Annotated Bibliography Entry: Bourelle et al.

Bourelle, Tiffany, Sherry Rankins-Robertson, Andrew Bourelle, and Duane Roen. “Assessing Learning in Redesigned Online First-Year Composition Courses.” Digital Writing Assessment and Evaluation.  Eds. Heidi A. McKee and Danielle Nicole DeVoss. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press, 2013. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

image of online computer learning

Online Learning Environment

Tiffany Bourelle, Sherry Rankins-Roberston, Andrew Bourelle, and Duane Roen describe the response of their university English department to an institution-wide budget-cutting impetus meant to restructure “approaches to teaching and learning” in order to cut costs and “reduce faculty workloads,” all the while maintaining the student learning outcomes. These authors chronicle the changes made to a traditional freshman composition course sequence (i.e., face-to-face or f2f, 25:1 student:faculty classroom ratio producing process-outcome-based essays) into a completely online, portfolio-assessed, multi-instructor, mass student enrollment design, which they dubbed the Writer’s Studio. The article describes the methodological as well as pedagogical and institutional considerations that went into this change. The authors point to specific changes to classroom design, teacher / student roles, assessment rubrics and methods, as well as curricular materials. Of course, the online nature of the course, as well as the incorporation of a collaborative team-teaching methodology, lends itself to analysis as both a genre as well as a network system (perhaps a genre system as well, as it combines elements of the f2f as well as digital environments). While the success of the change is measured only anecdotally at this point (based on student reviews), the authors encourage other institutions to consider their model as a potential basis for alternative composition course design elsewhere.

Key features of this modification make it a suitable candidate to which to apply our recent discussions of networks as well. Bourelle et al. describe how a single-teacher f2f classroom of 25 students moved to a totally online environment (a rhetorical situation) facilitated by a network of instructors/tutors. The economic force behind this change is reminiscent of the hierarchies referred to by several of our recent readings (Foucault, Bazerman, Popham), and represent an intersection of values that – for many in our field – are points of tension (i.e., institutional / business protocols taking precedence over disciplinary and pedagogical practices (Popham 281). In fact, Bazerman’s and Popham’s work both relate to the formative influences of one disciplinary culture (the academic administration) upon another as described in this article.

network hub of classroom redesign based on Bourelle et a.

Classroom Network Representation based on Bourelle et al.

The design of the course is of interest to our discussion as it incorporates several factors that may be explored in terms of genre. First, the redesign employs a collaborative-, network-based instruction model, incorporating several hierarchies of writing instruction – from lead instructor (full time, non-tenure track) to graduate teaching assistants (who are also cross listed as students, since they are earning credit toward their own academic work), to peer tutors. This hierarchy does raise some questions, as the description of the economic forces driving this change stress not only reduced cost but increased efficiency in terms of decreasing teacher workloads (which is reminiscent of not only Popham’s boundary cultures but also Bazerman’s activity systems). Secondly, the redesign is based on a shift in text forms, moving from a traditional series of text-based essays to fully “multimodal composition” (Bourelle et al.). In addition, aside from addressing the institutional edicts, the writing faculty at this university wanted to maintain a learner-centered course design, a concept that lends itself to applying network concepts in terms of connectivity, influence, and activity. Finally, the method of assessment moves from a single teacher-reader grading a final text toward  collaborative feedback using an e-portfolio system (which could possibly be explored using Bazerman’s concept of genre systems).

As a final thought on how we might bring all of our theories together, the redesigned program may also raise the question of whether, in addition to genre theory, we might apply Foucault’s theories of discursive formations if we see this Writing Studio’s existence as “a space of multiple dissensions,” a node of Arch of Knowledgeintersection created by the values of the administration and those of the composition program, If so, archaeological analysis may be another way to define “the form” as well as “the relations that they have with each other” (155)  The curriculum redesign relies heavily on key learning outcomes documents (forms) embraced by the discipline– the WPA Outcomes and NCTE Framework — along with the Quality Matters guidelines, a set of stabilizing practices (perhaps even a genre set) as described by Bazerman (“Speech Acts” 318).

There are several nodes of tension that the authors do not explore in any detail, such as the question of labor hierarchies (just as it is with most freshman composition sequences, this model relies heavily on contingent faculty and graduate assistants in the name of “reducing faculty workloads”). While many of the goals, methods, and forms (assignments, rubrics, course policy documents, etc.) are not unlike the traditional f2f one-teacher model, the changes made to the system of instruction / classroom connectivity raise the question of whether all of the “traces” (Foucault) have been accounted for in assessing this teaching/classroom genre. For example, while the authors briefly address the technology mediating the classroom, this is limited to / framed by concerns of student computer knowledge and “maturity” (Bourelle et al.). This may be based on the mechanical structure of the connectivity (boundary spaces) – the digitally-mediated access to peers and instructor teams, as well as writing materials / resources. Analyzing this redesign using those analytical concepts provided by Foucault, Bazerman, Miller, and Popham may prove informative and illuminating.

One Response to Annotated Bibliography Entry: Bourelle et al.

  1. I work at an institution that has taken a practical and theoretical stance against online learning. This centralized decision resulted in eliminating a relatively successful online undergraduate degree completion program in emergency management and two online undergraduate degrees in emergency management and disaster science. It also places our professional and continuing education unit in the unenviable position of developing programs to meet the learning needs of adult and professional students without the benefit of online programs of study. Business decisions and theoretical stances aside, the realities of 21st century students seeking programs of study is one that values the flexibility of online learning opportunities. We can’t meet that need, so we tout the considerable benefits of studying at a highly selective, richly-resourced, small, private, liberal arts school for a fraction of the cost as a “traditional” full time student.

    My reaction to the decision made by the authors’ university English department to move freshman composition entirely online is informed at least in part by my own institution’s decision to do the opposite. My institution’s decision to shift away from entirely online programs of study is not a financial decision—in fact, the institution is well enough resourced to avoid the question of affordability altogether at the institutional level. But at the level of our school of professional and continuing education, the issue is significant. At a time when enrollments in higher education are at relatively historic lows, our program discontinued three programs of study, exacerbating an already difficult situation. With this in mind, I approach and understand with mixed feelings and theoretical stances the shift to Writer’s Studio described in this article.

    Your summary seems to be right on target to focus on network, as the labor practices required by this decision require a network of learners, WPA, contingent faculty, and graduate assistants continually assessing and revising this instructional practice and environment. Assessment appears to be the key to the success of this project; your summary notes that, to date, “the success of the change is measured only anecdotally at this point (based on student reviews).” I’m not sure why “the authors encourage other institutions to consider their model as a potential basis for alternative composition course design elsewhere” given this lack of quantitive data to measure the program’s success. Your summary appropriately addresses the theoretical stance of the modification (from f2f to online digital), and I sense that our readings in Spinuzzi may offer even more directly applicable theoretical frameworks to understand the potential implications of this transfer from one activity system to another. I would like to have seen the authors provide a more data-driven assessment of the success of this transfer, given its direct applicability to fiscal situations at higher education institutions around the country.

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