Supporting the Professional Writing Program with Online Modules – Collaboration and Engagement, Theory and Reality

Authors:

Lily Griner (griner at umd dot edu)
Yelena Luckert (yluckert at umd dot edu)
Judy Markowitz (judym at umd dot edu)
Nevenka Zdravkovska (nevenka at umd dot edu)

All four from the University of Maryland, College Park

[Article]

Abstract

The Professional Writing Program (PWP) at the University of Maryland, College Park, is designed “to teach the research, analysis, writing and language skills that students will need in their lives beyond the classroom.” The program currently reaches approximately 5,000 undergraduates in roughly 250 subject-centered classes (e.g. business, health sciences, economics, etc.) and focuses on helping students write and communicate effectively in the workplace. In response to the growing demand for library instruction to support the PWP, as well as the declining number of librarians available to provide instruction, a Canvas ELMS (Enterprise Learning Management System) modules course was developed to meet the library literacy needs of the program. The course consists of three independent modules that introduce students to Information Literacy Concepts, Research Pro Tips, and Core Sources in several PWP supported subject fields. This paper will explore how we developed and promoted the Modules concept (development process), how it has been received by the PWP (outcomes), and how the resources are being used by the faculty and students (impact). This article is based on a presentation given at the 2015 Innovations in Teaching and Learning Conference (April 24th, 2015, University of Maryland, College Park).

Background of the Professional Writing Program (PWP)

The Libraries and the Professional Writing Program (PWP) at the University of Maryland have a long and active history of collaboration. Over the years as the PWP program has continued to grow and internet use has become ubiquitous, the Libraries have had to find creative approaches to support the program that takes advantage of new technology and stimulates participant interest. The following account provides background on the PWP program, describes the collaboration with the Libraries, and reviews the development, promotion and outcomes of an innovative approach to program support using Canvas ELMS Modules course.

The Professional Writing Program (PWP) at the University of Maryland was established in 1980. The program began with two courses (Advanced Composition and Technical Writing), and now offers 13 courses that meet the University’s upper level writing requirements. PWP classes are designed to help Maryland undergraduates succeed in their careers. The academic writing assignments students have been fulfilling during their college careers are different than writing for the workplace. Even though the writing style, focus, and audience needs are different, the students still need to learn about conducting research in this style of writing. The goal of the PWP classes is to equip students with the appropriate writing skills for their future employment.

Currently PWP offers 250 subject oriented sessions, serving 5000 undergraduates every year. Although PWP at the University of Maryland is based in the English department, PWP courses are designed to fulfill the research and writing needs of a variety of majors. Students can select from a range of PWP classes including Science Writing, Legal Writing, Technical Writing, Business Writing, Writing for Health Professions, etc. The latest PWP class offerings focus on the humanities, i.e., Writing for the Arts, Scholarly Writing in the Humanities, as well as classes in the growing field of entrepreneurship, i.e., Writing for Social Entrepreneurship.

Most of the University departments require students to take a PWP class in order to graduate and the majority of students take this course in their junior or senior year. The Director of the PWP is the only tenure-track faculty position in the program. PWP instructors have had many years of experience working in “real world” environments and most of them are working in areas represented by the PWP class offerings i.e., business, law, medicine, journalism, humanities. Currently there are between 75-80 instructors with different backgrounds and varying levels of experience in academic research, the library and the university.

Past Library Involvement in PWP

The University of Maryland Libraries partnership with PWP began in the 1980s. Over time PWP involvement became a fundamental component of the Libraries’ general information literacy program. Dr. Scott Wible, current PWP Director, has been a strong proponent of Libraries’ participation in PWP instructional efforts and has strongly encouraged his faculty to form instructional partnerships with librarians. PWP instructors who have collaborated with, and invited librarians to come to their classes to provide instruction, see much value in these alliances. They have consistently reported that library instruction was extremely useful and important to their students. Many of the PWP instructors asked for library sessions, often requesting the same librarian to teach their specific class.

As the program grew over time, many librarians became more involved in administering and teaching information literacy classes for PWP. At first, overseeing PWP library instruction requests were handled by a couple of reference librarians who had other responsibilities. In late 1990s, the Libraries’ User Education Services department was charged with overseeing all library instruction programs. As a result of this charge, the administration of PWP library instruction was moved to User Education Services (User Ed). Administering PWP library instruction involved the following: handling PWP faculty instruction requests, scheduling of library instruction classes, identifying and recruiting subject librarians to teach sessions, maintaining a course guide of library resources, and developing a teaching script for use by some of the librarians. Even after the responsibilities were moved to User Ed, the instruction was on demand, face-to-face, often scripted, and usually done as a “one shot” class – lasting between 50 to 90 minutes.

Most of the librarians taught from an existing general PWP library guide that oriented students to the databases and other types of informational sources. The guide provided information on basic research techniques and strategies including: how to turn concepts into keywords and how to connect them, as well as, how and why it is important to cite and use style manuals. In addition, librarians taught from guides developed specifically for the legal writing, health and business classes. The goal for librarians was to make sure all students left the instruction session having located at least one, preferably two or three sources related to their topic. We did this by checking with each student before the instruction session was over.

The Libraries employed this model for more than 20 years, despite the changes that have taken place within that time period – on campus, in the Libraries and in the fields of information literacy, pedagogy and instructional technology. We realized that our methods no longer supported the program to the extent we needed and wanted to. Libraries’ support for PWP needed a significant makeover to remain instructionally relevant and responsive to the program needs.

Issues and Changes

As mentioned above, requests for instruction were instructor driven. The number of requests for instruction from PWP faculty were small compared to the large number of PWP sessions taught, despite strong pressure from the PWP Director who was encouraging library instruction. As a result, in any given year we covered only 30% to 40% of all sessions offered in PWP. If these percentages were considered successful in the past, current advances in instructional technology, pedagogy, and the emphasis on embedding and inclusions, seemed to communicate that these numbers were rather inadequate.

Concerns arose about the deficiency of students’ library literacy skills based not only on the fact that we were not invited to all offered PWP sessions, but also stemmed from our experiences working with students in the classrooms. Librarians who taught PWP classes observed disparities in students’ literacy skills, for example, in developing search strategies, utilizing citations, and even in familiarity with the Libraries’ web pages. By randomly asking students during library sessions, it became evident that some students had many library instruction sessions within other subject-based courses, others did not have any. Naturally we wanted to close this gap. Since PWP is a broad cross-campus program we recognized an exceptional opportunity to ensure that all students leave the University with sound information literacy skills. In addition, we realized that this could be a method for meaningful assessment of our overall instructional efforts.

Innovations in instructional technology and as a consequence, in pedagogical methods in response to the innovations, have dictated some adaptations and modifications in the PWP program itself. These included – experimenting with online and blended classrooms, re-thinking curriculum and student learning goals, as well as developing more meaningful assessment to measure impact on student learning.

Introduction of the new General Education Program (GenEd) on campus in 2012, helped revitalize PWP which was awarded GenEd status. GenEd status increased the number of students in the PWP program, as it removed a previous exemption: before GenEd status, students who earned an A in ENGL101 did not have to take professional writing, but with the conferred GenEd status, it was required. The number of classes offered in the program also increased due to reducing class size. Reducing the number of students in each class to between 18 or 20 resulted in a significant increase in the number of sessions offered. In addition, the number of instructors also had to be expanded.

Concurrently, libraries have been experiencing changes as well. Subject librarians’ responsibilities have been steadily increasing. Time consuming liaison services with significant emphasis on outreach and engagement became central to our mission to meet the demands of the campus community and the profession. Libraries were redefining existing services and practices, and instituting new ones, at times non-traditional to libraries. In combination with decreased budgets, changing focus and unfilled positions, it was no longer sustainable to keep up with the face-to-face demands of the now numerous PWP sessions, especially if we wished to expand this service to all.

Advances in instructional technology and pedagogy have created innovations such as blended learning, flipped classrooms, online instruction, and video streaming. Course management software like Canvas provides exciting new opportunities to advance education. The strategic and inventive application of these methods and tools allows librarians to serve a greater number of students, improve the students’ research competency skills, and create a richer educational experience.

At the same time, the technological advances have allowed librarians to consider scalability, efficiency, and effectiveness as we attempt to develop and implement a sound instructional environment. To reach our goals, we need to learn how to use the new tools, develop new skills and be creative and strategic on how to employ and adapt both. However, this was easier said than done. As librarians proposed and discussed ideas for making the program more sustainable there was a huge difference of opinion as to which strategy would work best. Some librarians even questioned whether change was needed.

Not surprisingly, the initial attempt to change the program in 2012 was not successful. More concerted efforts were needed, and in 2013 the Libraries General Instruction Task Force (LGITF) was set up to study the issues and provide the Libraries with a road map for the future of general instruction in the Libraries and especially PWP. The Task Force was comprised of individuals representing all Libraries’ units involved in teaching, and who represented different teaching philosophies. The LGITF members conducted a review of professional literature, talked to instruction librarians at other institutions and conducted an environmental scan.

In 2014 the Task Force developed an internal document, the Report of Recommendations on how to change Libraries’ general instruction program (for copy of the report, please contact the authors).  The recommendations included the following guidelines:

  • Achieve greater relevancy to curriculum of the program and individual classes
  • Use instructional technology to improve teaching, including Canvas
  • Use active learning techniques, blended learning and flipped classrooms

These guidelines became the foundation upon which the revamping of the PWP information literacy program was based.

University of Maryland librarians were beginning to adapt innovative changes in teaching information literacy. Following national trends several subject librarians started to use Canvas in their individual subject instruction classes partnering with faculty interested in such cooperation. The librarians created Canvas-based, library research modules specifically geared to their departments or classes. These modules were created based on the librarians’ teaching and research experiences. Typically these modules were composed of several segments from which faculty could pick a needed segment and upload it to their Canvas space. A PWP faculty saw one of these modules being demonstrated and thought that it would work perfectly for the PWP program. She shared the idea with the PWP administrators, who in turn approached the Libraries to consider ways this idea could be brought to fruition.

The Plan to Revamp PWP

We agreed to stop the face-to-face, one-shot instruction class (unless an instructor specifically requested one) and instead, created library modules for the PWP classes. The modules would be composed of segments, some dealing with broad, information literacy concepts, i.e., “what is a ‘good’ source,” some with a subject focus, i.e., business. We even provided quizzes.

PWP instructors could choose individual module segments to import into their Canvas course page, or upload the complete module. Librarians would introduce the modules to the PWP faculty at the annual PWP faculty orientation. The PWP faculty would be encouraged to incorporate the modules into the course as a research tool for their students as well as collaborate with librarians to develop assignments using flipped/blended pedagogical models.

During the semester, librarians held scheduled walk-ins, dubbed Clinics (a term adopted with the hope that it would resonate with students). The clinics were set up specifically for students in PWP classes who may have had questions regarding the use of library resources for their writing assignments, as well as to give these students some scheduled face to face time with librarians. The Clinic format was based on the librarians’ previous successful in-house experiences with library instruction and staff training, and adapted to meet the specific PWP needs.” The modules, once imported into the PWP instructor’s Canvas course page would function as a “virtual librarian,” providing students with the fundamentals needed to begin a research project. The Clinics would allow for face-to-face interaction with subject specialists, providing students with immediate guidance.

We would work to develop tools to assess the effect of the changes on student learning and understanding. Our hope was that with the two pronged model of the modules and the Clinics we had the potential to reach 100% of the PWP students.

Plan Implementation

The Canvas modules were developed by librarians who had taught many of the PWP library instruction classes and had worked closely with the PWP instructors. These librarians knew what kind of topics, assignments and sources the students needed. To develop the modules, they focused on including the most used and asked for content from the existing guides.

Once the modules were completed, they were sent first to the PWP director and then shared with PWP faculty for feedback. We encouraged them to explore the content on their own and provide us with recommendations for any changes and refinements needed that we would take care of before the modules were officially launched.

Unveiling of the modules took place at the August 2014 mandatory orientation for PWP faculty, where a delegation of librarians demonstrated the modules, answered questions, and again solicited feedback.  Overall , the response was positive except for some technical issues related to Canvas which were resolved with the help of IT.  As mentioned above, Canvas modules were created for PWP instructors to use as they saw fit. We wanted individual instructors to pick, choose and add the modules they needed for their class. Help for using Canvas was always available to all instructors. See Appendix – Canvas Modules Screenshots, or got to http://go.umd.edu/PWP2014

Results

We soon discovered that not all instructors were using the modules. Some did add only the modules they needed, others added them all, while several did not add any. We also learned that a number of the PWP instructors did not use Canvas, contrarily to the University’s and PWP expectation. To ease access to the modules, especially for those instructors who did not use Canvas, a URL was developed allowing access to the modules to anyone on or off campus (see http://go.umd.edu/PWP2014).  This made the information on the modules available to anyone outside the Canvas environment. Many instructors took advantage and guided students to use the library modules and ask for help from the subject librarians, but unfortunately not as many as we had hoped.

On the student end, our intention was for the students to use the modules on their own and contact the subject librarian (the link to the librarian directory was provided) with any questions. In addition, to help students working on their project, librarians provided two sets of walk-in “clinics” during Fall 2014, each offered in three different times, at two locations, staffed by 2-3 librarians, each 2-3 hour long. The first set of clinics took place during the time students were choosing their topics (September 29 and 30, October 2). The second sets of clinics were held during the time students were working on their papers (November 17, 18, and 19). Librarians were available to answer any questions or assist with any issues that might arise. Unfortunately, the clinics had rather poor attendance and for Spring 2015 we decreased the number of clinics, to just one set of four days (March 31, April 1, 2, and 3).

During the same period, if an instructor wanted the face-to-face instruction class, librarians accommodated them. Many did take advantage, especially the new PWP instructors. We offered 18 sessions in the Fall 2014 and 24 sessions in Spring 2015. As a comparison, we offered 57 sessions in the Fall 2013, and 52 in the Spring 2014. The highest number of sessions we had was in the academic year 2012-13, 73 and 85 respectively. Some instructors noted that they have found the modules to be a great source of information for most students. But, students still needed to be coached on how to use them.

Recognizing that uploading the complete modules content into Canvas without providing direction or assignments for their use would be ineffective, a more effective approach was taken that involved letting the students know about the modules at the very beginning of class, and assigning weekly readings. Some instructors reported to us that they used the modules in other courses they were teaching, not just for those in the PWP. We felt this spoke to the value of the content the librarians included in the Canvas Libraries module. Unfortunately, for many classes where instructors had difficulties with Canvas and did not import our modules into their Canvas class environment, the libraries modules ended up outside of the regular Canvas assignments for the course. Thus students did not have easy access to the material provided by the Libraries.

Also where we had inserted library quizzes, they could not be recorded in the Canvas grading system if they were accessed outside the Canvas environment. Paradoxically if the quizzes were completed in Canvas, only PWP instructors could see the results, which left the Libraries outside meaningful assessment process. Much work remains to be done here. Currently we are working with both PWP and campus IT services for good solutions. We never intended to rely solely on quizzes for our assessment of the program. From the beginning, we realized that we will have to find ways to receive feedback from PWP instructors and librarians.

At the end of the Fall 2014 semester, the PWP director solicited feedback on the Canvas modules from instructors using the Canvas discussion tool. Despite several reminders, the response rate was low, as only 8 instructors, out of 76 responded. These responses from 8 instructors (the Director shared them with us) were overall very positive towards the new Libraries PWP information literacy program, including our modules. Unfortunately students’ assessment is available only to instructors and was not shared with librarians. In addition, we have not yet set up a method to receive feedback from librarians.

Future

So what does the future hold? The Professional Writing Program administrators are willing and eager to collaborate and partner with librarians to help students expand their research skills beyond Google. This makes PWP an incredibly valuable partner to the Libraries. This willingness to work with us is a great opportunity as well as a challenge: How do we make it work, with so many students and so few librarians?

To begin, we need to ensure that the modules are the best that they can be. In the coming months we will be working with interested PWP faculty to see how the modules can be tweaked to increase their value and make them easier to use. Some of the faculty have used and have tweaked the modules on their own. We want to learn from that experience. We may want to borrow some of those tweaks and make the modules easier to use.

We have already began conversations with the PWP director in respect to learning outcomes assessment needs and opportunities to measure student success jointly which is important to both the Libraries and PWP. And we are talking with campus IT on developing or modifying technological tools that could help us both in this area to which we will have equal access.

The new way of implementing the PWP information literacy is a wonderful beginning. The PWP library modules were a good first step. However, much remains to be done if we want to make this program succeed for the sake of students, PWP faculty and librarians. We still have many obstacles to overcome. We need more conversations with PWP administration and instructors; more opportunities to cooperate, brainstorm and get buy in for the Libraries’ general literacy programs; and more conversations with campus IT to see if technology can help us solve some of our issues.   We don’t really know what will work best until we try – but we need many theories and ideas so that we can keep testing them and experimenting until they become realities.

What is also important and stimulating here is the exciting partnership between the Libraries, an academic program (PWP) and campus IT services; where the Libraries and librarians are an equal participant; where we communicate our ideas, needs and wants, and where we can exercise a degree of positive control over the final outcome. The skills and confidence gained with this process will become the prototype for the Libraries working with a multitude of other programs and partners.

Appendix – PWP Modules Screenshots

For more see http://go.umd.edu/PWP2014

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