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Composition in the Freeware Age:
Assessing the Impact and Value of the Web 2.0 Movement in the Teaching of Writing

 

Introduction

 

Web 2.0 technologies have clearly taken hold of early twenty-first century culture. Twitter, FaceBook, MySpace, blogs, and wikis, among other new and emerging sites, tools, and technologies, have become -- or are slated to become -- household words. Higher education, including the teaching and learning of college composition, has been strongly affected by these changes in our technological landscape. In this special issue, we address how these technologies are shaping our teaching and our students' learning.

 

Although we would argue that the impact of Web 2.0 technologies on the teaching and learning of writing is difficult to understate, disagreement about its importance has existed nearly as long as the term itself. In 2005, O'Reilly noted concerns about both the term itself and the likelihood that it would continue to exist as a term of art. Today, in 2009, it would seem that the term has gained its legs. References to "Web 2.0" stand  at close to 100 million in Google and approaches 50,000 in Google Scholar.

 

The main features of the Web 2.0 movement and Web 2.0 technologies, according to Tim O'Reilly and others (Downes, 2005; Graham, 2005; Addison, 2006; Alexander, 2006; Thomas, 2006), include the use of the Web rather than the personal computer as the main platform for work. As such, Web 2.0 has shifted the focus from working locally to working in a networked setting, in which the Web is seen as a social, collaborative, and collective space. Other features consist of viewing the interaction of humans, software, and machines on the Web as an intelligence and information source, resulting in new forms of organization, such as folksonomies or tag clouds; treating Web users as co-developers; and recognizing the influence of the Web on software applications as services rather than products, including innovative re-implementations and combinations of software applications designed to enhance users’ experiences. The Web 2.0 movement focuses on users, connections among users, devices beyond the personal computer, and uses beyond the individual workstation. Because of the iterative, collaborative, unfinished-but-always-updatable nature of writing now evident on the Web and in software development, especially with regard to open access materials and open source environments, these concepts have direct implications for composition teaching.

 

One development of Web 2.0 of particular interest to those in composition studies is the "free software" or "freeware" movement (O'Reilly, 2005, p. 10).  Freeware, by definition, is software, often open source, available for use at no cost and for an unlimited amount of time. Freeware applications not only present opportunities for composition teachers and students to participate in Web 2.0 culture, but they also allow for experimentation with a wide range of writing tools without the costs of software licensure agreements that often place a heavy burden on composition programs and institutions. Instead, the Web 2.0 movement leverages institutional resources for the community of Web users, and this influence ranges from supporting listservs, to providing access to resources, such as online writing labs and wikis, to remaking commercial software applications into freeware and shareware forms.

 

In the spirit of open source, freeware, collaboration, and other new forms of distributed, iterative writing, this special issue examines theoretical, practical and pedagogical issues in the use of Web 2.0 technologies in the teaching of writing. Also in the spirit of the technological movement, this issue offers three texts in their original Web 2.0 form. We believe readers will find that the texts in this issue—individually and collectively—project the impact of the Web 2.0 movement on the composition community, highlight useful implementations of Web 2.0 technologies, and consider the Web 2.0 movement as a direction for thinking about the locus of our work in composition studies.

 

Theory into Practice

 

Most writing teachers using Web 2.0 with their classes celebrate its potential for collaboration through online writing that is both participatory and community-oriented. In "Putting 2.0 and Two Together: What Web 2.0 Can Teach Composition About Collaborative Learning," Chris Gerben examines Facebook as a case study for Web 2.0 collaboration through social networking, showing how social networking sites blur the distinctions "between author and editor, and producer, and consumer" of texts.  Our students may not think of themselves as writers or authors in these spaces, but they readily share data in the form of texts about themselves, and work with others to create new textual configurations online. To help our students make worthwhile connections between socially networked writing and academic and civic writing, according to Gerben, we need to ask them to recognize the value of their social networking activities and invite them "to teach us how this new technology can support collaborative composition."

 

From the early days of the Internet, proponents of networked communication have listed among its chief benefits a kind of participatory democracy through the combined voices of “netizens.” To explore contradictions and possibilities of this supposed "democratizing" potential of the participatory Web, in "Remediating Democracy: Irreverent Composition and the Vernacular Rhetorics of Web 2.0," Erin Dietel-McLaughlin uses the example of the 2007 CNN-YouTube debates to show how "irreverence" works as a "rhetorical trope that challenges official discourses that attempt to colonize Web 2.0 spaces. Her example demonstrates how the vernacular rhetoric of a vocal grassroots community can both subvert and be co-opted by larger institutional gatekeeping forces such as CNN, creating a tension between the "'vernacular’ and 'official' voices of politics" in the virtual agora of online social networking spaces.  Dietel-McLaughlin then makes the move to pedagogy in suggesting that teachers of writing offer students "opportunities to experiment with irreverence as a composition strategy" by constructing knowledge and political commentary through such activities as appropriation, remediation, and remix in composing "vernacular rhetorics in new media formats."

 

As the Web 1.0 datascape slowly shifts toward Web 2.0 applications and functionalities, users demand more and more control over their information and communication environments, and more and more access to previously “off-limits” proprietary information.  In "Hacker Ethics & Firefox Extensions: Writing and Teaching the ‘Grey’ Areas of Web 2.0," Brian Ballentine traces the transformation of “hacking” from an antisocial act to a skill that is becoming both an ethical stance and a strategy of engagement for writers. Once the province of an elite class of computer “geeks,” hacking has taken on new meanings in recent years; meanings ranging from damaging and unproductive “black hat” hacking to the constructive and community knowledge-building “white hat” hacking of the open source movement. Through examples of his student writers’ “white hat” hacking using tools such as Web Developer and Greasemonkey, Ballentine shows us how composition classes in the Web 2.0 world must challenge our traditional notions of plagiarism and ownership, leading to an expanded ethical vision of what it means to be a writer in an increasingly open source environment.

 

Virtual Classroom

 

Intrigued with the possibilities of collaboration in Web 2.0 environments, more and more teachers of writing need to know which applications might be easy enough for students to use, yet will produce constructive results.  Indeed, many have been intrigued by the iterative and distributed collaborative opportunities found in wikis, with their ability to track a history of revision. In "Collaborative Convergences in Research and Pedagogy: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Teaching Writing with Wikis," Janice Fernheimer, Dean Nieusma, Lei Chi, Lupita Montoya, Thomas Kujala, and Andrew La Padula address this need by showing "how wikis might be used to foster collaborative writing across the disciplines … to enable students to produce high quality essays." This team of researchers incorporated wiki-aided writing projects into two advanced level engineering courses, and "investigated how wikis might be used to create … 'deep collaboration' among writers working on multi-authored projects."  Their article—offered in pdf form and as an active webtext—examines the students’ wiki-based collaborative process through an exploration of methods, case studies, instructor assessments, and reflections, revealing new challenges and opportunities for writing in the Web 2.0 classroom.

 

Digital communication specialists have long recommended that practitioners (teachers and students alike) interrogate the technologies with which they interact. In the writing classroom, some teachers have effectively asked students to both compose with Web 2.0 technologies as well as critically examine the same technologies. Through her article, "Web 2.0 and Literate Practices," one such teacher, Erin Karper, provides a detailed account of her students’ struggle to integrate practice and analysis in a class called "Community and Collaboration on the Web.”"Telling the story of her students’ progress in the class, from composing digital literacy narratives to engaging in and analyzing Web 2.0 spaces, Karper engages theoretical approaches ranging from Burkean identification to Prensky’s "digital native/digital immigrant" distinction to discuss their literate practices in both buying into and resisting the participatory Web. In the process, she comes to question assumptions, including her own, about both the readiness of our students to write themselves into such environments, as well as the relative value of Web 2.0 activities that cast students as both producers and consumers for writing classes.

 

While Karper-s students investigate a wide range of Web 2.0 technologies, the students in John Benson and Jessica Reyman’s study, "Learning to Write Publicly: Promises and Pitfalls of Using Weblogs in the Composition Classroom" focus on just one application, the weblog or blog, to enrich and diversify their network literacy and their engagement with both the class and the wider public. Reporting on students who have participated in required class blogs in four composition classes, Benson and Reyman discuss network literacy as it relates to four main objectives of writing classes: audience awareness, genre awareness, social engagement, and critical thinking with the goal of identifying and addressing "the implications of using class blogging to facilitate a more complex view of writing in a networked environment."  In so doing, they look at both the pitfalls and the promises of Web 2.0 writing as a means of discovering "best practices for using blogs as a pedagogical method for developing students network literacy." Benson and Reyman’s article is another offered as a pdf document and was originally an active webtext.

 

Professional Development

In the quest for “progress,” the search for newer and fancier applications common to the frontiers of Web 2.0 literacy, teachers sometimes neglect a growing segment of the student population: the differently abled.  But a glance at the history of computing shows us that digital technology has often been at the forefront in providing alternative ways for people with disabilities to communicate and access information. What’s more, current laws and standards, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, mandate that alternative means of access be provided to all users, especially students.  In "Accessible Podcasting: College Students on the Margins in the New Media Classroom," Sean Zdenek "explores the intersection of disability and new media through the … lens of podcasting" in order to challenge current "ableist" assumptions that underlie the race to embrace the newest and coolest Web 2.0 applications. By interrogating the notion of "on the fly" podcasting, a conception that ignores the bodies and needs of many of our students, Zdenek demonstrates ways in which teachers need to pay attention to issues of alternative accommodation and inclusion in their classes. He concludes by recommending the principle of “start[ing] with the body” to ground our practice on "a deep awareness of the body and bodily difference," and suggests that we use existing software applications to reach the widest range of students. Zdenek’s article is also offered as a pdf document and as an active webtext.

What kinds of academic programs can Web 2.0 writing flourish in?  Because of the vast amounts of time and money they spend on research and development, many would assume that large Research I universities would provide the best homes for cutting-edge networked writing. Christine Tulley in "Taking a Traditional Composition Program ‘Multimodal:’ Web 2.0 and Institutional Change at a Small Liberal Arts Institution" challenges this assumption by showing how, unlike top-heavy and change-resistant research universities, the philosophy, organization, and environment of the traditional liberal arts college (LAC) fosters the development and growth of multimodal composition and pedagogy. Tulley examines the match between Web 2.0 writing and the LAC by showing the how multimodal composition meets at least three core LAC objectives: it makes use of all available tools to make knowledge; it is supported by a stable faculty across a variety of disciplines; and it thrives on close faculty-student relationships to provide “unique solutions to logistical issues of implementation.” She concludes by outlining some of the successes and challenges of implementing multimodal composition at her school.

 

Reviews of Web 2.0 Applications

 

We include several reviews of Web 2.0 applications in this issue and would like to thank our colleagues who contributed these reviews: Kevin Hodur, Ethan Jordan, Richard Rabil, Casey Rudkin, Marc Santos, Dana Driscoll, David Ramsey, and Joshua Welsh. We also want to offer special thanks to Anna Haney-Withrow, Karen Schubert, and Christopher Foree, as well as C&C Online staff Joe Erickson and Kris Blair for their editorial assistance.

 

 —Michael Day, Randall McClure, and Mike Palmquist, guest editors

 

 

References

 

Addison, Chris. (2006). Web 2.0: a new chapter in development in practice? Development in Practice, 16, 6, 623-627.

Alexander, Bryan. (2006). Web 2.0: A new wave of innovation for teaching and learning? Educause Review, 41, 2, 33-44.

Downes, Stephen. (2005). E-Learning 2.0. eLearn Magazine, 10, 1-7.

Graham, Paul. (2005). Web 2.0. Retrieved February 10, 2007 from http://www.paulgraham.com/web20.html.

O’Reilly, Tim. (2005). What is Web 2.0: Design patterns and business models for the next generation of software. O’Reilly. Retrieved January 4, 2007 from O’Reilly Network. Website: http://www.oreillynet.com/lpt/a/6228.

Thomas, Steve. (2006). Web 2.0, library 2.0 and the future for library systems. Online presentation. The University of Adelaide Digital Library (Aus). Website:

     http://digital.library.adelaide.edu.au/dspace/bitstream/2440/14789/1/Web2.0.pdf. 

 

Note: The “Web 2.0” image is used under a creative commons license available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Web_2.0_Map.svg.