Writing & Reflection in the (Digital) Classroom

In “Wiki as a Teaching Tool,” Kevin R. Parker and Joseph T. Chao offer an overview of the potential pedagogical uses of wikis within the classroom. The use of wikis for education, they suggest, encourages both collaborative and constructivist learning paradigms (Chao and Parker 58). Talking specifically about the benefits of collaboration, Chao and Parker contend that:

Collaborative learning becomes even more powerful when it takes place in the context of a community of practice. A community of practice consists of people engaged in collective learning in a shared domain. Thus, learning becomes a collaborative process of a group. Wikis can serve as a knowledge platform for a community of practice where members of the community can share their knowledge with the group, put up interesting pieces of information, work together, discuss issues, etc. (Chao and Parker 58)

Described in this way, the use of the wiki within the classroom allows for the students to work not only collaboratively but also within a “community of practice” (Chao and Parker 58). Within this community, each individual student is afforded the agency to participate in the cultivation of knowledge within an ongoing class.

The pedagogical benefits of such a system appear to be numerous, and lend themselves to brainstorming methods of how best to incorporate the use of wikis into the classroom. I think the benefits of wikis in the classroom stem primarily from their emphasis on the inclusion and active engagement of the entirety of a class of students. Students who might not otherwise feel the desire to speak up are given the opportunity to non-verbally offer a contribution to the growing knowledge base of the classroom. Also, students who may have been forced to miss class due to illness or personal obligations will still be able to participate within online conversations from home or elsewhere. In thinking about future classes I might teach, I am wondering whether or not it would be possible to create a wiki to be used not only by a single class, but all of the individual sections of a course being taught in a given semester (e.g. multiple sections of WRT 102 being taught simultaneously in a Fall/Spring semester). Students could be encouraged to create a growing database for the course, including digitized versions of everything from expanded class notes, glossaries, FAQs, and informal class discussion forums, to name a few possibilities. Such a structure would, I think, allow students to feel like they were active agents in the ongoing development of the course they are currently taking. For example, allowing students to curate an ongoing database of FAQs would allow the instructor to become aware of and address frequent student problems as they develop and within the same semester (as opposed to waiting until end-of-semester course evaluations/asking for informal student feedback during individual student conferences).

Referring specifically to wikis within the writing classroom, Chao and Parker suggest that wikis are useful for teaching composition in that the wiki “maximizes the advantages of reflection, reviewing, publication, and of observing cumulative written results as they unfold” (Chao and Parker 61). Wikis thus emphasize the process rather than the product of writing, allowing students to view the development of their writing while simultaneously able to communicate with other students and/or the instructor. This type of collaborative effort would lead to student reflection on their writing in terms of how it was able to evolve.

Kelly A. Parkes, Katie S. Dredger, and David Hicks—“ePortfolio as a Measure of Reflective Practice”—take up the issue of student reflection through examining the benefits of using ePortfolios within graduate teaching programs. The ePortfolio as it is used in these programs is not a simple collection of documents: an ePortfolio “goes beyond simply collecting and storing artifacts toward leveraging digital technologies’ potential to make unique linkages, connections, and reflections among multiple experiences and artifacts in ways that would not otherwise be possible with a traditional paper portfolio” (Parks, Dredger, and Hicks 101). Students are required not to simply select a representative collection of their best work, but rather to showcase the development of their learning (and emotional engagement with and attitude toward that learning) throughout the course of their time in the program. Such a reflective model of ePortfolio inclusion seems particularly useful for undergraduate students, though I do wonder about whether or not students would engage enthusiastically with a model that requires such consistent personal (and public) reflection.

Reflecting, according to the authors, is the act of “being intentionally thoughtful about defining an experience, explaining that experience, and determining future implications and actions” (Parks, Dredger, and Hicks 102). Students are thus required to select a textual (or audio, visual, etc.) artifact for inclusion in the ePortfolio insofar as it represents some aspect of their learning process. I think that this aspect of the ePortfolio is particularly important in helping students to self-assess their progress within the course. I would certainly like to learn more about how best to incorporate this level of reflection within the ePortfolio process (particularly as it relates to WRT 102).

Sources:

“Wiki as a Teaching Tool”

“ePortfolio as a Measure of Reflective Practice”

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Sharing Economies, Fanfiction, and Diana Gabaldon

In the second section of Remix, Lawrence Lessig identifies two different economies—commercial and sharing—in relation to the exchange of digital content. A commercial economy, according to Lessig, can be defined as any economy in which “money or ‘price’ is a central term of the ordinary, or normal, exchange” (Lessig 118). Most simply, any situation in which we make a purchase through paying money for goods (i.e. going to the grocery store to buy groceries) is an exchange that takes places within a commercial economy. We expect to pay some sum of money for the goods we purchase and the companies responsible for marketing these goods are satisfied that the goods are worth the amount of money they are sold for. While we may occasionally wish to pay less, we generally understand that the monetary price is reasonably forfeited to acquire something that we need. Through paying, we expect only to receive that which we’ve paid for (we do not, Lessig humorously suggests, expect the seller to consistently express a desire to be actively involved in our personal lives). Money is both definitive of the commercial economy and seen as necessary. This is precisely where the commercial economy differs fundamentally from the sharing economy: money can have no productive place in the sharing economy. In fact, Lessig goes as far as to suggest that it can be “poisonous” (Lessig 119).

In a sharing economy, “access to culture” is regulated “not by price, but by a complex set of social relations” (Lessig 145). As with the commercial economy, the sharing economy is built upon exchange—but money does not play a role in that exchange. Lessig relates the sharing economy to the realm of gift exchange, suggesting ultimately that gifts are not related to money because they do something else—something that is particularly communal. He writes:

Gifts in particular, and the sharing economy in general, are thus devices for building connections with people. They establish relationships, and draw upon those relationships. They are the glue of community, essential to certain types of relationships, even if poison to others. It is not a gift relationship that defines your employment contract with a steel mill. Nor should it be. But it is a gift relationship, or sharing economy, that defines your life with your spouse or partner. And if it isn’t, it better become so if that relationship is to last. (Lessig 148)

Sharing economies work precisely because they are motivated by connection (and not by money). Participants in a sharing economy are thus willing to participate in exchange without the promise of monetary gain because doing so permits them to participate in and strengthen a community. Money would alter—and potentially weaken, or cheapen—relationships of this nature.

Lessig also distinguishes between “me-regarding” and “thee-regarding” sharing economies (Lessig 151). In the former economy, someone participates because it benefits him or her; in the latter economy, someone participates because it will benefit others (Lessig 151). Further, “thin” sharing economies are those with a me-regarding motivation and “thick” sharing economies are those “where the motivations are at least ambiguous between me and thee motivation” (Lessig 152). Generally, Lessig suggests that a thin sharing economy is easier to sustain over time than a thick sharing economy, because “inspiring or sustaining thee motivations is not costless” (Lessig 154). Economies in which individuals are motivated primarily by their own selves and interests are inherently easier to sustain than those that are motivated by the needs or desires of others. However, in Internet sharing economies, Lessig suggests that there are circumstances in which users feel that they “owe” the community something (Lessig 155). Participants can feel like they need to offer something in order to be considered a valued member who is participating appropriately and effectively in the sharing economy.

One sharing economy that stands out to me—and that we already spent a little time in class discussing—is that of fanfiction (and participation in fandoms, more generally). In order to write fanfiction, writers work with preexisting characters and construct new narratives for them. Fans of those characters will be eager to read these narratives for many reasons (i.e. the author finished writing the series, the readers are waiting for the author to publish a new book in the series, the series and characters are just generally well-loved, etc.). Ultimately, people write (and read) fanfiction for a variety of reasons but one thing remains constant—fanfiction authors are not paid for their efforts. In this way, the text that they share can be seen as a gift to the fandom and an attempt at building an established Internet community. Participants in this community—particularly writers—may feel that they need to contribute writing in order to consistently energize the community.

While fanfiction can be found for nearly any fandom, I want to focus a bit here on Outlander fanfiction given the series author’s avowed hatred of the medium. Diana Gabaldon,

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Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander book series. 

whose Outlander series spans many books and thousands of pages, expressed disgust with fans that write fanfiction of her novels in a series of heated posts on her book blog. While these posts have since been removed by Gabaldon, they exist in various locations through fan-taken screencaps that were then transcribed into various other mediums, such as Livejournal. Gabaldon’s stance rests on her belief that fanfiction is unethical. Put bluntly, she writes: “I think it’s immoral, I _know_ it’s illegal, and it makes me want to barf whenever I’ve inadvertently encountered some of it involving my characters” (Gabaldon). While she recognizes that fanfiction authors are not achieving monetary gain through their efforts, Gabaldon’s ideas rest on copyright:

Well, see, this is where “illegal” comes in. You can’t break into somebody’s house, even if you don’t mean to steal anything. You can’t camp in someone’s backyard without permission, even if you aren’t raising a marijuana crop back there. And you can’t use someone’s copyrighted characters for your own purposes, no matter what those purposes are. Really. I’m not making it up; this is International Copyright Law. (Gabaldon)

Gabaldon sees copyright issues as pretty black and white. For her, there’s no value in fans reworking her characters for the purpose of fanfiction, and when she does encounter it she takes personal offense.

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The covers of the Outlander series. 

I see a lot of problems with Gabaldon’s stance, not least because her tone is consistently both dismissive of and blatantly aggressive toward her fans. At several moments in her blog posts she dismisses Outlander fanfiction as nothing more than poorly-written fantasy that can potentially cause her to lose all rights over her own characters. Of course, much fanfiction will necessarily not be well written, but here Gabaldon is missing the point: fanfiction writers, good and bad, are contributing to a sharing economy that has room for people of various literary skills. Fanfiction seems to be a way through which fans can communicate and form closer bonds in the interim of books being published—at which point they will purchase the author’s book, not forego it for the reading of fan fiction. Gabaldon’s posts served to alienate herself from her fans, which I’m sure was not her intention. The question then remains: is it really so bad to construct new narratives for well-loved characters?

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Also, there is now a Starz TV series of the novels–a remix–that Gabaldon has sanctioned.

Sources:

Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. 

Diana Gabaldon on Outlander fanfiction

Elves and Aesthetic Experience

I. Play As Aesthetic Experience 

Bonnie A. Nardi begins her third chapter—“Play as Aesthetic Experience”—by asking what she calls an “obvious” question: what is it about World of Warcraft that people enjoy so much (39)? Inherent in this question is the reality that numerous people willingly devote a great deal of their time and mental energy to engaging in play within a virtual world. Nardi contends that WoW’s appeal is a gaming experience that is “woven of sociality, the visual beauty of the game world, and a sense of performative mastery” (40). Players are afforded the opportunity to engage in a social playing field that is both graphically beautiful and capable of being mastered with developed skills. To flesh out these ideas, Nardi turns to activity theory as understood through the philosophical work of John Dewey.

According to Dewey, aesthetic experience is “participatory” and part of “ordinary life;” it is not, for example, merely the “passive appreciation” of visual art that occurs within the separate space of an art gallery (41). Activity theorists ultimately conceive of human activity as a dynamic hierarchy, demonstrated by the following illustration:

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The hierarchical structure of human activity. 

Activity—the highest level of the hierarchy—is driven by an object (41). A motivating object “gives shape and materiality to a subject’s needs or desires,” and these needs and desires are “transformed to specific motivating objects which are a concrete instantiation of the need or desire” (41). Actions are completed to fulfill an object, and operations are “unconscious, habitual movements underlying actions” (41). Because activity is dynamic, activity may begin at the top or bottom of the hierarchy. What is most important here is that experience—particularly aesthetic experience—can be conceived of as an activity.

Experience is subjective in that it “requires an active self or subject” and no experience is “inherently aesthetic” (43). Thus aesthetic experience, according to Dewey, can be described as

a subjective disposition toward activity. Aesthetic experience incorporates the contribution of the subject as essential—aesthetic activity can never be realized purely through the structural or formal qualities of an artifact (such as a game). To understand aesthetic experience we cannot stop at analyzing an artifact as a text, or narrative or set of functions or composition of elements, but must also undertake to examine the actual activity in which the artifact is present. (43)

Aesthetic experience thus requires a subject who has the experience and acts in relation to it. This action can be conceived of in terms of means-ends relations; that is, the activity of aesthetic experience is geared towards the process of achieving some end. However, for Dewey, aesthetic activity is “a consummation and not a cessation,” for the means to the end must “satisfy in themselves” (44). In relation to World of Warcraft, the experience of playing the game—whether through questing, running dungeons, exploring, or joining a guild—is enjoyable in itself. Players are engaged in the game through the “flow of actions” that are inherent in these activities, not merely for the accumulation of points and game experience (45). Players experience consummation when game tasks are completed not since they are merely relieved that a task is completed, but rather because they are satisfied both with the way a game experience has turned out as well as the variety of steps they took to get there.

Much of the appeal of World of Warcraft is the “structure of differentiated phases” on which the game relies (45). That is, gamers engage in a variety of in-game activities requiring the use of specific skills (i.e. quests) that lead to new and different levels. The demonstration of these skills is enjoyable for players because the action is not rote and allows for the experience of pleasure and satisfaction with one’s in-game character. This satisfaction also occurs in relation to “everyday collective activity” (47). Players of the game are able to communicate with one another through guild forums and chat functions. Ultimately, this cultivates a sense of digital community and friendship around and within the game itself (with the potential for friendships to move offline) (48). This sense of community emphasizes Dewey’s point about aesthetic experience occurring in the realm of daily life, for World of Warcraft players are able to engage with the virtual reality of the game program from within the comfort of their own homes at whatever time(s) they wish to log on.

II. A New Medium

Nardi next argues that World of Warcraft constitutes a “new digital medium” insofar as the “fusion of immersive visual experience with intense, skilled performative activity, represents a significant evolution in the history of digital culture” (52). Nardi wants to emphasize that the combination of visual game appeal and performance results in an “intoxicating” game experience, for players are required to perform—or, complete activities that demand “conscious attentiveness and skill”—in a visually appealing virtual reality (53-4). The game can be likened to real-life activities that are visual performative (i.e. dance clubs, costumed stage plays), but WoW stands out because it allows users to “attain skilled performance in artistically designed spaces entered through an ordinary computer” (54). For WoW players, achieving a high level of performance is considered to be integral to the experience of game play.

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An example of the beautifully rendered playing field of World of Warcraft.

Nardi looks in detail at WoW raiding to demonstrate the importance of in-game performance. Players who participate in raids with their guilds must hone their skills for the good of the group, as one player who lacks in ability can ultimately endanger their other guild members. However, mastering in-game skills permits the player to feel a “doubled” sense of agency: “the player experiences a freedom of movement and sense of authority and mastery within the game, alongside a sense of empowerment through their skill in mastering the technology” (57). Not only does the user’s avatar manifest success through the accumulation of gear and leveling-up, but also the user behind the avatar can experience a sense of accomplishment through mastering the technological skills necessary to do so.

Next, Nardi considers World of Warcraft as a “digital entity encoded in rules” (61). As a “software artifact,” the game itself contains rules with which users necessarily need to contend (61). As the rules are encoded within the “black box” of the software itself, players cannot interact with human agents in relation to the rules (as one can, for example, in sports that utilize referees or umpires) (61-2). Therefore, the “design of the game itself” is of significant importance in relation to game play (62). Users could influence the software through in-game conversation that prompted software changes (i.e. expansion packs) as well as through mods. Through ‘The Burning Crusade’ expansion, for example,  players were encouraged to improve their skills to perform well and see new content—to “engage the visual-performative medium” (65). These software changes ultimately, however, changed guild dynamics significantly (suggesting the extent to which the software itself can influence the realm of the game). The “rules encoded in digital technology” ultimately have direct influence on the culture of game play (67).

In Nardi’s own words:

The design of a software artifact dominates experience while not completely determining it. This asymmetry of player and software shapings is desirable when good design is encapsulated in digital rules with their capacity to reliably reproduce experience. In the case of video games, invariant execution of rules constitutes a resource for preserving and propagating vision and artistic imagination. World of Warcraft, whose software encoded elegant artwork, clever game mechanics, and support for specific forms of social activity, gave rise to play experience that found appeal to millions of people from diverse national, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. I suggest that we examine outcomes of rules as situated in particular artifacts rather than as a monolithic category, conceiving rules of well-designed software artifacts as neither inflexibly totalizing nor calling out for user remedy but as nurturing, protective, caring. (76)

The intricately designed software that characterizes World of Warcraft is also compared to Second Life. In this gaming realm, according to Nardi, the “philosophy of emancipation” that permits users to create their own content has ultimately led to an emphasis on sex and shopping (77). While Nardi does not condemn these interests, she says that such an emphasis creates a limited realm of interest and experience within Second Life. Visually, the virtual world of Second Life is likened to a “junk heap” (78).

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A landscape from Second Life. Nardi would characterize this visual field as “junk” because there does not seem to be an abiding level of coherence between the elements of design.

Such a comparison is made primarily because Second Life tends to present virtual areas that are not necessarily as well organized as those found in World of Warcraft. Nardi does not see much coherence in the ways that worlds are designed; that is, there is nothing to stop users from creating a world in which modern and medieval architecture exist–perhaps garishly–side by side.  Ultimately, then, Nardi makes the argument that gaming rules are ultimately good for the game, for digital rules “provide a special kind of resource with which good design can be preserved and protected through encapsulation in the black box” (79). Further, rules can “nurture by providing a safe haven for cultural objects of integrity and excellence” (79). Player designed modifications can thus take something away from the integrity of the game. User participation in relation to game design might, Nardi thinks, be worth steering away from.

Even if players do not directly contribute to game design, they participate in the designed game as they would in a theater production: “Players not only interpreted visual elements; their actions altered the visual world—unlike other visual media such as television or film” (90). Gamers’ relationship to WoW is always significantly more active than that with forms of media that require one to simply passively watch and absorb visual entertainment. The visual realm of WoW both allows players to “gaze appreciatively at their surroundings” and “invite[s] players to participatory activity” (92). That is, World of Warcraft players are not only entertained by beautiful graphics, they get to virtually move and act within this well-designed world.

III. Work, Play, and the Magic Circle

Nardi ends this section of her book by analyzing World of Warcraft as a form of play that can occasionally come to be considered possessing some of the qualities of work. Generally, WoW players engage in the virtual world as a break from their workplace or school; however, gameplay also took on work-like qualities under certain circumstances. Elements of work enter in two ways: either play may “manifest seriousness and dedication” that is regarded as work or play may “demand obligatory actions” necessary for larger aspects of game play (102). That is, players can feel that playing for their guild is a responsibility akin to work or the rote actions (i.e. ‘farming’) in gameplay can become more of a work-like task.

Regardless, it is still possible to conceive of play within WoW as occurring within a “magic circle,” or a “protected space defended against encroachments of everyday life such as work, school, and domestic duties” (94). Ultimately, gaming has the possibility to become a type community-based space in which people can take a break from their responsibilities and engage in the very different realm of the game. This can be both relaxing and extremely enjoyable for game players. Because this space is so enjoyable, Nardi notes that players tend to accept as necessary the aspects of the game that can sometimes resemble work more than anything else.

Overall, the experience of gameplay is so rewarding precisely because it offers players opportunities that they generally aren’t offered in work and school (both in terms of engagement with mythical worlds and the ability to exercise freedom in determining which raids to participate in and on what schedule) (100).

According to Nardi, play can be characterized in the following ways, with the last four points being most specific to virtual game play such as WoW (103):

  1. A Subjective experience of freedom

  2. An absence of social obligation and physical necessity

  3. A subjective experience that is absorbing, compelling, or pleasurable

  4. Occurrence in a separate realm sometimes referred to as the magic circle

  5. Activation through cognitive and/or physical skill

  6. Contingency

  7. Rules

  8. Opportunities for limited perfection

Players are able to engage beyond real life and pursue active aesthetic experience through their immersion in game play.

Every player, however, has had the experience of people who do not understand their fascination with the game:

From outside the magic circle, we see a person staring at a computer screen, perhaps clicking furiously. The enticements of the game are invisible. Within the magic circle, it’s a different story. A player is developing a character, interacting with guidelines, descending into difficult dungeons, exploring new landscapes, watching the (virtual) starry night sky. (116)

What this misunderstanding does in create a sense of “being ‘apart together'” within the realm of the game (116). Players who enjoy the game do not need to explain their reasons for liking it with others who also play; thus it is very easy for a sense of online community to form. Levels of in-game social coherence form such that players can grow to be aware of the culture of the game and understand how and why certain things occur. Within the magic circle, a social order can be created in the following ways: “through knowledge about structures and activities that occur inside its enclosure; in specialized discourse; and in designated spaces of play that mark and confine it” (117). Through shared knowledge of the game, players can effectively create a shared community within a virtual world.

Discussion Questions

  1. If we are to consider WoW an active aesthetic experience, what other types of games can apply to this category? Can we, for example, consider something like Second Life as offering the same level of aesthetic experience? Are the graphics as awful as Nardi suggests?
  2. Is World of Warcraft a game that can be adopted for educational purposes, and if so, how? (I ask this very general question in part because Nardi makes an offhand comment at one point that children should not be allowed to play the game.)
  3. What makes World of Warcraft a particularly appealing medium in terms of participation? Would the game be as appealing if there were less opportunities for joining guilds?
  4. At what point does WoW (or other similar platforms) become work? Can we say the same thing about about digital media platforms (i.e. blogging, Facebook, etc.)?
  5. How can we conceive of relations between the inside/outside of the magic circle? How easy is it for new players to join and feel accepted by an online community such as WoW?

 

Source:

Bonnie A. Nardi. My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft