do in order to successfully lead an activity focused on writing for the web. A nightmare scenario for instructors might be assigning a Writing on the Web activity in class, and not having any clue how to answer student questions about how to work with the interface of a platform like Wix. In Ashok Bhusal’s (2019) study of how UTEP’s first-year writing program incorporated multimodal assignments, one participant described that experience thusly: ​

[20] One instructor said that many students would email her regarding how to create a website for an ePortfolio assignment and the software to create a brochure and visual argument assignment. She expressed her inability to help her students in that situation. She added that she is not familiar with the software required for those assignments. She said she simply had to ask each of her students to go to the technology center located in the university library (Bhusal, 2019, p. 182).

[21] Beyond those concerns, most of the participants in Bhusal’s study “felt that they are doing a disservice to their students by not teaching them how to use technology” (2019, p. 182). Instructors in this position are torn between what feel like two failure states—not teaching students what they need to know, or not being able to adequately support it.

[22] While I would argue that even instructors who do not possess in-depth experience or skill with digital technologies should still attempt to incorporate them into their pedagogy for their numerous benefits to their students, the trepidation to devote the time and energy to learn new technologies on the part of instructors is completely understandable. Doing the work required to learn these technologies and effectively implement them into an individual or programmatic pedagogy certainly falls into the category of “invisible labor,” as described by Rochelle Rodrigo and Julia Romberger (2017). In some cases, the work required to integrate computer technology into our pedagogy is perceived as unknown, ignored, or overtly negative (Rodrigo and Romberger, 2017, p. 75-78), which presents ample reasons for ignoring it entirely.

[23] The perception of incorporating computer technologies into our pedagogies may get a mixed reception from different administrators or stakeholders, but it remains the case that incorporating computer technology into writing and English classes shows proven benefits for students. In their analysis of how English classrooms utilize computer technologies, not only did Bethany Black and Marie E. Lassmann find that learners saw notable gains in information literacy (2016, p. 617-619), but they identify “the need for teachers to be information technology literate, both as a means to meet students equally in their educational experience and for collaboration with fellow teachers in order to bolster teaching practices” (2016, p. 620). Put simply, while it is important for instructors to develop their own information literacy skills and ability to use Information and Communications Technologies, I would argue that students and instructors can do some of this learning together, and both of them can gain a great deal from that experience.

[24] With all of this in mind, I recommend instructors considering implementing Writing on the Web in their classroom consider one of two approaches to implementing an activity like this. The first is one that I tend to find helpful myself, which is to develop my own documentation for how to work with a platform. When faced with asking students to complete a task I know may give them problems, or one I’m not entirely familiar with, I typically design my own instructions for how to complete the task. Not only can it help an instructor develop their own information literacy skills and preemptively identify issues students may have with a piece of software or platform, the documentation itself can also support students as they work with creating in a range of platforms either in person or in online courses.

[25] Beyond this, to prepare for executing an activity like Writing on the Web, I recommend an infinitely simpler solution—instructors should demonstrate a willingness to: admit that they do not have all the answers, to search the web alongside them, and just do their best to support students using specific software or platforms. For most of the seven years I spent at Florida State University I served as a consultant and/or administrator for our Digital Studio locations (to learn more about this space, see McElroy et. al) where we assisted students working with digital and multimodal texts. In that time I learned more about how to accomplish things with computer technologies from trying to help students answer questions and troubleshoot problems through creative web searching than I have from anything else. I believe that an instructor’s humility and willingness to support their students can make up for a lack of advanced technical training and expertise, and I hope that an exercise like Writing on the Web can help instructors bring some low-stakes experience with computer technology to a variety of classrooms.​

6. References

Berlin, J. A. (1987). Rhetoric and reality: Writing instruction in American colleges 1900-1985. SIU Press.

Black, B. & Lassmann, M. E. (2016). Use of technology in college and university English classrooms. College Student Journal, 50(4), 617-623.

Bhusal, A. (2019). Addressing FYC instructors' lack of technological expertise in implementing multimodal assignments. In A. J. Reid (Ed.) Marginalia in Modern Learning Contexts (pp.166-186). IGI Global.

Britton, J. (1982). Writing to learn and learning to write. In J. Britton & G. M. Pradl (Eds.) Prospect and Retrospect: Selected Essays of James Britton (pp. 94-111). Boynton Cook Publishers.

Ching, K. L. (2018). Tools matter: Mediated writing activity in alternative digital environments. Written Communication, 35(3), 344-375.

Gregory, J. (2004). Writing for the web versus writing for print: Are they really so different? Technical Communication, 51(2), 276-285.

Holmes, L. H. (1985). Expanding the turf: Rationales for computers in writing labs. Writing Lab Newsletter, 9(10), 13-14.

Johnson-Sheehan, R. (2021). Technical communication today, 6th ed. Pearson.

Kress, G. (2010). Multimodality: A social semiotic approach to contemporary communication. Routledge.

McElroy, S. J., et al. (2015). A space defined: Four years in the life of the FSU Digital Studios. In K. J. Head & R. E. Burnett (Eds.) Sustainable Learning Spaces: Design, Infrastructure, and Technology. Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press. https://ccdigitalpress.org/book/sustainable/s1/fsu/index.html

Murray, D. (2011). Teach writing as a process not product. In V. Villanueva & K. L. Arola (Eds.) Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader, Third Edition (pp. 3-6). NCTE.

New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-93.

Overstreet, M. (2020). Writing at the interface: A research and teaching program for everyday digital media literacy. Literacy in Composition Studies, 8(1), 47-66.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5).

Rodrigo, R. & Romberger, J. (2017). Managing digital technologies in writing programs: Writing program technologists & invisible service. Computers and Composition, 44, 67-82.

Selfe, C. L. (1999). Technology and literacy in the twenty-first century: The importance of paying attention. SIU Press.

Selfe, C. L. (2004). Students who teach us: A case study of a new media text designer. In A. Wysocki, J. Johnson-Eilola, C. L. Selfe, & G. Sirc (Eds.) Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition (pp. 43-66). University Press of Colorado/Utah State University Press.

Shepherd, R. P. (2018). Digital writing, multimodality, and learning transfer: Crafting connections between composition and online composing. Computers and Composition, 48, 103-114.

Sullivan, P. (2001). Practicing safe visual rhetoric on the world wide web. Computers and Composition, 18(2), 103-121.

Summerfield, J. (1988). Writing centers: A long view. The Writing Center Journal, 8(2), 3-9.

Williams, R. (2004). The non-designer's design book. Peachpit Press.

Wysocki, A. F. (2001). Impossibly distinct: On form/content and word/image in two pieces of computer-based interactive multimedia. Computers and Composition, 18(2), 137-162.

Wysocki, A., Johnson-Eilola, J. Selfe, C. & Sirc, G. (2007). Writing new media: Theory and applications for expanding the teaching of composition. University Press of Colorado.

Yancey, K. B. (2004). Made not only in words: Composition in a new key. College Composition and Communication, 56(2), 297-328.

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