Designing writing: Educational technology as a site for fostering participatory, techno-rhetorical consciousness

Erin Rose Glass (, UC San Diego, United States of America

In the past ten years, advancements in computing technology have lent themselves to diverse applications in teaching and learning such as seen with MOOCS, learning managements systems, networked collaborative pedagogy, virtual/augmented reality course modules, and algorithmic-driven approaches to personalized learning. While these engagements represent a variety of exciting (though often controversial) new directions for educational technology, the changing socio-technological conditions of our information landscape call for new critical approaches towards its development and use. Information communication technology (ICT) in educational settings should not only be evaluated according to the way it supports intended learning goals, but also according to the type of technological consciousness it produces in students. In this paper I will draw from methods and values in participatory design (Simonsen), critical pedagogy (Freire; Shor), and the digital humanities (Drucker & Svensson; Rockwell & Sinclair) to outline a way that academic technological practices and infrastructure might be re-engineered to foster more critical and participatory relationships to digital technology within higher education. I will focus specifically on how this approach has particular value for the teaching and use of writing in undergraduate and graduate education in that it enables a praxis-oriented approach to analyzing and designing digitally-mediated rhetorical situations within and beyond academia. I will then describe KNIT, a digital commons at UC San Diego that aims to develop a participatory model of educational technology, and describe the challenges and opportunities experienced in its development.

Participatory approaches to ICT

The general user has little expectation or ability of being able to understand or modify the code of ICTs that mediate their everyday communicative activities, such as email, social media, Internet searching, or text editing. While this lack of critical user participation in software oversight and production may appear as natural, inevitable, and relatively inconsequential, I will argue that it has been normalized through corporate technical policies, cultural myths regarding programming, and the use of technology in educational settings. To demonstrate the range of alternatives to passive relationships to software, I will point to a number of software cultures, projects, and visions in which the everyday user has greater opportunity to democratically participate in shaping the technical functionality and policy of their digital tools. I will argue that examples such as the Free Software community, the Platform Coop movement, and Alan Kay’s 1968 vision for Dynabook represent promising alternative software models that foster participatory design consciousness in the general user that could be fruitfully applied in educational settings. By implementing tools in the classroom that allow for participatory design and oversight, students would have the opportunity to experience greater forms of creative and critical control over ICTs that might lead them to question the lack of similar rights with regard to ICTs in everyday life. In this way, fostering participatory design approaches to digital technology stands as one promising approach to fostering critical and practical resistance in students to exploitative practices inherent in everyday ICTs such as dataveillance and algorithmic influence and manipulation. It also offers the possibility of turning educational technology into a site for producing open source ICT alternatives for general public use.

Techno-rhetorical consciousness

Participatory design approaches towards educational technology also have direct application for writing-intensive courses in the humanities in that they can help foster “techno-rhetorical consciousness,” or a sensitive understanding of the way digital technology mediates rhetorical situations. By providing students with the perspective and control over ICTs normally only afforded by corporate or administrative entities, students have the opportunity to study more directly the way ICTs mediate their intellectual activities and communities, and explore how technical modifications might help support personal and collective intellectual goals and values. For example, access to data produced and transmitted through ICTs would enable students to use text analysis techniques from the digital humanities to study patterns in their individual and collective intellectual activities for the purpose of understanding the social dynamics of knowledge production and transmission. It would allow them to gain basic familiarity with algorithmic techniques that have increasing power in everyday life. And it would also provide students with the opportunity to experiment with how different aesthetic and algorithmic design features might better support individual cognitive activities related to writing process or productive intellectual exchange among students. These opportunities would not only have rich potential for the use and development of educational technology itself, but would also help students consider the way digital technology mediates the production and transmission of knowledge and power in everyday life.

KNIT, a digital learning commons

To explore some of these ideas in practice, we have launched KNIT, a digital commons for UC San Diego and institutions of higher education in the San Diego area. KNIT uses the free and open source software package Commons in A Box and thus, unlike many forms of proprietary software in educational settings, remains open to critical study and modification by the user community. In the final portion of my talk, I will discuss how we are using KNIT to test-drive participatory design practices for educational technology at UC San Diego and how we envision using it to give students a leadership position in its development and governance. I will also discuss the institutional, technical, and educational challenges of this approach and provide recommendations and resources for those interested in experimenting with this method at their home institution.

Appendix A

  1. Drucker, Johanna, and Patrik BO Svensson. The Why and How of Middleware. Vol. 10, no. 2, 2016. Digital Humanities Quarterly.
  2. Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum, 1993.
  3. Rockwell, Geoffrey, and Stéfan Sinclair. Hermeneutica: Computer-Assisted Interpretation in the Humanities. MIT Press, 2016.
  4. Shor, Ira. Critical Teaching and Everyday Life. University of Chicago Press, 1980.
  5. Simonsen, Jesper, and Toni Robertson. Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design. Routledge, 2012.