Discussing JS Dunn, Carrie Luke, and David Nassar, “Valuing the Resources of Infrastructure”

Here’s where we’ll talk about JS Dunn’s, Carrie Luke’s, and David Nassar’s “Valuing the Resources of Infrastructure: Beyond From-Scratch and Off-the-Shelf Technology Options for Electronic Portfolio Assessment in First-Year Writing.”  One of the appeals to this piece for me is I know these folks and it is about something very very local!

I think it’s a pretty straight-forward essay, so I will just mention two things for now.  First, here’s a link to the ePortfolio Resources site that John and Carrie and Dave put together and that they mention in the essay as a way of supporting this Google approach to electronic portfolios. I refer students to it all the time, and not just students in first year writing.  While I’m at it, let me share again a link to my English 121 from Fall 2012 where students used a combination of Google Sites and Google Docs to put together their portfolios.  This is what I mean by students working being “public” the way that Moran was talking about this.

Second, I think there is a bit of a cautionary tale out there right now about using Google for things like this.  John and Carrie and Dave mention this near the end of their essay when they point out that while their manuscript was being reviewed, Google changed how Google docs works– now it’s Google Drive.  Just recently, Google announced that they are ending their Google Reader service, which is very popular amongst a lot of folks who are interested in reading blogs and the like. And right now if you do a search for Google Reader, you’ll find a lot of really freaked out and mad people who relied on Google Reader who can’t believe that Google is shutting this service down.  (BTW, I am one of those people).

So the issue is while Google’s free services are great and I’m going to keep using them and probably keep teaching with things like Google docs, I do wonder if I was in charge of the first year writing program now if I were to suggest a big program-wide move to Google docs and Google sites. It’s not that anything that John and Dave and Carrie says is wrong– far from it– but I just don’t know if I can continue to trust Google, frankly. What’s to stop them from turning off Google Docs or Google Sites? And if they did, well, that free solution wouldn’t be much of a solution anymore.

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29 Responses to Discussing JS Dunn, Carrie Luke, and David Nassar, “Valuing the Resources of Infrastructure”

  1. Danielle says:

    I mentioned this in my blog post for this week, but it was great to see this kind of work coming from my own school. :) I also thought it was kind of awesome to see the connections between some of Karper’s advice/suggestions on adaptability/ working with the resources you have available and the kind of work Dunn, Luke, Nassar (and others mentioned in the article) did here.

    Still, I share the same skepticism as Dr. Krause for relying on a platform such as Google Docs/Drive/whatever because of the simple fact that these change SO much. I feel like every time I get the hang of something on one of these platforms, something else changes and I have to learn something new. It’s frustrating, and I know others who get frustrated by it too.

  2. Melissa S says:

    I can’t help but echo the same concerns as Danielle and Steve. I am a big, big proponent of Google – I love it, I use it all the time, I think it’s awesome, but it’s a bit of a risk (though Google convinced UM to make the move from Outlook to Gmail based on their educational technologies that are included with Gmail so Google must be thinking their gonna be around for awhile..).

    I am surprised that there hasn’t been some open-source rip off of Google sites/docs yet – and I’m sure it will happen if Google decides to lay one of them to rest. The other thing that kind of shocks me is that instead of getting rid of Google Reader, why didn’t they just move it to a subscription platform? I’m sure several people would be more than willing to pay a fee for Google Reader. This makes me think that the other risk inherent in Google is that they will start to charge for their products, which puts EMU back in square one.

    I don’t think it’s a fantastic long-term solution to the problem, but I think it’s a great example of taking online resources and making them work for you. It was also kind of cool to read the article as I remember Dave mentioning his ePortfolio work in class several times last year :)

  3. Steve K. says:

    Well, one way it can be a long term solution is if the institution were to adopt the google suite as its platform, like U of M did. And I think that would be a good idea for a place like EMU and I think the reasons we didn’t do that were kind of bad, but that’s another story.

    Anyway, just to be clear: I think what John et al are talking about here with using Google docs and Google sides for individual classes is spot-on. I do this now and I’ll probably continue to do it, too. But for a long-ish term program adoption, I don’t know, especially after the Google Reader mess.

    And btw, Melissa I think you are right. I for one would have paid for Google Reader.

  4. Tim S says:

    I kind of have the same thoughts as Melissa and Danielle.I think e-portfolio’s are a great idea for any class, especially for the classes in our program. Google products are fantastic and reliable, but everyone is right in being uncertain about their future, though it is a pain when their platforms change. Like UM, my Adrian college email is a gmail account and forgot how much of a difference there is between Google Mail and other platforms like Eastern uses.

    But anyway, I can see how people may be hesitant to use them for long-term portfolios. In Writing For The World Wide Web last semester, we made online portfolio’s with HTML/CSS using people.emich.edu as our server, and I can see the value in paying to host our own webspace, especially when we are close to graduation/looking for better jobs.

  5. Jackie K. says:

    Ditto on it coming from EMU! I was excited to see Carrie’s name–she was kind of a mentor of mine at U-M. :)

  6. Jackie K. says:

    I agree with some of the folks who’ve noted Google’s tendency to change some of their products and drop others. I really like most of Google’s stuff, but I’m disinclined to trust any of it completely because of that changeability.

    I really liked a lot of what John, Carrie, and Dave had to say about eportfolios, and I felt that they touch on two of the biggest issues that I feel sometimes go unaddressed when it comes to incorporating technology in the classroom. First, they talk about Google Sites as one of Anderson’s ‘low bridge’ technologies, which will allow students to focus more on learning through the technology than learning about it. And second, they note that if one does not implement digital technologies effectively, they become little more than extra work for students–adding “more process without adding much value” (Dunn, Luke, and Nassar). Unfortunately, this is how I’ve sometimes seen eportfolios implemented in the past, and I was heartened to see this acknowledged and dealt with here. :)

  7. Sarah K. says:

    I think it’s important to recognize technology changes and what is out there now that we can utilize these advancements to our benefit. However, I too am uncertain about the future of e-portfolios. One person in my other class is doing her final project on why the college she works for should use e-portfolios and I thought that was interesting. I feel that we should use technology to our advantage to make things like turning in assignments easier, but, then again, what will this mean for the future of traditional education? Would our experience become like taking classes that are half online in a sense? Because that’s where the assignments go. Might this take away from the personal nature of writing something for a class, printing it out, feeling the weight of all the work that took you hours to do in your hands and then handing it to an instructor. I feel a sense of accomplishment when I finish an assignment and that’s where half of it comes from.

  8. Steve K. says:

    That’s a good point Tim about people.emich.edu, but the problem is that a lot of the technical issues– namely HTML and CSS– are too much for students in a class like first year composition.

  9. chelsea says:

    I’m still grappling with the idea of infrastructure. I get it, but am having a hard time conceptualizing it within their “becomes visible upon breakdown” portion – are they saying that when people argue that students can’t write, we have the program’s portfolio system to fall back on as a response that says “yes they can?” As in, it makes visible student work that might otherwise be discussed abstractly/through generalizations?

    I guess that’s what they say, essentially, in the next section about making a case for learning.

    I appreciated the discussion in this article based on interviews with instructors about moments of learning that might not fit into a hard copy portfolio, with the example of an audio recording…and I wonder how this might spill backwards, so to speak, into the semester – instead of having students write reflections, should we instead have students be recording them? And if so, how? Where? This fits into Palmeri’s work too, on composing as always multimodal.

    Using Google Drive is something I am very seriously considering for Fall – though I wasn’t thinking about portfolios as much as I was simply wanting to avoid printing so much and to be able to comment within the draft in a digital space without having to worry about whether or not my students had Word. This article was very useful and I will definitely be coming back to it.

    Do you know, Steve, if the award for excellence that EMU’s FYWP received in 2006 made mention of the CSW, and where I might be able to find any sort of documentation? And, the “Making the Case for Learning in First-Year Writing” project the article references – where might I find that?

  10. Steve K. says:

    I think by infrastructure, they’re talking about the many things it takes to run something like a fycomp class and program that seem largely invisible and maybe even unnecessary– until you miss it. I think the Moran article is a really good example of the infrastructure of the online classroom that he highlighted through his experience.

    I know that the CCCCs award for the fywp did make mention of the CSW, though I haven’t seen documentation for the “Making the Case for Learning in First-Year Writing” stuff.

  11. Carrie says:

    Thanks very much for your generous commentary so far about our piece. It’s awesome to see some familiar names and faces, and it’s a pleasure to meet those of you I don’t already know.

    I don’t want to dwell on this too much, but I would like to address the concern about risk that Danielle, Melissa, and others mentioned:

    When selecting a tool for a project–eportfolio or otherwise–you need to consider a wide range of factors, and faculty and student needs are at the top of that list. Ultimately, though, the process will likely boil down to three main factors : risk, flexibility, and cost. Much like the cheap / fast / good paradox, you only get two.

    Google tools have no cost and high flexibility, but they are admittedly a riskier choice in the sense that most institutions don’t have any control over the tools’ development, and they do require users to have a Google account, meaning students have to enter into their own user agreement with the company.

    A proprietary tool like MyCompLab can go two ways : it can be low(er) cost if you use the off-the-shelf version without customizations, and it is low(er) risk because it’s affiliated with Pearson, which probably isn’t going away any time soon. However, it will not be very flexible, unless the institution is willing to pay for customizations, but then it’s not low cost any more either. Another good example of this is EMU’s course shell, EMU-Online (an off-the-shelf version of eCollege).

    The Google suite isn’t an ideal solution for eportfolios, I agree, but it is one of the most agile tools currently available. I won’t speak for John and Dave, but from my perspective, the minimal impact on the bottom line (especially at an institution like EMU) and the large amount of flexibility is worth the risk involved.

    I hope this helps provide some insight into the risk factor, but I’m interested to hear more of your thoughts, as well.

  12. Steve K. says:

    Hey Carrie! Glad you’re jumping in here!

    I think risk/flexibility/cost– pick two– point is well-put, and I would add that when it comes to portfolio solutions like this, you probably want to add a fourth category too, which is ease of use. Maybe then you get 2.5 out of four? Or maybe ease of use has to exist to even have the conversation? The point is this: as Tim pointed out above, a really excellent solution in terms of low risk and cost and maximum flexibility would be to have students create web sites. But dang, that’s a whole different level of ease of use, right?

  13. Carrie says:

    Steve, I think you’re absolutely right : ease of use has to be there to even consider using the tool in the first place, especially for an eportfolio platform.

    You all may have talked about this already in this course, but ease of use is also a totally relative term. Who finds the tool easy to use, and under what conditions? Selecting an eportfolio tool for an engineering program would be much different than selecting one for a first-year writing program. I think in a dept like Engineering, you could easily have students build their own websites and achieve the low risk / high flexibility / minimal risk trifecta. But that’s likely not the case in most first-year writing programs. (It all comes back to audience and purpose, just like in a piece of writing!)

    I found that during my pilot, a few students still struggled with some aspects of Google Sites and Drive, so while it was easy for most to use, that wasn’t the case for everyone. I had to provide additional instruction for those students, including an optional drop-in lab on a Saturday, to give them the opportunity to come get extra help and get up to speed.

  14. Dave says:

    I will mention, Steve, that U of M’s agreement with Google really only covers the “core apps.” Drive (Docs), Presentation, Forms, Spreadsheet, and Drawing. If you want to use any other apps, you have to agree to a separate set of terms (meaning something like Sites is not protected in the UM agreement).

    I think the true draw for higher ed institutions to convert to Google is in not having to store email data on internal servers, along with the appeal of Google’s robust collaboration tools.

  15. Dave says:

    Hi Everyone!

    First, let me just echo Carrie in thanking you all for your thoughtful comments!

    Regarding one of the main issues at play here, that of the inevitable platform changes with Google and the chance of something like Sites or Drive going away, I think there are a couple of ways to think about this. Yes, Google might choose to retire one of these product lines someday, at which point you’d be forced to find a new platform (a la Reader). However, I think you run a similar risk no matter who you go with. If Pearson is not making enough money off their platform, they’re going to discontinue it, too. The difference is that if Google retires Sites/Drive, we haven’t invested nearly as much money. I think using a free tool actually mitigates the risk to some degree, because you have the power to walk away at any point (no contractual obligation), and you’ve minimized your loses by not having to invest as much up front.

  16. Dave says:

    I also think going with a free tool gives you more control/flexibility in your pilot testing as well. By choosing Google, we had control over how long our pilot testing was, how many classes we did it with, and for how long. We didn’t have to worry about anyone on the other end pressuring us or setting up parameters under which we could test the platform for our needs. Something tells me that if you were negotiating a contract with someone like Foliotek, you would not have as much free reign over process. I’m more or less speculating here, but Carrie could probably speak more to this because I know she has sat in on these types of dealings before.

  17. Bryan A says:

    While I more or less agree with everything you said Danielle, I do feel like I have to play devil’s advocate here (please forgive me).

    Almost all technologies, computers, cameras, cellphones, memory cards, RAM, software, and on and on, change from year to year, month to month, and sometimes day to day. I cannot say how much money I have “lost” by investing/buying pieces of technology that have very quickly become obsolete, no longer perform as expected, are no longer compatible with other technologies, etc. etc. This is just the nature of the beast as it were.

    My argument then? The more platforms students are familiar with the more adaptable their processes will be. The downside? They will have to transfer/transition/start from scratch their portfolios as they find the need to do so, which may become more and more frequent.

  18. Bryan A says:

    While I can understand your personal take on the matter, as far as Google Reader is concerned, I think that is one of the underlying issues of why most people/businesses cannot make money on the Internet. Because no consumer (person in their right mind, and those two may not be compatible descriptions) wants to literally be nickel and dimed to death, paying for news, a dictionary, a magazine subscription, email account, RSS feed, encyclopedia, mapping system, and on and on.

  19. Bryan A says:

    There’s a good question for the university. I know EMU alumni can retain their EMU email until death if the student informs the university of a forwarding address, but what are the IT policies as far as the “free” webspace hosting? When does that expire, if ever?

  20. Bryan A says:

    I don’t know about the online transition you suggested as a possibility. I hope that’s not the case, but who knows….it may very well be. I think (hope) what they were getting at is that e-portfolios can be revisited and refined, much like résumés, which can then be explored /exploited for professional development(s). I just think that as a whole portfolios offer students more potential to reflect on their writing, their writing processes, see authentic audiences for their writing, and develop professional habits and ways of thinking.

  21. Bryan A says:

    Ms. Luke’s comments seem to touch upon the article we read about Course Management Systems and how they can drive instead of enable pedagogy.

  22. Carrie says:

    Excellent points, Dave!

    Google also gives users options for exporting their data, both while in use and when they retire a product, so while yes, you do have to find a new process / product for accomplishing that work, at least you’re not losing your data, if you take advantage of those exporting capabilities.

    And in terms of using proprietary tools, there is typically a contract involved, which does set parameters for pilots (length of time, number of student accounts, etc.). Hopefully you have good lawyers setting up those contracts, and hopefully the folks overseeing the pilots have a good sense of how long the pilots will need to go on, how many students will be involved, etc., so they can negotiate accordingly up front.

  23. Carrie says:

    Bryan, I think you’re right in that tools are changing constantly, and we can’t stop that, so adaptability is a key skill in today’s market.

    There are often multiple tools that could be used to accomplish the task at hand, so it’s important to be able to weigh the pros and cons of using those tools to make an educated decision; if you have greater knowledge of the available tools, making those decisions will be a lot easier.

    Similarly, the more you engage in the learning process around how to use a tool, the better you get at it, and the more quickly you’ll be able to pick up similar tools in the future. This is another example of the increasing importance of being a reflective practitioner who understands how they learn. Learning how to articulate what and how you’ve learned something and how you can apply that knowledge going forward will help you in many ways, especially in job interviews, and portfolios enable you to practice those skills so you’re ready when the time comes.

  24. Carrie says:

    You can call me Carrie! :-)

  25. Carrie says:

    I believe Sites is covered under UM’s contract with Google. I think the core apps they signed on for are mail, calendar, chat, drive, sites, and contacts. There are some key apps that I think should be covered by aren’t, such as YouTube and Blogger. Those tools actually require users to agree to Google’s standard terms of service AND a second terms of service for that specific tool, which isn’t cool in my opinion, but I don’t run the show!

  26. Steve K. says:

    I agree about the need to learning different tools and platforms and the like. The concern I have is relying on free stuff like Google docs is a little risky because if Google decides they don’t want to support it anymore for some reason, you’re kinda SOL. As seen with Reader.

  27. Steve K. says:

    I think EMU IT flushes people emich.edu accounts when students graduate. But if a student asked to keep it like their email, I bet they would.

  28. Steve K. says:

    Yeah, I really agree with Dave and Carrie a lot about this. The not free/proprietary solutions have a ton of problems too. This isn’t exactly the same issue as portfolios, but there’s a reason why I tend to avoid emuonline for anything other than the gradebook.

  29. JSDjr says:

    Hey, guys – Needless to say, I’ve been really flattered reading all the thoughtful comments over the past few days: Even writing for publication doesn’t always offer this sort of direct feedback from readers, but as we all know from teaching writing, genuine feedback goes a long way to helping writers develop, which holds true for us as much as for our students.

    Anyways, I’ve purposely stayed on the sidelines while the conversation developed to give my coauthors a chance to comment, and before I say a few things about this piece, I want to acknowledge the great experience I had coauthoring with Carrie and Dave. We hear a lot about the virtues of collaboration, whether as a teaching strategy in the comp classroom or for ourselves as writers, but I do want to put in a plug for trying it yourselves if you haven’t yet. One unfortunate consequence of grad school (or any formal education) involves the individualistic work habits that traditional grading and assessment systems almost unavoidably foster (“do your own work, or it’s cheating,” etc.), which, beyond the immediate problems caused, lead to distorted expectations as students transition into writing professionally later on, especially with scholarly projects. That is, although I did initiate this study, secure the publication opportunity, and recruit Carrie and Dave as coauthors, it’s not nearly as simple as saying I’m the “professor” and they’re the “grad students,” which I know some readers of this piece will assume.

    Instead, as the piece itself mentions, our collaboration to write this text mirrors the key theme to take away from reading it (I hope): that communities of practice based on the expertise, shared experience, and ongoing dialogue among like-minded literacy professionals, whatever official job titles the academic org chart assigns them, matter much more to the infrastructure of a writing program than any piece of technology, however powerful or hyped. If I had to condense into a single insight my 20+ years of experience as an instructor and writing program administrator, that’s the message I’d want to convey; hence, the exigence for me that motivated writing this piece. As Steve pointed out in response to Chelsea’s question above, Infrastructure designates all that we take for granted in an environment. Danielle DeVoss and her coauthors at MSU applied this concept to understanding how factors like electricity, institutional policies, and licensing agreements influenced how new software got used (or not) in a single multimedia composition course they studied, and I suggested to Carrie and Dave that we adapt this concept to what seemed to be happening in EMU’s FYWP as we sought to incorporate new technologies for electronic portfolios.

    So, in a sense, the piece argues as much for what we should pay attention to when we think about “technology” (Cindy Selfe and others have said much the same over the years); that is, listen to and learn from your colleagues and to the unique exigencies and constraints in the rhetorical situation of your specific writing program rather than assuming some technology tool, no matter how good, will automatically resolve those exigences that as literacy professionals draw you to technology in the first place. Or, put differently, I couldn’t have written this piece without the insights of Carrie and Dave, and the process of doing so taught me far more than I could have learned on my own. So, beyond anything else, I hope reading this piece might prompt each of you to consider opportunities for coauthoring, wherever you currently fit on the org chart of the profession. It’s what literacy professionals do.

    In any case, let me take up a few points that folks have raised above:

    • This piece is as much about writing assessment and writing program administration as technology per se. “Making a Case for Learning in First-Year Writing,” the larger project to which this ePortfolio initiative belongs, looks at how to document the contributions that the FYWP makes to the development of EMU students. In answer to the question above, this project came about after the FYWP won a 2006 CCCC Excellence Award. When I arrived at EMU in 2007, as an assessment specialist, I saw so much cool stuff happening in the program that I wanted to figure how we could document it through assessment. That goal meant acknowledging the range of multimodal evidence which doesn’t fit easily, if at all, in traditional hardcopy writing portfolios.

    Moreover, this goal meant a scope for MCfLFW that goes beyond any individual comp classroom; that is, we needed an ePortfolio system which could handle *program* assessment – collecting, organizing, and archiving student work across 150+ sections of composition so that the WPAs could sample and analyze overall patterns for the entire FYWP – rather than the more familiar perspective of classroom-based assessment that most writing teachers think of immediately.* In the early stages of our study fellow FYWP instructor Sarah Karlis did an extensive review of the software options available for ePortfolios, both proprietary and free, in 2010/11 and found many that could handle classroom assessment and pedagogy but few suited to our needs for program assessment.

    (*Fwiw, let me add a plug here to those of you registering for fall 2013 to consider taking Professor Doug Baker’s ENGL517/special topics seminar on writing assessment. Having formal training in writing assessment prepares you for dealing with some of the biggest challenges and opportunities out there as literacy professionals, such as thinking about program assessment, which is really where the action is when you hear assessment debated in K-12 and higher education these days. Doug’s great and truly knows his stuff; I can’t recommend this course more strongly.)

    • Being a professional means taking action despite contingency. A number of comments above voiced concern/caution about google as a platform for ePortfolios over the long term, and the reasons offered deserve careful attention. As Carrie and Dave noted, we tried to take these factors into consideration throughout our study and will do so going forward. However, it’s worth noting that such observations don’t change the sense of exigency that you’ll encounter as practicing literacy professionals: We never know everything we’d like, and new factors come along al the time, yet not acting can have consequences as serious as the potential problems mentioned above. That is, I’m not myself an evangelist for google products; indeed, I’ve got a growing list of gripes with them. But as WPA, I’m also faced with an institutional environment that calls for program assessment sooner rather than later and thus need to balance prudence with the need to act. Put another way, our piece indirectly raises the distinction that some of you may have studied in rhetorical history between the vision of knowledge favored in philosophy versus that which defines rhetoric: From Plato onwards, Western philosophy has sought and privileged timeless, absolute knowledge, while rhetoric deals with contingent, situated knowledge that guides (but never determines) action in the everyday world. With this distinction in mind I consider our piece an example of rhetorical scholarship in an important but less-obvious sense.

    • Finally, as Steve has emphasized throughout 516, technology of any sort represents a means rather than an end, which calls for us to consider first our goals, priorities, and shared values before choosing any piece of technology (or not). While I’m not teaching 516, if there’s one thing I hope you take from the course, it’s this. Too often, the problems, failures, and shortcomings of technology in literacy education (and elsewhere in our society) trace back to this issue, not the hardware or software itself. Hence, our piece foregrounds the community of practice that any writing program must embody, since only through collaborative dialogue can literacy professionals articulate these goals and values that should guide choices about technology. Seen this way, the old adage that “technology changes” takes on a meaning beyond acknowledgement of the speed at which new hardware and software develop: The communities of practice that should guide technology choices themselves change as new members join over time. So it is with the FYWP at EMU, as Professor Derek Mueller takes over as WPA this coming year, with our new colleague Dr. Kate Pantelides joining him. Both Derek and Kate have strong visions for not only technology but literacy education generally that will help the FYWP evolve going forward in ways which will differ inevitably from the version of things Carrie, Dave, and I wrote about in our piece. But such changes, while we can’t know them precisely in advance, hold the promise for the future. As we argued in our piece, the best any of us can do is to see that the potential of technology goes only as far the potential we see in each other, in our colleagues and our students, the sort of awareness that attracted us to careers as literacy professionals in the first place.

    So, apologies for the length this post. Thanks to Steve for the invite to participate in ENGL516. It’s been great to have you all read our piece. One thing I’ve always found with writing again holds true for this piece: Some of the best stuff always gets left out in the process of composing and revision. Hence, there’s always more to write and to say, which means if any of you want to chat more, just let me know. :-)

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