G2: The Contingent Labor of Online Course Delivery: Designing, Implementing, and Maintaining Digital Innovation in Writing Programs

These proceedings describe one presentation from a three-person panel. My co-panelists were Jenae Cohn (Stanford University) and Beth Pearsall (University of California-Davis). View our presentation slides.  

The implementation of online and hybrid courses involves multiple stakeholders with different concerns and investments in online education (Blair & Monske, 2003; Neff & Whithaus, 2009; Palloff & Pratt, 2007; Warnock, 2009). As a result, discussions of online learning can provide a unique forum for investigating the power dynamics and relationships that are central to higher education, particularly with concern to the needs of the contingent or temporary laborers who teach many of these courses. Our panel at Computers and Writing 2016, consisting of two graduate students and a lecturer, gave voice to the contingent labor centrally involved in the development, implementation, and maintenance of hybrid and online courses. These proceedings focus on the second speaker’s presentation, which centered on course shells and instructor agency.

The online and hybrid first-year composition courses at our institution began as a collaboration across three, large research institutions on the West coast. Working with principal investigators, faculty, and graduate students, the goal was to develop three online writing courses that undergraduate students from different campuses could take to fulfill their lower-division writing requirements. The three campuses collaborated for two years, working together to develop what were called “course modules,” or a series of individual online activities that could be used in a variety of contexts at an individual instructor’s discretion. The “course modules” model was similar in principle to NCTE’s OWI Open Resource Project (2016), an open repository curated by the CCCC Online Writing Instruction committee, for instructors to browse successful online course activities for their individual discretion. While the multi-campus project engaged in a rich process of collaboration, it did not lead to fully implemented courses. The responsibility for moving from modules to course delivery fell to the individual campuses. It was at this point that two graduate students, including the author of these proceedings, were tasked with creating initial course shells for hybrid and online FYC. Once the course shells were developed, we moved into the implementation phase of the project. The first five sections of the hybrid course were offered in the fall of 2013, and the first section of the online course was offered in the winter of 2014.

During the first two years of implementation, twenty instructors used a shared course shell to teach hybrid and online sections of FYC. We opted to use course shells because, as scholars within writing studies (Hewett, 2015) and online education (Caplan & Graham, 2008; Thiessen & Ambrock, 2008) have argued, they decrease instructor workload, ensure accessible course materials, and offer a consistent experience for students across a program. We were particularly convinced by the argument about instructor workload—it is unreasonable to ask an instructor to create a fully online course from scratch, especially when she may only be assigned the course a week or two prior to the start date, and she may not have any experience with or training in online course design. This was certainly the case for graduate student instructors at our institution, all of whom were new to teaching in hybrid or online formats and many of whom were recent adopters of teaching with technology in general.

With that being said, we were also aware of concerns about course shells. As Snart (2010) articulates, course shells can lead to “canned content” and decreased instructor agency. In the worst case scenario, course shells are created by a design team that does not include the instructor, and the instructor does not have permission to alter any of the course content. In these situations, instructors run the risk of conducting invalid assessments because their understanding of the course objectives may not necessarily be in line with the course designers’ objectives; two sets of potentially competing expectations can be understandably detrimental to student learning. A slightly better scenario is when an instructor in the program that offers the course designs the course shell, but Snart reminds us that this strategy can risk the instructor-designer’s intellectual property. The course shell may be “owned” by the institution, not the instructor, and given to other instructors without any attribution to the original designer.

The worst case scenario described above can best be described as a “standardized” course shell—one that has locked content that instructors cannot alter. This is not what our team created. Instead, we adopted Rice’s (2015) argument to create adaptable course shells. The instructor is provided with a fully populated course shell, thus decreasing her initial workload and offering a model of accessible online learning materials, but she has complete freedom to add, delete, and revise content.  

In addition to providing the instructors with adaptable course shells, our program offered a variety of support in the form of a mentoring program (first-time instructors worked with instructors who had taught the course at least once before), bi-weekly meetings where the instructors currently teaching the hybrid or online courses met to discuss technical difficulties or questions about the curriculum, and teaching journals—the instructors contributed a weekly reflection on the experience of teaching in a hybrid or online environment to a group Google document. I analyzed the teaching journals to learn more about the instructors’ experience with the course shells and found that an effective and valuable community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991) had formed. Instructors discussed technical and pedagogical issues with the course shells, described adapting those shells, and borrowed each other’s adaptations.

We had hoped that the combination of adaptable course shells and opportunities to talk about teaching in a community of instructors would increase instructor agency, and, in some ways, this appeared to be the case. However, a closer examination of the adaptations the instructors described revealed that they were primarily adapting face-to-face and synchronous webinar activities. They were not adapting the asynchronous online activities in the course shells.

We suspect that the graduate student instructors were hesitant to make changes to the asynchronous activities in the course shells for two main reasons. First, they worried that they might “break” the course shell. This concern was primarily technological: they were inexperienced or unfamiliar with some of the course tools and did not want to make changes that might, for example, accidentally delete information. But the concern was also pedagogical: instructors did not want to remove or change an activity to the detriment of activities and assignments later in the course. With that being said, many of the instructors removed activities from the face-to-face or synchronous sessions due to insufficient time in class, so the sequencing concern seems more complicated for instructors when they are faced with asynchronous course materials. This leads us to the second reason instructors seemed hesitant to adapt the asynchronous activities: they felt unqualified. We suspect that this is in part due to the fact that the course shells were “published” and presented to the instructors as officially sanctioned by the institution. We also suspect that the instructors’ positions as graduate students was a contributing factor. They might not teach the course more than once and they had little power to make long-term changes within the program, so the effort required to substantially adapt the course shell (which includes learning the technology and discerning the pedagogical reasoning behind activities) may not have been worthwhile.

Ultimately, this experience has led us to wonder, Can we have course shells and instructor agency? The community of practice that formed shows there may be potential for instructor agency alongside the use of adaptable course shells, but we need to have more conversations about how to train and encourage instructors to adapt asynchronous online activities.

For a more detailed analysis of the teaching journals and discussion of the benefits of and challenges to approaching OWI as a community of practice, see Stewart, Cohn, and Whithaus (2016).


Blair, K. L., & Monske, E. A. (2003). Cui bono?: Revisiting the promises and perils of online learning. Computers and Composition 20, 441-53.

Caplan, D., & Graham, R. (2008). The development of online courses. In T. Anderson (Ed.), Theory and Practice of Online Learning (pp. 245-264). Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press.

Hewett, B. L. (2015). Grounding principles of OWI. In Hewett, B. L. & DePew, K. E. (Eds.),  Foundational Practices of Online Writing Instruction. Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse, 33-92.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge UP.

Neff, J. M. & Whithaus, C. (2009). Writing across distances and disciplines: Research and pedagogy in distributed learning. New York: Taylor & Francis.

OWI Open Resource. (2016). Conference on College Composition and Communication.  http://www.ncte.org/cccc/owi-open-resource

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2007). Building online learning communities: Effectual strategies for the virtual classroom (2nd ed). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Rice, R. (2015). Faculty professionalization for OWI. In B. L. Hewett & K. E. DePew (Eds.), Foundational Practices of Online Writing Instruction (pp. 389-410). Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse.

Snart, J. A. (2010). Hybrid learning: The perils and promise of blending online and face-to-face instruction in higher education. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Stewart, M. K., Cohn, J., & Whithaus, C. (2016). Collaborative course design and communities of practice: Strategies for adaptable course shells in hybrid and online writing instruction. Transformative Dialogues: Teaching and Learning Journal 9(1), 1-21.

Thiessen, J., & Ambrock, V. (2008). Value added – The editor in design and development of online courses. In T. Anderson (Ed.), Theory and Practice of Online Learning (pp. 265-276). Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press.

Warnock, S. (2009). Teaching writing online: How and why. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Session abstract or description: 

The implementation of online and hybrid courses involves multiple stakeholders with very different concerns and investments in online education. As a result, discussions of online learning can provide a unique forum for investigating the power dynamics and relationships that are central to higher education, particularly with concern to the needs of the contingent or temporary laborers who teach many of these courses. Our panel gives voice to the contingent labor centrally involved in the development of hybrid and online courses.

Collaborative Course Design & Negotiating Institutional Constraints
The first speaker, a graduate student, will begin by tracing the history of online and hybrid courses in our writing program, making visible the numerous stakeholders involved and their many complex relationships to the courses’ development process. She will then consider how she and Presenter 2, another graduate student, had to develop multiple identities as designers, instructors, contingent laborers, and collaborators.

Instructor Agency & Standardized Course Shells
The second speaker will turn our attention to implementation, wherein 20 graduate students taught hybrid and online first-year composition courses over a two-year period. The instructors kept teaching journals, and our analysis of those journals revealed a problematic tension between instructor agency and standardized course shells.

Contingent Workers, Institutional Memory, and Professional Development: Gaps Between Innovation and Integration
The presenter will explore this disjuncture between innovation and integration, which puts both the need to build institutional memory and the desire to deploy effective teaching methodologies at odds with ethical professional development practices. Further, she argues that in the absence of programmatic redesign, teachers bear the burden of bridging the gap between the well-resourced stages of development and testing, and integration of such courses into a traditional writing program structure.  

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Salerno 105
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Concurrent Session G
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