Supporting Writing Faculty through Digital Transition: An Ecological Model

Michelle Blake

Michelle Blake

Shannon Mrkich

Shannon Mrkich

Thomas Pantazes

Thomas Pantazes

Michelle Blake

Shannon Mrkich


Thomas Pantazes
West Chester University of Pennsylvania

Writing instruction at the collegiate level is not the sole domain of English or writing programs because each academic department has a responsibility to teach students to write well using the conventions of their discipline.  No matter the discipline, writing instruction has evolved and has demonstrated potential improvements using new technology.  However, getting faculty to embrace that technology can be challenging, as many cling to instructional strategies used when they were students, and because many doubt their ability to teach writing well online. The authors, two English faculty and an instructional designer, have been struggling with getting their institution’s English faculty to embrace online writing education for some time.  Shelton’s (2018) Ecological Model helped us understand the influences on faculty thinking and decision-making and offered an approach to assisting them to start using technology that can be applied to a wide variety of writing contexts, including scientific writing. We write this article to share our successes and failures in our efforts to inspire our colleagues to accomplish the same within their own contexts to improve college writing instruction overall.

Higher education was forced to make a digital transition in Spring 2020 in response to the COVID pandemic. But for West Chester University’s English Department, the digital transition began in earnest five years earlier, as part of a concerted effort on the part of the authors to convince a reluctant faculty to consider the idea that teaching writing online could be effective and transformative.  In that time, the authors have found that supporting faculty in multiple contexts—with instructional designers at the individual course level, with colleagues in formal and informal departmental environments, and with cohorts of instructors working on particular digital projects—helps to cultivate an instructional culture that can improve our teaching in every way.  Shelton’s (2018) Ecological Model for University Faculty Members’ Thinking about Technology focuses on the “nested ecosystems,” proposed by Woolfolk-Hoy, Davis, and Pape (2006), that include the teachers’ concept of “Self,” their “‘Immediate Context’” (includes beliefs and perceptions about students, curriculum and classroom), which in turn is nested within the wider context of ‘State and National Context’ (includes knowledge and beliefs about standards, reforms, and accountability).  The outer layer of the organizational framework comprises ‘Cultural Norms and Values’ (including understandings of the meaning of schooling, childhood, and diversity).”  Shelton (2018) found that his framework can be applied to instructors in higher education thinking about teaching with technology.  He also discovered the significance of additional ecosystems: Departmental, Subject/Discipline, and Professional Contexts.  We also found Shelton’s ecological model to be helpful in facilitating faculty members to adopt technology for better teaching.

In early 2015, we began making concerted and strategic efforts to engage English faculty in conversations about digital pedagogies based on their successful online teaching experiences. We showed faculty the connections between online tools and “good teaching” and “effective writing instruction” via professional workshops on designing effective homepages on the Learning Management System (LMS), implementing ePortfolios for course-level assessments, and integrating ePortfolios for deeper integration of reflections in First Year Writing courses. Within the “departmental context” (Shelton, 2018), the three authors worked together to ensure that distance education best practices were followed and to ensure that the departmental efforts were bridged to the larger goals of the institution (Shelton, 2018). Although these efforts seemed successful in the workshops, with faculty happy to learn, it did not take long for us to realize that the discussion boards and LMSs were still misunderstood as the primary online teaching tools, because no new faculty stepped forward to teach online or hybrid courses.

We began to move away from the workshop model of introducing particular digital tools to a more ecological model that contextualized the use of these tools within the growing trends of online education in higher education.  Instead of asking faculty to try new tools, we asked them to consider new pedagogies for the sake of student learning and made department-wide pitches to encourage all faculty to take the Online Faculty Development (OFD) program offered by the Office of Distance Education to strengthen their teaching, even if they had no plans to teach online.  Warnock (2015) argues, online writing instruction principles are generally good instruction principles for strengthening one’s teaching across the board.  We worked with the University’s Office of Distance Education to engage with individual faculty in course development and digital tool integration, thus linking our efforts to the institutional context (Shelton, 2018); however, even with these efforts, we saw faculty performance anxiety about teaching online or using digital pedagogies.

To help move the department past these insecurities and to stress the educational sector’s perception of teaching writing with technology, in Fall 2017, we reached out to online writing expert Scott Warnock, Drexel University, to help us design a one-day hybrid “class” on teaching hybrid writing classes.  To make the workshop inviting and to contextualize how writing studies embrace the hybrid model, we included Warnock’s books on Online Writing Instruction, Teaching Writing Online and Writing Together: Ten Weeks Teaching and Studenting in an Online Writing Course, for each participant.  This Teaching Writing Online Workshop (TWOW) proved successful, with one-third of the department’s faculty attending along with an instructional designer from the Office of Distance Education to show institutional support. Warnock introduced participants to Zoom and strategies to engage students in discussion boards.  In the following year, we attempted to broaden interest in online teaching tools and strategies among all English faculty by sponsoring regular technology roundtables—informal lunchtime meetings—on topics like multimodal composition, website building, content management systems, digital games, and writing evaluation technology.  Unfortunately, these roundtables generated little interest in online teaching.

In the following academic year 2019-20, to regain the momentum that had been generated by TWOW, we organized The English Hybrid Club, where we focused on faculty helping each other building online hybrid courses, a format that highlighted the interconnection among disciplinary, institutional, and educational ecological contexts.  We as faculty and with the help of instructional designers assisted our colleagues to organize a syllabus for the year that included such topics as Creating a Class Community and Making Effective Instructional Videos.  These efforts finally started to build earnest interest in online writing instruction, and when the pandemic hit and we were all forced to teach online, that interest exploded like gasoline on a fire.

Because of our efforts in previous years to demonstrate how online education could strengthen writing instruction, our colleagues were better prepared to make the sudden shift online in Spring 2020.  Even if they did not engage in the workshops and roundtables we had been offering, they had heard about our efforts, were familiar with the broader use of online writing instructional strategies in the discipline and in higher education, and knew that support existed departmentally institutionally, and professionally.  The abrupt shift to remote learning was still challenging, but our colleagues were better equipped to make that shift because they had largely been acculturated into the world of online writing instruction.

To continue to support them in that shift, we changed the English Hybrid Club into a weekly forum called the QuaranTools and PandemiGogy group.  The group was very successful, in part because of the pressing need for faculty to learn how to teach online, but also because it became a place to connect during the self-quarantine, to share memes, other light-hearted diversions, and to talk about what the Fall would look like.  In this group, many more faculty came to better understand the role of instructional designers, realizing that they had experts to help them design and manage the LMS class site and develop or adapt assignments.

As the Spring drew to a close, we decided to continue the weekly meetings through July to help faculty prepare for the Fall semester. As a result, we created a network of instructors who asked questions of each other and provided possible answers.  The conversations were not as much about learning to teach online as they were about learning to teach better.  Shelton’s ecological model helped us understand the challenges we had faced and that the transitioning was best supported with multi-layered support and contexts.  Whereas in years past the same small group of instructors had expressed interest in teaching online each semester, this semester, over half of the English department expressed interest in teaching a hybrid or online course next year. Discussions about teaching with technology have increased, as have conversations about teaching in general.  We’ve learned as a department to reach out to each other about teaching strategies more regularly.  True, many factors contributed to this transformation, but Shelton’s (2018) Ecological Model helped us understand, support, and overcome the struggles of our writing colleagues.


Shelton, C. (2018). An ecological model for university faculty members’ thinking about technology. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 30(2), 279-297.

Warnock, S. (2015). The future of OWI. In B. L. Hewett & K. E. DePew (Eds.), Foundational practices of online writing instruction. The WAC Clearinghouse.

Woolfolk-Hoy, A., Davis, H., & Pape, S. J. (2006). Teacher knowledge and beliefs. In P. A. Alexander & P. H. Winne (Eds.), Handbook of educational psychology (2nd ed.). Routledge.

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