Thursday, November 17, 2005


So in this post I'm going to talk about another idea for a conceptual model that emerged from the IWCA workshop I gave in November about designing online writing centers.

One of the participants came up with the idea of ROCKCLIMBING as a metaphor for an online tutorial. She explained that writing and rockclimbing had much in common, and that it would be fitting for tutoring as well. For example, she said that when you rockclimb, you have a guide who is with you every step of the way, offering help when needed. However, the guide can't climb the rock for you--(much like writing, you have to do the writing yourself). She added that, like rockclimbing, writing is risky to a lot of people--it takes them out of their comfort zone. It stretches them, requires concentration and hard work, and discipline. Like rockclimbing, writing also requires that you set goals and reach for them. I thought rockclimbing was a beautiful metaphor not only for writing but for writing tutors/consultants. I'm sorry that I can't recall the name of the participant who offered the suggestion, but I know she is from the southwest. Anyway, it's a great metaphor. What's also nice about it is that you don't need to be a rockclimber to understand the metaphor; however, in her particular case, the rockclimbing metaphor would be especially useful since there probably are more rockclimbers in the southwest.

Now, how would this metaphor fit for an online writing center? You see, the importance of a metaphor for online design is that it helps people understand what actions might occur, and how those actions manifest in online spaces. In the case of the rockclimbing metaphor, we might explain the connections between rockclimbing and writing in a small paragraph (much like I did above). This explanation might help students understand that they need to submit their own writing online (a tutor won't write for them); they might expect to get paired with an online tutor who would be their "guide"; they might expect this tutor to point out problem areas in their writing and offer suggestions for further revision.

Then, we might select certain key words from that description to pull out for functions of the web site. These key words could serve as links or visuals to guide the user's online experience. For example, I could imagine tabs or links that say "step 1" and "step 2" with a picture of a rock step in the background. Actually you could have a rock mountain in the background, with links at various points around the moutain outline (not necessarily linear!). You could use the word "guide" to designate the tutor, and have a tab or link that said "guide"; you could also have a link that said "troublespots" with information about common writing "pitfalls" to avoid (handouts on usage, mechanics, grammar, process, revision, etc.).

It's really fun to think about the possibilities, and what's so useful about a metaphor/conceptual model is that it pulls the whole online experience together. Users "climb" into a world and the metaphor/conceptual model helps them understand how to navigate in that online space.

Here ends my example of the rockclimbing metaphor. In the next post I'll offer some closing thoughts about metaphors and conceptual models for online writing center design.



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At 1:23 AM, Anonymous Lance said...

great metaphor. it sure fits all writers.

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At 3:14 PM, Blogger Ryan A. Harris said...

Pretty good post, I really like the rockclimbing metaphor. I can completely understand. I have been (for months) trying to build an authority site around the writing of research papers. This is a little different than a traditional writing lab, like OWL, but the metaphor is appropriate. gaining buy in from visitors, and building a community is not an easy task at all! Thanks for the great post. I'm your newest fan! - Ryan

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