In the often slow and complex process of learning the many and increasingly advanced skills for written communication in graduate school, the vast majority of graduate students, both international and domestic, depend on their academic advisors and on any resources that may be available in their respective departments (which are often limited or missing). Other than the dispersed, occasional, or serendipitous support, in most universities, there is neither a central framework nor a considerable network for connections and collaborations among academic units designed to help graduate students meet the many challenges of writing and communication in graduate school. It is in this context that we decided to develop an online platform for offering module-based and student-driven courses where graduate students can learn basic to advanced writing skills–ranging from strategic reading-as-a-writer, literature review, textual/genre analysis, and revision and editing skills–in the context of their academic transition and success. While the platform was initially designed for supporting international graduate students, we have developed modules and resources that are equally relevant and useful for domestic graduate students.
STUDENT-DRIVEN LEARNING MODULES
This MASLOW project explores and exploits emerging affordances of online education in order to create a support platform for helping students learn graduate-level writing. The platform was originally designed with the needs of international graduate students in mind, but it is now updated to allow all graduate students to select different modules based on wherever they are as emerging scholars/researchers in their academic programs/degrees and the stage of their professional development (as well as in their transition to US higher education in the case of international students).
Some of the affordances of an online graduate writing and communication course that this modular self-paced learning platform will harness include:
- MODULAR: Short modules that students can choose to combine for 30-40, 60-70, or 90-100 points for one, two, or three credits respectively (in summer/winter or fall/spring semesters). This module-based, student-driven learning is aligned with two objectives: to leverage online channels and technology to enhance and support SBU’s educational mission and improve the quality, flexibility and accessibility of SBU education to better serve the needs of residential, commuter and non-traditional students.
- EXPLORATORY LEARNING: Students will learn interactively, using quizzes integrated into video lessons, discussion boards, rubric-guided peer mentoring, rubric-driven self-assessment, learning by teaching, and robust revision of their writing. While these are common teaching/learning strategies in on-site and online learning, we adapt them to the student-driven and module-based learning of graduate-level writing with a particular attention to the challenges of international students, such as when they are new and must explore places and resources to quickly cobble together contextual knowledge and rhetorical skills graduate education in a new country demands.
- DISCIPLINE-FOCUSED WRITING: Instead of teaching generic writing skills, or focusing on students’ language proficiency/deficiency, we design assignments (such as “disciplinary ethnography” or writing about writing in the discipline and “genre analysis”) to help students study writing in their respective disciplines and to write in/for different audiences. We will consult and include the expertise of faculty across campus through brief video lectures and resources shared by them.
- EDUCATIONAL INNOVATION: We will implement relevant “best practices” (we call them effective practices to highlight their situatedness) from a national study of graduate writing support that one of us (Sharma) conducted over the last three years, such as writing groups, boot camps, peer mentorship, mini workshops, webinars, and AMAs (ask me anything) sessions. These practices are not only “converted” from their onsite forms but also designed as born-online and implemented with the particular context of graduate education and needs of international student writers. We also will be guided by the standards of the bodies that provide benchmarks for highly-regarded, successful practices in writing studies both nationally and internationally (CCCC, NCTE, WPA, ATTW).
- FLEXIBILITY: We will make the first module available a few weeks before the class is formally launched/begun, helping admitted international students start familiarizing themselves with US higher education, reading-writing practices of graduate school, and Stony Brook University (places, services, etc). The fact that students can select 1, 2, or 3 credit worth of learning/work will also make it easier for those who want to start from the modules they need. This will also allow us to use the platform to offer the course during summer and winter. Those who only want to only take the free first and/or last module can benefit from the resources in them, deciding to complete more modules when they can.
- RESOURCE FOOTPRINT: The project will serve as a kind of “clearinghouse” of resources that faculty members across campus can use for teaching or recommend to their students. We will use TA support and collaboration with the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching for gathering ideas, feedback, and resources from faculty across campus–making them available to students and faculty. Faculty members can also request new materials, or ask questions.
To harness the potentials of online education for graduate writing support, we have consulted relevant experts and offices and will continue to do so. While seeking support and feedback to align the project with practicalities, instead of seeking to simply convert the graduate-level onsite writing course that we have taught, we will use the project to continue to explore the affordances of online education, developing implementation-ready modules within the timeline of the grant, which we will then launch as part of Writing Program course offerings, in addition to our regular, onsite graduate-level writing courses that we currently teach.
Materials that faculty members in the academic disciplines can adopt/integrate within their writing- or research- intensive courses. By promoting the use of writing resources among faculty, encouraging students to seek and share support online, and fostering good writing habits among our graduate students, we hope to help enhance student success across campus.
- GAMIFIED LEARNING: Alongside the affordances of this project, one additional feature of this project deserves more elaborate treatment as a broader principle in online education: gamified learning. Whybrow (2015) identifies several core principles of gamified e-learning which informs our course’s design philosophy, especially in determining the design of our first and last modules, which will be primarily self-directed, with minimal instructor feedback, and do not require the student to be registered for credit. We also envision the entire course as encapsulating these principles in various ways:
- Formative assessment:This means that module elements such as quizzes will provide feedback immediately and provide hints, tips, and explanations so that students will learn in context from their errors or provide links to additional sources for learning that are optional and timely.
- Guidance toward improvement:The course elements are designed with improvement in mind. As frequently as possible, quizzes are repeatable (especially in the self-guided first and last modules) and written assignments will be revisable, with either faculty or peer guidance (prompted). Students will also use prompts and rubrics to review and support each other’s writing in the for-credit modules.
- Ample opportunities for improved performance/learning: See point 2.
- Timely guidance: Modules will provide linked guidance on student demand through links, videos and similar content.
- Non-linear pathways to open up new learning opportunities: Optional linked content and bonus assignments will allow students to pursue an area of study in depth. Videos will be available to both credit and non-credit students.
- Recognizing achievement through intrinsic or extrinsic methods: The self-guided modules provide avenues for badging and certification separate from credit, but not exclusive of credit (for-credit students can also achieve these).
We further explore and adapt the above affordances of gamified online learning for international students, at the graduate level, and considering different stages and challenges that they face with academic writing. That is, the combination of our expertise in graduate-level writing and communication support with scholarship and expertise in emerging technologies in writing education benefits this project in terms of bringing together the best of both the technological world and scholarly literature in writing education.
BRIEF NARRATIVE WALK-THROUGH OF 3 POTENTIAL STUDENTS’ EXPERIENCES
Student 1: Student 1 is in Shanghai, China, and has been accepted into one of the Stony Brook University graduate programs, having received her Form I-20 then her student F-1 visa. As she waits to travel to New York, she receives an email from the International Students Office that forwards an email from the Program in Writing and Rhetoric to all incoming international graduate students, inviting them to observe a unique graduate-level writing course. The email says that she can start learning (without official registration) the following kinds of things by browsing the Edublog course site of MASLOW, a course taught by faculty in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric;: information about Stony Brook University (from a welcome video), commonly used terms and concepts in American higher education (a glossary with comments section), useful skills and strategies involving reading and writing (a screencapture video, demo), and some genres and conventions in graduate-level writing across the disciplines (video followed by quiz based on samples). This student will also be able to see the last module of the course that includes a brief reflection survey and any feedback (from which instructors can learn more about student needs).
Student 2: Student 2 has just arrived from Buenos Aires, Brazil and settled in an on-campus residence at SBU. At the University’s orientation for international graduate students in mid August, or perhaps from his advisor, he learns about MASLOW. He browses through the Edublog site and, after observing the first and last (free) modules, he decides to register for one credit of the course (he could also sign up for two or three credits) via SOLAR, which is linked from the course site. The “walk through” page on the course site, which includes a mandatory “entry survey,” also shows him how to access the Blackboard course shell, as shown in the adjacent image. Here he can find the syllabus and schedule that are designed to help students understand and complete assignments on their own. He can ask questions in the “Ask Me” thread of the discussion board (which is moderated by instructors and TAs), click on links with his name (or add/upload pages/files) for writing-intensive assignments, complete brief quizzes to test his understanding of ideas from video lessons, and so on. Each module is a “content area” folder at the top of which students and instructors can see names of students who have signed up for the module; these names are drawn from the “entry survey” that students must submit to select the credit-bearing modules they want to complete (with two modules per credit). A link from this Blackboard course shell can take users back to the “public” course site on Edublog (at you.stonybrook.edu/maslow). After completing the selected modules (please see table below), the student complete the exit survey including course reflection. An instructor will assign him a pass/fail grade based on the number of points he has received throughout the semester.
Student 3: Student 3, who could be a domestic student who finds any modules relevant, is a working adult who is interested in improving her writing for professional purposes. A colleague who is a graduate of Stony Brook University recommends the Writing Program to her. She does a Google Search and pulls up information about MASLOW. She reads through the website’s About sections and the description of how she may “audit” for free the first and last modules of the course, without matriculating in the University, or signing up for a credit course, and obtain badges and a certificate after completing them, which she can display at work. With a free WordPress.com account (instructions included on the course site), she can participate in the first activity, on a discussion forum connected from the course website. After she completes the activities in the module and receives several badges, she has two options. The first is to continue to the final, no-credit module, write a reflection on what was learned in module 1, and obtain a certificate. The second is to sign up for a for-credit variation and continue on to finish additional modules, taught under the guidance of the professor and teaching assistants during the full semester, to obtain 1, 2, or 3 credit hours at SB. The second is achieved by clicking a link or button which will take her to the SB website to sign up for the course in SOLAR. After completing the registration process, Student 3 will have access to the course Blackboard site where the majority of for-credit work will be housed as a student-at-large (?). At this point, she can visit the full syllabus and see which module she wishes to complete first.
There is currently a dispersed ecology of relevant support for international graduate students across campus; however, there is not yet a framework, network, or visible set of academic writing support. Given that it takes a great deal of time, resource, and expertise to create a formal system to address all the challenges of this student body (even if such a system is desirable), we propose to instead create an online platform where we can not only make what we already do but can also experiment with class size and faculty feedback on student writing, TA support and peer mentorship strategies, interactive and self-paced learning, discussion boards and AMA sessions, webinars and consultation with experts on discipline-specific writing, and adaptation of emerging “best practices” in onsite writing pedagogy at the graduate level.
In addition to the platform for self-driven learning modules for international graduate students, the project will be an incubator for creating resources and support that become available for future students and faculty. More significantly, the project will create promotional materials in that some of the materials created could be published online and promoted among prospective international graduate students and also those who have joined other universities across the US.
PEDAGOGICAL CONTEXTS AND PRINCIPLES
Course Objectives: The following are course objectives adapted to the platform and pedagogy from an onsite version of a graduate writing course:
- analyze English-language texts in terms of context, purpose, audience, genre, and disciplinary conventions, as well as more specific textual features such as wording, syntax, and style;
- implement effective strategies in one’s own writing process (invention, organization, drafting, revision, editing, and proofreading), learning them through writing practice;
- use academic sources in stylistically agreed-upon (by relevant audiences), rhetorically effective, and ethically responsible ways—following conventions of venues, genres, and disciplines;
- revise/review one’s own and other students’ writing for clarity and conciseness; and
- spot and address patterns of linguistic and stylistic deviation from relevant audience expectations within the context of one’s own writing.
While these objectives generally overlap with those of the current module-based teaching of graduate-level writing for international students, first, the students in the online platform will make their selection of modules based on their needs and interests, also selecting the amount of work they want to do for a certain number of “writing” credits that they want or need. This means that they will necessarily include some learning objectives and exclude others from the above list, which covers a 3-credit course where all students must achieve the same learning goals. Depending on how much flexibility the graduate dean’s office approves, we will also try to make the modules and the ways in which students will approach their learning less bound by traditional structures of credit and assessment than are full-fledged courses with assignments that everyone has to complete, process everyone has to follow, and credits everyone receives in the same way. Whereas the required modules will address so-called “developmental” need for international graduate students to catch up to the demands of academic writing in their disciplines (while situating remedial skills in the context of advanced academic and discipline-specific writing), the elective modules will cover more advanced and more specific kinds of graduate-level writing skills. Both required and elective modules are based on the key concept of fostering student agency so they can explore the broader ecology of current support and resources, learn to assess/identify their needs and strengths, and plan and implement their learning goals with the help of information and feedback provided by the course. While all modules cover lower-to-higher order skills for writing clearly, concisely, and correctly, more advanced modules will be designed to let students enter from multiple points of entry and create and pursue their own configuration of learning objectives–building on the common set of concepts and skills for analyzing the contexts and purposes, audiences and expectations, genres and conventions of the writing that they (will) do in their respective graduate programs/disciplines.
Second, instructors and students will approach course objectives more flexibly, which in turn will reshape the above curricular objectives. For instance, while instructors will facilitate peer review and collaborative writing in the online class (a critical aspect of learning objective 4 above), instructors may decide to deemphasize peer review if the asynchronous and flexible nature of the class makes it less productive. Emphasizing student independence and agency means being flexible about group work, peer review, virtual participation, and one-on-one support by the instructor while keeping learning and teaching rigorous. The key to maintaining rigor lies in identifying the most significant and motivating learning objectives, developing the most engaging and meaningful learning activities, projecting the most welcoming and inspiring instructor persona, and so on. Instructors can and should certainly demand certain amount of work, within certain timelines, and following certain requirements and expectations; but the student-driven and module-based nature of the course go beyond form and approach to teaching/learning into content and purpose of both. For instance, instructors will create considerably more activities and assignments than required for students to “collect” full credit within each module; this will allow students to not only complete the tasks that benefit them the most but also pick different amounts of tasks from across modules to attempt a total of certain points per credit (which comes from completing a pair of modules).
Third, in terms of learning and teaching, the online learning modules will help address a number of key paradoxes of graduate-level writing support in general and support for international students in particular. First, given the extreme diversity of international graduate students (in terms of their backgrounds in education, writing, identities, etc), these students do not share more than a small portion of learning needs that are covered by traditional graduate writing courses. So, only the beginning and end of the course are required of all students. Second, these students’ prior knowledge and skills further interact with a variety of demands, beliefs, and priorities from their academic advisors–which typically poses challenges to writing instructors. So, designing a middle 60 percent of the full offering as 4 elective tracks throws the ball in the individual student’s court, thereby allowing their faculty advisors to help the student decide. In fact, this design also opens up the door for faculty buy in and involvement–which we further prompt with some of the assignments, such as the one that involves interviewing a faculty member. Third, at the graduate level, and especially for international students who usually need support understanding the sociocultural and professional context of graduate-level writing, it is necessary to define “writing” more broadly as “academic communication” and, indeed, ideal to extend its meaning to “professional communication,” the design of the modules is responsive to this complex challenge. By including (but not requiring) materials learning about and activities for further exploring writing in the context of research, academic discourse, and professional communication, the platform seeks to foster student agency. Students start by learning about writing as a process, which involves drafting and revising, editing and proofreading. They also learn key terms and concepts about composition, academic research, and scholarship and publication; peer review and response skills. Then they pick their own objectives and complete tasks within those objectives. They can attempt 30-40, 60-70, or 100 percent points that correspond to one, two, and three credits–if such flexibility is administratively available for us to assign at the end of semesters.
We intend to use the support provided by online teaching/learning experts as we use the opportunity of this project for experimenting and developing new strategies for fostering graduate student writing in ways–such as the above but not limited to them–that the affordances of online education allows. We also envision this project becoming a basis on which to build graduate-level writing support for all students.
Hybridity: One of the potential weaknesses of an online course (in spite of all the affordances we’ve described above) especially for international graduate students is that these students deserve personal contact with their faculty and social engagement with their peers. They best learn language by meeting and interacting with people in person. So, in addition to making learning gamified and integrating other features described above, we will organize a few on-site events and require students to attend at least one event per credit, in person or synchronously by video. The events will be a combination of talks, panels, plenaries, and workshops that involve faculty or students or both. The workshops will be led by us or invited writing instructors; talks/lectures could be given by faculty members in other disciplines or other invited speakers; panels could involve students and/or faculty members who discuss important issues that students taking the class can learn from. The onsite event can also be organized as feedback session where writing center tutors are available, peer review sessions, and so on. Involving faculty members from across campus or advanced students on student panels can help to promote the course as well as pool resource. Discussions with well published scholars and highly successful grant recipients could be useful, and so could sharing of experience by former or advanced international graduate students. Promotional materials created out of the events will be published on YouTube and Vimeo channels and promoted through social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
IMPACT, OUTCOME, VALUE
Graduate-level writing support, also called “graduate communication support” more broadly, is catalytic to success for all graduate students, but it is uniquely useful and instrumental in making the academic transition of international graduate students smooth. As illustrated in a book that one of us has just written on the basis of data collected from 36 US universities, writing and/as communication support also greatly enhances the academic success of international students throughout their graduate education, evidently more so than their domestic counterparts. This is because international students often take many semesters to improve their English language proficiency, acquire the wide range of rhetorical skills used in a new society and academic culture that may be new to them, develop the ability to formulate intellectual positions and research agenda vis-a-vis an understanding of the broader sociopolitical and economic contexts in a new country, and gain confidence to draw on their past experiences and new knowledge. These many demands–alongside all the other responsibilities and demands in their academic departments–make international graduate students too busy to be able to take a writing course. They need more flexibility than their domestic counterparts to do so and to be able to perform well in the class. In this context, the dynamic platform and flexible approach that we have developed to facilitate the academic transition and success of these students could considerably accelerate their transition enhance their success. Given that there is little to no writing support for our international graduate students, and that only a few students are able to take the graduate-level writing course offered by out department, our platform and approach could fill a critical gap in our support for this student body. Our benchmark universities in and beyond the AUP have robust graduate writing support programs, including graduate writing centers (e.g., University of Maryland, Yale, UCLA, etc) and an array of writing support initiatives such as dissertation bootcamps and writing groups (e.g., Ohio State, Cornell, MIT, etc). This course is a step beyond the onsite graduate writing course that we offer and the limited amount of support that graduate students receive from the Writing Center. While it is going to take some time resources for us to catch up with the robust support systems that the above institutions have built, our project could do a significant amount of “leapfrogging” for our university in the area of graduate-level writing support. While the original project was designed mainly for international graduate students, the platform will offer modules that are useful for all graduate students as well.
The broader application of MASLOW lies in teaching/enhancing skills for writing and communication, presentation and publication among all graduate students. These skills–which we describe as “writing, research, and communication” or WRC skills and approach with a focus on writing skills–can be instrumental in improving graduate student retention, for enhancing graduate students’ academic success by helping them complete the dissertation/thesis on time, for boosting graduate students’ career development by teaching them professional communication skills, placement and success in the workplace beyond graduate school, and promotion of the university among various stakeholders including prospective graduate students. The MASLOW project seeks to address the broader challenges and opportunities of graduate education by teaching and promoting “soft skills” to graduate students who need a wide variety of them in different disciplines and at different stages of their graduate school careers.