Bourelle, Tiffany, Andrew Bourelle, and Sherry Rankins-Robertson. “Teaching with Instructional Assistants: Enhancing Student Learning in Online Classes.” Computers and Composition 37 (2015): 90-103. Web. 6 Oct. 2015.
Tiffany Bourelle, Andrew Bourelle, and Sherry Rankins-Robertson discuss the “Writers’ Studio,” a pilot program at Arizona State University that utilized upper-level English and education majors as “instructional assistants” (IAs) in online first-year writing classes. The program was initiated in response to a request from the provost to cut budgets without affecting student learning or increasing faculty workload (90).
A solution was an “increased student-to-teacher ratio” (90). To ensure that the creation of larger sections met the goal of maintaining teacher workloads and respected the guiding principles put forward by the Conference on College Composition and Communication Committee for Best Practices in Online Writing Instruction in its March 2013 Position Statement, the team of faculty charged with developing the cost-saving measures supplemented “existing pedagogical strategies” with several innovations (91).
The writers note that one available cost-saving step was to avoid staffing underenrolled sections. To meet this goal, the team created “mega-sections” in which one teacher was assigned per each 96 students, the equivalent of a full-time load. Once the enrollment reached 96, a second teacher was assigned to the section, and the two teachers team-taught. T. Bourelle et al. give the example of a section of the second semester of the first-year sequence that enrolled at 120 students and was taught by two instructors. These 120 students were assigned to 15-student subsections (91).
T. Bourelle et al. note several reasons why the new structure potentially increased faculty workload. They cite research by David Reinheimer to the effect that teaching writing online is inherently more time-intensive than instructors may expect (91). Second, the planned curriculum included more drafts of each paper, requiring more feedback. In addition, the course design required multimodal projects. Finally, students also composed “metacognitive reflections” to gauge their own learning on each project (92).
These factors prompted the inclusion of the IAs. One IA was assigned to each 15-student group. These upper-level students contributed to the feedback process. First-year students wrote four drafts of each paper: a rough draft that received peer feedback, a revised draft that received comments from the IAs, an “editing” draft students could complete using the writing center or online resources, and finally a submission to the instructor, who would respond by either accepting the draft for a portfolio or returning it with directions to “revise and resubmit” (92). Assigning portfolio grades fell to the instructor. The authors contend that “in online classes where students write multiple drafts for each project, instructor feedback on every draft is simply not possible with the number of students assigned to any teacher, no matter how she manages her time” (93).
T. Bourelle et al. provide extensive discussion of the ways the IAs prepared for their roles in the Writers’ Studio. A first component was an eight-hour orientation in which the assistants were introduced to important teaching practices and concepts, in particular the process of providing feedback. Various interactive exercises and discussions allowed the IAs to develop their abilities to respond to the multimodal projects required by the Studio, such as blogs, websites, or “sound portraits” (94). The instruction for IAs also covered the distinction between “directive” and “facilitative” feedback, with the latter designed to encourage “an author to make decisions and [give] the writer freedom to make choices” (94).
Continuing support throughout the semester included a “portfolio workshop” that enabled the IAs to guide students in their production of the culminating eportfolio requirement, which required methods of assessment unique to electronic texts (95). Bi-weekly meetings with the instructors of the larger sections to which their cohorts belonged also provided the IAs with the support needed to manage their own coursework while facilitating first-year students’ writing (95).
In addition, IAs enrolled in an online internship that functioned as a practicum comparable to practica taken by graduate teaching assistants at many institutions (95-97). The practicum for the Writers’ Studio internship reinforced work on providing facilitative feedback but especially incorporated the theory and practice of online instruction (96). T. Bourelle et al. argue that the effectiveness of the practicum experience was enhanced by the degree to which it “mirror[ed]” much of what the undergraduate students were experiencing in their first-year classes: “[B]oth groups of beginners are working within initially uncomfortable but ultimately developmentally positive levels of ambiguity, multiplicity, and open-endedness” (Barb Blakely Duffelmeyer, qtd. in T. Bourelle et al. 96). Still quoting Duffelmeyer, the authors contend that adding computers “both enriched and problematized” the pedagogical experience of the coursework for both groups (96), imposing the need for special attention to online environments.
Internship assignments also gave the IAs a sense of what their own students would be experiencing by requiring an eportfolio featuring what they considered their best examples of feedback to student writing as well as reflective papers documenting their learning (98).
The IAs in the practicum critiqued the first-year curriculum, for example suggesting stronger scaffolding for peer review and better timing of assignments. They wrote various instructional materials to support the first-year course activities (97).
Their contributions to the first-year course included “[f]aciliting discussion groups” (98) and “[d]eveloping supportive relationships with first-year writers” (100), but especially “[r]esponding to revised drafts” (99). T. Bourelle et al. note that the IAs’ feedback differed from that of peer reviewers in that the IAs had acquired background in composition and rhetorical theory; unlike writing-center tutors, the IAs were more versed in the philosophy and expectations embedded in the course itself (99). IAs were particularly helpful to students who had misread the assignments, and they were able to identify and mentor students who were falling behind (98, 99).
The authors respond to the critique that the IAs represented uncompensated labor by arguing that the Writers’ Studio offered a pedagogically valuable opportunity that would serve the students well if they pursued graduate or professional careers as educators, emphasizing the importance of designing such programs to benefit the students as well as the university (101). They present student and faculty testimony on the effectiveness of the IAs as a means of “supplement[ing] teacher interaction” rather than replacing it (102). While they characterize the “monetary benefit” to the university as “small” (101), they consider the project “successful” and urge other “teacher-scholars to build on what we have tried to do” (102).