Lending a Helping, Digital Hand in the Face of the Coronavirus

Scott Warnock, PhD, taught his workshop to NYU Shanghai faculty in his office on the University City Campus.
Scott Warnock, PhD, taught his workshop to NYU Shanghai faculty in his office on the University City Campus.

Imagine it’s a few days before school starts and your campus closes. How would classes be taught? How would students learn?

For the faculty, staff and students at New York University’s Shanghai campus, that just became a reality, with NYU Shanghai shutting down in-person instruction this month due to the coronavirus outbreak. But thanks to one Drexel University professor, all of the scheduled classes in the NYU Shanghai Writing and English for Academic Purposes Programs were saved by being converted into online courses.

Scott Warnock, PhD, professor of English and director of the University Writing Program in the College of Arts and Sciences, arranged a last-minute, half-day, online workshop for about a dozen NYU instructors to learn how to migrate their coursework online and oversee remote teaching and learning — and he did it all very quickly. There was a pretty tight deadline: NYU Shanghai announced its digital-only instruction on Feb. 6, the workshop was held Feb. 14 and NYU Shanghai’s semester began on Feb. 17.

For Warnock, who is an expert in the uses of technology in writing instruction, there was no choice but to jump in and help. He was made aware of the opportunity on a Saturday, and had it confirmed on the following Tuesday that the workshop would need to be held on that Friday and that classes were supposed to start the following Monday. 

“I was like, ‘It’s Week 6 at Drexel and I’m as busy as can be, but if you can’t do this, what are you doing? What’s the good of all of this expertise if I can’t use it at a time like this?’” he said.

Warnock is the president of the Global Society of Online Literacy Education organization, and someone who has written, presented and researched extensively on teaching writing online (including co-writing the book “Writing Together: Ten Weeks Teaching and Studenting in an Online Writing Course” with a Drexel student). A colleague at NYU Shanghai had previously met Warnock at a conference and reached out to him for help with the full “soup to nuts” experience, as Warnock called it, of moving the classes online. Almost immediately, Warnock compiled a workshop based on past workshops and presentations he’s given, and the NYU faculty also read his “Writing Together” book to prepare for the migration.

The NYU instructors who logged on to Zoom for Warnock’s workshop from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Feb. 14 were now scattered all over the world, including New Zealand, Abu Dhabi, India, Maryland, Florida and China. Some had even gotten up at 2 a.m. their time to attend the day’s (or early, early morning’s) events. They were preparing to teach courses related to reading academic and literary texts as well as English For Academic Purposes Courses for multilingual students.

During the workshop, Warnock guided them through the process of adapting their coursework, and their teaching styles, for online learning; using learning technologies to teach writing; developing and facilitating online written conversations (on discussion boards); and managing the workload of teaching writing online.

“I’ve been doing this for over a decade, and it’s always interesting to me that people think I’m going to be some kind of robo-technology person coming in and evangelizing technology,” said Warnock. “But I start out with asking them to talk to each other and ask, ‘Who am I as a teacher?’ I want them to work from their strengths as a teacher and think about how they can do it in this kind of online environment. They don’t have to abandon their teaching practices.”

Warnock helps teachers translate their skills to an online atmosphere and use technology to enhance and find better ways to teach and facilitate learning. Plus, he says, learning writing online can be advantageous because it forces students to engage in asynchronous writing — not only are they writing their regular essays and papers, but they have to complete the additional step of writing emails and contributing to the course’s message boards and online discussions.

“It’s a richer writing environment if you’re writing online for a class, versus taking a face-to-face class,” said Warnock, who is teaching an online ENGL 102, or “Composition and Rhetoric II: Advanced Research and Evidence-Based Writing,” course this term.

This isn’t the first time that he has used his expertise in online learning to continue students’ education in the face of a catastrophe. When the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina shut down colleges and universities in 2005, Warnock connected with an organization offering pro bono classes to college students affected by the closings. One student ended up enrolling in the online hybrid class he was teaching at the time.

“I think this is another one of those opportunities,” Warnock said about his decision to help out NYU Shanghai faculty (and, ultimately, their students). “It’s a difficult situation, but I think this is one of those chances to leverage technology to be used to the maximum advantage.”