|Abstract:||First popularized with the formation of commercial and university-run correspondence schools, distance learning has made a steady, if problematic, transition to computer-based classrooms. Online courses vary widely in their curricula, but underlying commonalities in their creation and composition unite them in fundamental ways. By design and definition, the online classroom not only consistently “privileges the written word” (Cole x) but also serves a more diverse population of students through the “anytime, anywhere” nature of its educational environment.
Drawing on these foundational qualities, this dissertation examines the overlooked relationships between distance education, composition, and community colleges. Although rarely discussed together, their individual histories reveal interwoven theoretical roots that can be cultivated into purposeful partnerships to advance distance learning at a time of rapid technological development but disparate pedagogical direction.
In Chapter 1, “Starting from the Margins: Composition, Community Colleges, and Online Learning,” I discuss the continued societal emphasis on the college degree as key to personal fulfillment and professional success, despite the current difficulties that traditional institutions have encountered in accommodating the influx of increasingly diverse students. These complications have, in turn, encouraged innovation in both the structure and the pedagogy of higher education, most notably the (re)emergence of for-profit institutions and the development of online learning. The for-profit sector favors the flexible format of online learning, and the ire directed at that industry has intensified scrutiny of online learning. Leaving aside the business of higher education, I emphasize the continued ability of online learning to educate an underserved segment of students and advocate the development of stronger relationships with composition and community colleges, two areas of higher education well-aligned with the needs and purposes of online learning.
I further explain the foundation for these relationships in Chapter 2, “The Democratization of Higher Education: Histories and Mythologies,” in which I not only uncover the history of distance education, but also trace the separate yet often parallel threads of composition and community colleges through the complex fabric of higher education. A theme that emerges is the tension between democratic ideals and egalitarian actualities, between the idealistic insistence that everyone should have the opportunity to earn a college degree and the realistic physical, financial, and social limitations that undermine reaching that goal. Highlighting the separate and shared evolutions of two particularly influential institutions—Chautauqua and the University of Chicago—this chapter illustrates the undervalued yet integral roles that composition, community colleges, and distance learning have played in this ongoing conversation about the purposes and practices of higher education.
Chapter 3, “+ Computers: Writing as/in Technology,” shifts focus to the environments and activities of online classrooms and the technologies that create and sustain them. Composition moves to the forefront here, as writing remains the primary tool and technology of the online classroom. While writing has always served as a technology, the rapid advancement of personal computing devices has moved us into an era in which we regularly write in technology. This chapter, then, examines the symbiotic relationship between technology and writing, focusing on the pedagogical implications of engaging with these new kinds of writing in the space of online classrooms.
Chapter 4, “Community and Ecology: The Written World of the Online Classroom,” moves from theory to practice, taking a closer look at the actual spaces of the online classroom through a qualitative study of the online composition courses at my home institution, the College of Lake County. The study revealed that, though increasing in number and frequency at the College, online composition courses are still developed and delivered in relative isolation and with limited technological and pedagogical support. Through instructor interviews and an observational study of online classes, I offer a representative snapshot of the successes and struggles of online learning, highlighting the intended and achieved purposes of written communication in these online courses.
Chapter 5, “Conclusions and Recommendations: Communication Across Boundaries,” builds on that study of individual online classrooms to develop recommendations for implementing institutional and systemic changes to better support and legitimate the practices of online learning and to better serve those who participate in it. I advocate for increased efforts in Writing Studies and at community colleges to advance the abilities of online learning in more local settings. By emphasizing the ability of written interaction in online classrooms to provide greater access to both the experience and the education of earning a college degree, composition and community colleges can and should become leaders in unlocking the potential of distance learning to further democratize higher education.