Research Problem and Background
I am a PhD student and currently work as the assistant director in the Old Dominion University (ODU) writing center. I started this position in the summer of 2016. Our writing center is completely staffed by English graduate students, 9 MA/MFA students and 1 PhD student. Our center is directed by a non-tenure track lecturer in the English department. Our current model presents some strict limitations on our space as we have limited tutoring hours because of our small staff and currently no working budget since tutors are compensated through department assistantships. ODU’s campus population has continued to grow, particularly the online student population while the number of tutors has remained static for at least the last five years.
Old Dominion University had 10,552 online students enrolled for Fall 2016 (ODU Facts and Figures). The university intends to grow the number of online students in the coming years. Currently, our Writing Center here at ODU is not well equipped to deal with the student need for online tutoring services and our current system for online tutorials often does not meet our students’ or tutors’ needs particularly in terms of ease of use. Our current online tutoring option is a synchronous audio/visual tutorial using the WebEx conferencing platform. The use of WebEx predates my time in the Writing Center. The synchronous tutoring appointments can only be scheduled during our open hours which is usually Monday through Thursday 9-7 and Fridays 9-2. Students that need online tutoring must also compete for appointment slots with on-campus students. Even when students can meet with us synchronously online, there are often technical problems with WebEx that we as tutors are not prepared to deal with or able to navigate students through successfully. Some of these technical problems include students being unable to download the necessary plug-in or program to use WebEx, getting webcams or microphones to work on the student end, or helping students troubleshoot when asking students to use the share screen option and they are unable to get it working. Since we only have 45 minutes for an appointment, troubleshooting delays often cut sessions short and take away tutoring time from the distance students.
This past semester, I worked through changing some of the documentation for using WebEx. IT had suggested we use WebACD, a queuing system for students wanting to use WebEx for tutoring. There was documentation on how to use WebACD, though the tutors last year and during the summer found it confusing because it was difficult to replicate the directions within the center’s lab—in other words, we were not able to practice tutorials and get a sense of what students saw on their end. The desktop computers in the lab also were not able to run WebEx through the WebACD queue (these computers were not able to download programs because of administrator restrictions put on the computers by library and IT staff), and we determined that there were likely students experiencing similar issues from their home computers. We opted this fall to use the tutors’ personal rooms provided through the university instead. This change has made online tutoring a little easier, but still tutors often must create workarounds to help students during the session, such as using email and phone calls when the share screen feature or microphones fail. While these workarounds get the job done, it does create frustrating circumstances for both the tutors and students that we would like to avoid in the future.
Because the other tutors felt so uncomfortable using WebEx, I did almost all the WebEx appointments over the summer. While I also think that workarounds may be necessary at times, I would estimate that about 80% of our online tutoring sessions over the summer required major workarounds to meet student needs and it was largely based on technical problems using WebEx. While the changes I made to our WebEx documentation and the system in how we schedule and provide information about our online appointments have been helpful, workarounds are still often required which often leads to shorter appointments and student frustration. Currently, the university advertises the Writing Center as a resource for distance students to get help with writing, but I believe the resource is not providing the level of service that we should be and that our students are seeing this when trying to get appointments. The purpose of this project is to rhetorically analyze several synchronous tutoring platforms (WebEx, Google Hangouts, Adobe Connect, and WCOnline) along with their instructional materials to consider which platform may be most beneficial for our particular local context. Since my focus is on our local Writing Center at ODU, many of the observations I will make and arguments about the tools will be based on our own context’s limitations and situation since the end goal is to choose a synchronous tutoring platform that we can integrate into our space that is usable and accessible for both our students and tutors, that we can integrate with our writing center pedagogical practices, and that is able to be practically supported by our IT staff here at the university. Since this is so locally situated, I do not see my conclusions as necessarily being useful for all writing centers, since their local contexts and limitations may be vastly different. Rather, I advocate that writing centers consider their technological choices rhetorically, remembering that software and interfaces are not neutral.
Literature Review & Methodology
Usability and rhetorical research is not something that is new to writing center studies. Stuart Blythe (1998) calls for the usability studies to be conducted by writing centers to examine the implementation of technology in our centers and practice. However, most of the usability work that has been undertaken in writing center scholarship is centered around websites, such as the Purdue OWL usability study (Brizee, Sousa, & Driscoll, 2012), and not necessarily on large technology systems that include tutoring platforms and documentation used by tutors and students. Although McKinney’s (2016) recent book Strategies for Writing Center Research has a brief section on usability studies, there is little help in figuring out how to begin the implementation of this method. Some writing center scholars, although not referring to their own scholarship in terms of usability or user experience have tested software and technologies and their effects within the writing center such as Conard-Salvo & Spartz’s (2012) study of Kurzweil software, a text-to-speech software. Although their study failed, Conard-Salvo & Spartz advocate for “the act of researching and testing software like Kurzweil [because it] can lead to discovering how technology, including adaptive technology, might contribute to achieving the overarching and expanding goals of writing centers” (p. 55).
Perhaps the most noticeable gap in the usability discussions within writing center studies is because the field has not necessarily made a connection with technical communication and what technical communication could offer writing center studies in terms of methodology and methods when considering how to design our systems of online tutoring in the writing center. Writing center studies makes no distinction between usability and user experience design—this is likely because a lot of the discussion about how to choose and implement technologies into our writing centers began in the 1990s and even Stuart Blythe’s (1998) call for usability studies was almost twenty years ago.
Rather, most of the writing center scholarship looks at different types of online tutoring, primarily advocating a synchronous audio/visual experience that attempts to replicate face-to-face (f2f) tutoring (Hewett, 2006; Yergeau, Wozniak, & Vandenberg, 2008; Neaderhiser & Wolfe, 2009; Bell, 2010; Conard-Salvo & Spartz, 2012; Wolfe & Griffin, 2012, and McKinney, 2013). This work has included considering the affordances of audio-visual-textual medium for synchronous online tutoring, compared technology mediums of conducting synchronous tutoring, considered software options for synchronous tutoring, and compared the different types of online tutoring options that writing centers are offering. Audio-visual-textual synchronous tutoring technology adoption is still new in writing centers, however, making a stronger appearance in scholarship and practice mostly within the last ten years as synchronous conferencing technologies have become affordable and reliable.
The lack of scholarship within writing center studies about how to assess the current synchronous system in use by our center has led me to consider visual rhetoric and technical communication for the research methodologies and methods to undertake this research project, while still using writing center scholarship to inform the decisions. The framing for the project has centered on McKinney’s (2016) and Brizee, Sousa, & Driscoll’s (2012) emphasis on collaborative, user-centered approaches to research in writing center scholarship and Spinuzzi’s (2003) argument about the innovations of workers and the need for designers to approach “design tasks as true partnerships that result in designs flexible enough to be adopted” (location 101). The rhetorical analysis draws from Norman’s (1999) design concepts of affordances and constraints, as well as from Romberger’s (2007) ecofeminist methodology for studying the ecology in digital environments.
The ecofeminist methodology that Romberger (2007) articulates allows for critical inquiry about technology, while specifically considering the local environment and social needs, which is particularly important to this project as I’m searching for a specific technology that can meet the needs of our local writing center and that fits within our specific context (including the limitations that our space has such as staff size, technological equipment, training time, etc.). Additionally, Romberger (2007) explains that “an ecofeminist methodology works against oppressive discourses and toward empowering users to make informed decisions about a technology” (pp.250). When we consider the adoption of technology as somehow neutral, we often fail to consider the ways in which this technology prevents certain users from accessing the technology easily and meaningfully. One of the particular considerations for this project is accessibility of the synchronous tutoring platform for students, particularly when these students are often already marginalized as non-traditional within the university (distance students, disabled students, full-time working students, students that are parents, etc.).
Romberger’s (2007) heuristic for feminist-guided rhetorical analysis of a digital ecology will be used to rhetorically analyze each platform in order to determine which platform integrates best into the pedagogical practices of the writing center at ODU while also providing the most access to our diverse distance student population.
- Online audio/video/textual synchronous meeting platform interfaces for online tutoring: WebEx, Adobe Connect, Google Hangouts, and WCOnline
- Official documentation about the platforms.
- Accessibility information, including but not limited to ADA and federal regulation compliance.
- Visit Notes from our writing center’s WebEx appointments
In order to begin working towards the rhetorical analysis, I looked at other data sources to determine the current needs not being met by our current system in place for online tutoring which includes the use of WebEx as our online tutoring platform. I primarily pulled from our visit notes that we keep from every appointment in the writing center, though I specifically only looked at the troubleshooting section of the WebEx appointments. I looked at this data to help me determine the current problems that students and tutors were facing when trying to have online appointments this past year.
Once current problems were determined, I turned to the documentation provided on the platforms. The documentation of the platforms was looked at to determine first whether our university or the company would provide sufficient IT support for the platform, how/if the platform was accessible, and to determine how easy it was to access basic information about learning to use the platform that could be included in tutor training or documentation sent to students. In other words, this documentation was used to begin to access how the platform might fit within our local context and where we may run into problems before further conducting an in-depth analysis.
Finally, using Romberger’s (2007) ecofeminist methodology heuristic, I rhetorically analyzed the platform interfaces to determine how they worked within the framework of our local context and fit in with our larger workplace systems and pedagogical goals.
Our Writing Center keeps visit notes for each of our tutoring appointments for record keeping purposes. On each of the visit notes, there is a specific section to fill out if the tutoring session was an online appointment. One of the boxes includes an explanation of any technical difficulties or troubleshooting that was necessary to have the appointment. I used these visit notes to begin to identify specific difficulties that our tutors and students were facing during online tutoring appointments. I identified several problems that occurred multiple times since the summer of 2016 while we have been using the WebEx tutoring platform. There are limitations here as this only considers current problems and doesn’t necessarily anticipate other problems that could occur. While I do plan to highlight that, particularly in terms of accessibility in other ways during this analysis, it is important to mention that there is likely a larger audience of distance students that may or have experienced other problems that are just not documented. I also realize that our audience reach is not where it needs to be and that the expansion of the services to a larger audience will likely result in new and possibly unforeseen challenges.
- Systemic mix-ups or mistakes such as students not receiving an email with directions and the link to the meeting after booking an appointment with the front desk person. In other words, how using WebEx exists within the other systems we have in place.
- Student operating systems (OS) not supported by WebEx, such as Google Chromebooks.
- Students unable to download the WebEx program or even temporary plug-in because of administrative restrictions on their computer (being at work, a library, etc.).
- Tutors unable to help students solve troubleshooting issues from getting the program to open to helping students get their microphone or audio working effectively.
These particular problems helped me to narrow down specific areas of the platform that I needed to be critical of as I continued my analysis. Based on these problems, I determined several categories to consider before conducting my formal rhetorical analysis of the interface: system integration, IT support, usability of platform and documentation, and student accessibility.
Although we currently already use WebEx, it seemed necessary to compare the platform to other potential programs to see if some of the problems we were encountering were similar to challenges we might face even with the implementation of another program. An analysis of WebEx also provides me with more concrete evidence of the ways WebEx does and does not work within our current workplace systems and how we may need to also reconsider and redesign other parts of our workplace system in order to successfully provide online synchronous tutoring.
Exchanges in Relationship to the WC systems in place
Currently all of our scheduling for the writing center has to be done in person or over the phone–students are not able to book appointments online. This change was implemented this past year in order to deal with changing appointment software as our previous booking software TutorTrac was no longer supported by the university at the end of summer 2016, which meant it was no longer possible for us to sync student information, such as UIN and courses to appointments. Without the support, it meant that we would not be able to record accurate data for our end of the year report. However, this is something we would like to change in the future. We also only currently offer online appointments to distance students since our ability to tutoring online is limited by factors such as being able to only do once distance appointment per hour because of the available technology.
Students call into the Writing Center to book an online appointment. Once we have made the appointment, the front desk tutor who makes the appointment must manually draft an email that has the date and time of the appointment for the student, includes a template of the information we give to students about using WebEx, and a link to the appointment (this is a unique link for each tutor). While we do use a different color for online appointments in our scheduling system, one of the mistakes that has taken place a couple times is that students or tutors forgot to denote whether it was an online appointment or not, so the tutor the appointment is booked for does not realize that it is a WebEx appointment until someone calls in. This has happened twice this Spring semester, only, but it has happened. While it doesn’t happen often, sometimes tutors that are overwhelmed at the front desk and have forgotten to send the emails to students as well, leading to calls and delays in the tutoring appointment beginning on time. I categorized these types of errors as systemic mistakes or mix-ups that happen when we must integrate WebEx workflows into our pre-existing workflow. With existing appointment software such as Appointy or potentially MyTutor, these workflows would still require us to send individual emails to students or use another system such as WebACD for queuing which has very specific requirements for use (such as Internet Explorer and Windows only).
Exchanges: Relationships between WebEx and Hardware and Operating Systems
The WebEx platform was originally chosen because the platform is used in a variety of online classrooms at ODU and the assumption was that distance students would likely already be familiar with the platform. While some of our students are, not all of them are familiar with it and often still struggle to troubleshoot. The WebEx platform is accessible through both the Windows and Mac operating systems (OS), including older versions as far back as Windows XP, and even on some mobile smartphone OSs. However, I was unable to test how well the WebEx actually functioned on a computer with an older operating system such as XP or Vista. While WebEx can work on a mobile device, we don’t encourage students to use it on mobile for the tutoring appointment because of the constraints of the screen size make it difficult to share and collaborative on a paper together. WebEx is not compatible with the Google Chrome OS on Chromebooks.
While the minimum requirements listed for WebEx seem reasonable, the minimum requirements likely mean that students will have difficulty with smooth audio and video functionality, especially if they are asked to share their screen or to have any other applications open simultaneously.
In order to run WebEx, the user must download the program, download a browser plug-
in or run a temporary application, in addition to having multiple necessary plug-ins such as Java and ActiveX. This likely presents little difficulty for students using their own personal computers for the appointment, however, based on our visit notes, we have several students that are trying to meet with us during lunch break at work (using a work computer), or are using local library computers to meet with us. The administrator settings on these devices block students from being able to download any necessary applications or plug-ins that might be necessary to get WebEx running.
Affordances and Constraints of the Interface
The following screen capture images will be referred to as I describe individual aspects of the WebEx interface including how it functions and how many clicks it takes to find the aspect.
Image 1 is the default screen before the host of the WebEx conference, in our context at the Writing Center this would be the tutor, “starts” the integrated voice conference which allows the student to use a microphone and webcam. WebEx has multiple navigation bars on the interface, likely being a little overwhelming for new users and our tutors when first learning how to use the system commented on not knowing whether to begin. There is a window navigation similar to navigations in other programs like Microsoft Word that begin with “File” across the top left. This is the most extensive and complex navigation bar that WebEx has. There is also a secondary navigation bar underneath this navigation bar which changes the left side of the interface. The default screen “Quick Start” includes the buttons “Connect to Audio,” “Share Screen,” and “Invite & Remind.” Although it is easy to begin the integrated video conference by clicking “Connect to Audio”, one of the large middle buttons shown in Image 3, if a user is trying to figure out how to begin the conference, Image 2 shows how through the top navigation it takes three clicks to begin the conference. The use of “Connect to Audio” might not readily alert the host that they are beginning the conference by clicking that icon. However, the focus on access here is really on the conference host end, making it possible to prevent difficulties through training the staff. The right side of the interface has a third navigation bar that shows the participants in the conference, shows a live text based chat function, allows the recording of the conference, and a notes section.
WebEx does have some affordances that are useful when working with students in a tutoring session. These affordances are primarily focused on the ways in which the interface provides ways of collaboration through the platform. The middle button “Share Screen” allows the host or presenter to share their screen, displaying whatever is on their screen for other participants of the conference to see. The Share option as shown in Image 4 actually has several options for sharing, including files, applications, and a collaborative white board feature in addition to sharing the screen. While there are some clunky controls, such as right clicking on participants to pass them the presenter “beach ball” in order to share their screen, as well as navigating the new navigation bar that appears at the top of the screen when sharing screen is enabled, the share option allows conference participants to look at the same file/screen at the synchronously time without needing to send files or information outside of the platform. While these aspects exist within the platform, tutors and students are not necessarily aware of the functionality and are unlikely to experiment much within the interface when they only have 45 minutes (or less) to work through a student’s project during the session. Since a lot of this functionality is not apparent without digging through the navigation bars, the functions often are overlooked and not used unless tutors are specifically shown how to use the features in a session.
I have discussed some of the accessibility issues that students face depending on the hardware/software limitations and workplace environments. These are access barriers for some of our students. However, I’d also like to discuss the accessibility of the platform for disabled students. Cisco’s documentation on accessibility focuses primarily on adhering to federal guidelines, though the company does say that they are committed to innovation on accessibility. While it does seem based on the documentation that the platform is equipped to work with accessibility programs such as screen reader software, the ability to see live examples or instructions is limited and requires users to contact the accessibility team. This creates a barrier for both tutors and students to find adequate information to address immediate needs of students, as by the time anyone would get back to tutors or students, the session would likely be over. The requirements for the use of these accessibility programs and hardware is often behind federal regulation numbers and jargon, making it difficult to find information quickly or reliably without contacting their support services.
One particular affordance of WebEx at ODU is the support services for the platform. For the most part, easy to use instructions for setting up and using the platform are available. For more detailed questions or troubleshooting, contacting IT is necessary, but the support is available though not always immediately. While ongoing issues are something we can contact IT about, immediate issues are often solved via a workaround, such as having the student email the paper and talking on the phone. The workaround solution is usually a time sensitive response that tutors provide to students since the time of the appointment is limited to 45 minutes and students and/or tutors may not be available to work beyond that time frame.
While Adobe Connect was one of my initial choices for the analysis, the lack of continued institutional support for the program such as IT support being through Footprints tickets made it seem like it would not be an option that would fit our specific needs. I also was unable to set up an Adobe Connect meeting despite that fact that I and the other tutors are given faculty accounts, so I wasn’t even able to open the interface as a host to consider it as a possibility.
The Google suite is used through ODU and all of our students currently have an ODU email through Google. This provides an easy way for us to potentially integrate the use of Google Docs/Hangouts with students as a potential platform for online synchronous tutoring. Currently, tutors can integrate Google Hangouts into a Google Doc using an app, however, Google Hangouts will be automatically integrated into Google Docs June 26th.
Exchanges in Relationship to the WC systems in place
Since tutors already have access to Google accounts through ODU email, we would not need to set up any secondary or additional accounts in order to use the Google Docs and Hangouts applications. However, it would be necessary for tutors to send students an email inviting them to the hangout to join. This would also likely mean that we’d need to send an email to students when they book an appointment, giving them information about downloading the plug-in for Google Hangouts and telling them to look in their email at the appointment time for the appropriate link. We could potentially set up permanent hangout links for each of the tutors that could be emailed similarly to how we currently do WebEx appointment emails with links. However, this does leave us in a similar situation that we have with WebEx and potential mistakes that could be made during the workflow. Some of these difficulties could be less relevant depending on the appointment making software used, but the software would likely be separate from Google.
Exchanges: Relationships between Google Hangouts & User Hardware and Operating Systems
Google Hangouts, unlike WebEx, provides very clear and easy to find information on hardware and operating system requirements to run the program. Google Hangouts is available on computers using a Mac OS X, Windows, Chrome, or Ubuntu and other Debian-based Linux OS, as well as on iPhone, iPad, and Android. The program works in several browsers, though it does suggest not using Firefox, as some versions do not support the video function of the program.
Google Hangouts also provides ideal bandwidth information for two-person video calls– Outbound: 3.2 mbps and Inbound 2.6 mbps. These are relatively low bandwidth requirements for an ideal video call. However, based on experiences using the program in classes and even for collaboration purposes, the stability of Google Hangouts can be unreliable and often voice distortion, loss of video and audio can occur. While the stability is more of an issue in group calls, it is something that should be carefully considered when choosing to use the platform.
Affordances and Constraints of the Interface
The following images are of the Google Hangout interface.
The Google Hangout interface is much more simplified than the WebEx interface. The top navigation consists of an invite button, a settings button (video, audio, and bandwidth settings), and a drop down menu button which has the options Share Screen, Fullscreen, Chat (which opens a chat box as shown in Image 2), Help, and Feedback. The screen focuses on the current speaker, as shown in the Images above, but if a participant shares the screen, the the screen focuses on the shared screen. The simplifed navigation affords users the ability to move through the features and options provided by the platform quickly without overloading them with information.
While the concurrent chat box affords users the ability to see the video or screen sharing, while also seeing text in the chat box, one of the constraints with the chat feature is that it does not pop up automatically and sometimes users are confused with how to get the chat box to appear. However, the simplified navigation system makes it easy for tutors to provide students with easy to understand information to get the chat box up.
One of the affordances of the Google Hangout interface is that it can be adaptable depending on how it is used. While a Google Hangout can be used as a stand alone application as shown in the images above, Google Hangouts can also be within a Google Doc (within the chat feature) to provide a synchronous live word processing or white board environment for the tutor and student to collaborate on. Using Google Hangouts with Google Docs also allows for the use of Google Apps which can provide more features if necessary.
Many of the affordances in Google Docs include features like highlighting and commenting that allow a tutor to point to specific areas in the text and draw attention to them for the student without making the changes personally. This allows the tutor to engage the student in the work as is often done in face-to-face appointments and allows the student to make changes in real time that the tutor can see and discuss with the student.
While Google Hangouts does have a simpler navigation and seems more usable, there are features that Google Hangouts does not have that other platforms such as WebEx do have, such as the student being able to share their screen AND give control of the screen to the tutor. However, that isn’t necessarily a problem if the tutor and student are collaborating in a live Google Doc, as the editing power is shared between the tutor and student and neither has to give up the agency to make changes.
Unlike WebEx, Google has easy to find and read information about the accessibility of their products that is broken down product by product. While the link does not work correctly on the accessibility page, it is possible to get the Sign Language Interpreter app and Live Captions app which invite live interpreters and captioning to take place during a session if a dead or hard of hearing student needed to use the services. While these services exist, it is more difficult to get unbroken links and information on how to set up these services.
Google Docs provides support information for users on how to use Google Docs accessibility features, as well as advice for making documents in Google Docs more accessible. Using Google Docs as part of the online tutoring session provides several accessible features including Google Docs being both screen reader accessible and having Braille support within the screen reader capabilities. The screen read accessibility information also clarifies what screen reader programs are compatible with Google Docs and how to set up the programs to work with Google Docs. Google Docs also allows voice-to-text capabilities, making it easier for students who use software like Dragon to use the live collaborative tool.
I was really impressed with not only the accessible features that Google has for their products, but also the accessibility of the information about these features and how to set up the features easily. While the other platforms have information about accessibility, even clear information about accessibility being important to them, Google provided the clearest documentation on how to integrate those features, how to set them up, and provided both text and images as part of the documentation.
While Google Hangouts is included in ODU IT’s write up of software and services, ODU doesn’t provide any specific help in the form of instructions for using Google Hangouts. The response from IT on specific troubleshooting errors would likely not be immediate and would likely result in workarounds that we use when WebEx appointments do not work. However, a lot of the troubleshooting materials on Google are easier to follow and understand than the WebEx troubleshooting materials, so tutors may find it easier to work through troubleshooting with students.
When using some of the accessibility features of Google Hangouts and Google Docs, it is unlikely that ODU’s IT department would be able to help us and it would be necessary for us to contact Google if we ran into any problems. The result would be that we would need to plan in advance for using features such as the live sign language interpreter to make sure we would have the interpreter present for the meeting as needed.
WCOnline is unique among the online tutoring platforms that I chose from because it was created with Writing Centers as its primary audience. It also is the only platform that I chose that is already integrated with other features beyond online tutoring such as an appointment booking software program. While the program is not free, we were able to secure funding to use the program next year. Currently it is not synced with banner, but will be. This is the current front page of the portal.
Exchanges in Relationship to the WC systems in place
WCOnline as our online platform would solve some of the workflow problems and
mistakes generated through our front desk and the need to create workflows to move between software platforms and to get students information from multiple programs. For instance, students get an email from our appointment booking software that their appointment was scheduled and then get a separate email from the email@example.com email with the details about using WebEx and the specific link. The integration of the appointment booking and online tutoring platform within WCOnline means that when a student makes an online appointment, their email they receive from the system will include the link to the online appointment along with the details of when the appointment takes place. The administrator is able to tailor the email as well to provide specific information, including help instructions so the tutor working at the front desk would no longer need to make sure to send this email. This would likely eliminate some of the minor mistakes that included students not getting the email. It also allows students to log into their accounts and click on their appointment and join the online appointment that way too–so if a student loses the email, they still have access to the online appointment.
Exchanges: Relationships between WCOnline & User Hardware and Operating Systems
WCONLINE works on PCs, Macs, and Chromebooks, and on phones and tablets. While we still would not encourage students to use their phones for appointments because of the difficulty of editing on the phone, the image on the right does show the text editor in the online appointment platform being used on a phone.
Unlike Google Hangout or WebEx, WCOnline’s online tutoring platform is entirely browser based and does not require the user to download a program or plug-in for use. This is also why it is able to function on multiple OSs without problem because it isn’t an application that needs to be downloaded. WCOnline says that “users use Edge, Safari, Firefox, Chrome, Opera, Internet Explorer, and a few other browsers based on personal preference, with all functions working equally well on all browsers.” I can confirm that I was able to use it on my iPhone 5c, on Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome without any problems.
I was not able to find any specific bandwidth requirements or recommendations, though it is likely that they would be similar to the other applications such as Google Hangouts. The stability of the platform was more difficult to determine since WCOnline’s audience is not nearly as large as Cisco’s or Google’s.
Affordances and Constraints of the Interface
The affordance of not having to download any external plug-ins or applications would help solve one of the major issues that students have with WebEx. The platform being browser based also allows students to log in and use the platform on a variety of operating systems, including Chromebooks and Linux based operating systems as long as an internet browser is present.
Image 1 shows the default interface once the interface has been opened via link. If a student uploads a document the document is put into the text editor. The video feed appears on the left side (Image 2) and the chat text box appears on the right. Similar to Google Hangouts, the navigation is very simple, with the main navigation appearing at the top right being similar to a word processor navigation for text editing. The top left navigation includes turning the camera and audio on and off, the drawing tool, and a help button. However, one of the constraints of this simplified navigation is that there isn’t actually a way for the user to test audio or look at settings to set specific webcam or microphone preferences. While I’m currently not sure if it will cause troubleshooting issues, I can see it as constraint that may potentially cause troubleshooting issues during use.
One of the affordances of the system is that it uses an auto track changes feature, using a highlighter background to denote user changes live. It is then very clear to both users when changes have been made, as well as what in the document has changed during the session. The auto track changes is also easy to turn off by highlighting the edited text and clicking the eye button in the navigation (Image 3).
WCOnline’s appointment booking portion of the platform, as well as the online tutoring platform are all screen reader accessible. This allows students with screenreaders to book appointments online as well as attend online appointments, something that is not currently possible in our writing center. The portal for logging in also has direct accessibility information for students using a screen reader below the main Log In button. WCOnline also makes sure that any emails sent to the students are also able to be read with a screen reader.
While it is possible to do text based appointments for hard of hearing or deaf students, WCOnline does not have the range of features that Google Hangouts has such as the sign language interpreter or live captioning apps. However, if students did need these features of an online tutorial, a workaround could be created to use Google Hangouts for those particular appointments to meet the needs of those students. While this workaround isn’t ideal, it would still allow us to provide online tutorial services to those students.
The access that the browser based platform provides to many of our students who do not have administrative power on the computers they are using for appointments.
ODU will not provide direct IT support for WCOnline, however they will be working with WCOnline to connect the platform with banner so that student IDs and courses will be present in the system for data tracking purposes. WCOnline provides 24-hr. support via the phone and live chat.
Based on my analysis, particularly considering the accessibility and ease of use of the three tutoring platforms, it seems absolutely necessary for us to make a move away from using WebEx. Google Hangouts provides extensive features for accessibility that would be helpful in dealing with student needs that are currently not being met with WebEx. While WCOnline could benefit from some of these accessibility features that Google Hangouts provides, it also provides more seamless workflow between appointment booking and the online appointments. The platform also has other workflow benefits such as having survey feedback from students, data analytics, and visit note forms already built into the system. These features likely resonate with our Writing Center practices so well because the audience for the platform is Writing Centers. Based on this research and ongoing discussions about current problems and limitations we were facing within the Writing Center this year, our Writing Center has decided to adopt WCOnline for the 2017-18 school year.
This summer we will be setting up the program and piloting it. This will give us time to tailor the forms, emails, and front page portal to relay the necessary information to students to make the site usable and accessible to our students. However, I know that this analysis cannot be the last step in ensuring that this platform is being critically accessed to meet the needs of our students. My next step will be conducting usability tests this upcoming school year to see how the platform meets student, tutor, and administrator needs and if we can continue to modify the platform to meet those needs. I’ll also be advocating for better online tutor training and funding so that we can provide more distance appointments. In order to provide better overall tutoring services to our distance students, I realized that this requires a multitude of changes that will be ongoing.
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