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English, Joel A. (1998). MOO-based metacognition incorporating online and offline reflection into the writing process. Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, Pedagogy, 3(1). http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/3.1/features/english/intro.html
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The first time I taught was in a 100% textual, asynchronous online environment at a for-profit institution. I was eligible for the job because I had an MA in literature, but I had no formal training in, or knowledge of, composition studies and online writing instruction (OWI). Instead, I was provided with two weeks of technical training and a semi-editable course shell. I did not have face-to-face teaching experience from which I could draw, and I learned to teach through trial and error. This lack of experience presented some challenges, but it also afforded me a unique relationship with online teaching because I was not constantly comparing what was possible online with what made me comfortable face-to-face.
When I did begin teaching face-to-face years later, I found the transition as alarming as most people find the shift to online teaching. There were suddenly 25 humans staring at me, expecting teaching to happen right now, instead of slowly over the course of several email exchanges. I had a similar reaction to face-to-face office hours; these students wanted answers that I found difficult to give without having more time to think about their query and read their work.
I have since grown accustomed to real-time teaching and now organize both my online and face-to-face classes to incorporate a variety of asynchronous and synchronous interactions. The hybridity of my pedagogy is particularly prominent during real-time interactions that are mediated by an audio–video interface. In the fully online, sophomore-level research writing course that I taught regularly between 2016 and 2020, I facilitated peer review sessions and student–teacher conferences in Zoom, a popular video conferencing software. I also spent a considerable amount of time in Zoom with both my OWI colleagues across the country and my institutional colleagues in rural Pennsylvania—and this was before the COVID-19 pandemic.
I found that, even when a face-to-face meeting with students or colleagues was possible, I tended to gravitate towards Zoom. This webtext was drafted as a response to that tendency. I present two case studies of student–teacher Zoom conferences, examining the ways the digital space impacts the student–teacher relationship. I ground my analysis in current online writing instruction and writing center conversations about digital space/place and asymmetrical collaboration.
This webtext was drafted June–August 2019, and revised January–March 2020, amidst the global pandemic that prompted emergency remote instruction. By the time it is published, most writing instructors will have used Zoom or another video conferencing software to interact with students. My hope is that the analysis presented here will contribute to our collective reflections upon the benefits and drawbacks of synchronous audio–video conferencing.
To construct this literature review, I searched for "video conference" and "synchronous conference" in Kairos and other relevant composition studies journals: College Composition and Communication, Computers and Composition, Computers and Composition Online, Research in the Teaching of English, Journal of Response to Writing, Journal of Writing Research, Writing Center Journal, and Writing Program Administration. I found several articles that described student-produced videos and other forms of multimodal composition (e.g., Cope et al., 2011), as well as asynchronous audio/video feedback (e.g., Silva, 2012) and multimedia instructional materials (e.g., Szerdahelyi, 2008), but did not include them in this literature review. Instead, I focus on articles that describe the theory of synchronous conferencing, as well as empirical or praxis articles that describe teachers or tutors who use synchronous text chat or synchronous audio-video-textual (AVT) platforms to conference with students. I begin with a discussion of synchronous learning, and then engage with the concepts of asymmetrical collaboration and digital space/(non)place.
It is important to note that much of the literature I cite focuses on writing center conferences. As evidenced by Beth Hewett's (2010) work, there are many overlaps in the pedagogies employed by online writing labs and online writing instructors. This project applies concepts that emerged from writing center scholarship to student–teacher conferencing.
Online writing instruction (OWI) scholars have thought deeply about the differences between synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous (not temporally bound) interactions. Webster Newbold (1999) articulated a typical distinction between the two: Asynchronous communication is a "cool medium" that "foster[s] transaction when the student wants it to happen," while synchronous communication "is a ‘hot' medium" that "forces thinking NOW, while others are doing it and while ideas, questions, problems, and emotions are being created" (Challenges and New Directions). Synchronous interaction is associated with spontaneity and back-and-forth dialogue, while asynchronous interaction is affiliated with reflection and student authority over when they interact. There are differences between the types of interactions, but one is not necessarily better than the other—they are both important for learning. The question for Newbold and other OWI scholars was whether positive synchronous exchanges were possible online, which, at the time, were typically text-only. His analysis of text chat transcripts contributed to a large body of scholarship that ultimately confirmed that "these learning transactions can and do happen" online (Applying Transactional Theory).
Often, scholars suggest that the primary goal of synchronous online activities is to replicate face-to-face interaction, which implicitly positions face-to-face learning as the gold standard. For example, Newbold framed his study as an investigation into whether or not the synchronous text chat could "recreate human interaction" (Applying Transactional Theory). As audio-video tools became available, the tendency to frame synchronous online learning as an approximation of face-to-face interaction only increased. Dawn Rodrigues (1998) explained that she integrated video cameras into her writing class because she "wanted to use the same techniques that work well in a face to face classroom" (Pedagogical Choices). Likewise, M. Remi Yergeau et al. (2008) noted that their project examined AVT conferencing "in an effort to recover the multimodal potential of the f2f tutorial in circumstances where f2f is not possible" (Scholarship, 2). These framings suggest that AVT conferencing is primarily valuable because it approximates and replicates physical face-to-face learning, but they do not always articulate what it is about the face-to-face experience that we are trying to replicate. Such a framing also inadvertently suggests that face-to-face interaction is more desirable, and that online learning is less human.
I take a different approach in this project, starting with the assumptions that (a) positive human interactions are possible in both face-to-face and AVT environments, and (b) simply being co-present does not necessitate learning. To understand what conditions facilitate positive synchronous learning, I advocate for more directly naming the potential benefits of real-time interaction, and then exploring how particular environments (face-to-face, video chat, text chat, etc.) support or hinder that interaction.
For example, I suspect that one advantage of an AVT conference is that it provides students with the opportunity to simultaneously practice digital literacy skills and ask questions about the tools they are using, thus facilitating just-in-time learning about digital literacy. Online writing instruction scholars have consistently argued that the online learning environment supports literacy development. Some scholars argue that asynchronous writing courses require students to write and read more frequently and in a variety of contexts, thus requiring students to practice the literacy skills that the course aims to facilitate (Hewett, 2015; Warnock & Gasiewski, 2018). Other scholars pose similar arguments about the benefits of synchronous text chats (English, 1998; Newbold, 1999; Van Horne, 2012). Applied to AVT interactions, the argument shifts to the ways that students develop multimodal and digital literacy skills. As Yergeau et al. (2008) explained, AVT "might enhance one's technological literacy," helping both tutors and students to "grow as multiliterate individuals" (Technological Literacy, 1). Students must use multimodal tools to participate in the AVT conference, and the real-time interaction may uniquely allow the instructor to support their digital literacy development.
Of course, AVT environments do not necessarily foster digital literacy skills. Lora Arduser et al. (2011) conducted a usability study of audio in an online course, finding that students "found the multiple channels of information difficult to manage" (p. 62). There may have been an opportunity for learning new tools, but the students did not respond positively to it. It is also important to recognize that the arguments for digital literacy acquisition via virtual interaction assume that students have access to the tools that facilitate this interaction (i.e., computer, webcam, high-speed internet), which is not always the case. Consequently, my project studies potential benefits of AVT conferencing, and acknowledges that these benefits are not necessarily accessible to all students and teachers.
The issue of access highlights the importance of accounting for social context in conversations about the affordances of particular learning environments. In the case of conferencing, a key component of social context is the student–teacher/–tutor power dynamic. I am particularly interested in how the design of the learning environment influences that dynamic. Specific to Zoom, decisions about who shares their screen, whether the video feed is set to gallery or speaker view, and whether questions are posed verbally or in the text chat create more or less opportunities for the students to have more or less authority.
The issue of student authority is a frequent topic of conversation in writing centers, resulting in a common assumption that tutors should be non-directive; a similar notion leads online instructors to act as "guides on the side" to facilitate active, student-centered learning (King, 1993). Recently, writing center scholars have begun to conduct large-scale empirical studies designed to test such assumptions. Isabelle Thompson et al. (2009), for example, conducted survey research that "contradict[s] lore mandates forbidding tutor directiveness" (p. 79). Their findings suggested that "satisfactory tutoring … requires caring, expertise, and a willingness to answer questions, sometimes directly" (p. 80). Furthermore, "survey items related to lore-based mandates that students should talk the most during conferences and that tutors should act as peers rather than instructors did not influence students' conference satisfaction very much" (p. 95). Consequently, Thompson et al. proposed approaching the tutor–writer relationship as an asymmetrical collaboration. Unlike Lisa Ede & Andrea Lunsford's (1990) dialogical collaboration, where collaborators are equals, or hierarchical collaboration, where one person controls the process, Thompson et al. (2009) advocated for both collaborators having power, but of different kinds: "the tutor has greater expertise in the subject matter or skill than the student, but the student has the power to initiate the collaboration and set the agenda" (p. 81). Thompson et al. further explained that the "asymmetrical collaborative relationship is likely to proceed through scaffolding, where support and challenge from the expert allow the less expert to perform at higher levels than [they] could have achieved without assistance" (p. 97). Asymmetrical collaboration thus gives power to the student, but also depends upon the expert leveraging their expertise to assist the novice.
I am interested in exploring the ways that the Zoom interface supports or hinders asymmetrical collaboration; my anecdotal experience suggests that Zoom is uniquely situated to support such a collaboration because the student can share their screen and thus control the visual conference space. Yergeau et al. (2008) made a similar argument, noting that AVT "allows for students to disregard, rather than to automatically assimilate, tutor suggestions" (Interface, 6). They attributed this to the fact that students are communicating "from a more comfortable, homey space" that allows them to "feel more willing to take ownership, to stand their ground and shoot down ideas" (Interface, 6). Similarly, Barry Reynolds & Tom Anderson (2015) justified their use of synchronous text chat in an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) course based on scholarship that shows that "online encounters provided more opportunities for learners to take control of the discourse" (p. 56).
Joanna Wolfe & Jo Ann Griffin's (2012) study offers further support for this argument. They compared face-to-face writing center conferencing with two types of online conferences, one that used WordShare and one that used Tablet PC. Both WordShare and Tablet PC allow the tutor and writer to "manipulate the cursor and scrollbar and have access to all of the features normally available in Word" (p. 64). The Tablet PC additionally provided the tutor with a digital ink tool, to which the student did not have access. Their findings indicated that the Tablet PC condition was more "consultant focused": The consultants spoke more often and made more marks on the student's text (p. 72). Wolfe & Griffin attributed this to the digital ink tool, which "may have reinforced a perception that the consultant was in charge of the session—or at least in charge of the computer" (p. 83). Students in the Tablet PC condition made fewer changes to their texts and took fewer notes on the shared desktop, while students in the WordShare condition spent more time "generating new text" than their Tablet PC or face-to-face counterparts (p. 74). The WordShare condition seems to most closely enact the asymmetrical collaboration that Thompson et al. (2009) recommended because it gave students access to and control over the tools that mediated their interaction with the text and the tutor. At the same time, the tutor maintained some authority by also having access to the tool and by making verbal recommendations.
Asymmetrical collaboration in a writing center conference means that both the tutor and the student have power, but different kinds. The tutor has authority as an expert, while the student maintains authority over the direction and focus of the conference. My project applies this concept to student–teacher conferences, where students are even more likely to expect and value their instructor's expertise. My project is also mindful of Yergeau et al.'s (2008) caution that "authority and comfort in one's own space can be enhanced or stifled … depending on the student's knowledge of the technology" (Space, 4). If students are unfamiliar with, intimidated by, or frustrated with the technology, then they may be distinctly less comfortable in an online conference. By analyzing recordings of student–teacher conferences, I hope to locate evidence of asymmetrical collaboration (or lack thereof) and analyze the ways the Zoom interface supports or hinders that collaboration.
Examining the way the interface influences the student–teacher relationship requires accounting for how conference participants experience the digital space. Nathalie Singh-Corcoran & Amin Emika (2012) offered a particularly thoughtful review of writing center conversations about both physical and digital spaces/places. A primary aim of this webtext is to apply Singh-Corcoran & Emika's (2012) arguments to AVT conferencing, which is unique because it requires the participants to simultaneously exist in individual physical and digital spaces as well as a shared virtual space.
Singh-Corcoran & Emika (2012) organized their webtext into two reviews, one about physical space and one about digital space. They offered a historical account of the evolving scholarly conversation about physical writing center space, noting the interest in developing "comfortable" or "homey" centers in which students are free to experiment and take risks, as well as the criticisms of such spaces being socioeconomically marked. In their discussion of digital space, they maintained that early scholarship on Online Writing Labs (OWLs) undertheorized space, which led to problematic assumptions about digital spaces being neutral and contributed to failed attempts at replicating physical spaces and face-to-face behaviors in the virtual environment.
Singh-Corcoran & Emika (2012) proposed that one way to extend our understanding of both digital and physical writing center space is to consider the notion of a "nonplace." They acknowledged Webber's (1964) initial conception of nonplaces as "marked by access rather than proximity," such that the community is "less place bound and more conceptual or interest bound" (Physical Space). They then evoked Marc Augé's (2000) more recent characterization of nonplaces as "not bound to time or region" that "also do not provide their inhabitants with any sense of identity, community, or tradition" (Physical Space). In this view, nonplaces are "transient, temporal, and intermediary: the spaces in-between places like airports, malls, waiting rooms" (Physical Space). Augé's argument is that nonplaces are not fixed; they come into existence when humans find themselves in a place that is not tied to their identity; accordingly, different people can experience the same environment as a place or a nonplace. Applying this lens to the writing center, Singh-Corcoran & Emika (2012) argued that the physical center may provide writing center tutors and directors with a sense of identity, community, and tradition (and thus a sense of place), but that same sense is not necessarily provided to the students who access the center as passersby (and thus experience the center as a nonplace).
In a digital environment, feeling like a passerby is amplified through what Christina Haas (1996) described as technological transparency. Haas gave the example of driving a car: When we drive, the technology/mechanics of the car become transparent, fading into the background of our consciousness and allowing us to focus on the task of driving instead of on how the machine operates. This same transparency is what allows AVT conferences to feel face-to-face: After enough experience with the tool, users stop paying attention to the mediating environment and simply feel co-present with the other people on the call. I am particularly interested in exploring how the concept of nonplace relates to AVT student–teacher conferencing because the Zoom Room is only one of many locations that participants experience during the conference. Both student and instructor exist in a chosen physical location (home, car, library, office, etc.), and they independently experience a digital space in terms of what device they are using and how they configure their desktop. Both parties also exist in a shared space, the Zoom interface, which sometimes gives one user a view of the other user's digital space when the Share Screen function is employed. To engage in the conference, participants must shift their focus across the spaces they inhabit. As their focus shifts, so does their sense of the interfaces as more or less transparent, which means that, at different points in the conference, the Zoom Room may feel more or less like a nonplace.
Furthermore, similar to Singh-Corcoran & Emika's (2012) argument about directors/tutors having a more identity-driven attachment to the writing center than students, the writing instructor may experience the Zoom Room as a place while the student experiences it as a nonplace. This line of inquiry also creates opportunities to observe when a nonplace becomes a place, that is, when the online instructor or student gains an emotional attachment to the Zoom Room as the primary place of instruction or learning.
Singh-Corcoran & Emika (2012) argued that this more complicated understanding of digital space and place can help writing center directors and tutors combat the "need to transform [OWLs] into inhabited spaces" (Foyeristic View). The notion of nonplace in particular may help us embrace the ways that these digital spaces "are used at various times and by various people" (Technology), which can in turn help us "critically consider the tangible space, materials, and labor that support their existence" (Technology). The concept of nonplace can also help us explore how our physical, cognitive, and emotional engagement with the technologies that mediate our interactions create unique social dynamics that influence the student–teacher relationship. One question for this project is whether instructors or students' sense of the Zoom interface as a place or a nonplace impacts the potential for asymmetrical collaboration.
My review of the literature on synchronous learning in online writing courses and writing centers illustrated a need for research that articulates the benefits of synchronous learning (beyond approximating face-to-face interaction), and demonstrated the potential usefulness of applying two concepts that have emerged from writing center scholarship to understand student–teacher AVT conferences: asymmetrical collaboration and nonplace. This project aims to answer the following research questions:
It is also important to note that this project explores the use of video conferencing even when face-to-face meetings were possible. At the time of data collection, the majority of my online students were also enrolled in face-to-face courses on campus and had the opportunity to attend face-to-face office hours. However, more students opted to meet virtually, and I have come to prefer that method for conferencing about works-in-progress. This webtext explores the value of synchronous AVT student–teacher conferencing, regardless of course delivery format.
This webtext presents video recordings of my conferences with undergraduate students. The recordings were initially meant to preserve the calls in case students wanted to revisit them later. Per my approved IRB protocol, I contacted the students via email after grades were submitted in Fall 2018 and Fall 2019 to request permission to use the recordings for the purposes of publication.
In total, seven students consented to participate in the study. This webtext presents two conferences as case studies. They were selected because they represent different student–teacher relationships that, according to my anecdotal experience and my analysis of all seven conferences, are common: "Alexis" approached the conference collaboratively, seeking to negotiate ideas with the instructor; "Lillian" approached the conference more transactionally, seeking to receive specific answers to questions. Both Alexis and Lillian identify as white females who speak English as their first language. Both students were sophomores enrolled in the Fall 2018 section of the course, with Alexis majoring in nursing and Lillian majoring in hospitality management.
The conferences were part of an online research writing class, which is the second in a two-course composition sequence. At my institution, the course is offered in both face-to-face and online delivery formats, and the online courses are typically asynchronous. I requested that the registrar reserve time in my students' schedules each week (2:30-3:30pm on Friday in Fall 2018; 3:30-4:45pm on Tuesday in Fall 2019), which I used for synchronous audio-video-textual (AVT) meetings in Zoom. The meetings were not every week; instead, we met at the end of each unit, when students were engaging in peer review. In the weeks when the video chat was not required, I used the time for optional student–teacher conferences. The students who enrolled in these classes were simultaneously enrolled in other face-to-face classes on campus, which meant that physical meetings were possible. However, the majority of my students sought video conferences.
The conferences presented in this webtext took place near the end of the semester. The course required students to work on a research paper throughout the semester, submitting drafts of the Literature Review, Methods, Findings, and Discussion sections that they subsequently revised and resubmitted for the final project. At the time of the conferences, the students were in the process of revising and finalizing their final papers. As you will see from the recordings, Alexis' conference focused on her Methods, Findings, and Discussion and Lillian's focused on her Literature Review.
Prior to reviewing the literature on video conferencing, I conducted a content analysis by watching the Fall 2018 conference recordings and taking notes on potential themes. I then conducted a review of online writing instruction and writing center literature related to synchronous conferencing, which focused my interest on the concepts of asymmetrical collaboration and nonplace, as well as any specific benefits that students seemed to experience in the conferences. I returned to the Fall 2018 and newly-collected Fall 2019 data and coded it manually—I watched the videos and took notes, creating a list of instances of specific benefits, asymmetrical collaboration, and Zoom functioning as a nonplace.
To identify specific benefits, I described what was happening in the videos. How were students engaging with the instructor? Were they asking questions? This process led me to identify two categories of engagement that the students seemed to experience positively: asking questions (when the student asked the instructor a specific question) and writing/revising (when the student wrote or edited the Word document they were sharing). Because the literature had specifically mentioned digital literacy, I also looked for evidence of students practicing digital literacy skills. I began descriptively, tracking how the students and instructor engaged with the interface (were they sharing their screen? toggling between multiple windows?), and then questioned if the students seemed to be learning new skills as a result of the conference. The excerpts affiliated with digital literacy included the following tools: Zoom, Google Forms, Excel, TinyURL.com, and MS Word.
To identify instances of asymmetrical collaboration, I was attentive to moments when the student or instructor exercised authority or seemed "in charge" of the conference. Who was sharing their screen? What prompted the student and instructor to focus on specific aspects of the paper? How did the student respond to the instructor's recommendations, and how did the instructor respond when the student asked questions? The video clips affiliated with asymmetrical collaboration were often transitional moments when a topic of discussion was introduced or concluded.
To code for nonplace, I looked at how the student and instructor engaged with the Zoom interface. Did they reference their individual physical or digital spaces? Were there moments where they seemed more or less present in the shared Zoom space versus those individual spaces? The excerpts affiliated with nonplace were primarily instances of the student or instructor visibly or verbally moving in between these spaces.
This manual coding also led me to identify Alexis and Lillian as case studies for this webtext. Consequently, I uploaded the recordings of Alexis' and Lillian's conferences into Dedoose, a software application for qualitative data analysis. Using the same strategies detailed above, I tagged excerpts of the videos using five codes: Asking Questions, Writing/Revising, Digital Literacy, Asymmetrical Collaboration, and Nonplace. I then exported the excerpts affiliated with each code and selected representative clips for inclusion in the findings.
To prepare the data for presentation, I created video clips in Kaltura and edited them in iMovie, adding blocks of color to hide students' names. I uploaded the clips to YouTube to generate captions, which I transformed into .vtt files.
This study examined seven synchronous audio-video-textual (AVT) conference recordings, questioning the extent to which the recordings provided evidence or examples of (a) specific benefits, (b) asymmetrical collaboration, and (c) the Zoom interface functioning as a nonplace. The findings present two case studies from students, "Alexis" and "Lillian," first reporting on three specific benefits (asking questions, writing/revising, practicing digital literacy), and then reporting on the participants' asymmetrical collaboration and the moments when the Zoom interface seemed to function as a nonplace.
My analysis of the data revealed three benefits of the AVT conference: There were opportunities for the student to ask questions, to engage in writing or revision, and to practice digital literacy skills.
One clear benefit to the synchronous conference was the opportunity for students to ask questions, which is a common benefit of synchronous, just-in-time learning. In the AVT environment, the student-instructor discussion of student questions seemed to be enhanced by the fact that both student and instructor had visual access to the paper.
For example, in Clip 1, Lillian opened our conversation by asking if a section of her paper sounded too repetitive. She projected her screen and drew my attention to a section that she's highlighted, and then highlighted another sentence with her cursor to draw my attention to it. Lillian not only made use of the visuals to support her question, but also explicitly recognized my visual access to her paper, noting "I know that, like, you can read it, but…" and then read the sentences out loud.
Clip 1. Download the transcript.
Later in the call, Lillian refered to a comment I had made on her draft about relocating a sentence to a different section of the paper. As you see in Clip 2, she made explicit use of the shared visual space, scrolling up and down in the document, asking me, "Should it go here? Or here?" And then she made the change in response to my verbal feedback. This clip is also interesting because while I gave verbal feedback, Lillian noticed and corrected a misspelled word, demonstrating that she was independently engaging with and thinking about the paper while simultaneously talking with me.
Clip 2. Download the transcript.
The conference with Alexis also demonstrates the shared visual space as conducive to asking questions. Like Lillian, Alexis frequently directed my attention to the draft by scrolling to particular sections and reading sentences out loud, and then asking questions about how she should revise. While the questions Lillian asked were primarily pre-scripted (she came to the conference with a set of questions that she wanted answered), the conference with Alexis included more spontaneous explorations of ideas. In one instance, I made a suggestion about how she might revise her data visualization, which prompted Alexis to navigate away from her paper to show me some confusion she was having with Google Forms (Clip 3).
Clip 3. Download the transcript.
I prompted the conversation in Clip 3 by recommending that Alexis revise the presentation of her pie chart. She responded by navigating to Google Forms to show me the raw data she collected, which subsequently facilitated a conversation about how she can use that raw data to create her own visuals (see Clip 8 in the Digital Literacy section). Neither Alexis nor I went into the conference intending to discuss data visualization, but the shared space drew our attention to the pie charts and prompted us to pursue the topic. In this way, the shared space contributed to and facilitated question-asking during real-time interaction.
Another benefit of the AVT conference is that it facilitated writing and revision. I frequently observed the students shift between and, at times, simultaneously engage in talking and writing, which was made possible by the multimodal nature of the AVT interface. This overlap of talk and writing occurred in a minor way with Lillian, when she made changes to her headings. She had two primary reasons for seeking the conference with me, first to question if one section of her paper was repetitive and second to ask about the formatting of the headings. Clip 4 demonstrates her heading query: She asked my opinion and, in response to my feedback, made a change to the draft.
Clip 4. Download the transcript.
The conference with Alexis included more substantive revision. About seven minutes into the call (Clip 5), Alexis focused our attention on her primary query: She wanted help revising her findings. For about five minutes, Alexis verbally oriented me to the paper, explained what revisions she had already done (often reading out loud from the paper as proof), and then asked how to proceed next. I responded by complementing her revisions and making recommendations, which initiated a back-and-forth conversation. This clip illustrates how synchronous conferencing facilitates verbal conversation.
Clip 5. Download the transcript.
At the end of Clip 5, there is a clear shift, when Alexis said, "So I think what I'm going to say is…" In that moment, we stopped talking about the ideas and Alexis began to make changes to the text. As you'll see in Clip 6, she read out loud from her paper, and then crafted new sentences in the document, at first reading the words aloud as she wrote and then writing silently. I was silent throughout, watching and observing the process. It seems that I may have faded out of Alexis' primary attention, but then she misspelled a word and this seemed to remind her of my presence. She laughed about it and then read aloud the final words that she wrote.
Clip 6. Download the transcript.
Combined, Clips 5 and 6 illustrate the ways that synchronous AVT conferencing allows for both talking and writing. The verbal exchanges are made possible by the real-time immediacy of synchronous interaction. The writing and revision is facilitated by the students' engagement with their individual digital spaces. Projecting their individual desktops into the shared space creates a situation where the student writer focuses on her desktop while the instructor silently observes, but then that focus shifts as the student makes changes to the draft while simultaneously talking to the instructor.
The final benefit of the AVT conferences was the opportunity for students to practice digital literacy skills, and this was more prominent in the conference with Alexis than with Lillian. The difference between Alexis and Lillian was representative of the other conferences I analyzed for this webtext. Students like Lillian engaged in digital literacy to the extent that it allowed them to participate in the Zoom conference. Students like Alexis additionally experimented with digital tools that they had not used before or had questions about, which, in my research writing class, was almost always related to data visualization.
Clip 7 offers an example of Alexis employing digital literacy skills to navigate and engage with the Zoom interface. In this instance, she takes some time to figure out how to share her screen:
Clip 7. Download the transcript.
As Alexis clicked around in the Zoom interface, she verbalized her process, letting me know that she was taking some time to figure out the tool.
Later in the conference, I recommended that Alexis use the raw data she collected in Google Forms to create her own charts in Excel, which prompted Alexis to engage in more exploration and experimentation. As you see in Clip 8, Alexis showed me Google Forms' visualization of the raw data she collected. She was concerned that Google's visualizations did not present the data in the way she wanted, and so I recommended she create her own visualization in Excel. Alexis expressed some concern about this, noting, "to be honest, I have no idea if I even have Excel on my computer." She navigated away from the Google Form and back to her Word document, where she started clicking around to see if there was a way to generate a chart in that program. She finds an Insert Table button that opens up Excel, which I did not realize was possible. Just-in-time literacy skill acquisition is demonstrated in her surprised reaction, "oh!" and my response, "maybe you can do it in Word … click okay and see what happens." Once the tool was opened, Alexis and I discussed how to organize her data. I then made some recommendations for how to use the tool and watched her create the chart in real time.
Clip 8. Download the transcript.
While Alexis continued to work on the chart, our conversation shifted to the logistics of submitting her final paper. She asked a question about due dates, and I said, "yeah, you've got it exactly right." Then, in Clip 9, I shifted the conversation back to the visual space, commenting that the chart was updating in real-time as she changed the numbers in Excel. She also articulated her plan to continue this strategy for the rest of the data she was presenting in the paper. This instance demonstrates skills in data visualization as part of her writing/revising work within the AVT environment.
Clip 9. Download the transcript.
The question-asking described in this section is possible in a face-to-face conference where the instructor and student look at a printed copy of the paper. Similarly, the writing/revising and digital literacy skills demonstrated by Alexis and Lillian are possible if the student and instructor look at files on the student's computer. However, the shared space of AVT conferencing seems particularly conducive to these benefits. This is especially true for the writing and revision I observed, when the student's attention shifted away from me and the Zoom conference and towards her paper. But the more important point is that this data helps us name those benefits: The synchronous AVT conference is not beneficial just because it "feels" face-to-face; it's beneficial because it provides students with a simultaneous opportunity to ask questions and engage in a back-and-forth conversation with the instructor, to write or revise in a multimodal space, and to practice digital literacy skills. If instructors intentionally design AVT conferences to promote those practices, the AVT conferences may be more likely to have positive outcomes.
My findings additionally suggest that the Zoom interface is conducive to asymmetrical collaboration. Notably, in most conferences I conduct, it is the student who shares her screen, which then populates both of our desktops. As the instructor, I have no control over what is being presented to me—the students scroll to particular sections of the paper and highlight words or make changes to the text while I watch. Our two video feeds are also present, but they are small compared to the size of the projected Word document, deemphasizing our facial expressions in favor of the text on the shared screen. While the student thus maintains control over the environment and visually sets the agenda for our conversation, I maintain power as the instructor and authority figure. The students request these conferences because they have questions they want me to answer; they expect me to provide feedback in my capacity as an expert.
The two case studies in this webtext are interesting because Lillian's and my goals for the conference were not always in direct alignment, which contrasted with the negotiation and discussion that occurred in the conference with Alexis.
Lillian initiated our conference by asking my opinion on whether a section of the literature review was too repetitive. As you will see in Clip 10, I saw a different issue as I looked at the projected text, a citation that I felt needed more explanation. I attempted to connect my concern with hers, noting that the sentence that included a quote from Hardin was the one she worried was repetitive. But she was not convinced by my recommendation, responding by saying that the additional information I was requesting already existed in a subsequent section of the paper. In response, I recommended moving the Hardin quote down to that subsequent section, and in so doing I revealed my true intention: "Either way, I'd like to hear more about what Hardin has to say." Lillian responded that there is not much more that she wanted to bring in from the source. At that point, I attempted to return to her initial concern about repetition, explaining that extending her discussion of the literature was one way to avoid repetition. She responded by reasserting her initial focus on whether or not a particular sentence was repetitive. She removed a phrase from the sentence and argued to keep the quote where it was for the purposes of transitioning into the next section. At this point, I confirmed that the deletion made sense, and I more explicitly recognized that she and I had different agendas, noting, "maybe the solution for what I'm wanting…", and recommended a compromise: Keep the quote where it was and bring up Hardin again in the next section. Lillian did not respond to this; instead, she drew our attention away from the conference by talking to her cat. Afterwards, I finally answered the original question she asked, commenting that the two sentences she was worried about did not seem redundant to me. She responded by noting that this section was difficult to revise, but she thought it was working now.
Clip 10. Download the transcript.
We might interpret this conference as unsuccessful, either characterizing Lillian as unresponsive to my requests for revision or characterizing me as unproductively focusing on the change I wanted her to make rather than on the question she asked. Another interpretation, though, is that the conference did include the type of asymmetrical collaboration for which Isabelle Thompson et al. (2009) advocated. Lillian set the agenda for the conference and ultimately maintained her authority over the direction of our conversation. At the same time, I exercised my authority as the teacher, which required her to listen to my suggestions, even though we ultimately followed Lillian's lead.
The conference with Alexis involved more back-and-forth conversation as we explored opportunities for revision. For example, in Clip 11, I had just finished watching Alexis add a few sentences to her paper. When she was done, I started making a recommendation for how she could make the addition even stronger by adding another element. She responded positively, proposing an option and asking if I thought it was a good idea. I concurred and then she talked through how she might phrase the addition.
Clip 11. Download the transcript.
Alexis maintained control over the direction of the conference, just as Lillian did. She determined what parts of the paper we discussed; she decided if she was going to talk through her thinking or make changes to the draft; and she dictated what we looked at on the shared screen. At the same time, I made recommendations that have weight because of my position as the teacher/expert. In other words, these conferences with Lillian and Alexis seem to be examples of asymmetrical collaboration.
My analysis of the recordings also indicates that the Zoom interface does, at times, function as a nonplace, and this functionality supports the students' and my asymmetrical collaboration.
Applying the theory of nonplace to conferencing first and foremost emphasizes the intermediary nature of conferencing in general. The student comes to the student–teacher conference to seek assistance that will support the writing and revision they will complete later in their own writing spaces. There was evidence of this in all of the conferences, but Alexis articulated it best. On multiple occasions, Alexis explicitly acknowledged that this conference was a catalyst for revisions that she would make at a separate time and place. For example, in Clip 12, she outlined her plans for replicating what we had done in the conference in other sections of her paper and described her intended timeline for the revisions. She additionally noted that she wanted to have the conference because she was "at a standstill" regarding how to proceed with the paper, and after the conference felt able to finish the draft.
Clip 12. Download the transcript.
The Zoom interface reinforced the intermediary nature of the conference in two ways. First, the software literally connected the student and I across physical space. I was in my office on campus, and I believe Alexis was in her dorm room or apartment near campus, while Lillian was at her mother's home in a different town. These physical places are our "real" locations, and the Zoom interface is a mediator. Interestingly, there was only one moment when our physical locations were explicitly acknowledged, when Lillian's cat made an appearance. As you'll see in Clip 13, the cat entered the screen and Lillian admonished it for drinking her hot chocolate.
Clip 13. Download the transcript.
I had just asked Lillian to make a revision that she was not interested in making, so turning her attention to the cat not only established her physical location in her own place, but also served to reassert her power in our asymmetrical collaboration.
With Alexis, our physical environments were not directly addressed, but there were several moments that made it clear that Alexis and I were both engaged with our individual desktops, which is the second way that the Zoom interface acted as an in-between. In Clip 14, Alexis had not yet shared her screen and she was telling me about some revisions that she made to the literature review. She was clearly reading from her paper, which she must have pulled up on her own desktop, emphasizing the fact that her experience of the conference included her individual digital space. She not only read from the paper, but also explained that what she was reading came from the introductory paragraph, using hand gestures to visualize the shape of that paragraph.
Clip 14. Download the transcript.
Once Alexis shared her screen, I was looking into her writing space, on her desktop. However, I also still had access to my own desktop, and I toggled between the part of Alexis' space that she shared (projected in the Zoom conference) and my workspace. Clip 15 illustrates this. It is clear from my facial expression and body language that I was not looking directly at the Zoom conference (or at Alexis). Instead, I was looking at something else on my computer (I'm actually looking at a second screen). Our dialogue indicates that I was pulling up my copy of her paper. Even though she shared her screen and we were ostensibly both focused on the same view of the document, I had access to my copy. In fact, I often review my version of the students' papers while I conference, quickly re-reading the comments I wrote on first drafts and using this to inform our conversation.
Clip 15. Download the transcript.
I was not consciously aware of the these layers of location until after I engaged in data analysis for this project, which supports the argument that technological transparency enhances the sense of the Zoom interface as a nonplace. When I was engaging directly with the students, I was only focused on words they were saying or the text they were projecting. In that moment of focus, the Zoom interface, my desktop, and my physical location faded into the background, and it felt like I was simply co-present with the student. However, that level of focus was not sustained throughout the entire session. There were moments when I shifted my focus to my individual workspace (e.g., reading an email that popped up or reviewing my copy of the student's paper) or to my physical location (e.g., seeing my phone light up with a text or hearing my colleagues in the hall) or to the Zoom interface (e.g., navigating the tool to share my screen or reading the text chat). The Zoom interface facilitates a distinctly fluid synchronous interaction, which amplifies the potential for it to feel like a nonplace.
To fully examine the extent to which the Zoom interface functions as a nonplace, interview research is required, such that students' and instructors' sense of connection to Zoom can be established. I can say that my early experiences with Zoom were characteristic of a nonplace—I saw the interface as a means to an end that enabled me to connect with the other participants. I would now argue that Zoom has become a place for me, and that happened before the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shift to emergency remote instruction. I identify as someone who teaches with video and recognize my Zoom room as a location to which I am emotionally attached. However, my attention is not always on the interface, allowing it to at times feel like a nonplace while I conference. More research is needed to understand how instructors and students respond to video interfaces; this webtext simply aims to invite further conversation about the ways instructors and students approach and move between the individual/shared, digital/physical spaces and (non)places that facilitate AVT conferencing.
This webtext presented two case studies of synchronous audio-video-textual (AVT) conferences with students in an online research writing course. In response to online writing instruction and writing center scholarship, I sought evidence of (a) specific benefits of AVT conferencing, (b) asymmetrical collaboration, and (c) the Zoom interface functioning as a nonplace.
Online writing instruction scholarship has thoroughly discussed the differences between asynchronous and synchronous interactions (Mick & Middlebrook, 2015) and has argued that the types of back-and-forth dialogue and spontaneity that we affiliate with synchronous interaction are not only possible online, but also possible in a variety of formats, such as synchronous text chat (Newbold, 1999) and AVT (Yergeau et al., 2008). My goal in this webtext was to build on that work and also deliberately avoid conflating face-to-face learning with immediacy or assuming that approximating face-to-face interactions equals positive learning. Instead, I sought to identify particular benefits of synchronous interaction that were evident in the conference recordings. I observed three such benefits: asking questions, writing/revising, and practicing digital literacy.
Alexis and Lillian both sought the conference because they had specific questions, and the real-time nature of our interaction meant that we were able to discuss their questions and engage in some negotiation. This benefit of synchronous interaction can be achieved through a number of environments, including face-to-face, text chat, phone call, and video chat. What was unique about the Zoom interface was the shared screen. The students oriented me to their questions by scrolling through their projected papers, and I offered responses not only to their verbal questions but also to the visual information I gathered from viewing their screens. In both conferences, this affordance leant itself to our discussion of document design—Lillian and I discussed formatting and Alexis and I discussed data visualization. Potentially, it may be the case that synchronous AVT conferences are particularly conducive to asking questions about document design and multimodal composition.
Another benefit I observed was the shifting between and, at times, overlapping occurrence of talking and writing/revising. The real-time environment allowed the students and I to respond verbally to one another while simultaneously interacting with and responding to the visual information on the shared screen. This same benefit is typical in face-to-face conferences, as the student and instructor (or tutor) shift their attention between the verbal conversation and the physical paper. The Zoom interface seemed to particularly lend itself to a combination of talking and writing, such that the students sometimes focused their attention on our verbal conversation and sometimes focused their attention on their own writing while I watched silently. Occasionally, I observed the students doing both tasks simultaneously—while talking with me, Lillian noticed and corrected a misspelled word on her draft; Alexis created a chart while she and I discussed the logistics of turning in the paper. I suspect that this type of multitasking is not unique to a synchronous AVT conference, but being able to observe it is unique. In a face-to-face conference, the students' engagement with their texts would have likely occurred behind the screens of their computers, potentially facilitating a misconception that their full attention was on the verbal conversation. Having visual evidence to the contrary is a unique characteristic of AVT conferences where students share their screens.
I additionally observed the students practicing digital literacy, which corroborates online writing instruction (Hewett, 2015) and AVT conferencing (Yergeau et al., 2008) scholarship. The students in this study practiced digital literacy skills as they shared their screens and navigated their Word documents while communicating via audio/video. However, this observational data does not indicate whether the students acquired literacy skills as a result of the conference. Lillian, in particular, seems to have come to the conference with the requisite skills to participate. Consequently, I am hesitant to conclude that the synchronous AVT conference necessarily enhances literacy skills, and would encourage additional research on what barriers may prevent some students from seeking such a conference in the first place.
With that being said, this study also presents some evidence of the potential for digital literacy acquisition in synchronous AVT conferences. Alexis' conference offers an example of this potential when she learns to create a chart for data visualization instead of relying on auto-generated charts in Google Forms. Because she was sharing her screen, I was able to observe Alexis clicking around in Word, looking for a way to create this chart, and I was able to offer encouragement and recommendations when she located a tool to achieve her goals. The synchronous AVT conference was conducive to this because Alexis was using her computer and was in control of the shared screen for the conference. This situation is possible in a face-to-face conference, of course, but it would require me to be literally looking over her shoulder. The Zoom interface creates a distance between the student and I that seems productive for the type of trial-and-error digital literacy that Alexis demonstrated. This study is not generalizable, but it does suggest that there are some potential benefits for using synchronous AVT conferencing when the goal is for students to experiment with new tools.
Another clear benefit of AVT conferencing is that it can facilitate asymmetrical collaboration. Writing center scholars have advocated for asymmetrical collaboration in an effort to argue against the notion that tutors need to be entirely non-directive (Godbee, 2012; Thompson et al., 2009), and we have some evidence of mediating technologies reinforcing and perhaps facilitating asymmetrical collaboration (Wolfe & Griffin, 2012). The results of this study corroborate that scholarship, offering an example of a mediating technology (the shared screen) supporting asymmetrical collaboration. The fact that the students were the ones to share their screens is key—the shared screen is the largest visual feature in the conference, with our video feeds being relatively small in comparison, and it is the student who controls that space. The student thus visually and verbally sets the agenda for the conference, which is different from the early applications of video in online writing instruction, where the instructor controlled the camera angle (DePew & Lettner-Rust, 2009; Rodrigues, 1998). At the same time, I, as the instructor, maintain my authority as an expert from whom the student is seeking advice, and I can assert my authority by verbally interjecting.
The examples in this webtext demonstrate two sets of goals: The conference with Alexis illustrates a productive negotiation and back-and-forth conversation while the conference with Lillian demonstrates a disconnect between student and instructor intentions. My conference with Lillian is an example of what Sam Van Horne (2012) described as students and tutors having "different purposes," such that "what may appear to be one activity can be two different activities, depending on how the participants define the situation" (p. 97). These variances are important, in part because they are a reality in our classrooms, and also because we need composition scholarship that demonstrates the range of student–instructor interactions. Most pertinent to this conversation is the fact that, in both instances, asymmetrical collaboration was maintained—Lillian and Alexis controlled the direction of the conference and their authority was facilitated and promoted by the interface that mediated our interactions.
In addition to considering the different goals that students and teachers may have for a conference, it is important to consider the ways conference participants may have different approaches or reactions to the online space. Nathalie Singh-Corcoran & Amin Emika (2012) made this argument when they advocated for thinking about writing centers as nonplaces, or in-between spaces to which the user does not have a strong attachment. Their point is that the writing center may function as an important place for tutors and directors, but that same sense of place may not be felt by the students who visit the center as passersby. Instead, writers access the writing center for particular, temporally bound reasons—they intend to use the information they gain from the center to facilitate the writing and revising they will do in their own spaces and places.
Applying this concept to AVT conferencing allows us to think about the Zoom interface as an intermediary between the conference participants' individual physical and digital spaces, and allows us to consider the ways that the Zoom interface may feel more or less intermediary for the student and the instructor at different points during the conference. This fluid conception of the multiple digital and physical spaces that coexist during AVT conferencing can facilitate more nuanced conversations about the influence of interface design on the extent to which students benefit from synchronous interaction and experience asymmetrical collaboration.
The recordings I analyzed indicate that the Zoom interface did at times function as a nonplace. Both students came to the conference with specific questions, clearly intending to use the answers to inform their subsequent writing experiences. Alexis articulated this well when she described being at a "standstill" prior to the conference and now having a plan to move forward with the writing process. As the instructor, my job was to intervene in the students' writing process in constructive ways, offering encouragement and support to propel them into the next phase of their projects.
The interface that mediated our conversations created an interesting visual metaphor for this dynamic. The student did not come to my office. Instead, she virtually invited me into her space when she shared her desktop. While the student and I were connected by this shared space, we were also present in our individual digital spaces (our computers, where we could click onto other windows) and in our physical worlds (my office, their homes). There were some moments where the mediating technology became transparent (Haas, 1996), at least for me: When I focused my full attention on the verbal conversation, the Zoom interface faded into the background and it felt like we were talking in person. Because I did not conduct interviews, I do not know how the conference felt to the students, but I did see some evidence of them directing their attention away from the Zoom interface, such as when Alexis focused her attention on writing and seemed to momentarily tune out my presence, and then tune it back in when she misspelled a word and laughed about it.
The value of thinking about the synchronous AVT conference as a potential nonplace is related to this shifting attention. We can focus on each other and make the synchronous interaction feel face-to-face, or we can feel rooted in our individual work/writing spaces. M. Remi Yergeau et al. (2008) articulated this well, arguing that synchronous AVT allows us to complicate "the conventional oppositions between text-based chat rooms and discontinuous emailing, and between face-to-face tutoring and online tutoring" (Recalling f2f, 2). Instead of approaching technologies and mediums as an either/or, online tutors and instructors become designers who "evaluate and select features, mix and match components and functionalities" (Recalling f2f, 2). I would further contend that the ability to shift our focus across multiple spaces and (non)places as both we and our students mix and match the available affordances of the AVT conference reinforces the asymmetrical collaboration that promotes positive benefits of synchronous online interaction.
This webtext shares my experience with synchronous audio-video-textual (AVT) conferencing. Prior to this project, I had a general sense that something positive was occurring in these video conferences. After the analysis, I am much more attuned to the ways I leverage and assert my authority in video conferences, and to the ways that the Zoom interface creates a space where students are in control of the direction of the conference, asking questions and getting answers that will help them achieve their individual writing goals. The results of this project are not generalizable, but they do suggest that applying the notion of nonplace to our conception of AVT conferences, and deliberately facilitating asymmetrical collaboration in AVT conferencing, may have the potential to facilitate positive synchronous interactions such as asking questions, writing/revising, and practicing digital literacy skills.
This project additionally stresses that, beyond assuming that synchronous AVT conferencing is beneficial because it approximates face-to-face interaction, there is value in naming specific benefits and analyzing how particular interfaces facilitate those benefits. The same concept can and should be applied to other uses of synchronous conferencing, such as meeting with colleagues, collaborating with co-authors, and creating online alternatives to disciplinary conferences. These issues are particularly important to consider as we make decisions about how to integrate technology into our post-pandemic writing courses.