Thursday, November 17, 2005

Closing thoughts about OWC

As I close my comments this week about the usefulness of metaphors and conceptual models for online writing centers, I want to say that if nothing else, brainstorming metaphors for online tutoring is a fun, creative way to think productively about how students can receive tutoring online. Even if a metaphor doesn't make it to the final web design, it's a great first place to start drafting designs and ideas.

But, if you are serious about going through this process, I would recommend that you follow steps outlined by Jeffrey Rubin on the use of conceptual models. (See Rubin, Jeff. "Conceptual Design: Cornerstone of Usability." Technical Communication 43.2 (1996): 130- 138.) Here are the steps I think are most pertinent to designing online writing centers:

1. Analyze your audience. Get information about who your potential online clients would be: traditional students? non-traditional students? commuters? resident students? undergrad or grads? tech-savvy? non-native speakers of English? Gather as much information as possible about your pool of students that might use your OWC. This step is absolutely critical, for you could come up with a great design that doesn't make sense at all to your target users.

2. Identify your technological capabilites. Ask what kind of technology supports your online writing center (Web? Email? Database?). Write down what kind of technological support you have in terms of web site design, maintenance, and troubleshooting. After doing this homework, with questions 1 and 2, you'll have a better idea of what metaphors might work best with your audience and technology capabilities.

3. Brainstorm metaphors that might describe how your writing center works, or how you’d like it to work. Example: “My online writing center works like telephone conference. Students can dial in and chat synchronously with a tutor online during open tutoring hours.” Brainstorm as many metaphors as possible in a 5 minute period.

4. Pick one metaphor you brainstormed that you’d like to develop that seems most promising.
5. Draw a “paper prototype,” or a simple sketch, of the critical web page(s) of your site that would relate best to your selected metaphor. Take a piece of 81/2 x 11 inch paper, draw a screen, and then sketch out visuals or links that might appear on that web page. You might narrow this exercise to just one web page of your online writing center site. For instance you might pick your home page, or a page just beyond the home page that goes into more depth about your online writing center service. On your sketch, draw buttons, lines, or images where users can “click.” Use visuals and words to guide your users.

6. Give your paper prototype to another person to examine. Ask them to walk through the sketch much as they would on screen (ask them literally to point to or press the links you've drawn).

Going through these exercises can really stimulate your ideas for an online writing center. If you do this exercise with your entire staff, you could generate a lot of ideas and even come to an agreement about which one is best or deserves further exploration and development. It's productive, fun, and guarantees that you will carefully think through your students' experience online.

Well, I hope these have been useful thoughts and ideas about online writing center design. It's been fun to blog here. Good bye!

Lee-Ann Kastman Breuch

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