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Cultivating a Shared Vision: Crafting a Communal Policy and Pedagogical Guidelines for Online Writing Instruction

by Jennifer Sheppard

Publication Details

 OLOR Series:  Research in Online Literacy Education
 Author(s):  Jennifer Sheppard
 Original Publication Date:  28 February 2022



This article reflects on a year-long collaborative effort among a diverse group of tenure-line faculty, long-term lecturers, and contingent instructors to develop a comprehensive policy for online writing instruction within one department. The process, completed just months before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, guided both our sudden transition online and our return to a new balance of in-person, hybrid, and online offerings. This article offers insights on crafting an online policy that balances pedagogical and disciplinary concerns with issues of inclusive student access, equitable faculty workload and professional development, and departmental identity.

Resource Contents

1. Introduction

[1] Long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, online writing instruction (OWI) in higher education had been growing steadily. With this growth came greater scholarly attention to best practices in online curricula and pedagogy (Borgman & McArdle, 2019; CCCC 2013; GSOLE, 2019; Hewett & DePew 2015; Warnock 2009), literacy tutoring practices (Martinez & Olsen, 2015; Martini & Hewett, 2018), technologies and modalities (Mick & Middlebrook, 2015; Salisbury, 2018), and student experiences and learning outcomes (Boyd, 2008; Martinez, et. al., 2019; Warnock & Gasiewski 2018). However, much of the work to date has focused on OWI at the level of individual courses, writing centers, and instructors rather than from a more programmatic or departmental perspective. Contributions such as Minter’s (2015) “Administrative Decisions for OWI” and Borgman’s (2017) “The Online Writing Program Administrator (OWPA): Maintaining a Brand in the Age of MOOCs” offered much needed guidance for writing program administrators, though little research has examined department-wide efforts to shape approaches under a shared governance model where diverse faculty stakeholders have some voice in programmatic decision making.

[2] Drawing on professional best practices for OWI outlined by the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) and the Global Society of Literacy Educators (GSOLE), this article works to address this gap and contribute to larger conversations about online writing instruction by reflecting on one department’s collaborative experience in crafting policy to guide student access, pedagogy, and professional concerns. Although this piece attends to a specific local policy and institutional setting, it is also illustrative of broader issues regarding the role of OWI in university contexts. While online writing courses bring many affordances for teaching and learning, writing programs and the field at large also need to be critical of the ways in which choices about their implementation and administration necessarily change teaching practices, programs, and the experiences of students and instructors. This article offers one account of these efforts and argues for the importance of such reflexivity.

[3] The collaboratively written policy reported on here was completed just months before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It guided both my department’s sudden transition online and our return to a new balance of in-person, hybrid, and online offerings. Although we could not have anticipated the many pandemic-related online teaching challenges we faced, the policy was and will continue to be an important scaffold in shaping the department’s approach to OWI.

[4] Long before the pandemic, my department had largely resisted offering any of our writing courses online. Despite the prevalence of virtual offerings in university settings elsewhere, as well as the growing research and professionalization of OWI as a sub-field of composition, our program avoided this shift for variety of reasons mostly tied to institutional politics and (mis)perceptions about instructional quality. However, as a large, urban, and “impacted” campus where students often have difficulty finding enrollment slots, our stand-alone writing department began experiencing intense pressure to create online sections for some of the nearly 600 classes it teaches each year.

[5] Within two years of piloting a limited number of sections of a junior level required writing course, the demand from administrators, students, and instructors to expand availability increased dramatically. Instructor preparation and student experiences as reported in course evaluations, however, were uneven. Additionally, there were departmental questions about student access to course formats that worked for diverse learners, applicability of instructional technology training offered to instructors on campus, equitable faculty workloads, and availability of diverse teaching assignments.

[6] As a result of both administrative pressures to add online sections and concerns over format options for students and instructors, there was a desire to approach changes in a more intentional way. To address these concerns, the department formed a committee to develop policy to guide OWI moving forward. What at first seemed like a straightforward and short-term endeavor to establish simple guidelines for departmental OWI morphed into a year-long effort for a collaborative group of tenure-line faculty, long-term lecturers, and contingent instructors. Our resulting policy, ratified by all voting members of the department, now guides departmental OWI offerings, pedagogical commitments, and staffing decisions. It also provides research-backed documentation the department uses to resist larger institutional pressures to move ever-larger numbers of sections online for financial or logistical purposes.

[7] What follows is a reflection on these efforts to develop comprehensive policy for OWI within our department. Building primarily from the CCCC “A Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction (OWI)” (2013)1, we crafted a policy that outlined best practices in pedagogy and constructed a thoughtful administrative framework concerning inclusive student access, instructor preparation, equitable staffing, and departmental identity. This process involved negotiation among a complex mix of faculty stakeholders with different teaching loads and professional obligations, experience teaching in online environments, awareness of current scholarship in OWI, and understandings of institutional pressures and politics.

[8] Although some of the concerns we navigated are specific to our campus and department, many others are illustrative of broader tensions shared across the field. As such, reflection on our committee’s research, discussion, and resulting policy provides considerations relevant to other WPAs and programs. Such efforts will perhaps be even more significant post-pandemic as institutions and departments reconsider the benefits, challenges, and increased availability of online and hybrid writing courses.

Background and Benefits in Online Instruction

[9] Although reported prior to the pandemic, the latest numbers available from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (2018) show that 33.1% of students take some or all of their college courses online (p.11). This is up from just 10% in 1999-2000, representing a dramatic rise in how the nation’s 21 million college students access higher education. As Lederman (2018) highlighted, these numbers “represent a steady march in the normalization of online learning” in public, private, and for-profit institutions.

[10] Although it is yet unclear how much online offerings might increase across institutions when concerns about COVID-19 fully wane, it is likely to be substantial. California’s Governor, for example, has requested that by 2022, all 147 of California’s public colleges and universities, serving over 2.2 million students, “permanently increase the share of courses offered online by at least 10% over pre-pandemic levels” (Smith, Burke, and Gordon, 2021).

[11] Additionally, some studies show a significant rise in support from faculty, administrators, and students (Seaman & Johnson, 2021). A survey conducted across 856 institutions of more than 1,200 faculty and administrators and 1,400 students at the end of Spring 2021, for instance, found that 58% of faculty feel more optimistic about online learning than they did prior to the pandemic (p. 13). The same survey reported that 73% of students somewhat or strongly agree that they would like to take more online courses in the future (p. 9).

[12] Online instruction in higher education offers several potential benefits for students, faculty, and institutions. Among these advantages are increased flexibility in time and place for how courses are accessed, expanded and often more inclusive means for student participation, and the ability to leverage new technologies and modalities for both instructors in conveying course content and for students in engaging with that material and their learning communities. The logistical flexibility can be advantageous to all students who seem increasingly under pressure to take on internships, hold jobs, and enroll in high course loads, as well as to non-traditional students who may have added familial, geographical, and/or professional obligations outside of the classroom.

[13] For writing instruction, online courses may offer the opportunity to increase the amount of both formal and informal writing students do during a course because many of the interactions they have with peers and instructors are done through writing. As Warnock (2009) suggested, asynchronous online writing courses have the promise of being “better” than their face-to-face (F2F) counterparts because “the online format—by its very nature—requires students to learn to use writing to interact with others” (p. xi). Using discussion boards, chat, email, marginal comments, and other technologies, online students may complete much of their coursework through written text. In addition to more time for reading and writing, Mick and Middlebrook (2015) argued that asynchronous courses can be especially advantageous because they offer time for increased cognitive participation and processing, as well as archivable discussion records (pp. 136-137).

[14] Beyond possibilities for production of more alphabetic text, synchronous, asynchronous, and hybrid online writing environments also increase opportunities for multimodal approaches to writing, further extending experience with a variety of critical and rhetorical composing practices. Tools such as VoiceThread, Discord, Flipgrid, and many other technologies make space for students to compose through voice, image, and video, as well as in written text. Even the widespread adoption of Zoom and other synchronous video conferencing applications offer possibilities for students to refine digital rhetoric and writing practices as they consider issues of audience, context, tone, persuasive strategies, and more in their contributions.

[15] In addition to increasing the modalities for writing and interaction, digital settings also push instructors to develop new pedagogical approaches. As Borgman and McArdle (2019) suggested, while “Anyone can send an email, anyone can put things on CMS [content management systems], … teaching online requires more than using a technology tool to facilitate or enhance your teaching.” Instead, they wrote, “we saw that what we were doing in our online courses was architecting an experience for our students” (p. 3). This understanding of the pedagogical complexity of teaching online is echoed by scores of other researchers who have written about the critical importance of creating community (Borgman & McArdle, 2021; Darby & Lang, 2019), incorporating opportunities for both low- and high-stakes writing activities (Warnock & Gasiewski, 2018), devising methods for instructors to be accessible and responsive to students (Borgman & McArdle, 2019; Sibo, 2021), leveraging technologies, modalities, media, and resources in strategic ways (Blair 2015; Crawley, 2021; Mick & Middlebrook 2015), and supporting diverse learners (Gos, 2015; Miller-Cochran, 2015; Oswal, 2015; Wilkes, 2021).

[16] Although these shifts in learning and teaching all have the potential for improving the quality of writing instruction, they also impact faculty workload as instructors engage in additional professional development, prepare digital materials, and monitor, participate in, and respond to a higher volume of student writing, interaction, and media usage.

[17] Beyond increased learning opportunities, some scholars have argued that teaching writing online can benefit all faculty, including contingent instructors who often work at multiple institutions. Borgman and McClure (2019), for example, suggested that teaching online as a contingent instructor “is freeing” as it offers flexibility from time and place constraints (p. A3). It can also make such instructors “more marketable, as most programs want someone with both online teaching and instructional design experience” (p. A3). While there can be these and other professional advantages, departments and writing programs also need to be cognizant of how OWI teaching assignments can replicate or extend exploitive hiring practices such as increasing reliance on non-tenure track (NTT) instructors.

Challenges and Concerns with Online Instruction

[18] At the same time scholars have pointed to the benefits of online teaching and learning, many others have been less positive about its potentials. Although attitudes may be changing in light of pandemic teaching experiences, a 2019 Inside Higher Ed survey of nearly 2,000 faculty reported that “While three-quarters of instructors who have taught online believe it made them better teachers in several key ways,” just 14% of faculty who had never taught online believed it could produce at least equivalent student learning outcomes as a face-to-face course (Lederman, para. 3). Further, as Warnock and Gasiewski (2018) suggested, “few college teachers have ever taken an online course or engaged in any distance/online learning or professional development experience,” often making them wary of taking on such teaching or seeing its potentials for their departments, programs, institutions, or students (p. xi).

[19] Beyond prior experience, Bourelle and Bourelle (2017) reported that misperceptions persist about the quality, rigor, and learning potentials of OWI. They wrote,

Words like validity and legitimacy often arise when instructors discuss the merits of online education, and when it comes to writing, they ask how and if students can learn to craft their writing without forming a community of peers or when f2f interaction with the professor is missing. (pp. 351-352)

Similarly, Hewett and DePew (2015), found that

for some educators and scholars, OWI is a deficit model in comparison with the traditional, face-to-face (onsite) writing instruction undertaken from the time of Aristotle until about thirty years ago. As numerous articles attest, people worry that the loss of body/face/voice occurring in asynchronous settings particularly lead to a less humanly affective setting for courses that have come to be understood as social spaces for writing and sharing writing (DePew & Lettner-Rust, 2009; Gouge, 2009; Powers, 2010). (p. 9, citations in original)

Although the wide availability of synchronous video conferencing and other technologies during the pandemic may have positively impacted online writing instructors’ beliefs about issues like community formation, quality of interaction, and student engagement, concerns are likely to persist.

[20] While some faculty worry about a supposed loss of quality in online instruction, many also falsely believe such teaching is less work or “just” about the technology. Others fear online technologies and learning management systems drive teaching in ways not consistent with pedagogical commitments of the field, thereby diminishing the content and teaching expertise of faculty (Salisbury, 2018). Still others worry online instructors may be doing less work by posting content but not really engaging with or “teaching” students. Despite more than two decades of research into the pedagogy and efficacy of online literacy instruction, views about it being “less than” face-to-face education persist.

[21] Another major area of concern with OWI is equity in students’ access to the internet and relevant technologies. While it is easy to assume ubiquitous connectivity and technological expertise, experiences during the pandemic highlighted just how problematic such beliefs are. Nearly all students at times struggled with sufficient WIFI strength, functioning technology, and quiet locations for online classes as they shared space with roommates or family. Additionally, issues of access were and will continue to be exacerbated for already underserved students, as well as for those students and faculty in rural areas.

[22] While the practice of and research about teaching writing online is still relatively young, this area of the field has already engaged a robust set of pedagogical issues. The benefits and challenges discussed here, along with many others, will continue to be investigated, particularly considering our collective experiences during COVID-19. Perhaps some of the most comprehensive, yet succinct coverage of these issues within writing studies, however, comes from guidance issued by CCCC and GSOLE. The CCCC’s “Position Statement” (2013) and GSOLE’s more recent “Online Literacy Instruction Principles and Tenets” (2019), make this OWI scholarship and related best practices accessible to the larger discipline. This article turns next to a brief overview of the CCCC statement, followed by discussion of how our writing studies department used this framework to develop policy.

The CCCC OWI Position Statement: A Quick Overview

[23] After some initial discussion within our department committee about the broad rhetorical purposes of our work, we turned to existing scholarship that could inform our policy. We began by sharing a small bibliography of OWI scholarship. However, due to the heavy teaching loads and widely differing professional priorities of committee members, our conversations and resulting policy were shaped largely by the CCCC OWI position statement. It offered a robust yet manageable framework to guide consideration of key issues. We found it useful as both a heuristic and a model and we adapted many of its recommendations to fit our institutional context.

[24] As recounted in Hewett and DePew’s (2015) “A Research History of the CCCC OWI Committee,” the CCCC OWI statement is based on years of research, NCTE membership surveys, and discussions about pedagogy, technology, professional development, and student success. As such, it offers a disciplinary framework meant to guide online literacy teaching and learning. The bulk of the 15 principles are grouped into three categories: instructional, faculty, and institutional. The statement, however, begins with a single, overarching principle that calls for universal inclusivity and access for all students.2 As the CCCC committee outlines, OWI Principle 1 “supersedes and connects to every principle in the document” not only because issues of multilingualism and disability persist in online classrooms, but also because they are compounded by technological factors. “Such inclusivity,” they write, “must be a fundamental part of any initiative that includes OWI, given its inherent connection to technology; patterns of exclusion [that] have too often resulted from an uncritical adoption of digital technology and an indifference to how it could be used by persons with various disabilities and learning challenges,” as well as those with varying “linguistic and socioeconomic challenges”.

[25] The five principles related to instructional practices share a common focus on utilizing pedagogies that are effective, appropriate, and designed specifically for online environments. Rather than letting technology drive instruction (principle 2) or trying simply to transfer existing face-to-face curricula (principle 3) and pedagogies (principle 4) to online settings without adapting to the affordances and constraints of such spaces, the statement advocates fundamental reconsideration of how teachers create and share their curricula and interact with students. These are significant points for both faculty and administrators who may have the misconception that the movement of courses online is a simple transfer. While teaching in fully online or hybrid environments shares pedagogical similarities with in-person instruction, it also differs in significant ways that require a fundamental reimaging of teaching and learning.

[26] Additionally, the statement argues, just as faculty in F2F courses should be allowed to retain reasonable control over the content and instructional choices in their own classrooms (principle 5) and should be expected to adhere to pedagogical quality even when they experiment with alternative approaches to instructional delivery (principle 6), online instructors should share similar expectations about their work as their F2F colleagues.

[27] The three commitments grouped under faculty principles concern access to OWI-specific professional development opportunities (principle 7), equitable working conditions and compensation for online teaching (principle 8), and recognition of the importance of adhering to disciplinary recommendations on course enrollment sizes in both F2F and online settings (principle 9). Taken as a whole, this set of principles works to support faculty equality, but does so with an eye towards how these choices also support student success.

[28] The five guidelines in the institutional principles section focus on OWI considerations beyond the individual classroom or department and were not a significant part of our policy committee’s discussions. However, as a coda to the CCCC statement, the final principle calls for continued research into the pedagogy and administration of online teaching and learning, particularly when it is situated within specific courses, programs, and student populations. Such work, the CCCC committee argues, will not only bolster the theoretical and pedagogical perspectives presented in the rest of the statement, but will also examine how these practices evolve and how future professional development might be shaped. Although not part of our policy specifically, our department has since followed this guidance in surveying instructors on issues of workload, satisfaction, and professional needs following Spring 2020’s sudden transition online. Findings helped us to develop an internal online teaching of writing resource guide, to coordinate workshops by outside OWI experts, to streamline workloads by limiting the number of different course preparations assigned to online instructors, and to share findings of local experiences through publication in Composition Studies (Sheppard, 2021).

2. Navigating Contextual, Stakeholder, and Disciplinary Concerns

Background on Our Institutional Setting, Student and Instructor Demographics, and other Constraints

[29] Although our department’s institutional context is unique, just as it would be for any program undertaking a similar policy-building process, there are also several commonalities given the role of composition within university settings. A quick review of these issues will offer a better sense of the factors that influenced our decision-making.

Campus and Departmental Identity

[30] Our department is part of a large public state university system. Our campus serves approximately 35,000 students in a sizable metropolitan border region. We are classified as a Hispanic-serving institution with a student population that is socioeconomically, racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse. Our department teaches writing to approximately 14,000 students per year across nearly 600 sections. This includes a two-semester first-year writing requirement, a third-year writing requirement, several writing courses for specific disciplines, and classes for our undergraduate major/minor, certificate programs, and master’s degree.

[31] Our departmental identity is influenced by the fact that we have been a standalone Rhetoric and Writing Studies department for more than 25 years. All our courses share a core commitment to helping students develop critical, rhetorical, and analytical writing practices and a belief that these abilities are important for students’ success in a variety of academic, professional, and personal contexts. Our faculty are exceptional instructors, regularly winning teaching awards at the college and institutional level.

[32] Because so many of our department’s course offerings (nearly 560 of the 600 courses we teach annually) are required general education or writing-intensive courses for other majors and our BA and MA programs are relatively small, there is a tendency by upper administration and the larger university to see our work as largely service-oriented rather than as a part of its own discipline. This view is often manifest as a call to “fix” students’ writing, pressure to increase our course enrollment caps to save money on staffing, and even proposals by some disciplines to eliminate required writing courses from their majors altogether.

[33] To some degree, the makeup of our department’s instructional staff is the result of such misconceptions about the contributions and value of the field. Despite teaching the highest number of students per semester at our institution, we have among the fewest tenure-track faculty. Except for our nine tenure-line faculty who hold PhDs, all our 77 instructors hold MA (or the occasional MFA) degrees and are lecturers on long-term contracts (approximately 47) or contingent instructors on one-year or one-semester contracts (approximately 21). We also train and supervise approximately 40 graduate teaching associates per year, though they do not teach online except in the case of a global pandemic. Many of our contingent instructors often scramble to get full-time employment by seeking additional teaching assignments at some of the many two- and four-year institutions in our area. Full-time status for lecturers is five courses per term. Tenure-line faculty with research and service expectations have a teaching load of three courses per semester, though most have reassigned time for administrative duties.

[34] One additional contextual factor is critical in understanding our committee’s orientation towards drafting our OWI policy. The economic recession during the mid-2000s led to major budget cuts and dramatic increases in class sizes at our institution that have still not been entirely reversed. At 30 students per writing course, coupled with our notably high course load, our instructors are regularly teaching 90-150 students per semester. This workload is far beyond the course cap of 15-20 students per writing class or 60 students per semester recommended by CCCC (2015) and creates significant challenges for teachers and students alike.

[35] Despite having one of the highest enrollment caps in the nation and even in our state university system, our instructors are committed to high-impact teaching practices, such as one-on-one conferences and extensive feedback on students’ writing (Hassell, n.d.; Haswell, 2015). Many participate in occasional workshops through our department, our campus’ Center for Teaching and Learning, and/or our campus’ Instructional Technology Services department. However, contingent and NTT instructors are not professionally supported, evaluated on, or expected to keep up on research or advances in the field such as those related to OWI.

[36] In developing a policy for OWI, our department committee balanced these contextual factors in relation to disciplinary research and recommendations about best practices. As with any collaborative writing effort with diverse stakeholders, our process involved negotiation and compromise. We worked to consider the interests of individuals, the concerns of faculty with differing professional obligations, the identity of our department, and our responsibilities within our larger institution and the discipline. We sought to do all of this while keeping student access, learning, and success at the forefront. What follows is a discussion of our overall approach, the key tension we encountered, and how we navigated these issues to craft our final policy.

Who Our Committee Was and What We Set Out to Do


[37] Our ad hoc departmental committee had eight core members but received feedback on drafts from other instructors and department administrators. The majority of members were full-time lecturers, including two who had recently moved into those positions after working on short-term contracts for several years. Two additional members were tenure-line faculty, including one nearing retirement and one (myself) who had taught both in-person and online at a previous institution. All members were experienced teachers of writing. Approximately one third of the members had experience teaching in online settings. All members participated voluntarily to have a voice in departmental policy for teaching online.

[38] As outlined in our bylaws, the department uses a shared governance model for many curricular and writing program issues. Our department governing body is composed of all the tenure-line faculty, elected lecturer representatives, and non-voting graduate and undergraduate student representatives. Formation of the ad hoc OWI policy committee was proposed through our governing body and the resulting policy was ratified by all members.

What and Why

[39] Our committee’s charge was to develop recommendations for OWI in our department. Our primary purpose was to create an equitable, deliberative policy for which courses were offered online, who staffed them and how they were trained, and which research-backed pedagogies were endorsed to best support students’ learning and access needs. After several years of resisting efforts by upper-level administrators to move some of our writing classes online, a few instructors were trained through the campus instructional technology service and piloted special asynchronous sections. This led almost immediately to substantial pressure to dramatically increase online offerings. Online sections of our required junior-level writing course3 went from five of our 90+ sections per semester to more than 50% online within just three years. Further, the pressure from both waitlisted students trying to get into those sections while seats in in-person sections went unfilled and from upper-level administrators to schedule additional online sections to accommodate those students and their need to complete this required course became intense.

For Whom

[40] Our committee’s research and writing were undertaken with two primary audiences in mind. First, the internal department policy we crafted was aimed at our own instructors and administrators. The document offered an opportunity to shape a collective vision about pedagogical beliefs, student success, and professional expectations. This was important for helping those who had never taught online to see the potentials of OWI. It was also critical for those who had learned to teach online through programs offered by the ITS department where the focus had been on technologies such as the campus LMS but had not included much attention to pedagogy generally or to OWI pedagogy specifically.

[41] Second, though we were developing policy about how online courses would be taught and staffed within our program, another primary audience was upper-level administrators beyond our department. One key aspect we agreed on was the importance of crafting a statement to a broader campus readership about our disciplinary responsibilities and identity. We wanted to use the OWI policy as a way of articulating pedagogical commitments, no matter the modality of instruction, about the teaching of writing and the value it holds for students. Additionally, we wanted to make a case to readers about how writing instruction specifically does and does not change in online settings, hoping to dispel an erroneous belief that instructors could somehow automate or scale up instruction for larger class sizes just because this teaching occurred online. While a department-level policy can certainly be overruled by administrators in higher units, it does provide a clear statement on our values and carries some weight on a campus with a commitment to shared governance.


[42] As with most writing projects, we began our work with brainstorming, genre analysis, and research. We sought department- and program-level online teaching policies at other institutions, including those outside our discipline. We read and discussed the CCCC and GSOLE OWI principles, as well as other scholarship connected to issues such as online class size. And we began talking about student learning, teaching, professional, and personal concerns related to OWI. Although our drafting process was non-linear as we discussed and revisited a host of entangled issues throughout the year, our work generally attended to the following four categories: student access and success; online pedagogy and professional development; staffing and workload; and departmental identity.

Issue #1: Student Access and Success

[43] Our primary consideration throughout the year was student access and academic success. We understood diverse learners need access to diverse kinds of online and in-person course formats to succeed. As many OWI scholars (Griffin & Minter, 2013; Warnock & Gasiewski, 2018) have argued, not all students (and not all instructors) are a good fit for learning (or teaching) in online environments. Students who do best in online learning environments are those who self-select for such courses, are self-motivated, good with time management, comfortable with required technologies and digital literacies, and are willing to ask for help if they need support.

[44] We also acknowledged that a significant digital divide persists in terms of internet connectivity, technologies, and digital literacies. In our policy, we wanted to be sure that students who would excel in online courses had access to them and those who needed or preferred face-to-face experiences could enroll in such formats. This was particularly critical given that almost all our courses are required by students to complete their degrees.

[45] Additionally, we considered how online offerings (or lack thereof) would affect specific populations of students such as those who identified as first-generation, English language learners, or learning and/or physically disabled, as well as athletes, veterans, and non-traditional students. And we talked specifically about course and technological access for recently mainstreamed developmental writing students required to enroll in both a pre-first semester (summer) program and a corequisite two-semester stretch program for first-year writing.

[46] Another major area of discussion centered around which courses we would and would not offer online. Due in large part to a focus on student retention efforts on our large, diverse campus, and the fact that many of these courses are taught by first-time graduate teaching assistants, we chose to not offer first-year writing courses online except where required for special populations. In our specific institutional context, where we offer one of the few “small” courses students take and where they often form a sense of community that helps them connect to campus life and resources, we wanted to maintain that possibility through in-person offerings.

[47] In considering issues of academic success, we wanted to be sure those students who might benefit from online offerings for educational, financial, logistical, technological, social, or other reasons would have access to online courses and those who might face additional challenges to their success for the same reasons would continue to have access to in-person courses. There were no straightforward choices, but we sought to be equitable and inclusive of all students we teach. As seen in our full policy in the section below, all of our guidelines, to some extent, relate to issues of student success, but numbers 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 13 are most directly connected.

Issue #2: Online Pedagogy and Professional Development

[48] Another set of concerns we addressed early and often was online pedagogy and related professional development. We spent a lot of time discussing student learning and classroom experiences, as well as pedagogical and technological training for faculty to support department-wide student learning outcomes in our online offerings. We also considered in what ways instructors teaching online can facilitate the same (or exceed the) level of student interaction, sense of community, and writing support.

[49] A related issue concerned appropriate professional development for instructors wanting to teach online. Instructors piloting our first online offerings were trained by a campus IT services program, which tended to place more emphasis on the use of tools and technologies rather than pedagogy. As is frequently the case (Borgman & McArdle, 2019; Jackson & Olinger, 2021) there was little, if any, attention to non-lecture- and test-based courses generally or to writing instruction specifically. Instead of consideration of community building, interaction with learners, strategies for feedback on student work, and other classroom practices valued in writing studies, pilot instructors often highlighted their familiarity with the campus LMS and Turnitin as a way of streamlining grading and combatting concerns about plagiarism. Recognizing this disconnect in training experiences, we wanted our policy to call for more writing-focused professional development opportunities.

[50] While we wanted our policy to emphasize that pedagogy rather than technology should drive online classroom choices, we also wanted to guide instructors in making informed decisions about modalities and technologies. Although we still face administrative challenges to designating online courses as synchronous or hybrid rather than the asynchronous default, options abound beyond the LMS for inviting student engagement, supporting iterative writing practices, and engaging multimodal composing. Our policy decisions focused on encouraging innovative OWI while also being mindful of student diversity, inclusion, and technological access.

[51] Most of our policy choices were inflected by concerns over pedagogy, but guidelines 1, 3, 4, 7, and 9-13 are most directly connected to issues of online instruction and access to professional development.

Issue #3: Staffing and Workload

[52] Many of our committee’s conversations focused on professional issues of workload parity and access to diverse teaching assignments, with some members wanting the chance to teach online and others wanting to ensure that they could maintain access to in-person formats. As the CCCC principles outline, instructors for OWI should self-select so that they can “develop, thrive, and meet OWI students’ needs” (Hewett, 2015, p. 66) There was also a fear (which has now been realized) that individual resistance to/disinterest in teaching online might eliminate opportunities for additional summer teaching as some (and now all) sections moved online. Additionally, given the large percentage of contingent instructors who often work at multiple institutions, we also considered how access to online teaching opportunities might offer more flexible employment options, allowing instructors to spend their time teaching rather than commuting.4

[53] One of our more controversial negotiations concerned the number of online sections instructors can teach in a single semester. With large course enrollment caps and the increased literacy load for teaching writing online suggested by Griffin and Minter (2013) and emphasized by Warnock (2009) and Sibo (2021), we wanted to protect instructors from unmanageable workloads. At the same time, with teaching loads of 3-5 courses per semester, we also wanted to recognize that having multiple diverse preparations for different courses and formats is also a challenge. In the end, we agreed (with some significant dissent from those already teaching online5) that two online courses (60 students) per semester was the limit. This was the single most contentious professional issue we negotiated.

[54] Another weighty professional issue we addressed was how faculty teaching online would be assessed for our institution’s annual review, continuous employment, and promotion processes. The CCCC position statement (principle 7) suggests “online writing teachers should be evaluated/assessed by a peer or supervisor who has similar training and equal or superior abilities/experience in writing instruction generally and OWI particularly” and assessment should occur in the settings and modalities where that teaching occurs (CCCC OWI Position Statement). For a department in which all NTT instructor evaluations are done by tenure-line faculty, few of which had experience teaching online before the pandemic, we wanted our policy to be cognizant of how this consequential work could be done equitably.

[55] Our discussions and resulting policy also attended to concerns some members had about equivalence between in-person and online courses for students and instructors alike. Parts of our policy (e.g., guidelines 9 and 10) addressed this from a curricular perspective, emphasizing a central focus on rhetoric and writing no matter the modality. Other guidelines (e.g., 12 and 13) were directed towards instructors, reminding them of the centrality in the online classroom of providing timely feedback on student writing, engaging with students, creating classroom community, and staying present. For advocates of these guidelines, their inclusion may reveal underlying perceptions about quality in online courses, as well as potential worries about instructor engagement and effort.

[56] While many of these issues overlap with those in other parts of our work, guidelines 5, 10, and 13-20 are most directly focused on staffing and workload concerns.

Issue #4: Departmental Identity

[57] In addition to student and professional issues, our committee also navigated (sometimes competing) expectations and fears about the role of OWI in our department and how it might impact our campus identity. Although we saw great value in teaching writing online, and many of us were excited to do so, we also recognized the potential for such a move to alter our departmental community and our approach to teaching moving forward. That is, rather than developing OWI courses because of the pedagogical benefits and possibilities, we were concerned about how such offerings might become the norm for logistical, financial, and administrative purposes. We worried that by opening the door to some online offerings, we would become an all-online department due to administrative pressure, student demand, and perceptions about our work as service oriented.

[58] Because our department interacts with almost every student on campus through multiple required courses and because our “small” class sizes allow us to connect more personally with students, we are known for a level of accessibility and personalization not possible in most other departments (at least on this scale). Such access helps us to advocate for the value of critical, persuasive writing practices with our students and across disciplines. For these reasons, our discussions focused on inviting in online teaching and learning opportunities while also maintaining a visible on-campus presence and availability for learners.

[59] One area of agreement that emerged in our discussions concerned departmental self-determination in what courses would be offered online. In as much as it is possible, the committee sought to maintain department-level control over which courses we would develop and offer online. Our focus was on wanting these decisions to be made from a pedagogical and academic success perspective rather than from what we sometimes perceived as a purely monetary perspective. Although higher-level administrative directives are inclusive of issues such as students’ access to required courses and progress toward degree, they also tend to prioritize financial rather than pedagogical concerns.

[60] Finally, we also revisited the issue of course enrollment caps as related to departmental identity and the role our teaching plays in campus-wide student experiences. As guidelines 5, 6, and 7 outline, higher course caps necessarily mean less individualized attention and support for students in courses we believe are central to students’ academic careers. This is particularly true for new and at-risk students but can also impact advancement for any students who struggle in passing required writing courses. While these concerns hold for both in-person and online courses and are also tied to faculty workload, the committee wanted to take the opportunity to emphasize this concern for external readers who might see online courses as a place to raise course caps even further.

[61] Throughout our research and policy writing process, we navigated a complex and sometimes contentious set of factors. However, we negotiated our way to a framework that allowed our department to embrace the pedagogical benefits of OWI while also accounting for student, professional, and disciplinary considerations. Our final policy follows in the next section.

Praxis Snapshot 1. Departmental Online Writing Instruction Policy


Image of first two paragraphs of "Department's Online Writing Instruction Policy"--transcript linked above

3. Recommendations

[62] Reflecting on our yearlong writing experience, our culminating document, and the roughly two years this policy has since been in place, I offer the following recommendations for other collaborative initiatives in developing OWI guidelines at the department or program level.

[63] Be inclusive of all affected stakeholders— Whether a policy is written by a single WPA or a department committee, the process should include input from faculty and instructors who teach a variety of courses and serve in other capacities. Every writing program has complex dynamics involving who instructors are, what backgrounds, levels of experience, and professional statuses they have, what teaching assignments are available, and more. Being inclusive of these different voices and working explicitly to consider multiple priorities helps to ensure that policies are representative of collective working conditions. While instructors may have differing levels of experience with OWI, providing some forum for those who will be impacted by policy can offer helpful and sometimes unexpected insights, as well as greater buy-in.

[64] In retrospect, we would have benefited from including student voices in our process. Hearing about some of their online learning experiences through formal surveys, small focus groups, or student representatives on our committee could have offered practical insights. Barring that, sharing work such as Warnock and Gasiewski’s (2018) that offers student experiences would have provided some concrete sense of how learners experience the online writing classroom.

[65] Start with broad conversations about the purpose(s) of policy development— Initial conversations about why a department/program is undertaking this work can help to articulate the scope of the project. Knowing up front, for example, if a policy is intended to be proactive in outlining curriculum design and course offerings, or corrective in addressing problems that have arisen with pedagogy, professional development, staffing, or student outcomes can help to keep discussions on track.

[66] Focus on audience— Conversations about purpose naturally relate to issues of audience. Taking time during early brainstorming and later drafting work can help to clarify which internal and external readers are being addressed and why. Although attending to diverse and sometimes competing audiences is always a challenge, crafting a policy that is cognizant of and persuasive to these various readerships is central to accomplishing broader rhetorical goals.

[67] Find points of common ground and shared commitments— OWI scholarship frequently highlights how instructors and administrators often have widely differing perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds regarding online education generally and writing instruction specifically. While it is useful to air these beliefs and concerns, it is also critical in a shared governance approach to find common ground. Make time early on to have a conversation about what pedagogical and disciplinary commitments members can agree on. Doing so can frame the work as collaborative rather than adversarial.

[68] Do your research— Personal teaching experience in online and/or F2F settings and knowledge of institutional histories and politics are key components in building policy, but this should also be connected back to relevant scholarship. The CCCC’s "Position Statement" and GSOLE’s "OLI Principles" are excellent, accessible, and concise starting points that prompt readers to consider a host of critical OWI issues. Beyond those sources, Research in Online Literacy Education, Computers and Composition, GSOLE, and the OWI Community website, as well as and many other journals and edited collections explore the complexities of online writing instruction at the classroom, programmatic, and disciplinary level.

[69] Draft, seek feedback, and revise— Once a draft version of an OWI policy has been completed, find formal and informal opportunities to share the work-in-progress with stakeholders. Use this feedback to refine understanding of audience, purpose, and the persuasiveness of the document. Take time to understand critiques and suggestions from diverse stakeholders to maximize buy-in once the policy is enacted.

[70] Although our committee was comprised of only 10% of departmental members, each constituency (tenure-line, lecturer, and contingent) sought feedback from their peers and from department-level administration. This brought new ideas and concerns into our deliberations and ultimately helped us develop a policy that worked for a wide majority of our department.

[71] Formalize adoption and be consistent in the application of your new policy— Use whatever mechanism is available in your context to formally adopt your new policy and let stakeholders know about it. In our situation, this was an important move as voting members of the department deliberated over and ultimately approved our policy. The new guidelines were then shared with the larger department via email, giving all members the opportunity to understand that pedagogical expectations and staffing decisions for teaching online are based on OWI scholarship and professional guidance. As we plan for a post-pandemic future, we are making decisions about professional development, teaching assignments, development of new online and hybrid course offerings, and more in direct relation to these policy decisions with as much transparency as possible.

[72] Keep up to date— In the roughly two-decade history of OWI, the field, teaching practices, student learning, and technologies have changed dramatically. They will continue to evolve as new modalities, skill sets, experiences, and research on pandemic OWI shape our understanding of affordances and best practices. To keep pace with these changes, programs should revisit policies every few years.

[73] Given our fully online 16 months during COVID, it will be invaluable for our department to reassess this policy when we finally reach a more stable post-pandemic era. All our continuing instructors have now taught writing online, so it will be critical to review our guidelines in light of these experiences and emerging scholarship. Similarly, students have had widely differing learning experiences that impacted their studies. Finding out from them through our own local surveys and from research in the broader composition field will help us to adjust our department’s approach to OWI moving forward.

4. Conclusion

[74] While bureaucratic on one level, the process of writing policy to guide OWI also offers programs an opportunity to craft a collective vision about teaching and learning in contemporary academia. As more than two decades of classroom practice and scholarship have demonstrated, teaching writing online can offer many benefits for students, instructors, and institutions. It can provide opportunities to increase the amount of writing students do, to leverage the affordances of new technologies, to expand access to education to broader populations of students, and to explore more interactive and community-oriented pedagogies. At the same time, such shifts necessarily change traditional classroom practices, the experiences and expectations of students, and the ways our programs are staffed and administered. Collaborative research and writing of policy to guide our decisions about OWI is one way we can be responsive to and deliberative about how these changes are implemented. It offers a forum for identifying key disciplinary concerns and making intentional decisions about which research-based practices should shape our choices for writing teachers, students, and programs.

[75] In my own experience, working collaboratively to write a department OWI policy with a diverse range of faculty stakeholders offered a challenging yet rewarding opportunity to consider the future of writing instruction in our department. While we sometimes had competing professional interests, pedagogical approaches, and beliefs about the role of technology in writing instruction, this process also highlighted our shared values and disciplinary commitments. Although our specific institutional context likely differs from other departments and writing programs, our experience also illustrates how communal conversation and decision making allowed us to consider the impact of a range of OWI issues relevant to us and the field of writing studies more broadly.


1. Our committee finished its work just weeks before GSOLE published its “Online Literacy Instruction Principles and Tenets” (June 2019) which provides an updated guide to best practices. Had it been available during our work, we would have drawn heavily from its guidelines in addition to those from CCCC.

2. The 2019 GSOLE OLI principles statement similarly begins with a central commitment to universal access and inclusivity.

3. It is worth noting that our current online offerings include only sections of the required junior-level writing course and a second-year professional writing courses for business students. Although there are many examples of strong, successful FYC OWI courses reported in scholarship, our policy specifically excludes the two courses in our first-year writing sequence. This was done for several reasons, including the desire to support student retention efforts on a large urban campus through F2F instruction and the employment of many first-time instructors in these courses through our graduate TA program.

4. Recently, the reverse of these fears has also come true. While some instructors who did not want to teach online feared they would be stuck teaching the same in-person assignments, those who requested and trained to teach online now feel somewhat obligated into continuing, fearing that their contract statuses might be reduced if they don’t take the sections offered to them. Although they report enjoying the experience, they would also like diversity in their teaching assignments since we only offer online sections of two different courses.

5. In an internal survey following the sudden transition online in spring 2020, one anonymous respondent said, “I've taught a limited number of classes online for several years and enjoyed it. I actually advocated that the department offer more courses online. No more… I found the constant mediation (via technology) depressing. I felt totally disconnected from my students, who simply didn't exist for me as people at the end of the semester” (Sheppard, 2021). There were, of course, many complicating factors that made teaching online in the first months of the pandemic challenging, but this response and others suggest that with the teaching load and enrollment cap in our specific context, our policy’s limit might be reasonable for both instructors and students.


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