Research on Virtual Space

By Dr. Chloé Diepenbrock

Early discussions of on online tutoring (both asynchronous and synchronous) identified many issues in virtual tutoring that still apply today. In “Online Writing Labs (OWLS): A Taxonomy of Options and Issues,” Muriel Harris and Michael Pemberton (1995) cautioned that in addition to benefits, “there are losses as well in this faceless disembodied world, as the lack of personal contact may seem to dehumanize a setting that writing centers have traditionally viewed as personal and warm” (p. 536). In “Straddling the Virtual Fence,” Eric Hobson (1998) pointed out that “[t]here is much to be learned about issues of access, power relations, gender differences and user profiles, online conversational patterns, [and] tutorial dynamics in the absence of physical and contextual paralinguistic cues” (p. 489).

These discussions value spaces that are inviting, challenging, and protected, but how will our interactions be changed by the nature of online space? Interactions will lack physical cues; they will be more affected by the restrictions of written text; power relations will play out differently when gender and race are not immediately obvious to participants. A strong theme for all of these discussions of virtual space is the relationship between trust and risk-taking. How do we create spaces that help us to establish relationships with writers such that they feel safe enough to take the kinds of risks that writers need to take to successfully explore ideas?

In The Online Writing Conference, Beth Hewett (2010) devoted an entire chapter to establishing trust. She argued that “beyond technology orientations, trust building occurs from practical orientations that help to mitigate potential student resistance or anxiety about using even familiar technologies like email, file-sharing media, and IM for educational purposes” (p. 37).

Hewett's (2010) advice on multiple practical issues might help students navigate the types of technologies mentioned above, but her focus on relationships is even more important. She discussed the importance of connecting with students, the influence of outside distractions and stimuli, the inevitable limitations of software, and the importance of developing voice (p. 56-63). Ultimately, she argued, students must view their online instructors as fellow humans, people they can connect with, interact with, and develop relationships with: “The point, I believe, must be to keep the computer-based conference from becoming merely a technical and mechanical process” (p. 59).

Hewitt (2010) discussed relationships structured by established instructor-student roles, but online interactions between writing center tutors and writers do not occur within this arguably safe construct. Online tutoring relationships are more anonymous; writers could work with different tutors in each interaction. As representatives of a specific writing center, tutors will have to rely on the authority conferred on them by their association with that center. This credibility will be established mainly by the online space they inhabit. Building trust will depend on how well the tutors carry out their responsibilities in these online environments, and a given center will come to have a reputation amongst its users.

Establishing trust in online environments has also been explored by experts in computer science. In “Supporting Trust in Virtual Communities,” Alfarez Abdul-Rahman and Stephen Hailes (2000) described a trust model for one of three types of trust: interpersonal. (The other two are dispositional and system.) Since interpersonal trust is very important to tutor-writer relationships, their model can be adapted to our specific virtual situation.

Abdul-Rahman and Hailes (2000) identified seven descriptors of interpersonal trust:

  • Trust is context-dependent
  • Trust supports both positive and negative degrees of belief in an agent’s trustworthiness
  • Trust is based on prior experiences
  • Agents are able to exchange information on reputation to make recommendations on trust
  • Trust is not transitive
  • Trust is subjective: people experience trust differently in a given situation
  • Trust is dynamic and non-monotonic (p. 4)

Translating this model to the online writing center environment, we can extrapolate the following seven principles for building online space:

Addressing Context

The trust that writers build in an online venue will depend largely on how they experience that venue. This experience will include both the ease of the technological interface and the positive nature of the interpersonal one. Thus, it is very important to build a virtual space that has enabling technology and that provides positive and helpful interactions.

Avoiding the Negative

Writers who have problems with what appears to be negative tone, or less-than-helpful response will develop negative expectations for virtual space. Technology issues can also contribute to a lack of confidence in online venues.

Factoring in Prior-Experience

Writers who experience a negative interaction will be reluctant to return for another attempt, so we have little room for error.

Preserving and Promoting our Reputation

Writers will discuss their experiences with their colleagues and professors. In this way, a center’s virtual space can develop a reputation for reliability or inefficiency. In the same way we pay attention to the reputation we cultivate for face-to-face interactions, we must attend to our reputation for online interactions.

Earning Trust One Writer at a Time

Though we may work with writers who have heard good reports from others (reputation), we cannot simply depend on these impressions; instead we must earn each writer’s trust by providing easy and helpful interactions.

Remaining Flexible

When we train tutors to work face-to-face, we talk a lot about flexibility. This same value applies to online interactions. It is important to pay attention to the writers who log on to visit with us in virtual space and to try to remain as flexible as possible in the way we interact with them.

Valuing Every Interaction

If we succeed in engaging in positive interactions with writers, we must be sure not to rest on our laurels and assume that all interactions will be equally positive. To safeguard against inconsistency in our interactions, we must be sure to have overall policies and standards that govern how we work with writers. People trust what they can depend on.

For more information on how we responded to these issues, see Experimental Space and Susie Space.


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