In their article, “Toward a civic rhetoric for technologically and scientifically complex places: Invention, performance, and participation,” W. Michele Simmons and Jeffrey T. Grabill (2007) investigate “how people can write to change communities,” and how computers, the Internet, and a lack of specialized knowledge can hinder successful change (p. 427). A similar challenge, I would argue, faces students who enroll in online courses, specifically online writing courses in which first-year students are asked to use writing as a primary form of communication while navigating complex computer-mediated resources to access course information and to complete assignments.
For first-year students, writing courses often create opportunities not only to grow as writers and thinkers but also to expand their understanding of literacy and to examine the role of multimodality in communication. Although students may experiment with document design and with computer-mediated communication while interacting with both their instructor and peers, the course ultimately takes place within a traditional space—a room with chairs and desks for students perhaps enhanced with instructor and student computing stations.
In this case, the work within the course may be mediated by complex technologies, yet the space—the classroom—is familiar. And while many compositionists have written widely about the early and ongoing impact of these technologies on the traditional classroom:
- A shift from teacher-centered to student-centered learning (Selfe, 1990; Tulley & Blair, 2003)
- Changes in interaction and collaboration (Hawisher & Selfe, 1991/2000; Cyganowski, 1990; Flores, 1990)
- An increase in focus on writing (Palmquist et al., 1998/2008)
when these courses take place in exclusively online or virtual learning environments, learning spaces that are often very new to students who are used to visual cues and proximity, the social activity that we count on in first-year writing may altogether disappear.
Simmons and Grabill (2007), recognizing the challenge of computer-mediated communication, call for pedagogical change in first-year writing courses whose goal is to prepare students to be productive citizens in the larger community, yet I argue that in the online first-year writing course, that need for civic participation becomes much more immediate; essentially, the virtual space of the online course becomes the site for civic participation. Instead of preparing students for the work that they will do outside of the classroom, we must reinforce for students the need for civic participation within this virtual learning space.