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Review of Google Docs as Instructional Tool

Video Review

Scope

Google Apps for Education is a suite of cloud-based applications provided free of charge to educational institutions for their students and faculty. Among the applications are Gmail (email), Docs (word processing), Drive (cloud-based storage), Site (web pages), Slides (presentations), Sheets (spreadsheets), and Calendar (Google, ca. 2014a). This review addresses the individual and collaborative composing affordances of Google Docs and the group sharing affordances of folders in Google Drive. While Google Docs and Google Drive are free-standing applications available to anyone with a Google account, this review focuses specifically on the tools as part of Google Apps for Education.

Context

Google and campus IT departments collaborate to install Google Apps for Education to become students’ (and optionally, faculty’s) default email and file-sharing applications. The Google Apps for Education benefits page insists that, when installed, “Your data belongs to you” (Google, ca. 2014a.) Closer reading of the Google Apps for Education Agreement indicates that data are stored on Google servers that are not necessarily on U.S. territory, and that location of the storage facility itself is not determined by the campus IT department (Google, ca. 2014b). Campus decisions to implement Google Apps for Education are fraught with competing issues of price (free) and convenience (very) pitted against data access, location, and institutional control.

Campuses that elect to install Google Apps for Education make available the free suite of applications to their students. Email addresses are tied to the campus student information system (e.g. Banner or PeopleSoft) and used as Google Accounts to provide access to the applications. File sharing services that may originally have been handled by on-site servers (like a shared drive) transition to cloud-based Google Drive, with free accounts providing gigabytes of data storage per account.

Function

As Google’s cloud-based word processor, Google Docs is deeply integrated into Google Drive; Google Docs is among native applications available in Google Drive when creating a new file (other applications include Presentation, Spreadsheet, Form, and Drawing; see Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Native applications available in Google Drive. Screen capture of ODU Google Drive interface.

As a word processing application, Google Docs uses a relatively familiar interface that resembles locally-installed applications like Microsoft Word or Office.org. Familiar menu items and icons represent standard functions, and the on-screen layout represents the printable surface of the document, complete with margins and page borders (see Figure 2).

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Figure 2: Google Docs interface resembles standard application interfaces. Screen capture of an untitled document in ODU Google Docs.

Google Docs’ print output features don’t match those of stand-alone  applications like Microsoft Word. Such limitations are well documented (Jesdanun, 2013; Leonard, 2014); among them are limited header and footer formatting (important for academic assignments), limited table of contents, and limited pagination options. Since Google Docs is web-based, its functions are limited to standard or proprietary HTML affordances.

Beyond print output constraints, Google Docs is a capable, easy-to-use, free word processor. It affords standard functions like copy, cut, and paste, font styling, list numbering, tab defining, and much more. It functions as a drag-and-drop application: images, videos, and other media files are easily added to the Google Doc either by selecting a file or by dragging it into the document. Because its interface resembles most stand-alone application interfaces, newcomers to Google Docs can quickly start creating documents.

Google Docs in the Classroom

Google Docs excels in sharing and collaboration. Files are easily shared from within the document using the upper-right “Share” button (see Figure 2) with the public, with members of the institution, or with specific individuals using an email address. Since a free Google Account can be tied to any email address, anyone with an email address can access a Google Doc. Google Drive affords customized group and individual sharing and permissions at the folder and file levels, so entire folders of Google Docs (and other files within a folder) can both inherit parent folder permissions or have custom permissions set.

Sharing a Google Doc means that those given appropriate permissions may access and edit the file simultaneously. Simultaneous access and editing gives Google Docs a clear advantage over other word processors. Microsoft Word, for example, can share files and track changes, but only a single user may access the file at a given time. Google Docs tracks every change made by every user, and every change can be undone by rolling the file back to any previous state. The document is saved automatically after every change as long as stable internet access is available, so there is little concern about losing data as a result of unsaved changes.

Google Docs affords unlimited commentary on highlighted text passages, and comments can be threaded to at least one level in subsequent responses. Comments can also be marked as resolved, an action that clears the on-screen comment thread but saves the entire comment text for access as needed. Users can respond to comments asynchronously or in real time during a composing session. In addition, synchronous in-document chat is available, meaning users can “text” one another as they work together on a document. The combination of collaborative tools makes Google Docs and Google Drive a versatile tool that affords group composing activities in synchronous and asynchronous contexts.

Caveats

As noted earlier, an institution’s decision to enter into an agreement to offer Google Apps for Education is fraught with questions of participant agency and data ownership. Even before a teacher makes decisions about using Google Docs for collaboration and composing, institutional administrators should recognize confluences that require cross-disciplinary and cross-departmental discourses involving IT departments, curriculum specialists, teachers, administrators, and students. All of these stakeholders in a distributed learning implementation should be encouraged to contribute to an ongoing conversation about best practices and lessons learned via implementation (Neff & Whithaus, 2008). And once the institution implements Google Apps for Education, the implications to students in the context of the class should be considered and communicated in the syllabus.

Google is a for-profit multinational corporation whose ultimate goal is to generate profits for its stockholders. Entering into a business relationship with Google has costs that may not appear in institutional accounting spreadsheets, but will emerge in terms of power relationships between Google and the institution regarding data ownership, location, and access. More directly, as DePew and Lettner-Rust (2009) point out, asking students to use any technology inherently “shapes the power relationship between instructors and students[;] interfaces cannot be perceived as neutral or innocent” (p. 175). The goal of the decision to bind one’s institution to Google for its services and one’s students to Google Docs for its affordances should be one and the same: to empower end-users to make pedagogy-driven decisions about course content that are complemented by affordances of the technology tool (Hewett, forthcoming; Cook, 2005; Hantula & Pawlowicz, 2004).

Recommendation

The decision to use Google Docs in the classroom should support the learning outcomes of the course. For online writing teachers, those outcomes include creating communities of inquiry that integrate cognitive, social, and teaching presence (Garrison & Vaughan, 2007); providing low-stakes student-centered composing opportunities and engaging student and instructor feedback (Warnock, 2009); reinforcing “critical and liberatory pedagogies” (Reilly & Williams, 2006, p. 59); and teaching and exemplifying meta cognitive reflection on the technologies themselves as applied rhetoric (DePew, forthcoming). Google Docs and Google Drive, as applications in Google Apps for Education, support these outcomes.

Sharing folders and files supports the creation of a composing community focused on a common subject or object of inquiry. The teacher can create the shared environment using shared folders and a scaffolded writing assignment that requires file sharing among groups and associated feedback written work.

The comments feature in Google Docs affords rich commentary and meta-commentary from students and teachers alike throughout the composing process, from low-stakes feedback in invention, drafting, peer review, and revision, to formal assessment from the instructor. Comments afford multi-way conversations that empower students to respond to peer and teacher feedback.

Teachers can use Google Docs to reflect on the affordances and constraints of the technologies. By using the very technology they are assigned to critique, rich conversations about power politics, accessibility, availability, and other critical approaches can emerge and be facilitated by a trained, engaged teacher. More directly, Google Docs, like any other ICT in OWI, is both an object of critical analysis and a functional technology. As such, it affords opportunities to encourage students and teachers alike to practice applied rhetoric. And with the backing of the corporate behemoth that is Google, Google Docs provides a remarkably rich object of critical analysis and represents DePew’s (forthcoming) “pivot point where function and rhetoric merge” (n.p.).

As a result, I recommend that teachers in both OWI and f2f environments consider incorporating Google Docs in their classes as a free and capable word processor and a highly collaborative, student-focused composing tool that functions as both medium for collaboration and assessment and object of rhetorical study.

References

Cook, K. C. (2005). An argument for pedagogy-driven online education. In K. C. Cook & K. Grant-Davie (eds.), Online education: Global questions, local answers. Farmingdale, NY: Baywood Publishers. Baywood’s Technical Communications Series

DePew, K. E. (Forthcoming). Preparing instructors and students for the rhetoricity of OWI Technologies. In B. L. Hewett & K. E. DePew (eds.), Foundational practices of online writing instruction. Manuscript in publication

Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. D. (2007). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines, (3-30). San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Google. (ca. 2014a). Google Apps for Education. Retrieved June 5, 2014, from http://www.google.com/enterprise/apps/education

Google. (ca. 2014b). Google Apps for Education agreement. Retrieved June 7, 2014, from http://www.google.com/apps/intl/en/terms/education_terms.html

Hantula, D. A., & Pawlowicz, D. M. (2004). Education mirrors industry: On the not-so surprising rise of internet distance learning. In D. Monolescu, C. Schifter, & L. Greenwood (eds.), The distance education evolution: Issues and case studies (142-162). Hershey, PA: Information Science Pub.

Hewett, B. L. (Forthcoming). Foundational principles that ground OWI. In B. L. Hewett & K. E. DePew (eds.), Foundational practices of online writing instruction. Manuscript in publication

Jesdanun, A. (2013, August 31). Review: Google Docs vs. Apple iWork vs. Office. USA Today. Retrieved June 6, 2014, from http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2013/08/31/review-google-apple-decent-contenders-to-office/2723315/

Leonard, W. (2014, May 29). Review: Google Drive leads in features, lags in ease-of-use. InfoWorld. Retrieved June 7, 2014, from http://www.infoworld.com/d/cloud-computing/review-google-drive-leads-in-features-lags-in-ease-of-use-243281

Neff, J. M., & Whithaus, C. (2008). Writing across distances & disciplines: Research and pedagogy in distributed learning. New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Reilly, C. A., & Williams, J. J. (2006). The price of free software: Labor, ethics, and context in distance education. Computers and Composition, 23(1), 68-90. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2005.12.001

Warnock, S. (2009). Teaching writing online: How & why. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Final Case Study: Synthesis

Noel Studio Greenhouse, Director's Office, and Artwork

Noel Studio Greenhouse, Director’s Office, and Artwork

Overview

Pedagogically based on writing center philosophies, the Noel Studio is a multiliteracy center with a unique physical space and academic/administrative structure. Occupying 10,000 sq. ft of EKU Libraries’ main building, Crabbe Library, the Noel Studio provides both public and private spaces for consultants, students, and faculty to work.

Comprised of a core administrative staff of five (director, writing coordinator, research coordinator, technology associate, and administrative assistant) and a student staff of approximately forty-five (graduate assistants, undergraduate consultants, desk consultants, and writing fellows), the Noel Studio was created to support the various communication and research projects happening both in and outside of the classroom. To support that mission, the physical space of the Noel Studio contains the Greenhouse (a large, open space with a variety of computers and touch-screen monitors), the Invention Space (equipped with wall-to-wall white boards, a CopyCam, and creative materials), Breakout Spaces and Practice Rooms (small, reserveable rooms with a computer work station, large screen monitors, and recording capabilities), and a communal space that currently serves as an office for technology support.

The Noel Studio is a network of space, people, activity, ideologies, and ideologies that cannot be separated from one another. It is a complex system that impacts and is impacted by larger institutional networks. While at first glance the network-icity of the Noel Studio might appear to exist primarily in its administrative structure the complexity of the Noel Studio is reflected in many different ways.

For example, even though the Noel Studio replaced the existing writing center, it did not simply overtake the writing center’s philosophies, space, or budget. Instead, it became an interdisciplinary space in the main library, an interdisciplinary department under University Programs (UP), and an amalgamation of budget lines from UP, the English Department (graduate assistantships), SGA, and, most recently, an endowment from the initial donors, Ron and Sherry Lou Noel. The collaborative efforts to make the space a reality are seen in the artwork commissioned through LexArt and paid for through the fundraising efforts of the Friends of the Library, the physical structures and features (small and large rooms, glass walls, brightly colored walls and glass), and the upgrades that have been made over the last 3.5 years (more and larger whiteboards, more mobile furniture).

Recognizing the importance of supporting students’ composing practices, some institutions are investing in multiliteracy centers. As the first large-scale multiliteracy center, the Noel Studio has already served as a model for other universities investing in communication initiatives and support services. While many people have visited the Noel Studio for ideas and advice, it’s an often-acknowledged fact that there is no “ideal” organization or plan that fits every writing center or writing program. Instead, each situation is unique and complex in its own right, subject to a multitude of factors. The Noel Studio is not replicable, but using the Noel Studio as an object of study allows us to understand the different options we have for examining the complexity of any given writing program, answering Jackie Grutch McKinney’s (2013) call for writing centers to look beyond the traditional narrative to see and articulate the work we actually do. If we can better see and articulate this work and how our centers and programs exist as nodes within institutional and (inter)disciplinary networks, we can not only help others understand our nodual value, but we can also focus on the connections that strengthen our work and loosen connections that don’t.

Brief Literature Review

In his seminal article, The idea of a writing center, S. North (1984) defined writing centers as far more than fix-it-shops (p. 435) where faculty send their students for remediation. He cited frequent examples of faculty misunderstanding and the frustrations of framing the writing center as a remedial service. Critical of those who misunderstand and misrepresent writing center work, North challenged the field to clarify their services and work towards educating students and faculty to the real role of the writing center: “the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction” (p. 438).

Since then, writing center scholarship has taken up the charge and sought to define the writing center in terms of praxis by investigating the politics of place and space (Nelson & Everts, 2001), the role of administrators as WPAs (Murphy and Stay, 2006), and how writing centers adapt to changes (Carpenter & Lee, 2013; Pemberton, 2003). At the foreground, however, has been a focus of the work that happens in a writing center–the pedagogical approach to both working with student writers and training consultants to do so.

In her recent book, Peripheral Visions on Writing Centers, J. G. McKinney (2013) critiques the narrative of writing centers that has emerged from these examinations. Three themes, she argues, arise as the tropes of the narrative:

  1. Writing centers are cozy homes
  2. Writing centers are iconoclastic
  3. Writing centers tutor (all students)

These themes, she argues are reductive and neglect the complexity of the work that happens within writing center spaces. While Mckinnery begins to trace the complexities of writing center work, she only touches on a deeper investigation. This synthesis, then, examines the Noel Studio primarily in terms of Prior et al.’s Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT), positing that the rhetorical work of writing centers occurs in a much more complex system of activity than traditional rhetorical theories acknowledge. CHAT’s approach identifies levels of rhetorical activity that can be more fully understood by also considering the Noel Studio as labor and ecosystems constituted by social networks.

The Noel Studio as a Center of Rhetorical Activity

As a multiliteracy center, the Noel Studio functions as a center for rhetorical activity. Designed to support all communication projects, the Noel Studio’s mission considered writing, research, and oral communication as the three cornerstones of its rhetorical work. In their chapter, Studio pedagogy: A model for collaboration, innovation, and space design, Carpenter, Valley, Napier, and Apostel (2012) identify six foundational criteria for the Noel Studio’s multiliteracy approach:

1)    Critical and Creative Thinking: Consultants encourage students to engage in convergent (critical) and divergent (creative) thinking regarding, audience, purpose, context, and mode.

2)    Information Fluency: Consultant encourage student to think divergently and convergently about the ways in which students gather, evaluate, interpret, and integrate information into their communication products and practices.

3)    Integrative collaboration: Consultants encourage students to see their communication from multiple perspectives through the feedback process while incorporating insights offered from interactions within the space.

4)    Interactive: Consultants encourage students to think about the dynamics in their collaborative groups and how communication is enhanced through this social process. Consultants promote interaction by allowing students to project ideas in high- and low-tech ways.

5)    Visual: Consultants encourage students to think visually, embracing a design approach that allows students to actively participate with manipulatives and interactive resources

6)    Dynamic: Consultations change with students’ needs and expectations. That is, consultants adapt their methods of consulting.

These criteria, developed by the founding administrators of the Noel Studio, reflect both disciplinary and institutional ideologies. These reflections serve as the foundation for what Prior et al. describe as an expanded theory of rhetorical activity. Laminated chronotopes reflect the underlying ideology of the Noel Studio, as they are embodied, represented, and embedded in its rhetorical activity.

Laminated Chronotopes

Writing Center Ideology: Writing center policies and practices reflect their grounding in process pedagogy. Valuing such ideals as “HoCs over LoCs” (higher order concerns over lower order concerns), “meeting the writer where he’s at,” “minimal marking,” and “making better writers not better writing,” writing centers reflect composition theories that prioritize student reflection, student ownership, and collaboration. Students become better writers through discursive processes (the one-on-one interactions—these are important to writing center peeps…include them and explain why).

Inherent in this belief is the ideal that writing centers do not offer remedial services—rather, they support the growth of all writers in employing rhetorical strategies to develop effective communication. In addition to pedagogical strategies, writing centers also focus on space design as an important component in engaging students, resulting in what McKinney identifies as one of the tropes—writing centers are cozy homes. While the Noel Studio is not designed to be a “cozy home,” the importance of space design for the critical and creative processes of composing is one of its most important elements.

Institutional Ideology: Eastern Kentucky University is a regional university that offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in general and liberal arts programs, pre-professional and professional training in education and various other fields. Established as Eastern Kentucky State Normal School in 1906, EKU began as a school for teachers and that legacy is still visible in the school’s self-described identity as an institution with three primary priorities: instruction, scholarship, and service, but the institution still claims the primary function is teaching (EKU, n.d.).

Like most institutions of higher education, EKU values grades as representations of academic success and predictors of future success. For the institution, success is often defined in terms of retention and graduation rates and programs that can demonstrate direct contributions to retention and graduation through quantitative assessments are more likely to receive funding.

Functional Systems and Literate Activity

From these laminated chronotopes emerge what Prior et al. identify as functional systems. According to Prior et al., “mediated activity means that action and cognition are distributed over time and space, and among people, artifacts, and environments” (pp. 17-18)–or functional systems. These functional systems are tied together by “some array of current objectives, conscious or not” (p.19). The primary objective tying these functional systems together in the Noel Studio is to help students become more effective communicators. Other stated and unstated objectives include creating opportunities for the students who work as consultants, creating an open and creative work atmosphere, and maintaining knowledge and practices to support EKUs evolving communication climate.

And from the functional systems emerge literate activities. According to Prior et al., the “terms of the map of literate activity . . . are not intended to evoke a series of steps, but to signal a multidimensional model” (pp. 19-20). This map of literate activity includes production, representation, distribution, reception, socialization, activity, and ecology. At this level, activity is concrete and visible, encompassing the enactment of rhetorical moves—the actions that enable the work of the Noel Studio to manifest in students creating visible representations of their ideas.

While Prior et al. identify functional systems as ecologies, people, communities, artifacts, and practices, they fail to explain how these functional systems emerge and contribute to the rhetorical activity of the larger network. The ambiguity of these functional systems (and thereby, the literate activities of the functional systems), however, can be better understood by looking at how other theorists have defined these various systems.

Even though the objective of the Noel Studio situates it as a system of rhetorical activity, we cannot ignore its multiple identities. It also functions as a labor system, an ecosystem , and a social network system that operates within the larger economic and social biosphere of EKU. Examining the Noel Studio in terms of its functional systems and literate activities in terms of these other network theories allows us to understand how meaning is made and transformed, how the network grows, evolves, or dissolves, and where operations and connections breakdown (or have the potential to breakdown).

Ecologies: Spellman defines ecology as “the science that deals with the specific interactions that exist between organisms and their living and nonliving environments” (p. 5). The Cary Institute expands on that definition, explaining ecology not just as interactions but as systems: “The scientific study of the processes influencing the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interactions, among organisms, and the interactions between organisms and the transformation and flux of energy.” In the case of the Noel Studio, the “transformation and flux of energy and matter” is actually the transformation of students’ ideas into the creation of texts. In this sense, the staff, students, and physical environment of the Noel Studio interact to create visible representations of ideas.

Madison Middle visits the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

Madison Middle visits the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

This representation, or the transformation as the Cary Institute described it, is reliant on not only the affordances (Gibson) of the physical environment but also what Norman identifies as perceived affordances. The more the student and consultant are able to take advantage of the affordances of the environment, the more effective their visual representation.

For example, when a student comes in to work with a consultant, the consultant typically first chooses a spot in the Greenhouse. With no stationary technology in the Greenhouse, the student and consultant can engage in conversation with little distraction from technology. For this example, we’ll say that the student has not yet started to write the paper—she has the prompt and an idea for a topic, but she doesn’t know how to narrow it down or start to organize it. Once the student has explained this, the consultant will ask to see the prompt, the construction of which affords the direction for the student’s paper.

After coming to an agreement about what the student is supposed to do in the paper and that the consultation will focus on brainstorming, the consultant will take the student to the Invention Space. As the consultant is already familiar with the spaces and technologies, she recognizes that the Invention Space affords brainstorming activities. The large whiteboards, CopyCam, and multicolored dry erase markers allow both the student and the consultant to contribute and organize ideas as they become represented through words and images on the dry erase boards. Additionally, revision of ideas is afforded as the representations are easily erased or modified if/when they no longer signify the evolving ideas. Once the student is happy with the representation of her ideas, she and the consultant could use an outline to create an outline—a visible representation of the logical structure of the student’s intended communication. The CopyCam then affords saving, as the student can print a copy of the work, save it as a file on a jump drive, or upload it to the Noel Studio’s CopyCam website.

If time, or in follow-up consultations, the student and consultant would use other spaces and technology in the Noel Studio to proceed through the drafting and revision processes (many times students do so in the spaces without a consultant, too). Together, they might use the Media Wall to conduct research, draft, review, and revise. If it’s a presentation, the student might also use a Practice Room to rehearse the presentation, then move to another space to work through the writing process again.

In each situation, the interactions between the student, consultant, and the tools of the environment transform the student’s ideas as they become represented in the various texts she composes throughout the process. Her (and the consultant’a) ability to perceive the various affordances of the technology that she uses shapes what the final text will look like. Similarly, the constraints of the technology also force her to make decisions, shaping the final project. For instances, if the student’s project is a video that she will share with the class, her construction of the video is reliant not only on her technical skill but also on her ability to perceive what she can and cannot do with the video editing software that she chooses. She knows that she wants to lay down a music track over the images in the video—a rhetorical choice that Movie Maker, iMovie, and most other video-editing software afford—but if she can’t perceive the function of the software, she will have to revise her plan and make new rhetorical choices with the functions she can perceive.

Communities: In this ecosystem of rhetorical activity, growth and balance depend on the population diversity (Spellman) and the abundance of resources, both human and environmental. Considering different groups of students and faculty as the different populations or communities, the ecosystem of the Noel Studio only grows when there is representation from the diverse disciplines, social groups, and demographic groups that make up EKU. Before the Noel Studio opened in 2010, the EKU Writing Center operated in the basement of Case Annex—an old dorm that has been converted to office and classroom space. Isolated to one department (the English Department) in terms of staffing, funding, and use, the Writing Center did not grow. When the Writing Center Director reached out to a new population (EKU Libraries) to discuss a potential collaboration, the idea of the Noel Studio emerged. Discussions between the Writing Center Director and the then-Dean of Libraries prompted further outreach to representatives of other populations, including the Department of Communication, Information Technology, Institutional Effectiveness, and the Office of the Provost. As ideas for what the space could be expanded, these representatives realized the increasing diversity of populations and their interests would require a new physical space.

The increased diversity also increased access to resources, as the English Department would no longer be solely responsible for the full funding (it still contributes to staffing through graduate assistant lines). Working with EKU Libraries Advancement, this newly-formed group was able to secure funding from donors, EKU Libraries, the Provost’s Office, University Programs, and a state grant. Since opening in September 2010, the Noel Studio has continued to increase the population diversity, expanding the Noel Studio Advisory Committee to include representatives from additional communities, including the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Teaching and Learning Center. Additionally, there has been an increase in population diversity among student use and faculty collaborations as we now see every college, social group, and demographic group that constitute EKU represented in the Noel Studio.

The distribution of population diversity, however, is still imbalanced as many communities are under-represented. While the ecosystem does include representatives from the college of Justice and Safety, for example, they are few and far between. If we cannot increase the Justice and Safety community’s interactions with the Noel Studio, that connection may die off as students graduate. As those connections die off, the system becomes less dynamic and resources less distributed as potential sources of funding decrease. If this trend of losing involved communities grew, the Noel Studio as a system would not be able to revert to its previous system of the Writing Center, as the resources and space have already been reallocated within the English Department. As such, the continued existence of the Noel Studio is dependent on increasing and maintaining connections with EKU’s diverse communities.

People: In addition to systems of community, the Noel Studio contains multiple systems of people as well. The primary network of people is the personnel: the administrative staff (director, coordinators, administrative assistant, and technology associate), the consultants (consultants, desk consultants, writing fellows, and graduate assistants), and the students (undergraduate, graduate, and online). Institutional ideology is most predominantly reflected in this component of the functional system, as the personnel structure is hierarchical. The consultants are responsible for the work that most explicitly addresses the objective of the Noel Studio, while the coordinators are responsible for guiding and supervising that work, the AA and technology associate troubleshoot and problem-solve resources necessary for that work, and the director makes programmatic decisions that situates the work within the larger system of EKU.

A social group comprised of undergraduate consultants, research consultants, a desk consultant, and a writing fellow

A social group comprised of undergraduate consultants, research consultants, a desk consultant, and a writing fellow

Within the labor network of people, there are social networks that are formed at and between various levels. As Scott explains, “A social group . . . exists in a field: a social ‘space’ that comprises the group together with its surrounding environment” (p. 11). This surrounding environment is not necessarily the physical space of the ecosystem—rather the space of the social group is constructed by the paths between people and their attitudes. With a full staff of approximately 50 people, interpersonal relationships and social balance is important for establishing a positive working environment. It’s unreasonable to expect that all 50 members of the Noel Studio will have what Scott identifies as “positive” relationships with all other 49 members. As he explains, social subgroups tend to form among people who have aligned ways of thinking and objectives. These subgroupings are evident within the Noel Studio as consultants tend to converge into cliques along their identified roles (their niches): desk consultants, graduate assistances, research consultants, undergraduate consultants, and writing fellows. However, as Scott explains, each person has multiple relations outside of these networks.

Understanding the social networks of the Noel Studio allows us to understand how interpersonal conflicts arise and, potentially, can be resolved with and ever-increasing staff. Thus far, the Noel Studio has had little trouble with conflict which is potentially due to the aligned objectives created by pedagogical and institutional ideologies.

Artifacts:  The artifacts of the Noel Studio are the documents and tools used the employees use to assist in the daily work. The documents and tools used by the Noel Studio employees to assist in the daily work. These include the Records of Consultation, time sheets, handouts and resources, client reports, WCOnline, Google Docs, Outlook, and Facebook.

Spinuzzi explains that relationships, activity, and destabilization that occur can only be identified by examining the relationships of activity and genres (the tools of the work) at three different levels: the macroscopic, mesoscopic, and microscopic levels.  At the macroscopic level is the entire the activity system–the Noel Studio and its makeup (director, coordinators, consultants, desk consultants, etc) and the artifacts it use (Records of Consultation, WCOnline, the furniture, the technology) to achieve the goal of improving students’ communication skills. The mesoscopic level, reveals the actions each of the workers perform in order to achieve the goal and how the instruments mediate those actions. And microscopic level actions are operationalized behaviors.

The distribution of labor within the network is visible through the tools or artifacts that we use and create. For example, a student’s consultation is not only the labor of the consultant who works with him or her. In scheduling the appointment, either the student or a desk consultant uses WCOnline to mediate the scheduling process. When the student arrives, the desk consultant again uses WCOnline to fill out the heading on the RoC (the Record of Consultation) and then mediates the introduction to the consultant with whom the student will be working. At this point, the consultant uses the training that he or she received from the administrative staff (prior labor) to engage with the student. In working towards the goal of the improving student’s communication skills, the consultant and student exchange the labor load throughout the consultation, using both the RoC and the student’s communication product to mediate the exchange. After the consultation, the consultant returns the RoC to the desk consultant who again uses WCOnline to create a digital record of the consultation (the client report). Finally, the desk consultant passes along the RoC to the appropriate coordinator who reviews it and uses it to discuss the consultant’s success within the consultation.

Networks grow and emerge as workers create and modify genres and they dissolve as contradictions, discoordinations, and breakdowns go unnoticed or unaddressed. In the previous example, for instance, we might see a breakdown as the consultant distributes the copies of the RoC. If the consultant forgets to give the student the original, then the behavior is not operationalized and the Noel Studio will be inconsistent (and perhaps perceived as unreliable) in its processes. In response, if a coordinator or consultant notices this breakdown, he or she might develop fix–a new genre–that increases and strengthens the network.

Practices: Spellman emphasizes that each organism in an ecosystem has a specific role, or a niche, to fill. As such, “in order for the ecosystem to exist, a dynamic balance must be maintained among all biotic and abiotic factors—a concept known as homeostasis” (p. 15).The concept of balance is important for all ecosystems and the Noel Studio is no different. However, it is in the functional system of practices that the tension between writing center and institutional ideologies start to emerge. Because of writing center values of process pedagogy, forming “better writers not better papers,” and collaboration and authorship, writing centers (and the Noel Studio) have developed practices that prioritize global concerns over proofreading and editing, discussion over “correction,” and minimal marking. In contrast, because institutions value grades and assessment reporting, there is often institutional pressure to transform writing center practices to focus on product, local concerns, and editing.

These tensions are evident in every aspect of the consultation. From setting goals with students, to filling out the RoC, to having meaningful conversation to meeting faculty’s expectations, consultants try to balance the values they learn in training (and by which they are evaluated in terms of job performance) with the expectations of students, faculty, and higher administration. Despite valuing process and recognizing that students likely need to visit the Noel Studio multiple times for significant improvement in skills, consultants feel obligated to help every student move their project from whatever “grade” it is at to an “A” (as subjectively defined by every instructor at the institution). As consultants face pressure from students, coordinators face criticism from faculty whose ideas of what a writing center should do have, unfortunately, evolved little since North’s 1984 article.

Discussion

This synthesis feels woefully incomplete. I’m not sure if my reasons for choosing my different theories are obvious, so I’ll try to make them explicit here.

I chose CHAT as the overall framework because it explains how activity emerges from rhetorical motivations that are situated in cultural and institutional ideologies. It explains how meaning is embedded in systems that then represent the meaning through the resulting activities. Additionally, it accounts for various types of representation and how context influences rhetorical activity.

Using Prior et al. as a framework, however, was problematic for a few reasons that I tried to address with the other theories. First, it didn’t offer any ways of establishing boundaries for analysis of rhetorical activity. Even though my OoS itself helped set boundaries, much of the action that impacts students’ communication skills occurs outside of the Noel Studio on an individual basis, but examining those influences wouldn’t help us understand the Noel Studio as a network better.

Using Spinuzzi, Scott, and Spellman to define the types of functional systems in terms of a labor network, a social network, and an ecosystem help set useful boundaries and address ways in which the system grows, evolves, and could, potentially dissolve. Finally, they helped explain how the literate activity manifests from the functional systems and laminated chronotopes and how individuals and groups both form complex networks. Additionally, while CHAT accounts for the impact of environment on the rhetorical activity, theories of distributed cognition (Gibson and Norman) explain how that impact happens. In short, each of the supplemental theories attempt to explain the how that Prior et al. neglect.

References

Carpenter, Valley, Apostel, & Napier. (2013). Studio Pedagogy: A Model for Collaboration, Innovation, and Space Design, (pp. 313-329) In Cases on higher education spaces: innovation, collaboration, and technology, (R. Carpenter, Ed.). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Carpenter, R. & Lee, S. (2013). Introduction: Navigating literacies in multimodal spaces. The Routlege reader on writing centers and new media, (xiv-xxvi). New York: Routlege.

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The theory of affordances. The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

McKinney, J. G. (2103). Peripheral visions for writing centers. Boulder, CO: Utah State University P.

Murphy, C. & Stay, B.L. (2006). The writing center director’s resource guide. New York: Routlege.

Nelson, J. & Everts, K. (2001). The Politics of Writing Centers. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann.

Norman, D. (n.d.). Affordances and design, Retreived from https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BzIskzHsjKsRN0NRRktncjBGb1U/edit

North, S. (1984). The idea of a writing center. College English, 46(5), 433-436. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/377047

Pemberton, M. (2003). The center will hold. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Prior et al. (). Re-situating and re-mediating the canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity. Kairos, 11(3). Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/11.3/topoi/prior-et-al/core/core.pdf

Spellman, F. R. (2008). Ecology for nonecologists. Lanham, MD: Government Institutes.

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: A sociocultural approach to information design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Retrieved from Kindle.

 

 

 

Case Study #3

Big Ass Fans and Noel Studio Skylights

Big Ass Fans and Noel Studio Skylights

The Noel Studio is typically identified as a multiliteracy center and discussed in terms of writing center structure, theory, and pedagogy. Because not much has been written on the Noel Studio specifically, it’s helpful to look to writing center studies.

In his seminal article, The idea of a writing center, S. North (1984) defined writing centers as far more than fix-it-shops (p. 435) where faculty send their students for remediation. He cited frequent examples of faculty misunderstanding and the frustrations of framing the writing center as a remedial service. Critical of those who misunderstand and misrepresent writing center work, North challenged the field to clarify their services and work towards educating students and faculty to the real role of the writing center: “the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction” (p. 438).

Since then, writing center scholarship has taken up the charge and sought to define the writing center in terms of praxis by investigating the politics of place and space (Nelson & Everts, 2001), the role of administrators as WPAs (Murphy and Stay, 2006), and how writing centers adapt to changes (Carpenter & Lee, 2013; Pemberton, 2003). At the foreground, however, has been a focus of the work that happens in a writing center–the pedagogical approach to both working with student writers and training consultants to do so.

In her recent book, Peripheral Visions on Writing Centers, J. G. McKinney (2013) critiques the narrative of writing centers that has emerged from these examinations. Three themes, she argues, arise as the tropes of the narrative:

  1. Writing centers are cozy homes
  2. Writing centers are iconoclastic
  3. Writing centers tutor (all students)

These themes, she argues are reductive and neglect the complexity of the work that happens within writing center spaces. Similarly, in their chapter in Cases in higher education spaces,  Carpenter, Valley, Apostel, and Napier (2013) challenge the typical narrative of writing center work by examining approaches to working with multimodal and digital compositions. More specifically, they examine what they call “a studio pedagogy,” arguing for the importance of space design in writing center work. They propose five criteria for a Studio pedagogy:

1)    Critical and Creative Thinking: Consultants encourage students to engage in convergent (critical) and divergent (creative) thinking regarding audience, purpose, context, and mode.

2)    Information Fluency: Consultants encourage students to think divergently and convergently about the ways in which students gather, evaluate, interpret, and integrate information into their communication products and practices.

3)    Integrative Collaboration: Consultants encourage students to see their communication from multiple perspectives through the feedback process while incorporating insights offered from interactions within the space.

4)    Interactive: Consultants encourage students to think about the dynamics in their collaborative groups and how communication is enhanced through this social process. Consultants promote interaction by allowing students to project ideas in high-and-low tech ways.

5)    Visual: Consultants encourage students to think visually, embracing a design approach that allows students to actively participate with manipulatives and interactive resources.

6)    Dynamic: Consultations change with students’ needs and expectations. That is, consultants adapt their methods of consulting.

These six criteria are directly connected to the physical environment in which students collaborate and compose. As such, it seems appropriate to apply ecology and distributed cognition to the Noel Studio as an object of study to better understand how the individuals interact with their environment to enhance the collaboration and composing processes.

 

Ecology of the Noel Studio

Spellman’s definition of ecology as “the science that deals with the specific interactions that exist between organisms and their living and nonliving environments” (p. 5) offers the foundational lens for understanding how the Noel Studio operates as an ecosystem. The physical space of the Noel Studio was designed to afford the collaboration and the composing process and includes

  • The Greenhouse: the primary, large open space, equipped with large green tables on wheels that, combined with the tuffets for seats, force individuals to face each other when they talk.
Madison Middle visits the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

Madison Middle visits the Media Wall in the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

  • The Medial Wall: 3 stations, each with a large, touch-screen monitor attached to a PC, a dual screen monitor, and another screen with cables to attach additional devices. Each station also offers chairs on wheels and mushroom tables with integrated power sources. Individuals or groups can use these stations to work with potentially three documents at once. For example, students could be constructing a Prezi on the large, touch-screen monitor, looking at the outline on the dual screen monitor, and researching on the laptop attached to the third monitor.
  • Breakout Spaces and Practice Rooms: Intended for small-group (the Breakout Spaces) or one-on-one (the Practice Rooms) interactions, each of these rooms is equipped with a large-screen monitor attached to a computer work station, video and audio-recording technology, whiteboards, and mobile chairs and half-round tables. In these rooms, students can plan and rehearse presentations.
  • The Invention Space: Equipped with wall-to-wall whiteboards, a CopyCam, rocking chairs and stationary seating, and manipulatives (Playdoh, Legos, Jenga, crayons, etc.), the Invention Space affords play and creativity for brainstorming and visualization activities.
  • The Discovery Classroom: a large, informal classroom with 3 projectors and drop-down screens, a massive whiteboard, comfortable and mobile chairs, 24 laptops, a lectern, and a media center (VHS and DVD player) with a control panel.

Additionally, the Noel Studio also contains 5 offices for administrators and consultants, public computer work stations, mobile whiteboards, and a break room. Throughout the space, there are floor outlets and Ethernet ports that allow individuals to charge and connect mobile devices necessary for new media composing.

Spellman explains that ecology is typically categorized according to complexity (p. 5), which results in levels of organization (p.14):

Organs–>Organism–>Population–>Communities–>Ecosystem–>Biosphere

As organisms are living things, the organisms existing in the Noel Studio are all humans. Having distinguished that, we can define the resulting levels of organization:

Biosphere: The biosphere that encompasses the Noel Studio is Eastern Kentucky University (EKU), which is comprised of many other ecosystems (colleges, departments, offices, and organizations)

Ecosystem: The Noel Studio is an ecosystem–it is a complete system on its own but is also a component of biosphere. Complex systems, Syverson explains, are simultaneously spontaneous, self-organizing, adaptive, dynamic, unpredictable, disordered, and structured, coherent, and purposeful (p. 6). The components of the Noel Studio work together with the purpose of developing effective communication skills.

Communities: The communities within the Noel Studio are administrators, consultants, consultees, collaborators, and donors.

Populations: Even though all of the organisms in the Noel Studio are human, they constitute different populations: students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members. These populations create communities. Although all of the organisms in the biosphere have the option of being a component of the Noel Studio, only a small percentage of those populations choose to be.

Spellman emphasizes that each organism in an ecosystem has a specific role, or niche, to fill. As such “in order for the ecosystem to exist, a dynamic balance must be maintained among all biotic and abiotic factors–a concept known as homeostasis” (p. 15). As such, organisms and the environmental components all serve as nodes within the system, though the organisms have agency whereas the non-living environmental components do not. Rather, nonliving environmental factors serve as affordances or constraints for the activities of the organisms. Thus, homeostasis, or balance, is dependent on each organism’s ability to perceive the positive and negative affordances of the physical environment.

Relationships and Movement

To understand what moves in the ecosystem of the Noel Studio, let’s turn to the Cary Institute’s expanded definition of ecology: “The scientific study of the processes influencing the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interactions among organisms, and the interactions between organisms and the transformation and flux of energy and matter.” In the case of the Noel Studio, the “transformation and flux of energy and matter” is actually the transformation of student’s ideas into texts. Consultants and students interact with the physical environment to create visible representations of ideas.

This movement, then is reliant on not only the affordances (Gibson) of the physical environment but also what Norman identifies as perceived affordances. The more the student and consultant are able to take advantage of the affordances of the physical environment, the more effective their textual representation.

For example, when a student comes in to work with a consultant, the consultant typically first chooses a spot in the Greenhouse–with no permanent technology in the open space of the Greenhouse, the student and consultant can engage in conversation with little technological distraction. For this example, we’ll say that the student has not yet started writing the paper–she has a prompt and an idea of a topic, but she doesn’t know how to narrow it down or start to organize it. Once the student has explained this, the consultant will ask to see the prompt–the construction of which affords direction for the student’s paper.

20100920noel-studio-scenes0042After coming to an agreement about what the student is supposed to do in the paper and that their consultation will focus on brainstorming, the consultant will take the student to the Invention Space. As the consultant is already familiar with the spaces and technology, she recognizes that the Invention Space affords brainstorming activities. The large whiteboards, CopyCam, and multicolored dry erase markers allow both the student and consultant to contribute and organize ideas as they become represented on the dry erase board. Additionally, the revision of ideas is afforded as the representations are easily erased as they no longer signify the evolving ideas. Once the student is happy with the ideas that are represented, she and the consultant would use the CopyCam to create an outline–a visible representation of the logical structure of the student’s intended communication.

If time or in follow-up consultations, the student and consultant would use the spaces and technology to proceed through the revision process (sometimes students will do so in the space without a consultant, too). Together, they might use the Media Wall to conduct research, draft, review, and revise. If it’s a presentation, the student might also use a Practice Room to practice the presentation, then move to another space to work through the writing process again.

In each situation, the interactions between the student, consultant, and the tools of the environment transform the student’s ideas as they become represented in the various texts she composes throughout the process. Her (and the consultant’s) ability to perceive the various affordances of the technology that she uses shapes what the final text will look like. Similarly, the constraints of the technology also force her to make decisions, shaping the final product. For instance, if the student’s final project is a video that she will share with the class, her video is reliant not only on her technical skill but also on her ability to perceive what she can and cannot do with the video editing software that she chooses. She knows that she wants to lay a music track over the video–a choice that Movie Maker, iMovie, and most other video editing software afford–but if she can’t perceive the function of the software that affords that design choice, she will have to revise her plan. In this ecosystem, then, the ideas are transformed as the move throughout the nodes (both organisms and environment) of the network.

How the Network Grows and Dissolves

In an ecosystem, growth and balance depend on population diversity (Spellman) and the abundance of resources. This is true of the Noel Studio as well. Considering different groups of students and faculty as the different populations in the Noel Studio, the ecosystem only grows when there is representation from the different disciplines, social groups, and demographic groups. Before the Noel Studio opened in 2010, the EKU Writing Center operated in a basement in Case Annex–a dorm that has been converted to office and classroom space. Isolated to one department (the English Department) in terms of staffing, funding, and use, the Writing Center did not grow. When the Writing Center Director reached out to a new population (EKU Libraries) to discuss collaboration, the idea of the Noel Studio formed. Discussions between the Writing Center Director and the then-Dean of Libraries prompted further outreach to representatives from various populations–the Department of Communication, Information Technology, Institutional Effectiveness, and the Office of the Provost. As ideas for what the space could be expanded, these representatives realized the increasing diversity of the populations and their interests would require a new physical space.

The increased diversity also increased access to resources as the English Department would no longer be responsible for the full funding (although it does still contribute to staffing). Working with the Library Advancement office, this newly formed group was able to secure funding from donors, EKU Libraries, the Provost’s office, and University Programs. Since opening in September 2010, the Noel Studio has continued to increase the population diversity–expanding the Noel Studio Advisory Committee to include representatives from additional offices, such as the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Teaching and Learning Center. Additionally, there has been an increase in population diversity among student use and faculty collaborations as we now see every college, social group, and demographic group that constitute the EKU biosphere represented in the Noel Studio ecosystem.

The distribution of population diversity, however, is still imbalanced as many groups are under-represented. While the ecosystem does include representatives from the College of Justice and Safety, for instance, they are few and far between. If we cannot increase the Justice and Safety student population in the Noel Studio, that population may die out as students graduate. As populations die out, the distribution of resources becomes less spread out and decrease the potential sources of funding. As funding decreases, the ability to support diverse populations also decreases. In this case, the ecosystem would not be able to revert to the previous situation of the Writing Center, as the resources and space have already been reallocated within the English Department. As such, the continued existence of the Noel Studio is reliant on increasing and maintaining population diversity.

Affordances and Constraints of Ecology as a Theory

More so than previous theories, ecology helped me think through the consequences of having a homogenous population of student and faculty participants in the Noel Studio. While diversity of students is typically something we think about at the staffing level and do, to a degree, look at population diversity in end-of-semester reporting, thinking about how that diversity potentially affects the growth, decline, and future of the Noel Studio forces me to re-evaluate the amount of outreach we currently do. We offer services for distance students, but we could definitely do more marketing. The colleges “across the bypass” (there is a bypass that literally divides campus) house the disciplines that we contain the Noel Studio’s lowest population of users, indicating a need for more outreach which could lead to more resources. Too often, I think, we consider the resources we have before trying to increase our population diversity rather than the resources that we can gain.

In terms of constraints, one of the frustrations of this theory was trying to think about the environment and technology as only tools that afford action. Thinking about agency as limited to the living organisms made it difficult to talk about the affordances of the technology without assigning agency to the environment. As a result, agency in this theory relies on the organism’s ability to perceive its agency. This is a gap I plan to consider in my final synthesis as it seems important to consider whether the technology can help shape the representation of ideas (as a mediator) or if it really is just reliant on what humans can perceive as capable wherein technology continues to be only a tool.

References

Carpenter, Valley, Apostel, & Napier. (2013). Studio Pedagogy: A Model for Collaboration, Innovation, and Space Design, (pp. 313-329) In Cases on higher education spaces: innovation, collaboration, and technology, (R. Carpenter, Ed.). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Carpenter, R. & Lee, S. (2013). Introduction: Navigating literacies in multimodal spaces. The Routlege reader on writing centers and new media, (xiv-xxvi). New York: Routlege.

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The theory of affordances. The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

McKinney, J. G. (2103). Peripheral visions for writing centers. Boulder, CO: Utah State University P.

Murphy, C. & Stay, B.L. (2006). The writing center director’s resource guide. New York: Routlege.

Nelson, J. & Everts, K. (2001). The Politics of Writing Centers. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann.

Norman, D. (n.d.). Affordances and design, Retreived from https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BzIskzHsjKsRN0NRRktncjBGb1U/edit

North, S. (1984). The idea of a writing center. College English, 46(5), 433-436. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/377047

Pemberton, M. (2003). The center will hold. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Spellman, F. R. (2008). Ecology for nonecologists. Lanham, MD: Government Institutes.

Syverston, M. A. (1999). Introduction: What is an ecology of composition? The wealth of reality: An ecology of composition. Carbondale: S Illinois University Press.

Ecology of a Conference

Description

For this post, I’ll be analyzing the 4Cs conference in terms of ecology and distributed cognition. My conference experience this year involved multiple settings, as the main conference was at the JW Marriott, the IWCA Collaborative was at the Hyatt Regency, and my hotel was the Hampton Inn at exit 103, about a twenty minute  drive each day (except on Friday when parking turned out to be a nightmare and I drove around the city for almost an hour).

The IWCA Collaborative at the Hyatt is a mini conference on the Wednesday of 4Cs. In addition to concurrent sessions, the collaborative also offered an opening breakfast, a luncheon, and a reception for attendees. Spaces of the conference included the large ballroom for meals, meeting rooms for sessions, a boardroom for a “quiet space,” a meeting room for space planning, and (attempted) gender-neutral bathrooms–in addition to all of the non-conference spaces surrounding the designated spaces: a food atrium downstairs, other meeting rooms being used by a STEM conference, hotel rooms, and the  offices for those working in the PNC Convention Center that is connected to the Hyatt.

4Cs at the JW Marriott was a much larger conference, encompassing a substantial portion of the hotel’s meeting spaces. Like the Collaborative, 4Cs used meeting rooms for concurrent sessions as well as the ballrooms for featured sessions and speakers. The ballrooms also served for reception spaces, registration, and book exhibits. The large halls offered spaces for digital and non-digital poster sessions and socializing. Additionally, non-designated conference spaces became part of the conference as attendees took advantage of them: Starbucks, the Velocity sports bar, and the lobby (additional spaces also served for those who stayed at the JW Marriott, such as the rooms and the fitness center).

Mapping the Distributed Cognition

Because there were so many spaces and activities, I’m going to narrow my discussion down to a simply one: attending a session. As Bateson explains, a behavior is a complete circuit that includes both the person and the environment, so I’ll begin with specific behaviors and analyze how the environment is a component of them.

By “attending” a session, I mean not only being present in the session but also all of the complexities that define someone as attendant to the events and dialogue occurring in the session. Attendees who are attendant to the sessions are engaged and gaining something as a result of being in attendance (learning something, questioning existing ideas, offering ideas that help shape the session for everyone). Session boundaries are drawn in several ways: arbitrarily by conference organizers according to the presentation titles and descriptions and physically by the walls and doors of the designated rooms for these spaces.

Conference Program: Conference attendees perceive the arbitrary boundaries through the physical (or digital) copy of the program and decide which sessions to attend based on titles and speakers. In this way, the conference program serves as what Norman labels a perceived affordance–the design of the program and descriptions allow attendees to perceive that they can attend a session. Disciplinary jargon and session titles follow cultural conventions, acting as primary indicators for the perceived affordance of attendance–that is, session attendees perceive the level to which they can be engaged in the session based on the jargon and organization of each session as described in the program. If presenters’ presentations do not match the attendees’ expectations, then their level of engagement or attendance could be reduced.

Physical Spaces: While seemingly straightforward with its traditional structure (again, cultural conventions) of chairs for attendees, chairs and tables for presenters, and technology for presenting, the session environment allows for a complex series of understanding and interaction.  Beyond the affordances of sitting, standing, and demonstrating offered by the chairs, floors, and technology in the room, the arrangement allows attendees to perceive social roles and adhere to social expectations (or not). Upon walking into a room, attendees are able to distinguish between presenters and other attendees based on their choice of seating. The facing of presenters’ seats to attendees’ seats affords conversation while distinguishing presenters as the leaders of the discussions. In this way, the structure of the room also creates perceived constraints (Norman) for attendees: the ability to engage only when allowed by presenters.

Technology: There are multiple technologies in each session room that afford the displaying and receiving of information that either engages or disengages both presenters and attendees. Laptops for both groups afford the offloading of information. For presenters, they can use their laptops to display information in such a way that they don’t forget their points or to illustrate concepts to the audience. Attendees can use their laptops (or other devices such as tablets or notepads) to take notes rather than trying to remember all of the points of the presentations and ideas they have during.
The full affordances of the technology are dependent on the users’ familiarity and comfort in using the devices. While they are likely (but not necessarily) familiar with their own devices, the technology of the room often creates constraints. For instances, if the room’s projector doesn’t connect with the presentation device, the presentation is constrained to verbal delivery. Additionally, lack of access to the Internet proved to be a constraint for many of the presenters whose presentations had been designed with Internet access in mind. Finally, the layout of the room in relation to the technology provided both affordances and constraints for full attendance. While the lights were dimmable to enable better viewing for attendees, the placement of the display screen next to the presenters’ table made it difficult for both the presenter and his or her copresenters to see the visual components.

Other People: The final component in the session environment is the people. The levels of experience and the simultaneous similarity and diversity of knowledge amongst the group affords discussions of concepts and ideas. Presenters afford attendees points for discussion that, hopefully, engage learning and growth for all of the people present. The attendees afford the presenters an opportunity for feedback and questions that challenge or expand upon their own ideas. Time constraints, however, limit presenters’ ability to fully explain their arguments, thereby also potentially limiting the discussion or attendees’ full attendance to the presentation.

Examining a conference session takes us beyond Gibson’s description of affordances to Bateson’s ecology of Mind and Norman’s perceived affordances. Perceiving that a chair affords sitting and that a presenters’ afford information doesn’t fully encompass the cognitive activities taking place. The full experience of a session is a complex integration of human and environmental factors only briefly described above. Looking at it in this way, it’s easier to understand Bateson’s point about examining a system by including all of its pathways. To separate, or cut off, one of the pathways included above would exclude a key piece of the system.

References

Bateson, G. (1987). Form, substance, and difference. Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology (pp. 454-471). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc.

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The theory of affordances. The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Norman, D. (n.d.). Affordances and design, Retreived from https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BzIskzHsjKsRN0NRRktncjBGb1U/edit


Week 10 Reading Notes: Distributed Cognition

Summary

Each of the readings for this week focused on the organism’s (human’s) relationship to its environment and the totality of the system–what Bateson calls “organism plus environment” (p. 455). In Form, substance, and difference, Bateson investigates the overlap between formal premises and actual behavior. At the foreground of this investigation is the question of survival. He begins by examining traditional approaches to the relationship, namely Darwin’s theory of evolution that posits natural selection as the primary unit of survival (p. 456. This theory, Bateson argues, leads to the destruction of environment and thus the destruction of the organism. Rather than the strongest or most unyielding of organisms, Bateson posits, a flexible organism in the environment is the unit of survival.

Crucial for understanding this position is Bateson’s conception of Mind. Discoveries of cybernetics, systems theory, and information theory have created a shift in epistemology that no longer positions mind as the explanation–instead, it is the thing that must be explained (p. 456). At the center of this explanation is the importance of difference, which Bateson identifies as synonymous with “idea” and result in “effects” (p. 458). From this perspective, it is a difference that makes a difference that serves as the elementary unit of information. We perceive differences through both internal and external pathways that help us map the environment. While other theorists have created a dichotomy between mind and substance, Bateson’s approach considers both.

An organism adapts to the environment through a transformation resulting in behaviors of trial and error that are coded and transmitted through internal and external pathways. In this sense, then, he explains that “if you want to explain or understand anything in human behavior, you are always dealing with total circuits, completed circuits. This is the elementary cybernetic thought” (p. 465). The mental system demonstrates the characteristic of trial and error and, according to Bateson, “the way to delineate the system is to draw the limiting line in such a way that you do not cut any of these pathways in ways that leave things inexplicable” (p. 465). In this way, Mind is synonymous with cybernetic system–”the relevant total information-processing trial-and-error completing unit” (p. 466). From this perspective, Mind is part of the ecosystem and Bateson argues “the individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in pathways and messages outside the body” (p. 467). Human survival, then, is the result of the mind’s ability to code and transform the body’s relationship to the environment.

This relationship is further explored by Gibson‘s theory of affordances. Gibson argues that objects in the environment afford human actions. For example, a solid, flat ground affords walking and a small rock affords throwing. He points out, however, that an object’s physical properties must be measured relative to the individual animal as an affordance of support for a species.

Throughout the chapter, Gibson explains the concept of affordances, acknowledging that other animals and humans also serve as affordances–indeed, social interactions rely on an individual’s perception (or misperception) of what another individual affords him or her. He identifies existing concepts of environment, such as an ecologist’s niche and how those correlate with his theory of affordances (a “nice is a set of affordances”). Objects can have multiple affordances, so Gibson emphasizes the importance of understanding that to perceive an affordance is not to classify an object–the potential multiplicity of affordances actually complicates the ability to classify objects. Additionally, positive and negative affordances are determined by their effects (beneficial or dangerous) rather than an individual’s level of enjoyment of the experience.

In the final reading, Norman expands Gibson’s theory of affordances to graphical design, focusing on what he calls perceived affordances: the perception that a meaningful, useful action is afforded by the design. In product design, her argues, real and perceived affordances “need not be the same.” Physical affordances exist–keyboards, computer screens, etc.–but perceived affordances determine whether or not users recognize the availability of affordances.

Norman also identifies the importance of cultural constraints and cultural conventions when designing perceived affordances. Designers must operate within the cultural understandings of how results are afforded by certain actions, even though many of those actions are arbitrary (a horizontal scroll bar, for example). He concludes by offering four principles for screen interfaces:

  1. Follow conventional usage, both in the choice of images and the allowable interactions
  2. Use words to describe the desired action
  3. Use metaphor (even though he believes this can be harmful)
  4. Follow a coherent conceptual model so that once part of the interface is learned, the same principles apply to other parts

Key Terms

Affordances: what the environment offers (provides or furnishes) to an animal; implies complimentarity of the animal and the environment (Gibson)

Attached objects: items that cannot be removed from earth without breakage (Gibson)

Barriers: environmental objects that do not afford locomotion (Gibson)

Bioenergenetics: economy of energy and materials; boundaries at the cell membrane or skin measurements; additive or subtractive (Bateson, p. 466)

Creatura: Jung’s second world of exploration–effects are brought about by difference (Bateson, p. 462)

Cultural constraintslearned conventions that are shared by a cultural group that limits design/action (Norman)

Detached objects: items that can be removed from earth without breakage (Gibson)

Economics of information: budgeting of pathways and probability; budgets are fractionating rather than additive or subtractive; boundaries enclose rather than cut off pathways

External pathways: travel of information (perceived differences) by propagation of light or sound to the sensory organs that transform it to internal pathways (Bateson, p. 459)

Internal pathways: travel of information energized by the metabolic energy latent in the protoplasm which receives, recreates, or transforms it and passes it on (Bateson, p. 459)

Mental System: the unit which shows the characteristic of trial and error (Bateson, p. 465)

Niche: a set of affordances (Gibson)

Perceived affordance: the perception that an action is possible (Norman)

Plemora: Jung’s first world of exploration–events are caused by forces and impacts; there are no distinctions or differences (Bateson, p. 462)

Principle of occluding edges: law of reversible occlusion, reliant on opaque and nonopaque surfaces. Afford hiding (Gibson)

Discussion

It seems that all three of these readings focus on the idea of totality–the survival of the ecosystem is dependent on the relationships within it. Bateson and Gibson both argue that human actions that center on the survival of humans will destroy the ecosystem. As humans manipulate and adapt the environment to make it easier for them to survive, they change the ecosystem to the detriment of the organisms within it and, eventually themselves. Although Norman is talking about graphic design, there seems to be a similar idea. We must design within the cultural constraints or conventions or the product will not be used–the system will fail.

While I didn’t fully understand all of Bateson’s concepts, I found the argument about fractionality interesting. It seems that he’s saying we cannot add to or subtract from an environment. Instead, the environment exists as is and all of the elements within it are fractions of it, including how information is coded, processed, and transmitted. Behaviors are complete systems of activity and the environment is a part of that system.

Resources

Bateson Documentary:http://anecologyofmind.com/

Ecological affordances: http://youtu.be/Ekm60F4AD3Y

Ecology of Mind Revisited: http://www.earthzine.org/2010/10/21/a-re-introduction-to-ecology-of-mind/

Don Norman’s website: http://www.jnd.org/

References

Bateson, G. (1987). Form, substance, and difference. Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology (pp. 454-471). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc.

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The theory of affordances. The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Norman, D. (n.d.). Affordances and design, Retreived from https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BzIskzHsjKsRN0NRRktncjBGb1U/edit

 


Reading Notes: Ecology & Affordance

Bateson

Bateson, G. (1987/1972). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc.

To separate the individual from the society, or the individual mind or thought from the global mind or thought, is to deny the ecological unity of creatura, of the creative self. Individuals are part of ecologies; to reduce oneself to a single ego is to deny the relationship of the individual in the larger social.

I found most interesting that ecology might be considered a way in which ideas — differences that make a difference — are transformed and remain alive beyond the individual mind. The mind is not simply an internal space. It’s an ecology that connects beyond the self, beyond the individual, to encompass history and society. Since “in the world of mind, nothing — that which is not — can be a cause” (p. ???), ecology theory suggests that binaries and dualities, like cause and effect, offer only an incomplete picture of reality. Reality consists of causes and effects, but it also consists of invisible connections made in the world of mind, connections that cannot be empirically proven as “existing” in the physical sense.

Bateson puts this another way in his “Comment on Part V”: “In sum, what has been said amounts to this: that in addition to (and always in conformity with) the familiar physical determinism which characterizes our universe, there is a mental determinism” (p. 472). The key is immanence versus transcendence. Transcendence leads to divine or transcendent agency, while immanence yields communal and networked agency within systems. And it’s this sense of networked agency that relates most directly to our understanding of network theory.

Gibson

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

There’s clearly confusion over the meaning of “affordance,” as demonstrated in this visualization headlining a blog post titled The affordances of objects and pictures of those objects on the blog Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists.

“Affordance” is defined as that which is provided or furnished, either for good or for ill. Affordances must be determined relative to the subject, not “objectively.” As a result, affordance may be a way to subvert the objective/subjective divide. Since determining affordances requires referencing the observer, a theory of affordances enables us to examine the relationships among objects and subjects in an ecology that denies dualism in favor of ecology. In short, affordances are about networks; the relationship among objects and subjects in an ecology is that of networked connections that connect nodes.

Affordance theory does not accept as valid either mind-matter or mind-body dichotomies. Instead, it recognizes the ecological connections that can’t be ignored or explained away. Like ANT, affordance theory seeks to examine connections among subjects and objects in all their complexity. In addition, a theory of affordances does not require the perceiver to “assume fixed classes of objects.” Like Foucault and ANT, affordance theory resists placing subjects and objects into fixed classifications. “The perceiving of an affordance is not a process of perceiving a value-free physical object to which meaning is somehow added in a way that no one has been able to agree upon; it is a process of perceiving a value-rich ecological object.” The affordance is perceived as ecological in nature, lacking singular or classified focus.

Norman

Norman, D. (n.d.). Affordances and design. Don Norman Designs. Retrieved from http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/affordances_and_desi.html.

Perceived affordances differ from real affordances in that perceived affordances focus on the user’s perception that a meaningful action is possible. Norman writes, “I introduced the term affordance to design in my book, ‘The Psychology of Everyday Things’…. The concept has caught on, but not always with true understanding. Part of the blame lies with me: I should have used the term ‘perceived affordance,’ for in design, we care much more about what the user perceives than what is actually true. What the designer cares about is whether the user perceives that some action is possible (or in the case of perceived non-affordances, not possible).” Perceived affordance focuses on what the user believes possible through the affordance. The actual affordance may not be relevant; the perception of affordance is much more important.

Norman differentiates between affordances and conventions. Cultural conventions are the way things are done in cultural contexts. The example offered is of scrollbars on a screen. They always work in a specific way that is culturally constructed and conventional. To go against this cultural convention is counterproductive.

Thoughts on Application

Visualization of cloud of icons

The world of mind: An ecology of web design. Visualizing the ecology of affordances and cultural conventions in web design. From KaJ Labs, a web design company.

Norman’s recommendations about designing for screen interfaces were right on target, although they also discouraged me a little in realizing how much cultural conventions affect pedagogical decisions. We often try to make changes to rapidly or two radically; in doing so, we push too hard against cultural conventions that make effective work possible. Norman’s concern about metaphor is more valid than I wish to admit; I’ve had a couple of experiences this semester trying to use metaphor to explain some pedagogical design decisions that backfired because students took the metaphor too literally and misunderstood assignments.

When it comes to web design, perceived affordances and cultural conventions work together with subjects to enable activity. Cultural conventions work as frameworks into which perceived affordances may be constructed that allow subjects to accomplish meaningful activity. We create web pages within conventional frameworks of programming languages, software, and hardware; we create those web pages with perceived affordances that enable users to accomplish tasks of browsing and finding information being sought. Our designs enter the ecology of all those perceived affordances constructed within cultural conventions — websites, blogs, multimodal projects, streaming audio and video platforms, and more.

[Feature Image: Ecology of the Mohave Desert. CC licensed image by Flickr user PNNL - Pacific Northwest National Laboratory]