Integrating Computer-Assisted Writing Tools in a Multi-Lingual Online Writing Center

  • Liesbeth Opdenacker
  • Published 2004


For a few years now there has been a tendency in Europe to integrate online writing centers in the teaching of writing skills, both for the mother tongue as well as for foreign languages. This change goes hand in hand with the rise of new forms of problem-based learning, e.g. collaborative learning, guided and self-guided learning and learning through experience. This article describes Calliope, the multilingual online writing center that is being developed at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. After an overview of the theoretical framework of Calliope, we will discuss the progress and content of the Scribani project. In this project, the University of Antwerp is working together with 3 other European institutions to exchange experience and expertise on developing a writing environment and integrating computer-assisted writing tools into this environment. THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK Calliope (, the muse of writers, is the name of the multi-lingual online writing center that is being developed at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. It is a modular platform where students can enhance their professional writing skills and get feedback and information on their writing process in different languages (Dutch, French, English, German and Spanish). Although writing centers are growing to be more popular in Europe, there are still very few online writing centers up and running to support the writing curricula. Since the European educational context is so different from the one in the United States, we cannot simply copy the existing US concepts for writing centers. Therefore, we decided to develop our own theoretical framework based on a constructivist pedagogical approach. We also wanted to create a writing center that supports both different learning profiles and different writing processes. OPTIMAL ADAPTATION TO DIFFERENT LEARNING PROFILES Most e-learning environments let learners go through the content at their own pace, individually and independently. However, most of these environments are designed for one specific learning style, e.g. by presenting wizard-like courses, disregarding alternative learning modes. With Calliope, we wanted to take it a step further and develop an environment that explicitly accommodates different types of learners. Calliope is constructed as a half-open environment that allows for different types of learners to create their own learning path. Learning objectives about process and product are set in advance, but various learning paths are available to meet those objectives: i.e. case-oriented or subskill-oriented (theory and practice). Figure 1: Basic outline of Calliope. Figure 1 shows a basic outline of the modules in Calliope. In the subskill-oriented approach you find both theory and practice. The colored letters represent different pages of content. The theory on press releases for example contains information on preformulation, headlines, boilerplates, etc. The colored letters under practice represent exercises that correspond to a specific page in the theory. In the case-oriented approach, students have to solve a larger problem that has been divided into different problem-defined subtasks. All the subtasks have to be addressed, but students can decide which tasks they want to solve first. Students have to solve the case step by step, however, they can leave this case at any moment to go to the theory and practice to fine-tune a skill needed to finish a certain task. This enables them to start with the case without having to look at the theory first. In the module on press releases the case looks as follows. The students are presented with some facts about an explosion at an ExxonMobil plant and they need to write a press release about the event. The case takes them through different stages of the construction of a press release, e.g. headline, lead, disclaimer, etc. At the end they can compare their press release with the original from ExxonMobil. Contrary to the exercises under practice, we don’t offer annotated solutions in the case. Students send their press release to a fellow student, who will review it using a feedback form. The press releases and the peer feedback are then discussed in their next seminar. The goal of this half-open structure is to allow students to go through a learning process that corresponds to their preferred learning profile. Students have to rely on self-regulation techniques and are to a large degree responsible for their own learning process. No matter which approach they choose, at the end of the session they have to meet the learning objectives defined in the opening screen of the module: they have to master the theory and they should be able to produce correct and strategic press releases. Kolb (1984) defines 4 different learning types: the accommodator, the diverger, the assimilator and the converger. His twodimensional model places those 4 learning types on 2 axes. The first axis opposes active and reflective learning. The second axis opposes abstract versus concrete knowledge. Kolb’s ‘accommodator’, for instance, prefers to learn through experience, active experimenting, trial-and-error and needs little structure. This learner will probably choose the case-oriented approach and will not leave this approach unless he needs extra information. An ‘assimilator’ on the other hand will probably prefer the suggested flow in the subskills approach where a quite abstract, reflective cognitive learning style is dominant. These learners like theory, rules and structure. Theoretical models give them something to hold on to and this is exactly what they find in the subskills path. Another important aspect of developing Calliope is that we wanted to incorporate a process approach to writing. CREATING A PROCESS APPROACH TO WRITING Most writing centers offer a selection of subprocesses characterizing writing, e.g. planning, formulating (or translating) and revision. Most of the time, however, these are often offered in a linear instruction, through lists of tips for idea collection, approaches for revision, etc. We understand that from a pedagogical point of view, it is hard to represent the recursive character of these cognitive subprocesses without creating a chaos, but we think that by implementing process characteristics on different levels, we have managed to create a more open and realistic non-linear writing approach. We opted explicitly for a half-open environment that sustains the process approach to writing. It is not the end-product that plays a central role in our concept, but the process leading to it. This process approach becomes apparent at various levels (metacognition, text genre and writing profile) and it influences the way in which the content in Calliope is constructed. WRITING PROCESS AND METACOGNITION In Calliope we want to stimulate metacognitive reflection regarding the different components of the writing process, and we want our students to reflect on the importance of good and strategic monitoring of their own writing process. We do this by confronting them at various stages of the writing process with (1) exercises solved by experts, (2) task material of peers and annotated by experts, or (3) videotaped process models of peers solving a writing problem while thinking aloud. Students’ metacognitive awareness and metacognitive skills are trained by exposing them to these materials. WRITING PROCESS AND TEXT GENRE We opt for a genre-specific writing approach instead of a general writing approach, which means that we take into account the particular context of a specific genre. For instance, the characteristics of the writing process leading to a press release are entirely different from those of the writing process leading to a complete set of minutes. WRITING PROCESS AND WRITING PROFILE Finally, we would like to refer to the connection between the process approach and the way we take different writing profiles into account. Research showed that there is no such thing as “the” writing profile (Van Waes 1992, Van Waes & Schellens 2003). Different people organize their writing activities differently, but even one person can adapt his/her writing dependent on the genre, the writing medium, the task, the deadline or the social environment. One of the advantages of Calliope is that it takes these different preferences into account and that it explicitly supports different profiles. Bridwell (1985), for instance, defines a very simple taxonomy of 2 writing profiles: the Mozartian type and the Beethovenian type of writer. According to her, writers following the Mozartian strategy rely strongly on extensive, initial planning. Then, they write mainly sentence by sentence, while revising and rewriting every sentence before continuing with the next one. When they have written their last sentence, hardly any revision takes place any more. For this writing profile, Calliope offers planning strategies and guides students systematically through the different elements of a business letter for example. Advice on revising cannot be put off until the end of the writing process, but has to be offered permanently to allow writers to take revision decisions on different text levels and at every moment in the writing process. Writers following the Beethovenian strategy, however, prefer a different approach. Such writers start writing almost immediately, with hardly any initial planning of the structure or the specific content. After having written a raw draft of the text, they evaluate it thoroughly. This kind of writer is in need of a more elaborate set of writing supports at discrete stages in the writing process. In the theoretical component a more reference-based guidance will be offered to this type of writer. SCRIBANI – DEVELOPING A EUROPEAN WRITING CENTER After developing the theoretical framework of Calliope, we are currently transforming this concept into a prototype application of the environment. The Calliope prototype contains information on specific text genres, e.g. press releases, business letters, meeting minutes, etc. in three languages (Dutch, French and English). However, our aim was never to develop Calliope as a learning environment that offers only content. We also wanted to create an interactive writing environment that enables students to give and receive feedback, to construct a text through collaborative writing, to collect writing assignments in an electronic portfolio, etc. We decided to collaborate with three other European institutions who were working on similar or complementary projects. We managed to get funding for this collaborative project, called Scribani, through the European ‘Minerva’ program ( Minerva seeks to promote European co-operation in the field of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and Open and Distance Learning (ODL). The Action has three main objectives, (1) to promote understanding among teachers, learners, decision-makers and the public at large of the implications of the use of ICT in education, as well as the critical and responsible use of ICT for educational purposes; (2) to ensure that pedagogical considerations are given proper weight in the development of ICT and multimedia-based educational products and services; and (3) to promote access to improved methods and educational resources as well as to results and best practices in this field. INTEGRATED ENVIRONMENT The aim of the Scribani project ( is to develop a writing environment that not only offers valuable information on how to be a better writer, but also a writing environment that supports a variety of writing activities. Therefore we want to offer computer-assisted writing tools to facilitate the following tasks: peer evaluation, open and structured feedback (using a feedback database) and collaborative writing and communication. We aim to truly integrate these computer-assisted writing tools into the writing center and create a functional learning environment that allows students to train different writing skills in different languages and explore various writing strategies. The integration should create an added pedagogical value and allow students to focus on their writing process. Creating an integrated environment is far from easy. Development costs are high and integrated environments usually have fewer features than the different stand-alone programs. A good example are the add-in text editors that resemble the functionality and interface of Microsoft® Word. These little applications are very useful for as long as you stick to plain text, but most of these editors will not allow you to make an Information Mapping document, for instance, with columns, tables and integrated graphics. You have to carefully consider what the added value of your integrated environment will be, otherwise it is not useful to spend a lot of time and money on the development of a new tool that can do less than the tool students normally use for a specific task. We will discuss our view on the integrated writing environment in our presentation. For now, we will give a short overview of the tools and environments already developed by the different project partners. PARTNERS The University of Antwerp is collaborating with three other European institutions on the Scribani project: (1) The University of Nijmegen (the Netherlands), (2) The Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden), and (3) The University of Warsaw (Poland). UNIVERSITY OF NIJMEGEN a two-year project (2000-2002) the University of Nijmegen developed the online writing center 'World Wide Writing' ( World Wide Writing can be used by all students in higher education who wish to develop their writing skills further in one or more languages (Dutch, English, Spanish, French and German). It is primarily intended as a way for students to work together in producing (academic) texts, but World Wide Writing can also be used on an individual basis by anyone (student/teacher/trainer/other external user) who needs to complete a writing task. Next to information to support the writing process and specific information on writing essays, scientific articles, etc. World Wide Writing contains a tool called TextPert. Textpert is a multi-lingual feedback database (Dutch, French, English, Spanish and German) that enables people to add feedback to a Word text. Adding open feedback is possible through the comment function. The strength of this database is its completeness and its high quality. Its weakness, however, is the difficulty for students (and tutors) to select the appropriate feedback unit because of the multitude of content, and the difficulty to navigate through the hierarchical structure. The meta language used in the categorization model and the labels might also create an obstacle in the selection of adequate feedback, especially when writing in a foreign language. Also, the way in which these feedback units are inserted into a document is not really user-friendly. Although WWW definitely has its strengths and benefits, it can still be improved on some levels, especially with regard to user friendliness and tailor made solutions for individual writing problems. Under the Scribani projects and with additional funding from the Dutch government, World Wide Writing will be refined into a next generation virtual tool for academic writing called 'Writing Studio'. The blueprint for Writing Studio contains the following elements: creating a digital environment which supports interactive writing education; making World Wide Writing more user-friendly; supporting writing education; developing a virtual learning environment, for students as well for teachers; doing research on best digital practices for writing education. ROYAL INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY IPLab at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, has been engaged in research on computer-assisted writing tools since the 1980's, and has contributed to the development of a number of research prototypes and products within the field. Col.laboració (Rodriguez 2001), a web-based collaborative writing environment, is one example of a writing tool under development. In this program a shared environment is created to distribute written texts, either synchronously or asynchronously. It makes it possible to: • retrieve and print the document as a whole or by sections; • modify, delete, and add a section; • be kept aware of changes on the document via email; • change the order of the sections; • interchange opinions and ideas among the authors; • write comments on the whole document as well on its sections; • keep track of different versions of the document or its sections. The strength of this application is the integration of communication and interaction instruments in a web based writing environment which facilitates the collaborative process. Its weakness is the quite implicit relation between text (fragments) and the comments, which makes it difficult to create an adequate context for the comment, especially when low level comments are involved. There is also no content-oriented classification of the comments written, only an author-based and chronological ordering principle. In the Scribani project, IPLab will be responsible for further developing Col.laboració into a more user-friendly application. UNIVERSITY OF WARSAW The University of Warsaw in Poland will be primarily responsible for content development in the Scribani project. They will also set up an e-mail project between Belgian and Polish students. Students will send each other business letters and give feedback on each other’s work, reflecting on their own language and (business) culture. The results of this project will later be used in an analysis of cross-cultural differences between Polish and Belgian business communication.

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@inproceedings{Opdenacker2004IntegratingCW, title={Integrating Computer-Assisted Writing Tools in a Multi-Lingual Online Writing Center}, author={Liesbeth Opdenacker}, year={2004} }