Critical Mass

In information design class today, I had a long conversation with a guy who is familiar with most of the user interfaces out there but largely unfamiliar with teaching writing. He said he’d done some tutoring, but hadn’t really taught. Our project for the class is to design materials for writing instruction for a new 3D multi-user networked environment under development called Open Croquet. I find it hard to get past the constraints of a “simulated” space which reduces the density of information a person can access. He found it hard to get past the constraints of the basic question—how do you teach writing?

The primary strength I see in the interface is that it is truly a multi-user environment. It might open up new levels of collaboration and erode the normal “preach mode” of which instructors, including myself, are very prone to. One problem is locating your “self” in relation to other collaborators in the environment given only a mouse and keyboard with no tactile or other sensory feedback. But worse than that is the problem of critical mass—how do we populate such a strange space?

I have recommended a short film to many of my colleagues, with virtually no reaction. Real life vs. internet seems like a masterpiece to me, particularly regarding “internet parties.” Early adopters of any new technology usually spend a lot of time standing around wondering where everyone else is. It seems to me that the most successful (in terms of broad adoption) interfaces of the last few years work by providing a higher density of information in the same amount of screen space—windows, tabs, feeds, etc. A 3D interface seems almost retrograde because there is actually less information and higher processing overhead. I can see attempting to demonstrate some writing heuristics (Burke’s pentad, the rhetorical triangle, tagmemic grid, etc.) in 3D but as far as the actual writing, well, writing is a 2D activity.

When asked “how do you teach writing” the only reply I had is that I sort of use a shotgun approach. I use as many creative metaphors as I can to compare it with other activities, offer frameworks for different aspects of the process and hope that something clicks with the student. I use peer review so students can compare their response to the assignment with other responses. A classroom is a multi-user environment, not merely a stage where the teacher “performs.” Somehow, in online instruction, this aspect gets stripped away. But the primary difference in classroom vs. internet is that the student has to be in the classroom. The internet is purely optional. Social activity on the internet, it seems to me, requires a lower “critical mass” to click—as Weinberger observed long ago, it only takes around ten or fifteen people reading for you to have some sense of “fame.”

I think that sustained effort is the key to learning to write. It is also the same thing that gives people mastery of the weird keyboard interfaced 3D simulated environments. It would be nice to bring these things together, but at this point, I still don’t have a good idea of how this could be achieved.