Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

A Collaborative Method for Observing/Evaluating Online Writing Courses

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

A Collaborative Method for Observing/Evaluating Online Writing Courses

Article excerpt

Although finding numbers to confirm it may be difficult, writing programs appear to be increasingly offering online writing courses (OWCs). As a result, many OWCs are taught by contingent faculty. For programs, having OWCs taught by a contingent teaching force replicates many issues of onsite teaching and administration, including the capabilities (and resources) for evaluating/observing courses and teachers.

In the field of computers and writing, theory becomes practice as teacher-scholars challenge students with the ideas, approaches, and tools of new digital composing environments. Matters discussed in conferences and journals quickly become new ways to teach writing in digital settings. However, how are those practices, approaches, and tools evaluated? At most institutions, course observations are a component of reappointment, promotion, and tenure, and for faculty members who are off the tenure track, observations are often the sole cause for-and while terminology can differ, the implications are the same-"nonrenewal of the contract."

From the contingent faculty reviewee perspective, classroom evaluations are problematic for several reasons, including rank discrepancies, scheduling, subject matter expertise, and not having a true peer relationship with the faculty evaluator. Additionally, tenure-line faculty reviewers may feel pressured to observe unfamiliar courses and write letters for the files of unfamiliar non-tenure-line instructors who are not perceived as permanent department members. Online teaching adds at least one crucial issue: securing a ranking faculty member with online writing instruction (OWI) knowledge. So who would conduct evaluations? Quality Matters (QM) is a nationally recognized categorized rubric (focusing on instructional design), but finding a QM-certified faculty member in a department (or even institution) could be challenging; the Quality Matters higher education Peer Reviewer tool lists 3,308 individuals who are trained and certified to assess an online course (not all of whom have faculty rank): a mere 66 per state. In addition, since online faculty are often off the tenure track, what happens when the situation is reversed, and a QM-certified lecturer is asked to assess a tenure-line faculty member's OWC? The ability to assess an OWC according to standards, possession of appropriate rank so a peer-reviewed observation letter receives proper "credence," and OWC experience-these gatekeeping concerns coalesce into a mass of administrative and political obstacles.

In this article, we briefly describe long-standing, general issues with course evaluations and online course evaluations specifically. We then suggest a different way of approaching OWC observations-"observation" is the term we will use-in an attempt to address the expertise and politics-driven concerns of OWC evaluation.

Historical Standard Procedure in Teaching Evaluations and Observations

Peer course evaluations/observations have long been a challenge at all levels and in all modalities of education. As Scott wrote in his blog, "Teaching evaluations in general, or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say the process of conducting teaching observations, can be vexed. Observers can run into issues ranging from the academic hierarchy to establishing fair criteria" (Warnock). Philip Stark and Richard Freishtat assess the matter bluntly: "Let's drop the pretense. We will never be able to measure teaching effectiveness reliably and routinely" (14). Online learning brings its own issues, some stemming from the experience of the evaluators, as Vincenza Benigno and Guglielmo Trentin stated: "Given the special characteristics of online courses, their quantitative/qualitative evaluation calls for the adoption of specific procedures to assess both the learning process and the participant performance" (259). In their excellent guide Evaluating Online Teaching, Thomas J. Tobin, B. Jean Mandernach, and Ann H. Taylor assert, "While these expectations are not unique to evaluations of teaching in the online modality, the relative novelty of on- line programs and course offerings often translates into less explicit understanding of how this information fits into the larger university context" (35). …

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