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, froze often and somehow 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 often carried around a flash drive containing my work-in-progress documents just in case I needed to access them. Sometimes, I would go to an internet cafe 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, 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, when I was coincidentally required to take a course in the fundamentals of online teaching. 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.
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.
This calls for criticality in what we do as OLI practitioners. 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 that shapes online discourses. In this sense, I see my role as an advocate. As someone who has taught literacy on both sides of the Atlantic, I am aware of how questions of 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 characterised by global connections (see Cleary et. al., 2019).
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). 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, recognise 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 begin classes with some kind of survey to ascertain the characteristics of the students I teach and appropriate adjust and design aspects of the class to meet students’ needs. I do not assume automatically that students understand the interface of the course LMS or any other technology we deploy. I often 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 recognise the need to train tutors who can support the work of students working with digital tools (Clement, 2019) and provide training to prepare tutors for this role.
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. For me, an effective OLI requires us to engage with rhetorical theory and practice.
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.
Clements, J. (2019). The Role of New Media Expertise in Shaping Consultations. WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, 43(9-10), 10-18.
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.
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
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.