Traditional LMS products have often been critiqued for not supporting some of the effective pedagogical practices of writing instruction. The main advantage of instructors building their own LMS is the ability to tailor it to reflect the principles of effective writing instruction. As such, this section of the webtext will discuss how Paamsongre Courseware reflects some of the CCCC Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction. The CCCC Principles are a set of 15 operating principles divided in five sections: 1) overarching principle, 2) instructional principles, 3) faculty principles, 4) institutional principles, and 5) research principles. Given that some of the principles somewhat fall outside the scope of learning management systems, only the directly concerned ones will be discussed.
“Online writing instruction should be universally inclusive and accessible” (CCCC, 2013).
Primarily driven by inclusivity and accessibility, this principle emphasizes the needs of learners with physical disabilities, learning disabilities, multilingual backgrounds and learning challenges related to socioeconomic issues in an OWI environment. Since online learning populations are even more diverse (Davis, 2005) and nearly all students on a campus might take writing program courses, addressing issues of inclusivity and accessibility is particularly crucial for writing instructors (Borgman & Dockter, 2018). As Borgman and McArdle (2020) suggest, the conception of accessibility in a writing course should move beyond Americans with Disabilities Act type of issues to include anything that might impede students (p.37). In Paamsongre Courseware, OWI Principle 1 is met in several ways, which will be exemplified in terms of its design, its multimodal content, and its cost.
1. Platform Design
Paamsongre Courseware was developed using a user-centered design model by not only having student users in mind but also taking into consideration their input at all stages of the development. This involvement of student users ensured that many of their otherwise unknown needs were met. In this LMS, the instructor has greater control over platform design decisions to reflect their creativity, individuality, and aesthetic and to meet their specific course and student needs, therefore evading the structural limitations of traditional LMS products. For example, upon seeing many students use the LMS with their smartphone and in accordance with OWI Effective Practice 1.6, the responsive mode feature was implemented so that student users can access, navigate, and use it on their computers, tablets, and cellphones. Consistent with Effective Practice 1.2, another example of accessibility is the orientation tutorial that student users must watch after signing up for a course and before accessing course materials. This orientation video helps mitigate the learning curve that comes with using any new technology product and helps anticipate on some of the questions students might have.
One platform organization decision that stemmed from student users’ comments is grouping closely related course materials. For example, the last segment of a lesson in Paamsongre Courseware is the assignment segment, which incorporates three pages: the assignment sheet, examples of the assignment, and the assignment submission page. Countless times have I heard students expressed frustration about having to go to different virtual locations to find closely related course materials. For example, they might find a short description of the assignment in the course syllabus, examples of the paper might get sent to them via email, and a folder on the institution’s LMS might be designated for submitting the paper. In seeking to mitigate such frustration, closely related course materials are grouped in Paamsongre Courseware regardless of their format or filetype. When student users enter the assignment segment, an audio announcement tells them that they will find the assignment sheet on, let’s say on page 1.5.1, examples of the assignment on page 1.5.2, and the submission page on 1.5.3. With just a click, students can navigate these assignment-related pages. The assignment sheet details the objective, description, requirements, and evaluation criteria of the assignment. The example papers, as Pytash and Morgan (2014) note, help make assignment expectations clear.
The accessibility of Paamsongre Courseware is further exemplified through the use of descriptive words for its hyperlinks and menu items and the use of captions for images. This choice ensures that students with visual challenges or blindness can use screen readers to access the picture, photos, icons, logos, other graphics and offers inclusive interaction options on the platform. It reflects OWI Effective Practice 1.10, which encourages OWI teachers to offer instructional materials in more than one medium.
Great design increases platform accessibility, intractability, and effectiveness; since adopting Paamsongre Courseware, students have particularly responded well to it. Many of the student comments in course evaluations have been in the line of how well-organized, comprehensive, clear, precise the course material is and how the platform itself is “nicely-set up, effective, and has a modern feel to it.” Countless times have students directly expressed how they enjoy using the platform because of its transparency, ease of navigation, and how it ‘works perfectly for the course.’
2. Multimodal Nature of the Platform
Paamsongre Courseware was built to be multimodal in nature. Indeed, the breakthrough with this LMS is the ability to include different filetypes in the same segment or on the same page and spatially arrange them to taste. For example, the first page could be a video file, the second page a PDF file, the third page a submission form, the fourth a lightbox webpage, etc. or a page could incorporate a combination of these filetypes. Navigating the different pages within a segment does not require re-loading, which facilitates their access and enhances the efficiency working on the platform. This design also works well for students who may not have reliable internet. From a pure multimodal perspective, Paamsongre Courseware includes the modes of written text, text formatting, layout, color, animation, spoken language, images, videos, etc. often placed in interaction with each other in unprecedented ways. A multimodal design celebrates the learning styles/preferences of a diverse student body, hence fostering inclusion. Examples of multimodal pages include video lectures and audio-based pages.
Short, high-quality recorded lectures are used in Paamsongre Courseware for teaching writing concepts, research concepts, and for demonstrations. Lecture preparation includes many steps. The first is to create an outline of the lesson and determine how many lectures are needed and the points that will be covered in each. The second step consists of writing the lectures’ scripts and cross-referencing them to help student users make similar connections in the lesson. This is particularly crucial for the online student who is the sole responsible for connecting the dots in the meaning making process of course materials. Writing lesson scripts prior to recording is essential for tightly controlling the lecture content and duration. Lesson scripts are written in a conversational tone to mirror natural language, which is more comprehensible and accessible than reading a formal piece of writing on a teleprompter. The tone is made conversational through word choice, imagery, and most importantly the use of discourse markers such as so, and, like, etc., features of natural spoken language. After writing the script and practicing it, the lecture is recorded in a studio setting, which ensures great sound and image quality, all features of accessibility. The footage is then uploaded to a video making software for editing and publishing. During editing, on-screen texts, visuals, and other graphics are added to illustrate key lecture points. The video lecture is then published to a video hosting platform, which makes downloading and viewing easier. These video hosting platforms enable student users to alter their quality (e.g., from 1080p to 720p) to view them with minimal interruption notwithstanding their internet quality. Additionally, they incorporate other features such as closed captioning, which enable student users to activate them for increased accessibility and an enhanced learning experience.
Aside from the video lectures and the text-based pages, the Paamsongre platform also incorporates audio-based pages. These pages are not only an alternative way of providing student users with content but also a way to diversify the content delivery channels. As illustrated in Segment 3.4, with a click on the play button, student users could, for instance, listen to a 1 to 2-minute audio examples of subcultures centered around occupation. The audio excerpts are created using a text-to-speech software application. Some of these applications have advanced functionalities that enable instructors to add breaks of varying lengths to their audios, create different emphases on words, change the prosody rate and pitch for dramatic purposes, add other effects such as the ‘whisper effect’ to their audio, or change the narrator. With these advanced functionalities, instructors can create as natural of an audio excerpt as they wish and therefore add different voices besides their own to their course platform.
Given its conception design goal to have all course materials in one place, Paamsongre Courseware was built as a stand-alone platform, hence eliminating the need for instructors to require or recommend a textbook. Although textbooks have long been an integral part of both pedagogy and curriculum and there is a plethora of advantages for using them, many instructors have abandoned or are considering abandoning them for a variety of reasons. Among others, some instructors have complained about textbooks not fitting their course organization or teaching style, not covering certain topics satisfactorily, containing biased information, not representing the kind of diversity they seek, not including dynamic, engaging, and/or empowering content, or being too voluminous and filled with basic information. From students’ standpoint, textbooks, especially those that require an access code, are pernicious cost-drivers. The access-code textbooks force students to purchase them at retail price and become worthless in the resale market, as the codes expire after one use. As such, having a course that does not require students to purchase a textbook is often a great financial relief. While cost tends to be at the forefront of the textbook discussion, value should be of equal importance. The cost of textbooks mainly derives from content development, printing, assemblage, and transportation costs whereas their value lies in the organization of material. As exemplified by Paamsongre Courseware, cost is driven down by putting content generation and organization in the hands of the instructor and by managing content sharing using various applications in ways not replicable in print format. That students do not have to pay a textbook when taking a course designed in Paamsongre Courseware and that access to Paamsongre Courseware is free to students are ways of addressing the technological equity problem among students and examples of accommodating students from various socio-economic backgrounds.
“An online writing course should focus on writing and not on technological orientation or teaching students how to use learning and other technologies” (CCCC, 2013).
Paamsongre Courseware, from the student user end, lives up OWI Principle 2. Since the LMS was built by integrating various third-party applications and plug-ins that students may be regular users of, they generally enter their online writing courses from a more familiar place and do not have to learn any new technology to reach their course objectives.
From the instructor’s end, however, writing instructors, on top of being content developers whose work is to create materials that students use, are above all instructional designers who must pay attention to how the materials is designed and structured for students to use. As Blair (2010) points out, the OWI teacher steps into a new role of designers of the interface through which students will be learning although some OWI teachers may initially fail to understand this role. While teaching writing should of course be the focus of the OWI teacher, designing and structuring instructional materials in ways that support effective writing pedagogies and theories often cannot be achieved without the writing instructor’s deeper involvement with technology. Although there are significant dangers associated with this expansion of the instructor’s role, there are also substantial short and long-term rewards that come with it.
A predictable drawback that comes with creating and managing an LMS is the considerable work and effort this initiative initially requires. When developing Paamsongre Courseware, I spent hundreds of hours reviewing various applications and plug-ins, deciding which ones best meet my needs, and learning how to use them. Although such work and effort were required in the early stages of implementation, developing this LMS ended up being a time-saving endeavor since all course activities ought to be planned, all lectures recorded, and all assessment tasks designed prior to creating a course. Having done all this preparation prior to launching a course frees up more time that I use for grading and student-teacher conferences. In a context in which instructors are seeing their teaching load increase and/or class cap raised because of institutions facing steep budget cuts and avoiding program cuts (Flaherty, 2018), having more time for grading is essential for writing instructors given that it is one of the most time-consuming and cognitively taxing tasks of the profession. Having more time for individual student-teacher conferences is also critical with the diversifying student body in online writing courses and with students increasingly coming to a writing course with varying proficiency levels and needs.
Another predictable drawback that comes with the expansion of the writing instructor’s role to creating and managing an LMS is that they are no longer only evaluated in their capacity as an instructor but also in their IT manager capacity. I learned from my experience with Paamsongre Courseware that once students become aware that their instructor is the LMS developer, it can activate in them the no-one-is-a-prophet-in-their-own-land effect. They might begin finding shortcomings with the platform or critique it in ways they would not critique ‘traditional’ LMS products. While patterns in their critiques constitute opportunities for getting user feedback and improving the LMS, such critiques could on rare occasions be ways for students to evade their own responsibility. For example, students might claim to have submitted a paper while they have not. In traditional LMS products, such problems are easily addressed by contacting the IT department of the institution. However, when the instructor is also the IT person, it becomes challenging to settle such matters impartially. For this reason, it is crucial to set specific guidelines and rules regarding various aspects of the LMS use and clearly communicate them to students at the beginning of the term. For instance, an assignment is considered successfully submitted on Paamsongre Courseware only and only if the personalized confirmation message appears on the screen upon submission and an email copy of the assignment is sent to the student’s provided email for their own record. Otherwise, it is not. If students are experiencing difficulties submitting an assignment, they are encouraged to contact the instructor.
Shifting the LMS data analytics power from administrators to instructors will enable instructors to apply the business intelligence tools and strategies to guide decision-making processes regarding their own teaching. LMS products enable collecting vital data that could provide insight into a range of issues; however, adequately interpreting this data is where the challenge often lies. While administrators may use LMS data to gain insight into retention and attrition, instructors may be more interested in linking students’ activity logs to their academic performance. Even though research is yet to establish a significant relationship between students’ activity data and their academic performance (Campbell, Deblois, & Oblinger, 2007) and user activity can only be assumed through machine activity (York, 2021), academic analytics remains an exciting toolkit for instructors to improve their teaching platforms and student learning outcomes. For example, the data generated from Paamsongre Courseware analytics provide insight into the browsers students use to navigate the platform, their geographic location, the websites from which they hop onto the platform, the specific routes traveled on the platform, the pages visited as well as the time spent on each page, their participation in discussions and assignments, their degree of interactivity with the platform measured in terms of the links and buttons clicked, etc. These data can be used in several valuable ways. For instance, knowing the routes most traveled by students on the platform could give good hunches as to how to refine the user interface for better interactivity. Navigational buttons that are rarely clicked might need to be eliminated or made salient. Knowing the times when the platform has the most student presence might help refine chat operating hours to increase, as Borgman and McArdle (2020) emphasize in their PARS model, your level of responsiveness. The time spent on various assignments might help locate, revise, or breakdown difficult assignments. Getting a weekly report on student log activities could help quickly identify at-risk students and reach out to them for more support. Simply put, the data can be strategically used to not only improve students’ learning outcomes, but also user experience through the refinement of the user interface. This use of analytics eliminates guesswork or anecdote-driven decisions and helps instructors make data-driven decisions.
Despite the dangers associated with writing instructors’ deeper involvement with technology, developing their own LMS might be instructors’ gateway into freelancing and securing their place in a rapidly changing education landscape. With more possibilities for online content delivery, many universities are already offering degree programs entirely online and myriads more are planning similar moves. Although the nature and scope of their initiatives vary widely, we are left wondering which institutions will monopolize this market given that striving and renowned institutions might want to attract a larger pool of in-state, out-of-state, and international students using their brand and corporate power. And, if the e-learning market were to be dominated by a few giants, where would that leave other colleges and universities, and most importantly, instructors? Or maybe the right question to ask is ‘how will instructors hone a place for themselves in this changing education landscape?’ At a time when “anyone with an internet connection and minimum credential can, at least in theory, offer an online course” (Ress, 2018), quality matters. Quality truly matters because fully online teaching is its own-methodology and nothing like web-enhanced face-to-face teaching. By developing their own LMS, “instructors will have their pedagogical prerogatives and intellectual property rights protected and will retain exclusive rights to their course materials” (Ress, 2018). They will also gain many of the technical skills that are needed for transforming their teaching model into a viable e-learning model. Their role will evolve to meet the requirements of modern learning environments, as they will become facilitators, motivators, and confidantes rather than transmitters of knowledge or disciplinary figures. They will step into their contemporary role as those designing the content, organizing the flow of courses, making sure students stay on track, and supplementing online content. Altogether, these prerogatives and skills would give instructors an edge in the growing freelance online education market, make them more marketable, and help them make a living wage.
As exemplified by my empowering experience building Paamsongre Courseware, the time and effort that went into building it can only be justified by passion, the knowledge and experience of what works pedagogically, and the desire to engage students in meaningful work. The development phases unfolded themselves like problem-solving episodes, constantly guided by questions such as “how can this course activity be best translated digitally?” The building experience was serendipitous and involved repurposing many existing applications for student and course needs. The organic development of the platform ensures it benefitted from the feedback of using it semester after semester. The development process was guided by a constant lookout for new and better tools, and it was the students who helped find them sometimes. The process felt like solving a puzzle with no end in sight. Whenever it felt like the platform design was optimal, new applications with advanced functionalities kept being discovered and integrated to make it even better. Overall, the building of Paamsongre Courseware triggered a proactive rather than a reactive stance towards technology and helped acquire technical skills and know-how that could be used even outside of the education realm.
Principle 3: “Appropriate composition teaching/learning strategies should be developed for the unique features of the online instructional environment” (CCCC,2013)
Principle 4: “Appropriate onsite composition theories, pedagogies, and strategies should be migrated and adapted to the online instructional environment” (CCCC, 2013).
Paamsongre Courseware began as a platform for teaching face-to-face writing courses. As it evolved for use in OWI environments, many onsite composition theories, pedagogies, and strategies were not only migrated but adapted to the new environment.
For example, the process theory of composition, which focuses on writing as a process rather than a product, was at the core of my onsite writing courses and then adapted to OWI as Paamsongre Courseware was built. In my composition course in which students complete an ethnography and consistent with Effective Practice 4.1, the larger ethnographic paper is broken down into smaller units such as 1) selecting a subculture, 2) source review, 3) field observation, 4) field interviewing, and 5) artifact analysis. Each of these assignments represents a lesson, and each lesson is further broken down to reflect writing as a process. Generally, the lesson begins with an overview segment, followed by an invention segment, then a genre section, a revision segment, and ends with the assignment segment. As suggested in OWI Principle 3, writing as a process is digitally represented through the menu of each lesson interface. This timeline menu of segments enables student users to work on different parts of the paper as they progress towards their final draft.
Lectures were also an integral part of my onsite composition courses, and as I transitioned into OWI, they took the format of video lectures. Indeed, short, high-quality recorded video lectures are used in Paamsongre Courseware for teaching writing concepts such as audience, purpose, organization, rhetorical appeals, genre conventions, etc., research concepts such as database research, research methods, etc., and for demonstrations. The average length of a lecture is about five minutes; the lectures are intended to cover one or two points at a time, and short lectures improve student learning. Given their asynchronous delivery mode, these lectures are intended to be resources that students can use to preview, view, or review specific course content. They can pause them at any time and resume viewing at their own convenience. Their inclusion makes the course more ‘personal,’ an element of Borgman and McArdle (2020) PARS framework. The ability to pause the videos, increase and decrease their volume, go full and reduced screen, activate closed captioning, increase or decrease the image quality, etc. represent examples of pedagogical practices that accounts for the distinctive nature of online settings.
In a face-to-face course, instructors have at their disposal a variety of tools – attendance, clues from students’ body language, student questions and reactions, etc. – for assessing their comprehension of lecture content. Since no such tools are available to the online writing instructor whose course is completed asynchronously, comprehension checks are used in Paamsongre Courseware for assessing students’ comprehension, engaging them with lecture content, and establishing a form of accountability. The comprehension checks are short formative assessment tasks consisting of five or 10 questions that students must answer right after watching a video lecture. Since each lesson has about 10 comprehension checks, the close-ended question format enables an easier and quicker grading. Comprehension checks are systematically placed after video lectures and as such, students can view the questions before watching the lecture to guide their comprehension. In an asynchronous online course where students must complete certain activities on specific dates, the comprehension checks provide the first data points for students’ interaction and engagement with course content and help identify at-risk students. Comprehension Checks are an example of pedagogical “strategy that accounts for the distinctive nature and opportunities provided by the online setting” (CCCC OWI Principle 3).
Another feature of Paamsongre Courseware that accounts for the distinctive nature and opportunities provided by the online setting are ‘workshops.’ Indeed, workshops are used on the Paamsongre platform to help student users generate content for their papers. The workshops can take a variety of forms and are created using form-building field options such as ‘single-line text’ for shorter open-ended questions, ‘paragraph text’ for longer open-ended questions, ‘dropdowns,’ ‘checkboxes,’ ‘number slider,’ ‘section divider,’ ‘file upload,’ etc. These fields can be set to ‘required,’ obligating student users to provide a response before submission, or ‘not required’ for optional fields. The workshops can be made collaborative by adding email fields where student users type in the emails of their group members to share their work with them, for example. The workshops are spread out throughout the lesson to prevent students from procrastinating until the day before the paper is due, as they are required to submit work pertaining to parts of the larger paper throughout the lesson. For instance, in a lesson in which students must write a recommendation report, they may complete a workshop in the first segment where they describe the problem being addressed in the report, their audience for the report, as well as the background of the situation. In the second segment, they may complete a workshop where they describe their potential courses of action or options for solving the problem as well as the criteria against which the options will be weighed to determine the best option. In the third segment, they may be asked to complete another workshop in which they engage in the point-by-point comparison of the options using the determined criteria. Therefore as the deadline of the paper approaches, students would have already generated enough content to produce a full draft.
The workshops can also be designed as templates for assignments or parts of a paper. For instructors who have a hard time making their students follow the guidelines on their assignment sheets, templates can come in handy. For example, if an instructor is displeased with students consistently writing papers with a four-line conclusion, they could build a template echoing strategies for writing longer and comprehensive conclusions and have students complete that workshop at some point in the writing process. The workshop could take the form of three ‘paragraph text’ fields where students are asked 1) to echo the introduction – reminding their audience of the research questions, thesis statement, hypotheses, or assumptions stated in the introduction – in the first field, 2) summarize their main findings and offer a brief explanation of how these findings fit together in the second field, and 3) place their findings in a larger context and offer a discussion of why and how their findings are significant in the third field. These built-in templates can be lifesavers for novice writers. They help them break down an assignment into meaningful parts and combine those parts in their full draft. The downside of relying too much on templates is the risk of creating creatures of habit; for this reason, it is crucial that student users be taught to treat them as guidelines, not as rules.
These examples show how Paamsongre Courseware migrated many onsite composition theories, pedagogies, and strategies, adapted them to the online instructional environment to develop new online pedagogical strategies and practices.
“Online writing teachers should receive fair and equitable compensation for their work” (CCCC, 2013).
Although digital affordances stimulate new pedagogies, they also bring about new gray areas that are worth examining. One of those gray areas pertains to the fair and equitable compensation for the work and effort involved in developing and teaching new online writing courses. As I had discussed in Segment 2 – Building, the development of Paamsongre Courseware took hundreds of additional hours of work searching, reviewing, evaluating, and testing various applications and plugins. On top of this backend review of applications is the careful planning, segmenting, and altering of course materials in ways that reflect thoughtful literacy approaches. As echoed in OWI Principle 8, additional compensation in the form of pay adjustments, course load modifications, and/or technology purchases, should be provided to writing instructors for the preparatory work behind an effective online writing course.
A particular issue that arose with Paamsongre Courseware is how exactly should this platform be treated: an e-text, an LMS, a platform for OWCs, or all these? The answer to this question has serious implications, especially if students are charged a fee for using the LMS. Since the institution already charges students course fees, is it ethical or even legal if they are being charged again for the instructor’s course content which is available on the platform? How is this different from charging students for a textbook written by their instructor? What ethical concerns does that raise? How fair is it to the instructor to be asked to share their published materials with their students without compensation? Given that building such LMS products are costly enterprises, how can the instructor sustain such cost with no compensation? What about the invisible hours of work that go into building such platforms? There are certainly no easy answers to these questions.
The first step towards moving into a fair and equitable compensation of online writing instructors for their work is educating members of the institution about the nature and cost of such an enterprise, and that is exactly what I did with Paamsongre Courseware. A proposal with a prototype of the LMS was submitted to receive initial funding to get the project started and a presentation of the platform was done after one-year of implementation. After this presentation, several meetings with administration were held to discuss the sustainability of the LMS. As a result of these meetings, the institution agreed to support the technological cost of Paamsongre Courseware. When matters of fair and equitable compensation for the preparatory work that goes into building an LMS arise, my recommendation is that instructors and administrators bring them to the table to have a consensus that is legal, ethical, and fair to students and the instructor.
“Online writing teachers and their institutions should develop personalized and interpersonal online communities to foster student success” (CCCC, 2013).
Discussions are important in writing courses because they are social learning activities that help students process rather than simply receive the information, explore topics, discover the personal meanings of a text, etc. As suggested in Effective Practice 4.5, the Paamsongre platform includes collaborative-documents to support social learning. These pages have the full text-editing features of a traditional word processor and could be used as a Q&A platform, discussion board, knowledge-sharing space, brainstorming space, or a problem-solving zone. Students can type in these documents, edit and comment on each other’s work, and even chat among themselves using the built-in chat feature. Consistent with Effective Practice 11.7, instructors can use the collaborative documents for activities where students collaboratively or individually complete a task on the same page and where the instructor can read their responses to a given task in real time. With the instructor determining the level of access to the pages, they can enable and disable editing at their convenience based on the nature and deadline of the activity. These collaborative documents can be thought of as the course’s virtual whiteboards, as they can simply be erased and reset for another session or semester. Having students interact on the collaborative documents does not only improve their motivation by forging a sense of interpersonal connectedness to other students but is also an example of pedagogical activity that takes advantage of digital affordances provided by the online setting.