Daedalus Online: Customizing the Collaborative Writing Environment

Created with the idea that writing is essentially a social act, the Daedalus Online writing environment provides a discipline-specific Web space for creating, participating in, and managing writing courses. Like the LAN-based Daedalus Integrated Writing System (DIWE) introduced in the late 1980s, the current Web-based system is the brainchild of The Daedalus Group, a close-knit group of writing teachers and scholars who felt that computers could do much more for students than simply provide a means for typing papers.

Several versions of Daedalus Online are available. The "core" version, for example, works as a stand-alone system in tandem with any text adopted by a writing program. The text-specific version, however, works in conjunction with print texts published by the various companies owned by Pearson Education. The particular version we examined allowed teachers and students to access and utilize texts the writing program had adopted for its first year composition courses—The New Century Handbook and Allyn and Bacon's Guide to Writing—by linking directly to components of those texts online. Other books are also available for use with Daedalus Online, and both the core and text-specific versions allow for easy creation of online classroom assignments.

The price of Daedalus Online varies, depending upon whether instructors wish to coordinate it with their classroom texts or use it as stand-alone system. For example, the text-specific version bundled with a Pearson Education text is $12 net, plus the text price, while the core version as a stand-alone program bought independently is $20 net.

Technical Specifications and Assistance

Daedalus Online requires Windows 95, 98, Windows/NT, or Macintosh OS 8.0 or higher and 32 MB of RAM. The minimum connection speed is 28.8 Mbps. Since Daedalus Online is a Web-based program, users should also have access to a browser, such as Internet Explorer 4.0 or higher, or Netscape Communicator 4.0 or higher, but no specific software needs to be purchased by the user. Macintosh users will find that Netscape Navigator 4.05 inhibits the use of the InterChange tool; PC users also may experience some difficulties scrolling to view InterChange transcripts when using Netscape 4.05. Utilizing Internet Explorer is a simple solution to these problems for users of both platforms. The fact that Daedalus Online is accessible via the Web means that it can be accessed in the classroom as well as off campus—a plus for both students and instructors, and an improvement over the earlier LAN-based system.

The Daedalus Online homepage provides instructors with links that guide them in building course pages and assignments. Connecting to the Product Support Team with non-technical questions, like a forgotten password or help with deleting a file that has been uploaded, is simply done via the Web or the telephone. Telephone technical support is available Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.—a disadvantage for those involved in teaching or taking weekend courses. In addition to this support, Daedalus occasionally offers online open houses so that instructors can browse the various features of Daedalus Online and become familiar with a network of its users. A listserv for faculty provides a mechanism by which instructors can discuss ways Daedalus Online can be integrated into writing courses.

A "Release Notes" utility provides links that take instructors to pages of information concerning both system requirements and current problems users have experienced with the system. Additionally, within each course page, there is a "Help" button that links instructors to information about creating assignments and other issues. Within this feature a search engine allows instructors to locate specific information about Daedalus Online.

Features

Daedalus Online allows instructors to customize their course pages without expert knowledge of Web design or coding. Clicking on a particular activity in the "Assignment Manager," for example, automatically codes the class home page so that the assignment can appear on it, and typing data into a text box easily creates or edits this information.

Instructors may choose either to post their assignments immediately or postpone the date at which they become visible to the class. This feature is an asset for those instructors who want to work ahead and upload documents for their classes but do not want students to find the information until final adjustments to the materials have been made.

Instructors also have the option of looking at their course pages from both the instructor and student perspectives, and a link to the "Teaching Resources" utility allows instructors who are new to the online teaching environment to sample assignments for different writing tasks.

Tools

The six tools for creating student assignments included in Daedalus Online are: Invent, Respond, Discussion Board, InterChange, Readings, and Reference Links.

The "Invent" tool provides students with a pre-writing series of questions that encourages them to think carefully about a particular topic. The "Respond" tool takes students through a post-writing series of questions aimed at facilitating peer review activities. Instructors will find that both tools address many different modes of discourse, such as report writing, the narrative essay, argumentative writing, and writing about literature, to name a few. More importantly, Daedalus Online allows instructors to create their own writing assignments and customize their questions. Available course materials save instructors much time in course planning, while maintaining the ability to customize these materials provides autonomy over course content and instruction.

The "Discussion Board" allows instructors to post a brief prompt to facilitate a threaded asynchronous discussion about a particular topic, while "InterChange" offers a means by which students and instructors engage in real-time synchronous discussions. Discussion Board files attached to a topic cannot exceed 100 kilobytes or 250 characters, which may hinder instructors who prefer to facilitate discussions through more lengthy prompts containing quotations from readings. As a space for communicating ideas online, InterChange allows users to type longer passages than they can in traditional chatrooms. In InterChange, instructors may easily create work groups in order to divide the class into smaller sections. Both the postings on the Discussion Board and the discussions in InterChange remain as archived text that can be used later for reference when assessing student participation or intellectual progress.

Finally, the "Readings" tool allows instructors to post reading assignments online, and the "Reference Links" tool allows instructors to post links to course materials they want students to visit.

Through the use of these components, instructors can build collaboration-intensive assignments in which students not only work together online but also gain the experience of publishing their writing for an audience. Pedagogically, these tools taken together underscore the idea that writing is a process requiring the time and careful thought of many learners.

Daedalus Online also provides instructors with a means of tracking student work. Instructors may look up assignments posted by individual students or the entire group and know when those assignments were actually posted. Instructors can download student papers in two modes: by individual student or by the entire assignment.

Daedalus Online provides students with a variety of ways to communicate with each other in groups through the class bulletin boards, the InterChange chatroom, and e-mail, thus making collaboration more feasible. These features also come in handy with students who do not have access to an Internet service provider or with universities who have limited resources for these kinds of tools, particularly chatrooms with archiving features that take up a great deal of space on university servers.

Usability

As with many other online environments, Daedalus Online requires that all students and instructors set user names and passwords in order to access their course pages. Students purchase a student access card containing initial login information and set their own passwords once they have logged on.

Once inside Daedalus Online, instructors and students will find an easy-to-use set of navigational buttons. Clicking on the "Home" button, for example, allows users to find their way back to a central place if they have wandered off into unfamiliar territory. The "Back" and "Forward" buttons function as they do in any browser by moving the user back and forward through the site, and the "Help" button provides instant assistance with navigation and other problems.

Learning Daedalus Online is not time-intensive. Our experience has shown that instructors should set aside approximately two class periods in the beginning of a course to assist students with logging in, learning the logic of the site layout, and becoming accustomed to accessing materials and downloading papers. Instructors new to Daedalus Online have the option of downloading an online manual that provides information for teaching and understanding the system.

Design and Options

Daedalus Online is not a course delivery system, but a writing environment that facilitates collaboration and teacher-student interaction within a particular disciplinary context. This said, instructors will find they are able to upload any document into the site and provide outside links to customize the course pages. Thus, virtually everything students need to know about their writing course can be put into the course page for complete accessibility. But video streaming capability for lectures, online gradebooks, and other course management options associated with course delivery systems are not available in Daedalus Online. Additionally, there is no option for creating individual student information profiles. However, within the realm of a composition course or literature course requiring a writing component, Daedalus Online provides the necessary tools to manage a writing-intensive class.

Pedagogical Savvy vs. Technological Know-How

Perhaps what sets Daedalus Online apart from other online environments or writing software programs created without one particular discipline in mind is its mission to encourage students to see, read, and respond to each other's writing. The six tools available in Daedalus Online assist instructors with building collaboration-intensive assignments in which students not only work together online but also gain the experience of publishing their writing for an audience. The process of invention and the collaboration required of students to respond online to classmates' work encourages students to read and think carefully about what they say to others about their work, knowing that their comments will be viewed by other classmates. Ultimately, students are made aware that writing is an ongoing process and not a product.

Technologically speaking, Daedalus Online d'es not require that instructors be experts in Web coding and design or that they take vast amounts of time to set up an online course. Rather, it offers an easily manageable space for an online component that supplements face-to-face instruction of composition and literature courses requiring writing-intensive practice. Thus, technology is used to enhance the potential for effective peer critique and group work, and it eliminates some of the busy work associated with creating assignments and managing groups. The result is that pedagogy and not technology drives Daedalus Online.

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