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RPI and Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC)

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), also referred to simply as Rensselaer, is a mid-sized polytechnic institute located in Troy, New York, 150 miles north of New York City. At RPI, there is no required first-year writing course. Rather, students are required to take two “communication-intensive courses” over the course of eight semesters; one needs to be in their discipline and one needs to be taken in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Communication-intensive courses require that students write at least 16 pages (or present the equivalent orally) that are evaluated based on an individual’s prose (or performance). In order for a course to be designated as communication intensive, an instructor must get his or her syllabus approved by a committee tasked with managing this requirement. The way the requirement is set up, students often first get exposed to writing by teachers who are not explicitly trained to teach it. While this model of teaching writing is worthy of its own discussion, we only mention this feature of our local context to help situate the collaborative writing experiment the rest of this article details.

STC Sponsorship and Background to the Wiki Component

This research is part of a larger project entitled, “Tech-mediated Communication: Innovating the User Experience in a Mediated World” (TMC), sponsored by the Society for Technical Communication. The TMC project includes five research teams working together to develop a set of paradigms for the analysis, design, and testing of communications in a technology-mediated world. The project combines formal and informal testing methods to answer the question: What makes tech-mediated communications usable? The TMC team at Rensselaer addresses this question in a way that is rooted in specific examples of tech-mediated communication, but also generalizes across them and extrapolates beyond them.

The individual teams working on the TMC project focus on sub-projects as varied as evaluating software for pedagogic needs in the distance-education classroom, designing effective cross-cultural graphics for AIDS education, developing effective narratives for cross-cultural communication, creating usable, educational websites that provide links to local resources for children and parents, and investigating wikis' capability to foster collaboration in group-authored writing assignments across the curriculum. As a whole, the TMC project aims to revise and supplement Nielson’s initial design heuristics in order to better account for the multiple communication and community-building tasks that tech-mediated communication tools are expected to perform. More than simply developing a set of heuristics to help designers create more usable media, however, the team will also provide new usability testing methods for assessing and evaluating the new components of “usability” that tech-mediated communication tools introduce and require. The project as a whole seeks to develop criteria for designing and evaluating things such as “setting the context,” “extending a welcome,” and “creating opportunities for future engagement.” Future publications are planned to discuss these new heuristics and assessment criteria in greater detail.

History of the Wiki Component of TMC

First introduced in the Fall semester of 2006, the wiki component of the project evolved significantly over the past two years. Initially, the wiki research team's efforts focused on choosing and modifying open-source freeware to meet the needs of the writing classroom. During the first two years, our team members experimented with different wiki platforms to try to find wikiware that would be easy and intuitive to use, while also providing optimum wiki functionality for course tasks. The questions that guided this part of the investigation included the following: How would students respond to the public, open access that wikis make possible? How can access privileges be applied and adapted to foster trust and enhance participation? How might students be encouraged to "populate" a wiki? And how might student writing produced on a wiki be best evaluated?

To begin to answer these questions, we began with a module developed in Mediawiki, the same software that powers Wikipedia and this wiki article. After two rounds of traditional usability testing, we discovered that students did not find the interface as intuitive as we had hoped, in part because it was not particularly “welcoming” and in part because they had difficulty using wiki code to manipulate and edit documents. Consequently, in the next phase of the project, we switched to Twiki, which enabled us to incorporate a what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG) text editor directly into the wiki interface. Round-two testing did not yield significantly improved results, and we realized that when prototypes intended to replicate class-use were designed and tested outside of the context of an actual class setting, the testers (referred to as “sample students”) had neither the community affinity nor the commitment to the task at hand to accurately test the collaborative potential of the tool. While this observation may seem like the ultimate “duh” moment to many rhetoricians, the protocols associated with traditional Human Computer Interaction (HCI) usability testing--protocols based on “time-to-task” measurements and an assumption that software should be so intuitive to the user that instructions are not necessary—-seemed a poor fit for “measuring” and documenting the complex pedagogical interactions among students, software, classroom community, and instructional materials. As any teacher who has tried to incorporate communications technology already knows, all of the aforementioned elements are part of the “total user experience” in a teaching situation involving new technology.

Clearspace for Deep Collaboration

After completing usability testing with several different wiki systems, our team decided that Clearspace was the best candidate for carrying out our collaborative writing research because of several useful features.

Clearspace Spaces

First, content within Clearspace can be divided into groups termed “spaces” and “sub-spaces.” Each space has its own user-base and contains sections for documents, discussion threads, blog posts, and announcements. Additionally, each space allows for a customized homepage. This makes it very easy to create individual wiki sites for different classes as well as sub-spaces for teams or groups working within those classes.

Second, Clearspace utilizes a rich-text editor, allowing users to author wiki content in a very familiar way, similar to standard desktop office applications. This feature is particularly helpful to novice users, who may be intimidated by the task of learning a new software interface or to users who are not interested in learning a new editing interface. In addition to the rich-text editor, Clearspace also includes a plain-text editor, which can be beneficial to users proficient with wiki code, allowing them to write and format text faster by using Clearspace’s wiki syntax.

Clearspace Track Changes

Third, changes made to documents created within Clearspace are tracked in a clear, concise manner through Clearpsace’s intuitive version-history system. Whenever a document is edited and compared to the previous version, new text is highlighted green while text that was deleted is highlighted red. Furthermore, any version of a document can be compared with any other previous version of the document. Unlike many other wiki systems, Clearspace documents do not limit the viewer to comparing only the current version of the document to previous versions.

Lastly, Clearpsace allows comments to be posted by users at the end of each document. This gives students an opportunity to share with their team members, for example, what was recently changed in the document or how they feel the group should proceed with the assignment. Additionally, comment tracking allows professors to assess which team members have been actively contributing to the collaboration process, an important consideration when attempting to evaluate individual performance in a group setting.

Pilot Study Fall 2007--Wikis in Introduction to Air Quality

Based on what we learned in early pilot studies testing usability outside the classroom context in Fall 2006 and Spring 2007, we switched wikiware from the open-source Mediawiki platform to a proprietary platform, Clearspace, developed by Jive Software. Clearspace provided the following features: email notifications, RSS feed, search capabilities, blog capabilities, a discussion section with the ability to mark comments and questions, versions comparisons using revision and version history tools, as well as upload capability for Word documents, PDFs, and presentation software. Our hope was that by simplifying the design tasks, our testing efforts would be freed up to focus more specifically on the collaborative tasks the wiki assignments were designed to facilitate among the student teams. Although we chose Clearspace because it promised to combine several online communication features in a seamless platform, aspects of the interface led students to complain about its functionality and ease of use.

In Fall 2007, we conducted a pilot study with co-author, Dr. Lupita Montoya in Engineering. We worked together to develop a wiki-based collaborative writing assignment to be used in her Introduction to Air Quality Course. Although the course was not designated as writing intensive, she wanted to include a writing assignment that would help her students better understand the real-world applications of the air quality research they were conducting. The assignment prompt, co-authored by Drs. Fernheimer, Montoya, and Lewis, Director of the Center for Communication Practices at RPI, developed and introduced a collaborative writing assignment requiring student teams to research an air-quality problem of their choosing and then advocate for its solution
Clearspace Fall 2007
. The groups focused on issues as diverse as reducing carbon emissions with fossil-fuel alternatives such as biofuels, reducing toxic fumes from Katrina-relief mobile homes by incorporating air-cleaning plants within the homes, assessing acid rain deposition in the Adirondacks, improving indoor air quality in domestic dwellings in developing countries, and reducing vehicular emissions through more stringent standards.

To familiarize the students with the wiki and with process-based writing in general, Montoya, Fernheimer, and Lewis ran several workshops over the course of the semester. During the first session, Fernheimer and Lewis introduced the assignment and the rhetorical canons to help students think of their writing as process-based. In the next workshop Tom Kujala, the wiki administrator, conducted a hands-on workshop to introduce the students to the use of the wiki. Once the students had selected and researched their topics and begun drafting their reports, Fernheimer and Lewis conducted a third workshop on report organization and revision strategies.

Although the assignment explicitly asked students to track their discussion of the text using the wiki, there were no technical instructions for how to use the history/revision tool of the wiki, nor were there specific criteria according to which their “collaboration” would be evaluated. Students were told that five percent of their grade would be based on the extent of their collaboration and that they would play a role in determining how “collaboration” would be evaluated, but these criteria were not discussed until late in the semester. Not surprisingly, students were quite concerned about their grades and how their “collaboration” would be recognized and evaluated. Rather than encouraging the students to engage in deep collaboration, as we had hoped, under these circumstances the wiki seemed to many students to be a tool for “surveillance”--allowing the instructor to tally the number of posts made by each student. Students who made such complaints suggested that their face-to-face meetings made the wiki superfluous, and that they were only putting things on the wiki to make sure they “earned” their collaboration credit. In exit surveys, students complained both about specific technical glitches (e.g., that images did not display well, that the PDF converter did not allow them enough control over the final “look” of their documents, and that they were not able to work simultaneously on the wiki) as well as about the vague criteria for how collaboration would be assessed. We learned from this experience that we needed to specify more clearly what we meant by deep collaboration and also to call attention to the benefits of such interactions more explicitly.

Notes <references />

Continue reading the Theoretical Framework section.

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