preparing writers for the future of information systems

On 18 January 2008 I presented a workshop entitled, "Preparing Writers for the Future of Information Systems," with Diane Penrod at the 4th International Conference on Technology, Knowledge, and Society in Boston. The workshop was planned thinking that we had an hour: 15 minutes for me, 30 minutes of workshop and exploratory discussion, and 15 minutes for Diane. On the way to the conference location I realized that we actually had 30 minutes. So, we had to revise the session on the spot, removing the workshop portion and drastically cutting the talks down. Though it felt quite rushed, the presentation went well, overall. I present the talk I was to give in full here as I think it better showcases what I have been thinking about than what I was able to discuss at the conference. I welcome all comments and suggestions.

"Preparing Writers for the Future of Information Systems"

Several weeks ago my sister gave me a Wii as a combined holiday and birthday present. Ten years younger than I and a graduate student at Columbia living in Manhattan it has been rare in the past several years that she had been able to afford to buy me a gift of any kind. To help support tuition payments that student loans do not come close to covering she has been working at Planet Hollywood, waiting tables, running orders, exhausting herself on weekends. However, now that she is in her third year she is only required to register for one course. This, combined with a weak dollar that brought many tourists over the holidays to New York City and to the tables of Planet Hollywood created a kind of a tip-infused cash-windfall the likes of which my sister has never seen (and will probably never see again). When the stores were out of Wiis, she bought it on eBay-a palpitating thrill as she won her first eBay auction. It arrived in a box that once held a Sharper Image 1x/5x Mirror with Variable Lighting for Daylight, Office, and Evening.

Now, I have never been much of a video gamer. As a child I had to go to my friend, Steve’s, house when I wanted to play Atari; my parents bought me an Odyssey 2 system, instead, because they thought the keyboard made it more educational. After Atari I went to Steve’s to play Nintendo. I remember fumbling through Mario Brothers’, banging my head on mystically- suspended brick walls to get coins. In arcades I was attracted to Galaga, Ms. Pac Man, and a driving game, Turbo, which I have not seen anywhere in decades. In college as an senior I played Sega hockey with the freshmen guys on my floor. I even won a few games. More recently I have been playing Burn Out on the PlayStation 2 with my cousins Zach and Sydney. I also tried my hand at Guitar Hero on their Wii but found I was just as inept as playing a real guitar.

Yet, despite my video game inexperience I was overwhelmed with joy when I opened the Sharper Image box to see the Wii. One friend was even more excited than I: the next day she dragged me to Best Buy where she and the sales assistant talked me into buying The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. For those of who are not familiar with this installment of Zelda, the box ensures that it is "The Biggest Zelda Adventure of All Time." (The writers have obviously not seen my 21 inch RCA television.) Zelda is a princess trapped in a twilight realm and your avatar, Link, has to fight all manner of evil things to rescue her. Before starting to play, I read through the 39 page booklet to learn about the story, how to use the controlers, etc. The result: I walked around the kingdom of Hyrule for about an hour, running this way and that. Getting on my horse and getting off my horse. Splashing through streams and lakes. Galloping a bit and then trotting. Basically, I had no clue what to do-and, further, had no idea how anyone playing the game out of the box would have any clue what to do. And yet, there are those who can play just from seeing the environment-from seeing their avatar situated in a particular context that contains unique artifacts, symbols, and images.

I am not one of these people. James Paul Gee (2003) would say that I, who was trying to figure out what to do in Link’s virtual world, was actually attempting to gain access to a particular semiotic domain. He defines a semiotic domain as "any set of practices that recruits one or more modalities (e.g. oral or written language, images, equations, symbols, sounds, gestures, graphs, artifacts, etc.) to communicate distinctive types of meanings" (p. 18). This is similar to what David Bartholomae (1997) observes about a novice writer in a first year writing class attempting to gain access to a new discourse community:

The student has to appropriate (or be appropriated by) a special discourse, and he has to do this as though he were easily and comfortably one with his audience, as though he were a member of the academy or an historian or an anthropologist or an economist; he has to invent the university by assembling and mimicking its language while finding some compromise between idiosyncrasy, a personal history, on the one hand, and the requirements of convention, the history of a discipline on the other hand. He must learn to speak our language. (p. 590)

As my avatar pointlessly ran around in the virtual environment I was essentially attempting invent my gaming universe by mimicking what I thought gamers did: open the box, slip the CD into the console, and play successfully. I was also trying, futilely, to borrow from my prior gaming experience. Not much in common between Ms. Pac Man’s and Zelda’s environments.

When that didn’t work, I borrowed from my own discourse community-the one that I often ask students to gain access to-and began to research. I got up, went to my computer, opened Firefox, and typed Zelda into Google. That resulted in about 43 million hits. I revised my search terms to "zelda wii guide." The first result read, "Guides: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess Guide (Wii), Legend. . . ." I clicked on it and found a step-by-step guide by Andre ‘Serling’ Segers at ign.com. After reading the Basics, I clicked on Walkthrough, which contains detailed instructions with screen shots for each step of the game. I went to my Diigo toolbar and clicked "bookmark." I entered the following tags: zelda, wii, guide, and video-games. I then printed out the guide to Part 1 and went back to my living room to play. After I completed Part 1 I went back to my computer where I saw that the Diigo widget in my Netvibes ecosystem had a link to the Zelda guide. I clicked on the link, found Part 2, printed it, and continued playing. Here is the complete process, repeated.

Though seemingly simple as we watch it on the screen, the process is really quite complex, employing multiple cognitive artifacts (Norman, D. 1981), genres (Spinuzzi, 2003), and writing spaces (Bolter, 2001). Indeed, each of the online tools-each of the Web 2.0 technologies-I used during this process is as much a semiotic domain as Zelda itself. They are filled with, to borrow from Gee’s list, written language, images, equations, symbols, sounds, gestures, graphs, and artifacts. Consider, for example, the upper left section of the Netvibes RSS reader that I use-and asked students to use:

upper left corner of netvibes rss reader

The area has multiple symbols-orange RSS feed symbols, Xs, tabs, rectangular form fields, and so forth-each of which needs to be understood in context. There are also multiple terms that need to be understood in context: feed, module, page, widget, universe, applications, and so forth. Furthermore, I need to understand the functionality of the space, what will happen when I put text in a form field and push a button. The symbols, texts, and programming code that control the functionality all assume a great deal about the user’s ability to comprehend this particular semiotic domain.

The activity also required prior knowledge of multiple software applications, the installation of those applications, and an understanding of how to use them within the context of a particular action: finding, retrieving, storing, and re-accessing a certain bit of information. In effect, to tackle the same concerns that Vannevar Bush addressed in his classic 1945 Atlantic Monthly piece, "As We May Think":

Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.

There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers-conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear.

Only recently, with the pervasiveness of social bookmarking software (such as Del.icio.us and Diigo) and the ubiquity of RSS feed readers (such as Google Reader and Netvibes), have technologies been available for all internet users to compose their own dynamic storage spaces in multiple interconnected online locations.

These dynamic storage spaces each contain what Jay David Bolter (2001) calls writing spaces-online and in-print areas where texts are written, read, and manipulated. Web 2.0 technologies are replete with multiple writing spaces, each of which has its own properties, assumptions, and functions. For example, until recently the Facebook Status Update field only allowed writers to enter phrases in the present progressive tense: Bill is presenting with Diane at a conference in Boston. Bill is wondering what the attendees think so far. Bill is looking forward to the Giants game on Sunday. Now, no longer confined to gerund phrases we can exist in the past, future, and present tenses. Bill will be finished talking in a few minutes. Google’s writing space, the single search form field, is similarly conditioned to respond to certain commands that redefine writing symbols. For example, quotations around a phrase do not indicate dialogue but a Boolean string.

If we can see these spaces as semiotic domains, then we must also see them as spaces for literacy-a literacy that is a function of the space’s own characteristics. There are many definitions of literacy floating about, but I prefer Cindy Selfe’s (1999) robust definition of technological literacy, and I quote it at length here:

[T]echnological literacy . . . refers not only to what is often called "computer literacy," that is, people’s functional understanding of what computers are and how they are used, or their basic familiarity with the mechanical skills of keyboarding, storing information, and retrieving it. Rather, technological literacy refers to a complex set of socially and culturally situated values, practices, and skills involved in operating linguistically within the context of electronic environments, including reading, writing, and communicating. The term further refers to the linking of technology and literacy at fundamental levels of conception and social practice. In this context, technological literacy refers to social and cultural contexts for discourse and communication, as well as the social and linguistic products and practices of communication and the ways in which electronic communication environments have become essential parts of our cultural understanding of what it means to be literate. (p. 11)

Of primary importance in Selfe’s definition is the relationship between actor and technological environment, between the person using the machine and the machine itself. Selfe later lists a dozen or so reading, writing, and communicating skills that in 1999 could be identified as necessary to be considered technologically literate.

I teach a portion of a team-taught course called Introduction to Writing Arts that is now required for all Writing Arts majors. In groups of 20 students rotate through three four-week modules, each of which is taught by a different faculty member. My module is called Technologies and the Future of Writing. Students are asked to consider the relationships among technology, writing, and the construction of electronic spaces through readings in four main topic areas: origins of internet technologies, writing spaces, ownership and identities, and the future of writing. When I asked them recently how many of the skills Selfe lists they would consider themselves literate in, the majority responded that they were literate in most of them. This impression would conform to what has been said of students of this generation (and how they tend to rate themselves).

They are, if we are to believe the media, the most technologically savvy students of all time and of all technologies. They exist with pods in their pockets and buds in their ears. They text; they use email; they watch YouTube; they play World of Warcraft; they post pictures on Facebook and MySpace of themselves in all manner of teenage debauchery; they use BitTorrent to download music and software illegally at a rate that would make Al Capone well up with pride. Even Richard N. Katz (2006) in the 2006 ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology got into the hyperbole by declaring: "We take it to be self-evident that college-bound [students] are in fact digital cognoscenti, sophisticates, and perhaps even digital connoisseurs who will arrive at our nation’s institutions of higher education with digital gadgets of ever imaginable shape and function, with insatiable appetites for all things digital, and with (limited) patience for the charming but antiquated artifacts of the analog academic world" (p. 5). And yet, my experiences show that they cannot grasp the basic idea of tagging. Or social bookmarking. Or constructing effective search terms. Most of the 65 students in that undergraduate class had never heard the terms Web 2.0 and open source. They didn’t know what a URL was, or a server, or that a web page was constructed out of code. That is to say, though they use communication technologies routinely and on a daily basis, they are, for the most part, not technologically literate.

And we should not expect them to be-just as I should not have expected to have been able to play Zelda right out of the box. Like the composition students who Bartholomae writes about, most students have not been asked to become members of a Web 2.0 discourse community. They have been asked to purchase and play with gadgets but not become critical, compositionally aware users of those gadgets. They have not been asked to conceive of tagging, search terms, and status updates as powerful socially situated writing genres. Or to be able to fully understand the layered vocabularies at work in Web 2.0 technologies. They have not been asked to think critically about the rhetorical implications of a hyperlink or of clicking on a hyperlink, or of a RSS feed, or of selecting a page to social bookmark. The questions I began to ask were: how can we prepare students for the kinds of social and collaborative writing that Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 technologies will demand in the coming years? How can we encourage students to create environments where they will begin to see new online writing spaces as genres with their own conventions, grammars, and linguistics? How can we help students-future writers-understand that the technologies they use are not value neutral, that they exist within a complex, distributed relationship between humans and machines? And how can that new-found understanding become the basis for skills that students will need as they continue their careers and as lifelong learners?

These are ambitious questions-much too ambitious for any one course-and ones I hope we can talk about here. Because so much of writing is pre-writing-research, cataloguing, organizing, note-taking, and so forth-I chose to consider the latter question by introducing students to contemporary communication tools that can enable more robust activities at the pre-writings stage. Specifically, I crafted an assignment that asked students to adapt Bonnie A. Nardi and Vicki L. O’Day’s (1999) eminently useful, readable, and engaging theory of information ecologies to compose their own online information ecologies. Nardi and O’Day "define an information ecology to be a system of people, practices, values, and technologies in a particular local environment. In information ecologies, the spotlight is not on technology, but on human activities that are served by technology" (p. 49). Students’ online information ecologies were comprised of four interrelated, symbiotic writing spaces: personal space on the university server system, an evolving Netvibes ecosystem, an evolving del.icio.us or diigo social bookmarking space, and a collaborative professional blog using WordPress. I wanted students to begin to see how ideas-their ideas-can and do flow between multiple spaces. More importantly, I wanted them to see how the spaces themselves influenced the flow of ideas and the ideas themselves.

The four spaces that I chose create a reflexive flow of ideas. For example, from their RSS feed reader they find a web page that is interesting or will be useful to them in some way. They bookmark the page. They blog about it. The ideas in the blog become the basis for a larger discussion in a formal paper, which they store in their server space (which we were using as a kind of portfolio). In the paper they cite the blog where they first learned of the ideas. The bookmarked page dynamically appears in the social bookmark widget in their RSS reader so they can find it again. The cycle continues, feeding ideas, building information, compounding knowledge in praxis.

This was the first time I tried the assignment and results were generally good. Students were, for the most part, amazed that such technologies exist, that there are resources online that can help them organize their work, time, and ideas. And though each module met for only four weeks, the better students began to see the recursive impact the spaces had on the formation and dissemination of ideas. And the weaker students gained a greater understanding of the relationships among various online spaces. Both achievements are significant for developing writers who will need to become technologically literature in what is quickly becoming a semantic electronic environment-whether you’re playing a Wii video game, trying to write a paper, or trying to report news from the field.

References

Bartholomae, D. (1997). Inventing the university. In V. Villanueva (Ed.) Cross-Talk in comp theory. New York: NCTE.

Bush, V. (July 1945). As we may think. Atlantic Monthly Retrieved Feb. 26, 2006, from The Atlantic Online web site: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/194507/bush

Gee, J.P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Katz, R.A. (2006). Foreword. In The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2006. Retrieved Jan. 11, 2008, from the Educause web site: http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERS0607/ERS06070.pdf

Nardi, B.A., & O’Day V.L. (1999). Information ecologies: Using technology with heart. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Selfe, C.L. (1999). Technology and literacy in the twenty-first century: The importance of paying attention. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

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