This is my 4th year as a Writing Resource Center consultant at Case Western Reserve University. We tutor undergraduate and graduate students, domestic and international, in 30 or 60 minute sessions in locations across campus, from the Schools of Nursing and Engineering, to the library and the central WRC locations. My own graduate training as a writing center consultant was in the “traditional” writing tutorial method: face to face in a cubicle or at a table, pencil in hand.

This paper is intended to open dialogue about these approaches using the Internet
in consulting sessions, both f2f and virtual. We, as teachers and tutors, often times feel the need and pressure to embrace the pace of current trends in technology. But, it is a fact that we are also experiencing a bit of a backlash, or perhaps a “rethinking” of how we integrate technologies into our pedagogy and tutorial styles. Here I am referring to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled: “A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn’t Working” (Young 2012). So, I support the need for balance; we should let common sense prevail in our quest to achieve technologic parity with our students.

Some of the questions I pose for discussion are as follows: How does this technology usage affect our core tutoring? How has our tutoring changed or adapted to virtual sessions? Are these virtual sessions as effective as face to face consulting? Is something lacking or left out? Have others noticed L2 writers seem to respond more eagerly to integrating various reference web sites into f2f tutoring? What are some of the challenges using Google Docs with both L1 and L2 writers?

This contribution to writing center conversation and pedagogy represents our efforts, as conscientious writing tutors, to actively seek new ways to engage our students as learning styles evolve with technology. I find technology usage builds confidence in more passive students while establishing a good connection between the student and myself. Using Internet sites is also a new way to teach self-editing skills, and lets face it a variety of methods to choose from in order to help a student acquire these skills is always welcome. Despite the “distance,” using Google Docs allows some students to see a larger picture of their writing, providing more accessibility to address higher-order concerns. In the end, student willingness to help themselves and tutor ability to sometimes sit back are still parts of a successful tutoring session equation. And, as this discussion reveals, nothing compares to the f2f tutorial, especially one that is multi-modal, in which both the student and the tutor are comfortable with the technology integrated into the session.

Leaving the cubicle and entering the Internet

At Case Western I began writing consulting in the WRC’s main location with access to computers and the writing resource library (not to mention the convenience of the microwave, refrigerator and water cooler). As someone returning to the world of tutoring, this centralized location proved to be a perfect environment to refresh and retool my tutoring skills, renewing confidence in my consulting. At this point in time, I also found myself tutoring my niece with her community college English papers sent to me via email. In these asynchronous sessions, I used color-coded highlighting for my questions and concerns and emailed the document back. The “session” culminated in a phone call where we could discuss my markings and review her changes. (While the phone call is not part of Case Western’s Writing Center policy, we have made rare exception for long distance dissertations on deadline, thus prompting a closer working relationship between the School of Nursing and the WRC, which now provides a tutor for this subpopulation of students.) Months later, I transplanted my color-coding system of highlighting into synchronous online tutorials, which will be discussed later in the paper.

Once comfortable, I felt confident to tutor in one of our campus satellite locations. For convenience, I began bringing my laptop, so I could check the online schedule and write session reports if time allowed. I quickly realized how valuable carrying around an extra 5.2 pounds would become. I began preloading (and minimizing) the OWL @ Purdue, an online dictionary and thesaurus, our own WRC Instructor Resources page,, Grammar and for L2 learners, my personal favorite: The Cambridge Academic Dictionary (the CD-ROM includes audio, both in American and International (UK) English pronunciation, as well as a built in thesaurus feature).

Three positive narratives of Internet usage during a multi-modal tutorial session.

The first example of accessing the Internet during an f2f tutorial averted an instance of plagiarism, while also saving Karla from extreme embarrassment and potentially career-damaging consequences. Karla came to our appointment with a draft of her Statement of Purpose—a document required of first-year Law students. It was well organized with three distinct areas being addressed. However something about the second point of discussion concerned me; the writing style differed from the other points and the reference to one of the first lawyer jokes, spoken by “Dick the Butcher” seemed out of place. I asked Karla why she felt the need to include the “let’s kill all the lawyers” joke, and how she thought it fit her Statement of Purpose. My brain was churning; where had I heard of “Dick the Butcher” before? Curiosity caused me to open my laptop and for a Google search and I learned “Dick the Butcher” is a character in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part II. In pressing Karla a bit further, mentioning her own voice changes in this section, Karla revealed a friend assisted with this paragraph. Trying not to raise my eyebrows (although I may have) I asked about her familiarity with Shakespeare and how she would respond if questioned about this by whoever was going to review her Statement. It took some dialogue, but after admitting her friend actually wrote it, Karla deleted the entire paragraph and said she would start that section over using her own words.

The second example of accessing the Internet during an f2f tutorial occurred during a brainstorming session regarding a second-year essay on the film Brokeback Mountain. This Generation 1.5 student, Anna, had a solid draft with good organization and a fairly clear thesis. However, some of the phrasings and word choices needed attention, as they did not measure up to the sophistication of her argument. The session included many questions from me, which forced Anna to articulate clearer meaning. At one point I said, “Oh you mean they came to blows or fisticuffs.” Never having heard the word fisticuffs prompted us to look up the origin on She loved it! And it led to remainder of the session searching an online thesaurus for several other words being repeated in Anna’s essay.

The final tutorial situation in which the Internet proved invaluable in an f2f session also bridges this discussion into the use of Goggle Docs and virtual synchronous tutoring. It concerns a situation with a serious cultural divide (and also an obvious gendered level of discomfort on the part of the student). Given a serious language barrier, this student arrived without hard copy and only a laptop (coated with what seemed like inches of grease). Given the immediate red flags, having my laptop was extremely fortuitous. I proceeded to walk the student through the process of uploading his document onto Goggle Docs, and invite me to share, open the Google chat stream etc.
We then worked in a simultaneous synchronous and f2f session—actually “side by side”– a “hybrid” if you will. “Hybrid tutoring” is a phrase used by Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch and Linda S. Clemens in their 2009 article, “Tutoring ESL Students in Online Hybrid (Synchronous and Asynchronous) Writing Centers.” Not unlike virtual distance, this small yet important physical distance established a safe zone of personal space, which eased tensions and actualized a comfort zone for the student and tutor. Like distance-based virtual sessions, this hybrid tutorial provided privacy for the student and a comfort level for the tutor, making for a more congenial and productive session.

Google Docs and the chat function in virtual synchronous space in tutorial sessions

Dave Coogan, (2001) relying on Barker and Kemp, (1990) caution that computer-mediated discourse reduces the guiding logic of personality. Coogan then asks as a challenge for the 21st Century: “how can we shape our [online] instruction to elicit response and create a sense of learning?” [W]hile we continue to work f2f, new technologies…will continue to grow” (558). Coogan continues to say it is our responsibility, that is the tutor’s, “to have a say” in the marriage of tutoring and technology (560). In other words, to make it work! Shewmake and Lambert state in their article, “The Real (Time) World: Synchronous Communications in the Online Writing Center” (2000), “if the goal of a writing conference is to improve a student’s ability to write, the synchronous OWLs can help students and tutors accomplish that goal. The lack of f2f contact does not keep learning from taking place in a responsible amount of time with a reasonable level of computer capacity” (170). With that sentiment in mind, the confident consultant will conduct a successful synchronous tutorial session.

Advantages and Challenges of Real Time Google Doc sessions

Some students may be multi-tasking; this can be evident through unusually lengthy delays in responding to a question or moving their cursor within the document. So it is important for the consultant to set the tone for the session, with enough structure—in the forms of questions and/or directives for the student to explain their assignment, approach, writing, and particular concerns. This early effort will force “focus” as well as serve to get the conversation started, especially in distance settings. Admittedly, even in real time tutorials, many students are waiting for our lead, and indeed we, as tutors, should be comfortable in that position.

Elizabeth Watness addresses this in her 2009 paper, “Tutor ex Machina: Applying the Human Touch to Technology-driven Interaction.” She writes, “tutors should utilize online tutoring sessions as chances to sharpen their own writing skills.” Watness cites Kastman and Racine (2000) who contend that “text-only environments…encourage tutors to write in the ways that writing centers promote: considering [audience], anticipating readers’ reactions to text, [while] writing in a clear, concise, and informative style.” Online tutoring with Google Docs then, forces both the consultant and the student writer to “discuss writing in the context of writing” (Watness), a practice f2f sessions do not facilitate. One disadvantage of using Google Docs is that neither the chat nor the comment stream functions have a built-in spell-checker—so this forces the tutor to be most aware of his or her own writing. In this type of tutorial, we are not communicating orally and aurally, but rather only through written rhetorical expressions.

A prominent ongoing challenge in online tutoring—even synchronous Goggle Docs sessions, involves tutor adherence to higher order concerns and the slippery slope of editing. This tendency can be even stronger with some L2 writers, who expect this as a “service.” It is the tutor’s responsibility to explain the benefits and challenges upfront; once again, reiterating that the session is not for “editing.” But, what does that mean? Leigh Ryan and Lisa Zimmerelli (2010) offer this advice: “Resist the urge to simply edit…[y]our purpose is not to proofread, and simply editing the paper actually does a disservice…Instead, point out recurring errors, and explain the relevant writing rules” (80). This is where the session can become as multi-modal as a f2f tutorial, by referring to OWL@Purdue and other web-based resources.

Lisa Eastmond Bell explores this further in her article, “Preserving the Rhetorical Nature of Tutoring When going Online” (2011). No matter what the mode, Bell reminds us the learning process of the tutorial must involve a “dialectical engagement” that encompasses exchange, clarification, justification and meaning making” (326). This is not only applicable to our L2 writers, but to all student writers, regardless of academic level of writing proficiency.

Another disadvantage to synchronous tutoring via Google Docs is that this platform does not support track changes—so it is not possible to make a hybrid session out of an asynchronous reviewed document and continue in that vein. And perhaps that is a good thing. Using only highlighting in the text and asking questions/making comments in the chat function—eliminates the potential for plagiarism on part of the tutor and student –however inadvertent that scenario might be. The bottom line is writing consultants have no business writing inside a student document.

With that said, I find that Google Docs tutoring sessions are much more effective and smooth if student and consultant have already worked f2f or have experienced each other in a classroom setting, regardless of whether the student is a native speaker or an L2 learner.

Note: there was a technical glitch during this presentation when it came to the “workshop” component to demonstrate Google Docs. We did access it—but not as smoothly as the presenter had hoped, which supports the point that the teacher or tutor must be comfortable with the technology or the session carries potential for awkward moments and even disaster. Once again reaffirming the ultimate value in f2f tutorials.


ECWCA (East Central Writing Center Association) annual conference, It’s the End of the World as We Know It: Negotiating Change in Writing Center Context

UIUPI Indianapolis, IN March 30, 2012

Select Bibliography:

Coogan, David “Towards a Rhetoric of On-Line Tutoring” in Robert W. Barnett and
Jacob S. Blumer eds.,The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing Center Theory and Practice (2001) 555-560

Eastmond Bell, Lisa “Preserving the Rhetorical Nature of Tutoring When Going Online”
(orig 2006) in Murphy and Sherwood eds., The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors 4th edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011 (1995) 326-334

Kastman Breuch, Lee-Ann and Linda S. Clemens “Turoring ESL Students in Online
Hybrid (Synchronous and Asynchronous) Writing Centers” in Shanti Bruce & Ben Rafoth eds., ESL Writers: A guide for Writing Center Tutors 2nd edition (2009) 132-148

Murphy, Christina and Steve Sherwood “The Tutoring Process: Exploring Paradigms and
Practices” in The St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors 4th edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011 (1995) 1-34

Ryan, Leigh and Lisa Zimmerelli “Tutoring in a Digital Age” The Bedford Guide for
Writing Tutors 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010 (2002) 74-86

Shewmake, Jake and Jason Lambert “The Real (Time) World: Synchronous
Communications in the Online Writing Center” in James A. Inman and Donna N. Sewell eds., Taking Flight with OWLs: Examining Electronic Writing Center Work (2000) 161-170

Young, Jeffrey R. “A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching
Advice Isn’t Working” The Chronicle of Higher Education (February 12, 2012) accessed 2/16/12

Watness, Elizabeth “Tutor ex Machina: Applying the Human Touch to Technology-
Driven Interaction” (Dec 2009) UIPUI University Writing Center web site,, accessed 4/1/12