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Cassily Charles is the Academic Literacy, Learning & Numeracy Coordinator for Postgraduates at Charles Sturt University (CSU) where she runs programs to support academic writing, primarily for higher degree research candidates. CSU is a rural university in Australia and web conferencing is a routine part of Cassily’s work with doctoral students. Here she tells how the technology enables the work she does.

This is a short show-and-tell post for writing development practitioners (and research writers) about tools you can use to be ‘all in the room together’ online, no matter where you are.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Metropolitan/single campus universities may have less need, but regional and multi-campus universities in Australia tend to find working together online a pretty normal way of doing business – because we have no alternative. At Charles Sturt University more than half our research candidates are off-campus, compared to less than 10% at most metropolitan universities. We also have more than a dozen campuses (depending on how you count them). Some of these are relatively small, so even if research candidates are officially ‘on-campus’, they may still be far away from peers and people like me whose job it is to help them develop their academic writing.

So I use web conferencing tools – mainly Adobe Connect and Skype – for the synchronous writing support programs for research candidates at CSU. These include

  • workshops on writing topics (and recordings which people can play later)
  • multiple weekly Shut Up & Write
  • individual consultations
  • weekly peer writing circles (see also Dr Juliet Lum’s post on her online writing groups at Macquarie University)
  • and monthly online + face-to-face bootcamps for CSU research writers. (Earlier this year we also piloted a joint thesis writing bootcamp, which was hosted simultaneously online by CSU and face-to-face by ANU, using the thesis bootcamp model which Dr Peta Freestone and colleagues developed for Melbourne Uni, and which Dr Inger Mewburn at ANU writes about here).

We also use these tools to enable people to participate synchronously online in special events, like DocFest, a professional development forum for research candidates and supervisors, and the Three Minute Thesis.

For some of these events, we’re all online. Sometimes some of us are together in a meeting room or convention centre, while others are in their lab, home office or on the train using a smart phone.

Here’s what it looks like. The first one is a peer writing circle. Everyone is online:first Cassily

This one is a workshop. 2cassilyEveryone is online, but only the facilitators are sharing their webcams. The participants are communicating by voice, and also by typed chat with each other and the facilitators:

This one is a bootcamp, where some people are in the physical meeting room and others are online (visible on the projector screen). We also use Skype for this kind of arrangement, usually when there are just one or two folks online, and no need to share slides or a timer on the screen.

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I mainly use Adobe Connect, for which my university now has an institutional licence. When I arrived at CSU in 2012 and began to develop a program of online workshops, the Research Office was using a Citrix web conferencing tool for workshops (GoToTraining) and CSU was using Wimba (now owned by Blackboard) within its LMS for coursework students. While these had their individual problems and conveniences, I lobbied strongly for Adobe Connect mainly because it could do break-out rooms for group discussion, which I felt were essential for writing workshops. I haven’t kept up with how these or the other alternatives have progressed since then.

When people ask about doing writing support online like this, part of me can’t see what all the fuss is about J. That is, these tools are pretty easy to use, adaptable, and relatively undramatic – especially if you work in a context where there’s a history of working synchronously online and over distances. Also, the tools by themselves don’t necessarily imply great innovation in writing support practices. In fact, it’s possible to more or less replicate a lot of familiar types of face-to-face programs (like writing workshops and individual appointments) by looking at drafts together on a shared screen, providing downloadable handouts, writing on a whiteboard and talking by voice or typed chat.

On the other hand, I can see some reasons why it’s worth making a small fuss. Firstly, because these tools, when students have independent access to them, can enable quite a flowering of autonomous peer learning and community building. For example, at my university, research candidates from diverse disciplines and far-flung locations have got to know each other through writing groups, workshops and bootcamps. Over time (and through necessity), I’ve asked regulars to assist with coordinating and hosting various kinds of writing groups and bootcamps. Now there is a good community of research writers who confidently use these tools and facilitation techniques for themselves and others by hosting regular weekly ‘Shut Up & Write’ meetings (to which newcomers are welcomed) and by running their own ‘free range’ bootcamps, without the need for me or other staff to facilitate.

Another reason why it’s worth making a small fuss is that there are some things which practitioners need time to think about when moving from face-to-face to synchronous online modes. One example I’ve noticed is that even very experienced teachers and facilitators seem to be drawn into very teacher-centred approaches when they start working online in real time – e.g., feeling pressure to talk continuously like a sage-on-the-stage, clicking through slides. This can be a response to difficulties interacting with online participants, particularly when unable to see their faces or hear their voices. However, this is effectively navigated with some tactics for engaging online participants and boosting the real-time feedback and interaction. I’m developing a workshop on these concerns, plus topics like equipment, the physical room layout, co-hosting and engaging online and face-to-face groups. After that, it really is just like having another room to meet in and do great things together with writing.

Perhaps you’ve had experiences with web conferencing you’d like to share?

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