Getting Students Ready to Write: An Experiment in Online Teaching and Learning

Article excerpt

Abstract

A required writing mechanics course for mass communication students was moved online. A case study experiment manipulating the course design was conducted to determine effects on student engagement, learning, and satisfaction. Online designs with greater interactivity capabilities are positively associated with all three outcomes. These desirable results, combined with the online course's cost-effectiveness and other benefits, support using this as one approach to improve student writing readiness.

Keywords

online learning environments, student engagement, interactivity, student satisfaction

A perception among many educators in communication is that students enter the program poorly prepared for the writing-intensive nature of the curriculum. The problem exists across academia, not just in communication.1 A few mass communication programs have attempted solutions. One program invested in a journalism writing center where students could meet one-on-one with writing coaches. This route would prove too costly for most schools and would not guarantee all students would use it. Other programs have merely added grammar to the introductory news writing course. That solution crowds an already full set of learning objectives in one course. A third solution was to add a one-credit writing mechanics course. It is the subject of this article. Over five semesters, a case study experiment was conducted in this Pennsylvania State University course to determine the best possible learning environment for reviewing and acquiring English grammar, syntax, and punctuation in preparation for mass communication writing skills courses.

The course, which is still being taught, serves as a gateway course to be admitted to the skills course in the journalism program. Learning outcomes for the course include (1) understanding and mastering basic grammar and punctuation; (2) having clear knowledge of spelling and word usage; (3) correctly applying the Associated Press style rules required of journalists; and (4) being able to critically evaluate one's own work and that of others for clarity, appropriate style, and grammatical correctness. The results indicate that an online environment with well-designed interactivity features led to more engaged students, greater learning, and higher student satisfaction. As a bonus, it is the most cost-effective form of delivery, makes it possible for students at branch campuses to enroll, and is the preferred solution of the faculty.

The writing mechanics course under study was initially devised as a traditional large lecture format. In short order, the course shifted to a blended model (part online and part face-to-face) and by the following semester was fully online. Based on themes developed from the literature, a set of relationships was proposed and then tested with data on student use of the course features, student grades, and end-of-semester course evaluations.

Literature Review

Since the Internet emerged as a potential means of delivering education, researchers have been studying its effects and effectiveness. Blended models of education have become almost commonplace in today's academic classrooms, where students expect to have online learning environments (OLEs) that compliment traditional courses.2 The use of asynchronous OLEs such as Blackboard, WebCT, Moodle, and InterAct are now commonplace in most institutions.3 Students still prefer traditional methods of teaching,4 but various scholars argue that mastery of technology, stimulus overload, and student motivation play a larger role in learning and satisfaction in OLEs.5 Debate remains over which is better-the traditional classroom, blended model, or fully online classroom. A study comparing traditional, televised, and online learning in mass communication survey courses found all three methods equal in effectiveness.6 Many cite Russell's annotated bibliography,7 which indicates learning in OLEs is no different from that in traditional face-to-face classrooms. …