I didn’t have a personal laptop until my graduate school days, when my sister came home one day with a very old Dell laptop she had bought for a few Ghanaian cedis. Of course, the laptop wasn’t mine but I could lay claim to it because it belonged to my sister. The laptop was slow, it froze often and somehow it took forever to boot whenever I needed it. Prior to this time, I had worked on all college assignments, including my undergraduate thesis, in my university’s ICT center. This means that when I left campus to my house, I didn’t have access to computers and the internet to complete assignments. I often worked with paper and pen, typing the assignments later when I went to campus. Those days, I always carried around a flash drive containing my work-in-progress documents just in case I needed to access them at some point. Sometimes, I would go to an internet café to work but given the cost involved and the nature of the environment, there was a limit to how long I could work there. I had little knowledge of technology besides MS Word, MS Excel and the Google search engines. My typing was funny–still is, people often remarked.
Now, the Coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a swift movement towards virtual learning globally and it seems literacy education is experiencing yet another “tectonic change” (see Yancey, 2004, p. 298). But when I think about the changes in the past year, it occurs to me that I wouldn’t have had the resources and skills to be successful in an online course eight years ago. Thankfully, I didn’t have to take an online class until much later, as a doctoral student in the US, when I was coincidentally required to take a course in the fundamentals of online teaching as a graduate teaching assistant. I present this snippet of my digital literacy narrative because, in many ways, it points to how this background shapes my online literacy theory and explains why, for me, online literacy instruction that works is as much about seriously considering the background of all the people involved in the learning process–students, instructors/tutors and administrators alike, as it is about thinking critically about the technology that makes virtual learning possible. Consequently, my approach to online literacy instruction is critical, rhetorical and transnational.
I believe that “[o]nline literacy instruction should be universally accessible and inclusive” (GSOLE, 2016-2020). In 2004, when Kathleen Blake Yancey (2004) presented her opening remarks at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, she reflected on how technology was destabilizing traditional conceptions of writing. Today, we are also concerned with the spaces within which literacy instruction happens with more and more students enrolling in online learning (Boyd, 2008, p. 226). Whether OLI happens completely online, in hybrid or technologically-enhanced contexts, there is a need to consider how the introduction of digital technology shapes learning. For me, access is not just about having technology, although that is essential if online learning is to take place, but it is also about the factors that people bring to OLI, including issues pertaining to geography, multilingualism, multiculturalism, class, disability, and race at their intersections. In line with this, I often begin my online classes by taking a survey that allows me to understand the background of my students. Another survey focused specifically on students’ technological knowhow and understanding of multimodality is also taken for the multimodal component of my first year writing courses (see artefact here). This has been especially significant for my teaching in a Global Southern context, where the technological divide is likely to impact the smooth running of an online class. Such activities help me to anticipate the challenges that students might face and identify support that will make learning easier.
An accessible online literacy instruction should have a critical dimension. For me, this calls for a social justice perspective that requires us to examine our practices, as Boyd argues (226), and the discourses that shape them. What do our syllabus, for instance, indicate about how we are interpellating students and constructing ourselves? What do the documents of our online writing centers say about how we are positioning students? Do these documents engage with questions of disability and race? Are we by our discourses and practices privileging certain literacies, abilities and ways of learning over others? How do our classes reproduce the dominant ideologies within our societies? I believe that to engage these issues, OLI must be situated within context; it cannot be detached from what happens within the larger society and how already existing systemic issues shape online learning and discourses. In this sense, I see my role as an advocate. As someone who has taught writing courses and worked in writing centers on both sides of the Atlantic, I know that the transnational can complicate these variables. Thus, I take an explicitly transnational approach to these intersectional issues. Such a perspective is crucial because, unlike face-to-face contexts, OLI is often characterized by global connections (see Cleary et al., 2019), bringing together people located in different parts of the globe.
Such a perspective would require that the multimodal assignments we teach and assign be accessible so they honor the literacies of people with disabilities (Gonzales and Butler, 2020). It also requires us to recognize that the principles of multimodality privileged in our classrooms may not be universal and must thus, be contextualized. I also believe that “online literacy instruction must be overtly anti-racist, including practices that respect and reinforce the cultural and communal values of linguistic and social diversity” (GSOLE, 2020). There are two issues of accessibility that I engage with: first, we must be careful not to impose what works in face to face contexts on online contexts; and second not to reproduce the social conditions that impact learning in online contexts. We must, however, recognize that technology is not devoid of politics and that it is structured with the biases of those who created it.
To understand how social variables impact my classroom, I use results of my class survey to appropriately adjust and design aspects of the class to meet students’ needs. Informed by Cummings et al. (2017), I also recognize the need to move beyond a “technological homebase” to create an “instructorial homebase” that allows me to be available to students. I do not assume automatically that students understand the interface of the course LMS or any other technology we deploy. That is why, following Cummings et al.’s observation, I provide a spatial analysis of the spaces (e.g., zoom) I use for online instruction. In addition, I provide directions in both written and multimodal forms. When I assign multimodal projects, I ensure that students have a number of options and technologies to choose from. As a writing center administrator, I recognize the need to train tutors who can support the work of students working online or with digital tools (Clement, 2019) and provide them with the resources to help them support student composition in various forms and contexts. In a workshop on online tutoring, I highlight both the practical and theoretical so students can be reflexive and intentional about their activities during sessions.
There is the tendency to emphasize technology as the significant dimension of OLI instruction but technologizing is itself not new as far as literacy is concerned. And this is true whether we are engaging with literacy practices in oral cultures, using white board and marker, examining the impact of the printing press or considering the influence of computerization in recent times. It is not technology per se that is unique to OLI, it is in fact the kind of technology we are deploying that requires significant changes in our approach. For instance, there have been discussions about the absence of the personal in online classrooms, which means that online instructors and learners must do more to enhance interaction and build community. For me, the affordances and constraints presented by online literacy instruction is not merely a technological issue but a rhetorical one. That is why a rhetorical approach is central to my practices as an online literacy instructor.
This rhetorical lens allows me to engage teaching, even in online settings, as play. In Ghana, where I teach currently, there is a popular children’s play. To participate in this play, children sit in a circular formation, each with a stone. As they sing, they move the stone along. The play continues until someone misses a movement, which often attracts a burst of good laughter from all involved including the one associated with the mishap. Then, they stop, restrategize and move on with the play. For me, online learning that is effective should be like play: it is contextual, activity-based, creative and leaves room for failure and of course, relearning. It is flexible and adaptable as Cummings et al., have argued. This principle, for instance, underlies one of the collaborative writing activities in my class. For this activity, students are put into groups to either compose a narrative (see student work product below) or an argumentative piece (see student work product below) of their choice on Padlet. Each student takes turn to contribute to the story. After this, each group shares their composition with the rest of the class, explaining what was interesting, successful or even challenging about the exercise. In one instance, students discussed their struggles with writing an argumentative piece in Padlet and with fellow students, suggesting that their experience would be different if they were writing a narrative. This opened the space for further discussion on how different media present different affordances and constraints for certain forms of writing.
While digital technology may be directly impacting teaching and learning in recent times, the fundamental principle underlying education has not changed. As educators, our aim is to provide the conditions in which students can meaningfully interact and learn in a relatively smooth and engaging manner. This remains true whether I am teaching face to face or in online contexts; however, because online contexts come with their own complexities, my teaching and administrative practices need to be adapted to respond to these exigencies. It is this that an OLI Theory that emphasizes criticality, transnationality and rhetoricity, allows me to accomplish.
Boyd, P. W. (2008). Analyzing students’ perceptions of their learning in online and hybrid first-year composition courses. Computers and Composition, 25(2), 224-243.
Cleary, Y., Rice, R., Zemliansky, P., & Amant, K. S. (2019) Perspectives on Teaching Writing Online in Global Contexts: Ideas, Insights, and Projections. Perspectives on Teaching Writing Online – ROLE / OLOR.
Clements, J. (2019). The Role of New Media Expertise in Shaping Consultations. WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, 43(9-10), 10-18.
Cummings, L., Frey, R., Ireland, R., Martin, C., McKee, H., Palmeri, J. & Porter, J. (2017). Kairotic design: Building flexible networks for online composition. In J. Purdy & D. Devoss (Eds.) Making Space: Writing Instruction, Infrastructure, and Multiliteracies (n.p.). Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/drc/mpub7820727/1:11/–making-space-writing-instruction-infrastructure?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1
Global Society of Online Literacy Educators (2016-2020). Online Literacy Instruction Principles and Tenets. URL: https://gsole.org/oliresources/oliprinciples.
Global Society of Online Literacy Educators (2020). Statement on Anti-Racist Online Literacy Pedagogy and Administration. Global Society of Online Literacy Educators – Statement on Antiracist OLI (gsole.org).
Gonzales, L., & Butler, J. (2020, June). Working Toward Social Justice through Multilingualism, Multimodality, and Accessibility in Writing Classrooms. In Composition Forum (Vol. 44). CF 44: Multilingualism, Multimodality, and Accessibility by Laura Gonzales and Janine Butler (compositionforum.com).
Yancey, K. B. (2004). Made not only in words: Composition in a new key. College Composition and Communication, 56(2), 297-328.