WriteAway: a glimpse into the future of online tutoring in B.C.

The first-year sociology student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University who wonders if she has properly referenced her mid-term assignment paper. The second-year philosophy student at SFU looking for feedback on his case arguments. The senior political science student at UBC with a quick grammar question.

Sunni Nishimura
Sunni Nishimura

What do these three students have in common? Together, they are the driving force behind WriteAway, a new online tutoring service in B.C. colleges and universities that is giving students help with academic writing.

Breaking ground as the first provincial online tutoring subject for higher education, WriteAway aims to have both a short- and long-term impact. It will not only help students learn to write effectively at an appropriate academic level, but also develop a skill that is critical for career success.

Bolstered by positive feedback from initial testing and a completed privacy impact assessment, the pilot service launched on February 25 and will run until April 12, 2013. It is open to students at the following institutions: College of the Rockies, Douglas College, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Simon Fraser University, and University of British Columbia.

How the service is run

WriteAway’s collaborative model is similar to the province-wide online reference service AskAway. It brings together the participating institutions, BC Council of Senior Student Affairs Leaders (CSSAL), British Columbia Electronic Library Network (BC ELN), Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC, and BCcampus. The result is a province-wide service that no one university or college could provide on its own.

Qualified tutors from each of the participating institutions staff the service. The platform, called eTutoring, was developed by the Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium, and is hosted and supported by BCcampus.

How tutors work with students

Students log in to their institutional home page and can either send an eQuestion (a quick question about writing or grammar) or upload a draft writing assignment for feedback. Papers go into a queue for the first available tutor, who may be from any of the participating institutions. A tutor will try to respond within 24 to 48 hours.

The tutor reads the draft paper, embedding comments and suggestions to improve the student’s writing. Once the tutor has uploaded a response, the student receives an e‑mail notice that feedback is ready to be picked up from the system.

On the feedback provided, WriteAway Project Coordinator Sunni Nishimura notes: “Tutors are checking for well-developed arguments and supported conclusions, not providing an editing and proofreading service.” They can suggest steps to guide the revision, and then it’s up to students to redraft the paper and fix grammatical errors.

Expanding the vision

Early positive reaction from students, tutors, and institutional coordinators is boosting excitement about WriteAway and the future of online tutoring in B.C. Nishimura observes: “Despite how seemingly diverse the writing support mechanisms were at participating institutions, the principles and styles of tutoring turned out to be similar. Tutors and institutional coordinators enjoyed commonalities.”

After pilot feedback and further improvements, Nishimura expects the service to open up to more students at more institutions, and eventually offer a real-time chat component. She adds: “The eTutoring BC Concept Committee sees other possibilities. This is just the first of many anticipated online tutoring subjects in B.C.’s post-secondary system.”

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