As the final project of the “Cognition and computers” course, I worked with two classmates in designing a collaborative fan fiction writing website for ESL learners.
Excerpts from the paper:
The main theoretical foundation supporting our design follows two branches of thought: the allied theories of constructivism and constructionism as well as situated cognition and communities of practice. Because we were so inspired by self-motivated and self-directed learning, based in personally meaningful real-world contexts, we immediately connected our design to Papert’s introduction to his seminal book, Mindstorms, where he wrote of his own inspiration and motivation to learn about the inner workings of gears (1980). Papert’s constructionist ideals, within a constructivist learning theory, suggest that learning best occurs when the learner is responsible for constructing their own knowledge through the tangible manipulation of objects-to-think-with (1980; Holbert & Wilensky, in review). Instead of relying on an expert model provided by, say, an English language teacher, the learner develops their knowledge by encountering and reflecting on new information in relation to their own experiences; the learner crafts a mental model in the moment. There is no need to be right “the first time,” because a learner is motivated to grow and improve through tinkering and reflection. New knowledge constructs are built alongside tangible artifacts, and each is edited in real time based on a dynamically shifting needs. Because this theory is learner-centered, personal choice and motivation are central to constructivist learning theory, as is a meaningful and real learning context (Piaget, 1977). This is a characteristic constructivism shares with situated cognition: learning happens in context. Wenger and Lave’s theories of situated cognition and, in particular, communities of practice, gave us a blueprint for developing an object-to-think-with that is dynamically social (1991; Wenger, 1998; Thomas, 2005). Feedback from others helps you learn directly by making changes based on the critiques and suggestions of others, but more importantly it helps a learner reflect on their own practice by putting an emphasis on tailoring your work to fit within a larger context (Piaget, 1977). A situated object-to-think-with offers a learner-centered workspace placed squarely in the tangible, meaningful real world.
StoryTree is a website for English as Second Language (ESL) learners to collaboratively write fan fictions in a relay writing fashion to help them improve writing, literacy, and narrative skills (Yi, 2008). Users begin writing a fanfiction by choosing a topic (fiction/comic/movie, etc.) of their interest, such as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, or The Song of Ice and Fire, or can provide a new topic if it doesn’t already exist in the website. Like other fanfiction sites, users write the fanfiction based on some background, characters, or plots of the original work, but can have the freedom to alter or add new characters and plot. However, the main factor, which differentiates StoryTree from other fanfiction sites, is its collaboration. Since the main purpose of StoryTree is not to explicitly teach English grammar or writing skills, but to foster improvement through constructivist learning, the activity of writing fanfiction on StoryTree is not solo but in the form of relay writing. The user who starts a new story writes the first few paragraphs, and then other users can jump in to continue writing other paragraphs. StoryTree will match users with stories based on their interest. Also, the relay writing is not solely linear, so users can continue the story after any paragraphs they like, thus creating many versions of the same story, just like tree branches. Figure 1 shows the landing page of StoryTree, where popular stories are beautifully displayed as trees, with branches indicating different versions of the story and leaves representing users who contributed to the stories. If the story gets too complicated, users can zoom in to see detailed “branches.” Users can select different categories to see popular stories in each category, and create a new story by clicking the “Create New Story” button.
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