Where I work and teach, there has been a push for several years to get us to provide our courses and/or subjects online, particularly so we can offer them to overseas and remote/rural students. While some people shudder at the idea of studying via the computer without the stimulation of the classroom, I actually did most of my degree by off-campus delivery (no online technology in those days!) and recognised then and now that what made it work for me was the terrific study guides and course materials.
In some ways, writing is a great thing to study via the internet. When this push first started, they funded some of us to go online and become students for a while, testing out for ourselves what worked and what didn't. I chose to study the Writer's Digest Advanced Short Story course, and really enjoyed it. Mikki Hayden was the instructor, and as well as a structured series of units, I had access to their online library of articles and resources. What made this course especially memorable for me was that 9/11 happened about four weeks in, and several people ended up dropping out because of different ways in which they were affected by it (family or friends dying, living close by, etc). They did explain this to the rest of us, and then we all took a deep breath and kept going with the course.
So, in creating new materials and writing new content for my units, I keep all of these experiences in mind, plus the knowledge that younger students these days are much more used to using technology and the internet for study and fun. Still, how do you replicate a great classroom discussion about plot and pacing in a historical YA novel, or repetition and irony in a poem by Billy Collins? Or the experience of workshopping a chapter of your novel, or your poem about death that was based on your uncle dying last week? In the classroom, the teacher is able to push the discussion along, or introduce a new idea quickly, or temper someone's comments when they've become less than constructive. How do you do that online when mostly it isn't happening in real time, so a rude comment can be up there for several hours or days?
All good questions, which is why we keep going off and doing more training and talking about these issues and how to resolve them.
But beyond that, I think offering subjects online provides a great resource for any writer who wants to increase their skills, get some unbiased feedback and feel like they're not so alone. Even a writer in the middle of a huge city can feel isolated and depressed about what they're trying to achieve. Who cares? How can I know if I'm on the right track or not? Is this story any good?
When I did my degree, a large part of it was focused on writing - it was the first time I was able to get feedback on my stories and poems from experienced writers/readers who didn't know me from a bar of soap. So their comments were, to me, more valid because they weren't there to pat me on the back - they were there to show me how to improve.
At the moment, I'm working on creating online content for three different subjects - writing picture books, a preparatory unit (like a short "taster" for our professional writing course) and helping another teacher, T, with our fiction subjects. We're about to completely restructure these latter modules and develop a whole new approach that we hope will give students a stronger grounding in the basics of fiction writing. Phew! Hopefully, they'll be ready to run in 2008.
In the meantime, we are still teaching our usual classes on campus, and trying to write when we get the time and headspace. This is usually when that "writing full-time" dream starts to surface, and I start double-checking that I've bought a Lotto ticket this week!