Foundational Structures

The University of Georgia's (UGA) First-Year Composition Program (FYC) has been successful in developing an infrastructure that supports a progressive, process-oriented pedagogy and eportfolio-based assessment protocol. UGA's <emma> program was developed to support this pedagogical orientation, and analysis of student writing in <emma> suggests that the infrastructure (revision-based process pedagogy, eportfolio assessment) has had some positive effects. In a study of 450 essays revised for eportfolios, researchers at UGA led by Christy Desmet (2008) found that “[f]orty-six percent of the essays revised for the ePortfolio…improved by one or more points," leading to the assertion that "using an ePortfolio method of assessment will improve the scores of approximately half" of first-year composition students at UGA (p. 25). In reviewing the UGA team's research on eportfolios and revision, Darren Cambridge (2010) noted that one of the key aspects of the <emma> program is that its cumulative database allows instructors (and administrators) to see "multiple examples of the products of [students'] composition" which enables analysis of the "dynamics of learning behind the patterns that the numbers reveal" (p. 91). In other words, a major technological foundation of the writing infrastructure at UGA affords us the ability to see how things like technology and pedagogy are related.

In this webtext, we will explore ways that a writing CMS, particularly one that emphasizes the eportfolio method of assessment, might further structure and sustain an architecture of diverse writing initiatives that cohere around fostering a pedagogy that is “as interested in the analysis and interpretation of performance and progress as it is in the performance itself” (Yancey, 2001, p. 83). Such a turn from the demonstration of mastery through a singular finished product would emphasize a view of knowledge production and assessment that is social, distributed, and performative, an orientation that better supports the development of 21st century literacies. And, such a pedagogical infrastructure would be, itself, much like a portfolio in the way that it fosters collection and preservation (archiving) of data for the kind of analysis and reflection by program and institutional assessment directors that can reveal what Jeff Rice (2011), in considering how to apply Actor-Network Theory to an analysis of a writing across the curriculum program, called traces that "reveal unknown relationships" (p. 29). In an analysis of food webs and the role that different species play in the long-term functioning of those networks, ecologists Daniel Stouffer, Marta Sales-Pardo, M. Irmak Sirer, and Jordi Bascompte (2012) noted that thinking of ecosystems through network theory "has led to a greater understanding of the structural properties of ecological systems" (p. 1489). Attending to the infrastructure of a network, in this case, of the network of writing programs and pedagogies at a single institution, can provide insight into the system's potential for long-term viability and potential.

At UGA, the First-Year Composition program and its success in building a process-oriented pedagogy and eportfolio-based assessment protocol based in a homegrown CMS developed specifically for writing provides a structural foundation for building a more comprehensive and coordinated writing initiative at UGA. The goal is to carry over the pedagogical philosophy of process and authentic assessment, and, ideally, construct a knowledge community in which students, faculty, and administrators understand writing as “a mode of learning” (McLeod, 1992, p. 4), and learning to write as an ongoing process that must take place within the context not only of FYC and specialized writing courses, but of the entire university community. The goal of creating a more coherent and comprehensive writing program was articulated by the Task Force on Writing (2007) that surveyed the writing landscape at UGA and proposed the development of a writing initiative, defined as “a coordinated effort across all colleges to offer courses that include writing as an integral part of instruction, to help faculty learn effective ways to teach with writing, and to follow the best research and methodology in the field of writing” (p. 2). The motivation for this new initiative stemmed from both a concern about deficiencies in student writing and writing instruction, as well as a recognition of several unique strengths that existed (too often in isolation) in the campus culture.

One of those strengths is the pedagogical design of <emma>'s underlying architecture. FYC wanted process writing at the core, so <emma> is designed to keep all the stages of student writing, as well as feedback and discussion between students and instructors within a given course. Documents are never overwritten, although students are allowed to remove documents through a delete feature, and each document in the system is time-stamped to provide evidence that a student has submitted required work. Documents are also filed with process designations: Each document will be listed as part of a particular project at a particular stage (e.g., Paper 2, Draft 2). A goal was to encourage a community of writing, so students can make each stage available to his or her peers. The <emma> development team wanted to facilitate peer review, so students can easily find and review the work of their classmates. Additionally, there was consideration for the creation of a common vocabulary for writing instruction, hence the development of defined tagging schemes that could be used by students and instructors. These features combine to create an archive that traces the network comprised of interaction between students and between students and instructor, of the material process of textual creation, and of the textual artifacts themselves. This archive—and vocabulary—is then available to each student when the time comes to create an end-of-semester portfolio and to think critically about what the various pieces of evidence mean in terms of his or her developing writing skills.

If FYC could use a writing CMS to create that common vocabulary for its program, could the writing conversation engendered there be extended across the campus to draw in other initiatives and stakeholders? It seems clear that the infrastructure and the pedagogy are functioning in a kind of feedback loop, offering us insight for the way forward based on a core architecture of technology and pedagogy that might give rise to a larger network of writing programs and assessment practices and opportunities. Such insight, however, requires taking an approach that surveys the existing landscape or, in terms used by Latour (2005) in elucidating ANT, tries to "catch up with [the] often wild innovations" made by actors in a social field to see "what the collective existence has become in their hands, which methods they have elaborated to make it fit together" (p. 11). In the next section, we will try to "catch up" with the way the infrastructural support of this technological tool creates a certain "existence" or interface for writing at UGA.

Go to "Surveying the Landscape"

Check out the video to see how <emma> allows Ron and Elizabeth to begin to consider the foundation of writing at UGA .

Read the transcript for this video, or view the texts shown in the video.