Saturday, May 24, 2008

Blogging Computers and Writing 2008: Building Social Networking from the Inside Out

Collin thinks that someone should live blog Computers & Writing, so here goes. Maybe I can send the conference promoters an invoice retroactively if they decide to adopt his reimbursement plan. :)

Writing @ CSU screenshotPanel chair Mike Palmquist of Colorado State started things off by introducing Writing Studio, a writing-based web portal hosted by CSU. According to Palmquist’s history, Writing Studio began as a hypercard-like program with multimedia features, but it migrated to the web in the late 1990s.

Recently, the site switched from supporting classes to supporting student writers. Jill Salahub, also of CSU, explained how the site had been modified to provide this support. After presenting some results from an internal study of the online Writing Studio—according to Salahub, an instructor’s teaching experience and prior use of CMS was related to adoption of the site, and students tended to copy the responses of their teachers towards the technology; if the instructor was enthusiastic of the technology, students tended to be enthusiastic as well—she described how students eventually became interested in using Writing Studio as a networking tool. To that end, the site’s managers have added user profile pages and places where students can find other people in their classes.

Lynda Haas of UC-Irvine, Carolyn Handa of the University of Alabama, and Will Hochman of Southern Connecticut State each discussed their use of Writing Studio at their home institutions. Haas repeated Salahub’s finding that prior experience with writing technology tended to lead to more positive adoption experiences by instructors, while Handa detailed her grad students’ use of Writing Studio as a shared knowledge depository. Finally, Hochman showed how he used his students’ responses to the classroom communication tools provided by Writing Studio as learning experiences

Haas also pointed out this hilarious Facebook group, which encourages students to write “THIS IS SPARTA!” somewhere on their AP Exam. The meme has caught on: it appears that people have been repeatedly vandalizing the Wikipedia AP Exam page with the phrase. I am usually involved in grading AP exams, but I had to skip this year; now I’m a little disappointed that I’m going to miss out on seeing how often this meme actually showed up on the tests.

I found Writing Studio to be a really interesting project because the researchers are coding the site themselves. It reminds me of some of the early work in the CWRL, when Fred Kemp and his colleagues were creating Daedalus. Now that the lab primarily uses open-source, off-the-shelf tools, it’s good to see that writing researchers are still creating software. However, I wonder about the worth of these programming projects. Like Daedalus, Writing Studio seems to be innovative, providing some interesting tools for networking and connectivity. However, its innovative features seem to have been eclipsed by sites like Facebook. This, I think, introduces the primary response to Writing Studio: why build a writing-specific social network when social networks that can support (or be tweaked to support) writing activities already exist?

Palmquist responded to this question by saying it was a metaphor issue: Facebook was created for socializing, while Blackboard and WebCT are created to support lecture classes. He argues that Writing Studio is specifically designed to support writing classes. Another attendee supported this claim, arguing that the Writing Studio created a protected space for students to share their writing.

I think these are fine arguments, but I remain unconvinced. To give an example from one social networking site, even though Facebook was created for socializing, there are emerging movements to adapt the site for business and productivity ends. I don’t see why this can’t be done for writing as well. Further, Facebook can be as protected as anyone wants it to be; one just has to learn how to change the privacy settings.

In short, while I think that Writing Studio is a great project—particularly because I believe writing researchers should be involved in programming—I doubt that the future of writing studies will be in creating writing-based versions of free tools like Facebook. Why can’t our innovation go in a new direction?

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