Volume 8, Number 6: March 20, 2002
by Rachel Spilka,
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Most workplace professionals write documents in a fairly mature way. They typically write:
How can instructors of business and professional writing prepare students for the relative freedom and independence of this kind of thinking and writing?
Several years ago, I discovered the value of using the hybrid model to teach business and technical writing. Up to that time, while teaching in traditional classrooms, I wasn't able to simulate writing situations in workplace settings, or to expose students to the complexities of workplace writing. Sure, like many instructors, I tried innovative teaching methods such as routinely sending students out to "the real world" to conduct research or work on short-term service projects for actual clients. But my students still tended to work on projects with too much instructor oversight and supervision, to collaborate mostly in person with writers they knew well instead of collaborating from a distance with writers they barely knew, and to manage projects with regular instructor or peer input, instead of mostly on their own.
In the traditional class, I was there every week. I was monitoring everything. I was there constantly to answer student questions. In short, I was there too much. My students never had the opportunity to collaborate and write without my constant presence. With so much instructor input and oversight, of course my students never quite managed to develop the level of maturity or responsibility or the kind of complex thinking and decision making that they would later be expected to demonstrate in full-time, post-graduate writing positions.
Then, in spring 2001, I used the hybrid model to teach advanced business writing at UW-Sheboygan. Most of the class was populated by nontraditional students with full-time jobs and family obligations, students with very busy lives. They enjoyed the hybrid course tremendously, because it gave them the freedom and flexibility to choose when and where to do their work.
I also enjoyed this class very much. One reason is that I discovered that it really is possible for academic courses to simulate complex workplace writing situations. While teaching this course, I would meet with students several weeks in a row to teach basic principles of writing. Then we would spend several weeks away from the classroom, so that the students could work on projects from start to finish all on their own.
I was somewhat accessible. If the students needed questions answered, they could email or call me. But because the work was done mostly online, the students developed many skills that they would need to use, later on, in workplace jobs. They became much more responsible for solving their own problems, and I encouraged that, because I wanted them to work on their own to the fullest extent possible without my help.
My students were now required to exercise the kind of maturity, responsibility, and flexibility necessary to initiate, sustain, and complete writing projects. They needed to use their own judgment to overcome the challenges of collaborating with people they hardly knew, in order to produce coherent, high-quality documents. And through Blackboard discussion forums, they were required to extend their thinking much further than in traditional face-to-face discussions. Students could reflect on their own ideas over a longer period of time and benefit from one another's responses. In fact, I had never before been able to elicit from the students the kind of high quality analysis and thinking that I could from my hybrid students through this new way of teaching. Students working online learn to explain their thoughts more completely, and some clearly gain a certain analytical distance from their initial ideas. As a result, these students produced much more thoughtful, tactful, and sensitive memos, letters, and reports than have students in my traditional, face-to-face classes.
I evaluated their work according to how well they could meet these challenges. For each writing project, I asked questions like these:
Whether they bring maturity to the hybrid class from the start, or acquire it as a product of the hybrid experience, students often do learn--and the instructor must actively encourage them in this--to do the independent, systematic, timely work that the hybrid requires. To my delight, all but two students in my class of 15 were able to handle the challenges of this "real world" learning extremely well. Even these two less mature students made progress by the course's end; the other 13 came to the course ready to handle this kind of challenge. They surpassed my expectations (and perhaps their own).
All of the students did struggle to some extent. I noticed that they had a hard time starting up projects and keeping them going when their classmates would slack off or wouldn't participate regularly on Blackboard discussions. But they also demonstrated the ability to collaborate over a distance and to manage writing projects in ways that are fairly similar to those found in and across workplace settings. They grew to be responsible collaborators. As they moved from one project to the next, they improved their skills and displayed such qualities as good judgment, tactfulness, empathy, patience under difficult circumstances, and the ability to negotiate. All of these qualities they will have to demonstrate when they work and write in workplace settings.
To some extent, students can develop these qualities in a traditional classroom. For example, students in traditional classes also need to know how to start up and sustain writing projects and how to collaborate smoothly with people who don't pull their weight. But the hybrid model helps students develop the project and time management skills they will need to display when they have a job. It puts students into challenging situations, and the students know that a large portion of their grade is based on how well they fare in those situations. They have to meet high expectations, and if they have trouble doing so, they have to be accountable for that.
This kind of education I could not have duplicated in a traditional class.