Writing Centers have traditionally been composed as physical spaces but with the advancement of technology, an emphasis on multiliteracies in literacy studies and ongoing conversations about making education accessible to all, institutions are wiring their writing centers. Today, many writing centers, especially those in the United States, seem to have some online presence and many provide some sort of online service to students and other patrons. The impact of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has also meant that many higher educational institutions and indeed writing centers are now operating online, a situation that has further highlighted the significance of thinking about access in higher education. If people were ambivalent about the introduction of computers in writing centers two decades ago (Hobson, 1998), patterns in our present moment suggests that online writing centers are becoming a norm. However, moving from the physical space to the virtual space requires considerations of how the digital impacts the composition of the writing center and the implications that this has for issues of access. Connected to this discussion is the place of design in the composition of the online writing center and its implications. Because much of the discussion on access tends to focus on classroom teaching and not necessarily writing center work, it seems expedient to consider what this means for online writing centers. This essay reviews research at the intersection of access, design and digital writing centers, considering how perspectives from this scholarship provides insights into local practice in one writing center.
The available research on the intersection between access and design engage with two main topics: the implications of writing center technologies and approaches for examining and increasing accessibility. The first indicates that access in the online writing center is not merely a technological issue but that it has sociopolitical implications. This perspective engages with issues of disability especially and [their links with] other intersectional variables such multilingualism (see Brizee, Sousa and Driscoll, 2012; Quinn et. al., 2019). Quinn et. al., for example, explain that while there is a growing increase in the number of disabled students in higher education, many of them are invisible in institutional discourses, including those that are digital. They argue that the invisibility of disabled students in institutional digital discourses, including those in writing centers, is a problem of access, which not only disadvantages differently abled students but also perpetuates dominant structures. Using three assessment tools–that is, “Snapshot Click” Assessment, “Kennedy, Evans, And Thomas’ Accessible Website Assessment and Section 508 Guidelines Assessment–to examine the websites of fifty (50) writing centers, the authors confirm conclusions from extant research that “university writing center websites are inaccessible”. Not only are elements such as headings, multimedia, alt tags and simple sentences not used in the websites, many of the websites contain complex designs and inaccessible content–a situation that prevents differently abled students from accessing resources from these websites.
The second issue in the existing research calls for critical reflections on methods deployed in online writing centers and here there has been particular emphasis on the relevance of usability theories and tests (see Salvo, Brizee and Conard-Salvo, 2009, Blythe, 1998). Blyth (1998), for instance, argues for “critical reflection” on the implication of human/technology interaction for writing instruction, suggesting that usability testing is a means for such an enterprise in a networked writing center. The strengths and limits of strategies such as interviews and questionnaires, think-aloud questions and asking protocols and self-reporting in usability testing for writing centers are examined. For Blythe, writing center administrators can combine these strategies for maximum results but they must also consider how other factors such as budget might impact their testing (p. 110). Besides providing a concrete approach for engaging accessibility for online writing centers, Blythe’s argument also expands our notion of accessibility for it implies that engaging the principles of accessibility in OLI guidelines requires research and engagement with students–the population for whom writing center services are provided and is not about administrators making top-down decisions about what accessibility entails. The significance of Blythe’s emphasis on participatory usability testing is evident in Brizee’s, Souza’s and Driscoll’s (2012) publication on usability testing of Purdue’s OWL which engaged both local and global users as well as other institutions in a multiprocess examination of accessibility. For Brizee, Sousa and Driscoll, this “rhetorically-informed” (p. 3) approach can help us “better adapt our pedagogies for all students of writing” (p. 27).
The discussions above suggest that at the core of most of the research on access in online writing centers is a concern with empowerment of writing center users. Quinn et. al. seem to suggest that there is a connection between the engagement of disability issues in writing center mission statements and questions of accessibility on their digital presence. Indeed they argue that “[f]ew writing center websites included explicit mission statements of support for students with disabilities” and that “Inaccessible writing center websites and lack of statements regarding disability support misrepresent the field’s priorities and commitment to students with disabilities.” Such practices, Quinn et al. seem to argue, disrupt the “grand narrative” of writing centers as a “cozy home” of “anti-academic, anti-establishment, caring, and iconoclastic” (as cited in Grutsch McKinney 2013, p. 25) practices and suggests usability testing as means for ensuring institutional change. As Blythe explains, engaging students in the design and decision making for networked writing centers aligns with the mission of writing centers as places for “human empowerment”. Blythe’s argument against “armchair inquiry” is critical for thinking about the ways in which we examine accessibility in our online classrooms and centers. It suggests that accessibility should not necessarily be defined by administrators and faculty but must be a process that involves various stakeholders. This “dialogic” approach of usability testing gives students a voice in what happens in the writing center and does not subsume their interests within administrator’s decisions about technological decisions (p. 111).
What do these discussions mean for my local writing center? The center I work at is relatively young; thus, while it has an online presence, it is still under construction. This means that not much resources are available online. Moreover, our online presence is more of a page describing the center rather than a website. Nonetheless, the webpage seeks to communicate some important information. On the site, information about how to book an appointment and what is expected of students are available. The last time I checked, the link to the online schedule was no longer working, which means that we have to consider other approaches for providing access to writing center resources and information. The language on the website does not engage questions of disability. There might be some contextual issues determining the absence of issues of disability as this is a different context than those of the United States. This is something that we would have to investigate further. We have plans of building an online presence and many of the discussions in the readings provide important information about access that will be significant as we begin these conversations.
Blythe, S. (1998). Wiring a usable center: Usability research and writing center practice. Wiring the writing center, 103-118. Eric H. Hobson. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press.
Brizee, Allen; Sousa, Morgan; and Driscoll, Dana PhD, “Writing Centers and Students with Disabilities: The User-Centered Approach, Participatory Design, and Empirical Research as Collaborative Methodologies” (2012). Purdue Writing Lab/Purdue OWL Graduate Student Publications. Paper 3. http://dx.doi.org/http://www.dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compcom.2012.10.003
Grutsch McKinney, J. (2013). Peripheral visions for writing centers. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt4cgk97
Hobson, Eric H. (1998). Usability research and writing center practice. Wiring the writing center, 1-24. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press.
Quinn, S., Belmonte, A., Davis, E., Gardewine, A., & Madewell, G. (2019). Access [dis] Abled: Interrogating Standard Design Practices of Higher Education Writing Center Websites. Disability Studies Quarterly, 39(4).
Salvo, M. J., Ren, J., Brizee, H. A., & Conard-Salvo, T. S. (2009). Usability research in the writing lab: Sustaining discourse and pedagogy. Computers and Composition, 26(2), 107-121.