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The New Writer's Studio

Photo by Tye Rabens.
Photo by Tye Rabens.

“I’m a pretty non-traditional student,” says Cindy Larson, a 54-year-old woman from Cut Bank, Montana.

She’s been “acquiring credits over the years,” but decided to finally just go for a degree. However, Larson owns a home 50 miles from Glacier Park, Montana, and near her two adult children, so she didn’t want to relocate.

Instead, she chose ASU Online, studying sociology and women and gender studies. Already an experienced writer, Larson says she felt miffed at being forced to take ENG 102. She signed up for a random unit of the course.

It happened to be the Writer’s Studio, a new online option this semester for ASU students to get ENG 101, 102 or 105 credit. Though based and developed out of the School of Letters and Sciences on the Downtown campus, the courses are open to students from all majors and locations.

Projects are designed to be “multi-modal,” which means they teach composition through text, audio, image and video. Several layers of feedback from various sources, such as instructors, instructional assistants, tutors at ASU campus writing centers and peer groups, also sets the Writer’s Studio units apart from more traditional first-year English offerings.

Larson says she loves the amount of feedback she gets from the course, and feels the style of learning will be more marketable for students after graduation.

“If you think about it, the future of communications is going to be this,” she says. “Written material is almost becoming old-fashioned and unusable. You almost have to be able to navigate on the Web, and use the different electronic media that’s available.”

But there’s been confusion among other students, Larson says, who seem lost on where to start. She herself felt overwhelmed by the course site and the amount of work, but quickly adapted.

“At first I was surprised, for sure,” Larson says. “But I wasn’t put off. I thought of it as a challenge, as a way to get some new experiences.”

Amanda Hamm wasn’t planning on doing an online class, either, because she wasn’t confident she could learn well in that environment. In fact, she picked the Writer’s Studio unit for the teacher, and didn’t even know the curriculum would be unique.

Hamm, a 19-year-old Criminal Justice student, was also confused at first by the information overload of the course — “It all hitting me at once just confused me” —but went out of her way to seek help from the instructors. Since then, she says, the purpose of the writing lessons has become clear and she’s excited about the multi-modal work.

“It makes you think better, as a writer, because you have to think in different ways,” Hamm says. “Some students don’t learn through essays, but if something else, like a blog, helps them learn, then … I think that’s a strong aspect of the course.”

Duane Roen, professor in the School of Letters and Sciences and assistant vice provost for University Academic Success Programs, says his goal in creating Writer’s Studio is to meet all the goals of a conventional writing course — critical thinking, analysis, writing conventions and more — using digital technology.

This is both cheaper and more effective, he says, because it saves on costs such as instructor salaries while better preparing students for using their writing skills in real life.

“We don’t want students to be dependent on teachers; we want them to become independent from teachers,” Roen says.

Grades are based partly on deadlines and checkpoints throughout the semester, but hinge on three major projects and a student-generated portfolio that marks the end of the course.

“There’s evidence that when people reflect on what they do, it reinforces what they do,” Roen says. “A portfolio puts students in charge of demonstrating their learning.”

If anyone would know these things, it might be this guy. Beside his positions at ASU, Roen is also president of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, an international organization. Roen’s team drew from CWPA’s curriculum standards, as well as from Roen’s 35 years of research on how people learn to write, as they developed the Writer’s Studio syllabus.

In fact, Roen literally wrote the course’s textbook. But he stresses that he doesn’t keep the royalties himself, instead putting them into SLS scholarship funds to help students.

Michael Pfister, an SLS and Writer’s Studio instructor, says everyone had a role in what assignment materials or other content is included. “It’s kind of a new model, so a lot of us are contributing ideas and content into the course itself.”

Pfister, a Ph.D candidate at ASU whose focus is online composition instruction, says the strength of online education is that it allows teachers to reach a broad audience, including traditional students (like Hamm) and nontraditional students (like Larson). The key, he says, is working with the mediums that current students know best, while keeping in mind the same goals you’d hold an essay to.

“We’ve kind of broadened the way we look at composition,” Pfister says of researchers in English education. “We look at how people compose through video, or putting together a screenplay. How do people compose online, via social media?”

Writer’s Studio is an attempt to best use an online environment to teach writing, rather than just moving a traditional writing class as-is onto BlackBoard, Pfister says. In this way, its creators hope to change the conception of what an online class can do.

Andrew Bourelle, an instructor for Writer’s Studio, has taught both online and lecture composition courses in his two years at ASU, and says the online model is a new experience for most students. Some like it better, and some don’t, but it is a great addition to the instructor’s tool belt.

“As a teacher, it’s definitely a different experience for me,” he says. “And it’s definitely a different experience for students. But that doesn’t mean it’s superior or inferior. It’s just a different option … [and] I like providing options to students so they can find what’s best for them.”

Bourelle (whose wife, Tiffany Bourelle, helped create Writer’s Studio) was added to the team in August, after switching to the Downtown campus. He says the strength of Writer’s Studio is that it gives students more options for feedback and resources, which can help them work through drafts and begin to see writing as a process.

“You don’t just write one draft, print it out, and you’re done,” Bourelle says. “There’s a process involved. It’s not just start at the beginning, go ‘til the end, and you’re done.”

He says the eight instructional assistants working under him are important to the class’s success. Between them, Pfister and Bourelle, the ENG 102 course has 10 teachers for 120 online students — a pretty good ratio at ASU. This benefits both the instructors and the students.

“I have the right amount of resources to help me,” Bourelle says, and through the several layers of trained feedback, students have many chances to “redraft, rework and re-envision their pieces.”

This factor, combined with the multimedia and interactive projects, he hopes will get first-year composition students more engaged in the subject.

“We’re getting out of that old mindset of just, [write] three or four papers and that’s the class,” Bourelle says. “I think that it’s going to do a good job getting students excited about the work that they’re doing. The assignments are interesting, and I think we’re doing what we can to make the projects something they can relate to.”

“We’re in a new age of writing,” says Ronni Souers, an instructional assistant (or IA) for Bourelle. She says Writer’s Studio teaches English in a way that applies more usefully to students’ lives.

“In our English 101 or 102 classes, we just wrote essay after essay after essay. And it’s like, how often are you gonna be writing essays?” says Souers, an English (Literature) senior. “I’ve learned so much more from teaching this course than I did my English 101 [and] 102 courses.”

This shows how far English education has changed in just a few years, and the process has not been without growing pains. Some instructional assistants say it’s been difficult adjusting to the multi-modal, online format, especially when students come with their own tech questions.

“Just being able to explain [the format] to them in terms that they can understand is sort of difficult,” says Souers, who wants to teach composition after college. “A lot of the stuff is new to me as well, but I’m sure it’ll be the stuff I’m required to teach when I finally come to teach.”

Nathan Bollig, another English (Literature) senior and Writer’s Studio IA, says the use of new technology and teaching methods is what drew him to the project.

“There was never the sense that ‘Oh, this is going to be easy,’” he says. “But instructors did a really good job of introducing IA’s to project, and how to instruct students online.”

While the course site confused some students at first, Bollig says most have adjusted well and seem to enjoy it now. He says this is because Writer’s Studio is geared toward teaching students through mediums they already recognize, such as blogs, YouTube, PowerPoint, and audio files; these are also the tools this generation will be seeing the world through.

“There’s a sort of path that we’ve set for them, but we encourage that they create something that meets the requirements, but also is something that they’re interested in,” Bollig says.

Maybe multimedia projects make more sense than the five-paragraph essay to today’s college freshmen. Or, at least, any ASU student who thinks they can now take first-year composition through Writer’s Studio and find out.

“[The mission is] to allow for creativity, and to allow students to really mold that project into something they’re proud of, and something that they can appreciate themselves,” Bollig says. “And I think that’s one thing that’s different from the English 101 that I took.”

Reach the reporter at, or via Twitter @TheRabens

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