Usable Pedagogies and Open Source

Posted: June 4, 2010 in Uncategorized
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Stephanie Schnieder wrote Usable Pedagogies: Usability, Rhetoric, and Sociocultural Pedagogy in the Technical Writing Classroom, which seems in theme with the last couple entries. So I’ll start there.

The article  is essentially about how usability can support a sociocultural pedagogy. It presents ways in which usability can help with technical writing. Specifically, it suggests that “usability theory not only encourages us to look at the social and polical aspects of technical documentation and information design but also provides a pedagical frame ‘specific to the field'” (448). The more usable something is, the easier it is to teach. Students are users, after all.

“User centered design is the idea that the best product-design principles are those that support user needs and expectations” (449). It’s not difficult to adapt what this is saying to the classroom. The better courses, lessons, and assignments are the ones that best help students learn.

Instead of Quesenbery’s five E’s of usability (Effective, Efficient, Engaging, Error Tolerant, Easy to Learn), Schneider points to Jakob Nielsen’s five elements of usability: Learnability, Efficiency, Memorability, Errors, and Satisfaction (449); not difficult to see that both sets have a lot in common. The point is, following these guidelines should make it easier to teach and more effective to do so.

Schneider tells us that “user-centered design delivers products that are more efficient and pleasant to use … user-centered design principles also have been at the forefront in the design of products and artifacts that meet the needs of the differently abled” (451). Accessability is a big deal, and one of the main focii for user-centered design. Schneider is suggesting that the same should be true of our classrooms. We should teach towards the differently abled as best we can, to try to make sure they get the same education everyone else does.

Much of the remainder of the paper is an examination of how applying these theories has worked in the past. Turns out, this sort of thing (ie, user-centered design) transfers over to the technical writing classroom pretty well, Schneider tells us. He writes that “Topics such as file naming, file formatting, and attachment and file distribution emerge as important elements in the creation and management of usable technical documents” (464). So usability comes up a lot, in a lot of important aspects of technical writing.

But it’s more than that. Schneider writes that “Readers as users transforms the role and force of technical documents at the time time that technical documents transform the roles and forces of readers as users … the user actively transforms technical documents through use and thereby has the potential to effect the entire work” (465). By applying the ideas of usability, technical writers will change where they’re focused. For example, they may write the instructions aimed towards the USER rather than towards the engineer or the factory worker making sure all the parts are in place. When it comes to teaching, the more focused on the user a technical writer gets, the easier it is for him to be clear. And, as Bernadette Longo writes, “Good technical writing is so clear that it is invisible” (Spurious Coin, 1).

Jumping topics only very slightly, I want to look at Open Source and Academia by Laurie Taylor and Brendan Riley. The open source movement is basically a movement promoting constant improvement. As they quote Eric Raymond (2001), “open-source software [is] the process of systematically harnessing open development and decentralized peer review to lower costs and improve software quality” (1). It’s the idea that even after released, software can be altered and improved by its users. Not only is it user centered, it’s actually user-iterized.

And it can work for teaching. Taylor and Riley say that “Open Source provides a pedagogical method precisely beause its method emphasizes composition and collaboration” (1). Since Open Source focuses on constant revision, it parallels with the writing process very nicely. So much so that “Many scholars and programmers have noted that the Open Source development model parallels the academic research model” (2). In other words, we (academics) already do it. It’s pretty much how we work.

That doesn’t mean that we’ve just found a new name for it though. They point out that this method “focuses on production and distribution, asking students to use peer review and parallel development as well as open publication and revision models” (2). So, more or less, this method creates documents that live forever. They produce, they publish, but the document remains open for update, fixing, etc.

This does lead to possible plagiarism issues, which Taylor and Riley acknowledge and address. But I’ll get to that. First, they argue why we should adopt such a pedagogy and why we should consider collaboratively authored works. The reason to do this is that, “most academic citation methods serve to further re-inscribe outdated notions of individual authorship even for collaboratively authored work” (4). We see this all the time whenever a citation ends with ‘et al’; one person is essentially getting credit for the whole group’s work. But even leaving that aside, when there is only one author, the contributions of others are still ignored. If I publish a paper on my own, it will have my name on it. But not the names of the friends and colleagues I bounce ideas off of, nor the people who comment on my drafts and help me tighten the argument. We all put the paper together, yet somehow the world sees it as authored by one person.

It’s more than just open access to work, by the way. “it also depends on collaboration, peer review, and the evolution of the work” (6), bringing in the group of writers together into a collective, which happens to be one of the ways they address plagiarism. This model “emphasizes the value of writing, in turn emphasizing the wrongs of plagiarism and the need for proper citation” (7). What it does is address many of the ‘accidental’ methods of placiarism. Taylor and Riley say that “Open Source provides a model and, with it, provides a way to foreground the nuances between collaboration, plagiarism, and citation–large issues in composition classrooms” (9). This method draws attention to this very difficult area, and will allow teachers to address those issues.

More importantly, it creates the kind of ‘gift culture’ that citation affords academics. Which is in and of itself valuable because “Giving students a schema that recognizes the value of words reasserts the important of citation. Thus, students come to see why plagiarism is damaging” (10); they see that stealing someone else’s work is really depriving that person of value, and may also see how getting caught for such a thing might destroy their own value in the community.

And it should be a community. “Writing classes require a community atmosphere that is open for student discussion and that allows for students to critique each other without seeming overly critical” (10). This community makes it more comfortable for the students, which, in my experience, makes it easier for them to learn. This sort of thing makes the entire class more effective.

All in all, we see two major gains for academia from the Open Source project: “it highlights the value of Open Content as a publication and distribution model” and “…it provides a model for a new way to produce scholarly work–one which few have explored in the composition classroom” (14, italics in original). Basically, it provides not only ways to show that plagiarism is wrong and give the students a vested interest in learning to avoid it, it also presents whole new ideas for how to write, different processes and methods, which is interesting in and of itself.

  1. Brendan says:

    Thanks for the nice summary. Have you tried Open Source pedagogy in your classes yet?


  2. cogitas says:

    I have tried versions of it, particularly in the methods for peer review, and they’ve been very effective. But lately, I’ve been teaching less basic writing and more advanced technical writing. However, I do suggest the use of programs like Google Docs to my students, allowing them to continually edit and develop their work through the semester.

    I’d like to use more of it, and will as the opportunity arrives. I really do believe it can work wonders for the learning environment.

  3. Brendan says:

    Of course, technical writing is already kind-of open source, as it’s usually stripped of byline and often pieced together from different writers, eh?

  4. cogitas says:

    Well, no. That’s not the same thing. An uncredited author is the same as open source. While it’s true that in many corporate sessions, there end up being a lot of people writing the same piece (like, for example, a community action report), that doesn’t make it open; when it’s published, it is unchangeable.

    Open source is something that can be edited, improved upon, and changed by anyone at any time. Or by a subset of ‘anyone’ determined ahead of time. Most wiki’s are Open Source. But a technical manual, like DVD instructions or the ‘help’ files in MS Word are NOT open source, even though there is no byline and even though much of the work is pulled together from other sources.


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