Pilot Program Adds Face Time to Writing Center

A pilot program launched this semester to enhance the Mary Baldwin University Writing Center is using software and online access to expand personal interaction between writers and tutors and streamline the assistance students — especially adult learners — receive when preparing writing projects.

A partial screenshot of an online tutoring session. Tutor Linnea Barklund, above, chats with a student in the Baldwin Online and Adult Programs. The student’s writing assignment is displayed on the whiteboard (right).

“I wanted [the new online component] to replicate as closely as possible the face-to-face interaction that exists with the brick-and-mortar Writing Center,” said Molly Petty, assistant professor of English and director of the Writing Center.

Petty has led the effort to increase efficiencies and improve service within the Mary Baldwin Writing Center, which she has managed to supervise with the same budget for 26 years. She took a semester sabbatical to investigate options to bring the program online — looking at what methods other successful college writing centers employ and revisiting best practices. She eventually chose software that allows synchronous tutoring — with audio, visual, and texting capability.

The web-based system means that users do not need to download special software. They only need access to the Internet and a computer equipped with a microphone, speakers, and a camera to see their tutor and talk about their writing assignment.

The new system allows students to choose their tutors and automates scheduling, which eliminates the first-come, first-served basis on which students received assistance in the past. It also sends students reminders for each appointment and automatically drops them from the system after missing three sessions.

“Now with the [online] appointments, I can go on the website and can plan my work schedule,” said tutor Linnea Barklund ’13. “It’s also making students much more conscientious of time spent in the Writing Center.”

The new system has already proven to be a game changer for students who live off campus and have limited time, such as those in the Baldwin Online and Adult Programs. In the past, Baldwin Online and Adult Programs students shied away from seeking help from the center and when they did ask for help, they would have to work through their writing assignments over the phone with their tutors. It could be a tedious and frustrating experience, according to tutor and Mary Baldwin graduate student Rebecca Hodder.

Using the new system to work with students is “so much better than doing them over the phone,” Hodder said. “It’s nice to be able to see the student, and I love the whiteboard feature,” which allows the tutor and the student to simultaneously edit and discuss the student’s paper in real time.

Also improved is the ability to evaluate tutoring sessions. Now, online client reports — summaries of each tutoring session — replace the awkward carbon copy paper versions that were difficult to distribute and limited the ability for students and tutors to collaborate.

A traditional Writing Center session.

“As far as writing centers go, it is very student-centered,” Petty said. “It’s a collaborative peer model. And I’m committed to that.”

The pilot program will continue through fall semester. In the meantime, Petty continues to explore the benefits of using the new software. Data collection capabilities should help tailor the program to meet students’ needs and assist other departments on campus. For instance, the new system allows Petty to see which students — by major or class year — are more likely to use the Writing Center. Such information might be helpful to the Office of First-Year Experience, Petty added.

While Petty used part of the Writing Center budget to cover the cost of the software, additional funding was provided by the bequest of Frances Tullis ’45. The Tullis gift paid for a new laptop computer to be shared among tutors and headsets for computers in the Baldwin Online and Adult Programs regional centers.

To learn more, visit the Writing Center pages on the Mary Baldwin website.