Notes: Of Avatars & Memoirs
Collaborative Writing & Community-Building with Computers
Gail Matthews-DeNatale, Epiphany Project Consultant
I. Warm-Up Exercise: Collaboratively Writing an Associative Web
Warm-Up Exercise Web Topic: Childhood Games
All good web sites begin with a storyboard like this in which designers begin with a topic, then ask open-ended questions about that topic, using their associations to construct a web that is both navigable and interesting. Storyboards can be composed on paper, like this paper web, on a white board, or with specialized software such as StorySpace, FrontPage, etc.
If this were an actual classroom project: Students who placed their stories on the same diagrammatic branch form natural "communities of interest" or "related link" workgroups. These groups could be asked to collaborate with one another by reading their work aloud to their group, interviewing each other about the stories to identify fruitful avenues for elaboration and clarification, serving as peer editors who respond to revisions, and working as a group to collaboratively write the second-level page text that will contain links to their individual story web pages The whole class can collaborate on writing the top (or home) page for the site.
II. Larger Questions
When the Web first became popular many were jazzed by the images and colors, technology and mystique. Now that were settling in and looking around we see that, in and of itself, the Webs no magic bullet. New central questions emerge, such as "How can we humanize this space to encourage reflective conversations and vivid storytelling?" and "How can we harness the associative processes that are inherent to hypertext authoring using technology as a catalyst for learning that is as generative as it is ongoing?
Answers to these questions are still in the making (and, thankfully, probably always will be), but one of the key precursors to collaborative computer-mediated learning is finding a topic to write about and discuss that is simultaneously universal and connected to the unique prior experiences of each student. Herein lies the beauty of a genre that folklorists call "personal experience story cycles," or thematically-related life story narratives.
Given this complex environment, The Urban Alternative is dedicated to the following beliefs:
The Experience: For "Keepsakes and Dreams" we worked with a drop-in ESL class that met two times a week in the community. Gail Matthews-DeNatale and graduate assistant Melanie Rios began by simply attending the class for several weeks, helping people with their work and getting to know the regular participants. After a month, Matthews-DeNatale brought in a range of sample community-based projects: small exhibit panels, documentary photographs, collections of community writings, etc. The class discussed whether or not they wanted to do a documentary project and, if so, what kind of project they would like to do. Other important questions were also addressed, such as with whom they would share the product (in-class only, neighbors, people outside the neighborhood), and whether or not they would try to sell the product or give it away for free.
In instances when the class did not have clear consensus, like-minded discussion groups were formed and these groups developed persuasive presentations that they made to the other class members. After several sessions of discussion and negotiation, the class decided that they wanted to make a booklet, they wanted to learn how to enter their stories into a computer, and they wanted to share their work freely with neighbors and interested persons outside the neighborhood.
Participants were asked to write stories in response to the following three questions:
Because the participants had limited English proficiency, the passages that they wrote were often very brief. To help the authors practice spoken English and add more detail to their stories, participants used these first drafts as starting points for audiotaped interviews. Afterwards, the interviews were transcribed and participants reviewed the written transcripts to flesh out, correct, and revise the written stories. This fieldwork relationship was an ongoing dialogue that had many iterations, creating a cycle of opportunities for mutual learning, speaking, writing, class discussion, and intercultural dialogue Participants learned how to do basic wordprocessing and enter their drafts and revisions into a computerquite an accomplishment because none of them had ever touched a computer before! These stories were compiled into a booklet that was distributed to local community members.
What Was Accomplished: Observing the excitement that the project generated and the pride participants displayed for their booklet, we surmise that this was a very meaningful experience for all involved. But aside from the positive impact this project had on classroom community, it also served a number of other purposes:
Challenges: The most challenging aspect of this project was remaining faithful to our collaborative and systemic philosophical beliefs. Most people, especially "professionals" with years of training, do not know how to work with communities without taking over and steering or controlling the process and cheating participants out of their deserved agency. Because collaborative projects are inherently emergent, they take more time and involve an ongoing, subjective, often fuzzy process of suggesting, assisting, questioning, listening, and letting go.
This kind of collaboration requires a completely different relationship than that of conventional anthropological, sociological, or folkloristic "fieldwork" in which outsiders come into a community, collect data, maintain a framework of objectivity, leave, analyze, and publish for their academic peers. The collaborative process is also radically different from conventional school/community partnerships, in which professors, teachers, schools, non-profits, or businesses pre-define program goals, procedures, and objectives.
As opposed to the one-shot or short-term display approach to community education, collaborative fieldwork involves the initiation of long-term relationships. Even after the booklet or other "product" has been produced, these relationships continue in different contexts, but toward related ideals. Engaging communities in actual co-productive work places community members, teachers, students, professors, and social service professionals in relationships that are fundamentally, paradigmatically different from their previous roles. Viewed in this light, collaborative fieldwork functions as a catalyst for the creation of learning communities, energizing spaces in which each person discovers new avenues for learning and opportunities to share personal expertise.
The Online Manifestation of Keepsakes and Dreams: In reviewing the Keepsakes and Dreams web site guestbook entries, we notice that some contributors choose to use their real names and identities, while others write with the voice of another person. Whenever we enter into this creative spacesometimes known as "flow", the lines between lived experience and imagined experience and the memorable recounted experiences of others begin to blur. The power (sense of community) is in the personal connection or interaction with someone who is a well-rounded entity in our mindseven if that person is an illusion. At this point we enter into the realm of avatarsentities who seem alive to us because we are somewhat familiar with the range and complexity of their accumulated life narratives, questions, hopes, and dreams. This is the stuff that fiction and literature are made of.
Example 2: Cyber Rescue
Postcards exist on the Web, too. The "Cyber-Rescue" exercise was created as a means of playfully exploring the potential of this blended medium. See <http://mason.gmu.edu/~epiphany/docs/play.html> for a full account of the exercise. This exercise was developed by Matthews-DeNatale while teaching a course on "Emerging Issues in Research: Language and Technology" for the School-Based Masters Program at George Mason Universitys Institute for Educational Transformation. With the help of a graduate student enrolled in the seminar (and with faculty consent), we "borrowed" the personas of several well-known department members, set them down in far-flung places, and invented a suitable dilemma. We then used MITs Electronic Postcard web site to send e-postcards to course participants, requesting help. For example, one faculty member, known by all for her interest in things spiritual, supposedly wrote this message:
The power of this message is in the sense that someone the reader knows (or could have known) is reaching out for help. This illusion of real-life need creates a motivation for using the Web as a research tool and newsgroups as a vehicle for communication and information-sharing that is otherwise absent from the technology. Heres a sample newsgroup response to another professors request for help identifying African artistic and cultural resources:
With this message, weve come full circle from fiction back to memoirsthe play world is so compelling that it blends back into the students real worlds, prompting them to interact with an avatar as if they might bump into her in the near future. Written reflections at the end of this experience reinforce this idea:
|The computer search was fun for me and for my partners. We enjoyed trying to solve Sharons problem. We were thinking of it as a game and then we suddenly realized that the information that we were pulling up was real. It was like the whole thing was "fixed," but really everything we pulled up wasnt. What a neat way to learn something.|