Creating a Virtual Environment for Writing

Vicki Russell, Senior Lecturing Fellow and Director, Duke University Writing Studio

Project Description:

Vicki Russell, Director of the Duke University Writing Studio, is investigating innovative ways that tutors can work with students on writing assignments, and students can collaborate on writing projects. Russell, using 3d virtual worlds software, has created a virtual Writing Studio – an online, 3d “space” where students, faculty and writing tutors can collaborate in real time.

The goals of the project are to use the extensive resources for writers available on the Writing Studio Web site as a foundation for creating an interactive virtual learning environment, demonstrating for writers that writing is a dynamic rather than static process. Allowing access to these resources during a tutoring session with students in a real-time virtual environment will provide interactive ways to facilitate writing as recursive rather than linear process. In addition, by creating a virtual environment space for collaborative writing that is expandable and reproducible for other units at Duke, the project will focus on helping writers improve individual written texts and become more self-reflective better writers and provide faculty with tools to help their students become more effective writers and critical thinkers.

Promoting a larger “culture of writing” on the Duke campus, the resource will include spaces for exploring writing resources in non-linear ways to help students during the writing process. The online presence will be a meeting place where writing tutors can assist students with writing assignments and spaces where student organizations can collaborate on writing projects for publication.

Russell was awarded a CIT Strategic Initiative Grant to facilitate the early stages of her project. Russell used funding from the CIT grant to learn more about virtual worlds applications, to investigate different virtual worlds tools determine technical suitability for the project and to survey students about current and potential virtual worlds interest and use.  The grant was also used to develop a plan and paper-prototype as a blueprint for implementing the future development of the virtual Writing Studio.

During the grant term, Russell, working with Writing Studio tutors and graduate students Richard Musselwhite and Jen Walsh, compared different virtual worlds tools (Second Life, Protosphere, Cobalt, and Qwak) and their possible suitability for the project.  Based on factors such as the ability to custom program objects in the application, ease of use, suitability for an academic environment and the facilities for text collaboration, the team choose Qwak, a commercial product built on the Croquet/Cobalt engine, for initial development, with a plan to port the Virtual Writing Studio to Cobalt after testing in courses.

Finally, Russell and the team surveyed students about their prior use of virtual worlds software and the types of features they might find useful in a Virtual Writing Studio.  While only a small number of students had tried some type of virtual worlds software in the past, they expressed interest in chat with tutors, access to help materials and collaborative spaces.

The team built some sample spaces in Qwak based on a paper prototype developed during the grant term.  The CIT provided additional funding to license Qwak for creation of spaces for the Virtual Writing Center so that it could be tested in Spring 2009.

During the semester, Holly Ryan and Jennifer Welsh used the virtual world in their course.  Students in Welsh’s class used Qwaq to create learning rooms that students can visit to discover a wide variety of topics.  In Ryan’s course, students revised writing studio handouts into materials that would be effective for visual kinesthetic and aural learners.  The materials included videos, virtual rooms, PowerPoint slides and additional handouts that are housed in the Virtual Studio for use by future students.  In March 2009, Russell presented at the College Conference on Composition and Communication about the project.

The Virtual Writing Studio was used for sessions between students and writing tutors during the semester to a limited extent.  “The handful of experiences we had were well received and successful, with both students and tutors feeling the medium offered a different and ultimately richer way of interacting with the text under consideration,” Russell said.  Welsh noted in that one student “was able to take as much time as needed to go over the paper, and really work through it”; She also noted that “It’s also clear that working in a virtual space contributed to how they were able to work through the paper– reading through it on a panel, scrolling up or down, highlighting, etc.”

While the Virtual Writing Studio is still a “work in progress”, Russell reports that it has been well received by students.  They plan to continue to explore the most effective ways that students can be aware of the resource and ways to encourage them to try it out.  The Virtual Writing Studio will be continued in Qwaq in the fall and spring.  Faculty interested in trying the Virtual Writing Studio are encouraged to contact Vicki Russell via email for more information.

Student survey questions (PDF)
Student survey results summary (PDF)
Comparison of virtual worlds software (PDF)

Project start date: 5/13/2008
Funding awarded: $4,000