09 January 2011

Online writing tools and systems: developing mental models

On Tuesday, we're kicking off another course design initiative and I'm determined to elevate the conversation by introducing the idea of  online writing tools and systems and why I think it's useful to distinguish between tools and systems. I can already hear one of my colleagues deftly and insightfully expounding on my slippery explanation, which is one of the many reasons why I love my work--we think together.

I'm not committed to either term per se, but to using language that facilitates learners developing mental models, which in turn will help them understand the technological world around them. In Norman's latest, he argued that complexity abounds, particularly in our designed environment. It can't be avoided and yet I see time and again, with my mother, myself, and others, how we dodge technological complexity. Often unconsciously, or with frustration, we turn our mental noses up and walk away.

Developing mental models, as Norman also points out, is the only way we can deal with complexity. Without the language to abstract and connect concepts, we're only able to deal with surface structures--what it does and doesn't do. I see this time and again--technology makes us feel stupid, because we don't understand it.

I have a few reasons for wanting to help faculty develop mental models, in this case, using the language of tools/systems for course design.

First, it will help them make the practical decisions they have to make, many of which are strategic as well as tactical. One way "21st teaching and learning" changes the art of teaching is by crowding out spontaneity and making obsolete "teaching the way I was taught."  Large classes and high tech systems flatten out options.

Second, with ever more free and commercial applications available, mental models are a must. You simply cannot navigate change effectively without abstracting up a few levels.

Third, faculty are smart people, and those we work with are top-notch instructors. This group is ready to take go deeper.

I'd like to facilitate a conversation in which we frame say google.docs as a tool and Pearson's MyWriting lab as a system. Again, the point is not to define each as such but to abstract and conceptualize them. Both have a lot of features, but MWL's primary functions include pre/post diagnostic tests, self-pace personalized study plans, access to online tutors and a grade book. GD is an online text editor that facilitates collaborative writing, document sharing and web-publishing. MWL, as the word "Lab" implies is an environment users step into.  GD expands on the word-processing application metaphor, adding to it the metaphor of online documents folder. GD requires more design time because there are many ways to apply it. MWL on the other hand is pretty straight forward in what you do with it, although from a course design perspective, you'd need to consider how to make it part of your syllabus. MWL is a kind of one-stop-shop for remediating writing. GD is a tool in a toolbox. I'm sure there's more.