Openness, Theories of Writing, and Coding Robots

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At the Maker Faire in Fall 2016 my son and I played with various toys designed to encourage creative making. The most popular toy was the Ozobots, robots designed to teach kids to code using markers and colors. The use of markers to draw lines and codes intrigued me, but my goal is not to teach coding in composition courses. Instead of using the Ozobots as designed, I want students to creatively map theories of writing. Drawing on Judy Wajcman’s technofeminist idea of openness, this webtext discusses how coding robots, specifically Ozobots, provide space for disrupting coded use in meaningful ways for student critical engagement. I then present the assignment I used in composition courses that asked student to create theory of writing maps.

image of 4 ozobots

My Ozobots

Disrupting What Coding

Ozobots use light sensors to read color patterns as code, then perform actions based on their understanding of the color code. While the website offers an overwhelming number of resources, many of the worksheets ask players to add in the appropriate code to help the robot navigate a maze.

My ‘Theory of Writing’ Ozobot map created for my makerspace session at Feminisms and Rhetorics 2017. The Ozobot navigates and makes decisions given the options I’ve provided in my rectangular map. The Ozobot changes color as the marker line color changes.

Drawing on this idea, instead of focusing on teaching coding, I looked at what the Ozobots do (‘read’ colored lines) and considered where students could explore this openness. I asked students to use colored markers the robots can read to draw a ‘theory of writing’ map for the robot to navigate student composing practices.

In approaching technology through Wajcman’s principle of openness, everyday technology users can critically engage with and disrupt the expected use of the technology in important ways. This disruption and critical engagement have implications for writing practices. Students explore not only their theory of writing, their composing practices, but they consider how a robot can work through their experiences and how their critical engagement with writing helps them critically engage technology. This consideration of how a robot works through their map requires students to engage with the light sensor design of the robot, using the programming and critically engaging the programming to meet the needs of their representation.

Students Jacob Dickens, Misty Matesig, and Brooke Shimer created a messy mind map and an emotional map. In the emotional map on the right, the students used the red marker to symbolize their procrastination phase with Ozobot lights red.

The Assignment

I ask my students, after providing minimal instructions, to draw a map for the robot to work through their theory of writing, then present their map. The amazing part of this assignment is student groups naturally experiment, then plan, draft, revise and finalize with no prompting by me.

Instructions:

Each group (2-3 students) will draw a map of their theory of writing for the robot to work through. Keep in mind, composing is more than just drafting, typing, researching. In groups, consider all the elements of all your writing processes so the robot works through everything.

Note:

  • Ozobots are designed for kids, so you need to use thick lines, thick corners, thick circles – otherwise the robot can’t read them
  • Ozobots only recognize and read green, blue, red, and black.
  • Ozobots are programmed to make random decisions, if you provide intersecting lines, Ozobot will make a random decision.

After all groups have completed their maps, each group will briefly discuss their choices – why did you draw your map in this way and how does it help the robot experience your theory of writing?

While drawing lines with markers seems like an easy task, students must experiment with Ozobots navigating their lines as they make decisions for representing their theory of writing through what they learned about Ozobots coding. Students failed on their first attempt, but, worked through experimentation and failure, critically engaging with the openness of the technology. Instead of feeling constrained by the design and programming, the initial failure helped students recognize and disrupt the openness of the technology, it helped students engage with how to use the coded design to meet their writing needs.

When presenting, student groups are able to explain how they critically engaged with the technology and their theory of writing as they drew their map, because they initially failed. Student groups experimented with the openness of the technology in determining how to represent their theories using their understanding of the technology.

Bots in Action

I designed this assignment with minimal instruction to encourage student exploration of the openness of the technology. Students must experiment to determine what the Ozobots can do. Here are examples of final maps created by my Fall 2017 English Composition students.

Students Reese Graham, Peter Gray, and Adam Loving (upper left hand corner), students Matt Denes, Josh Marzak, Liv Medina, Tara Petrosky, and Nicole Stolarski (upper right hand corner) and students Syndee Barley, Sam Berdel, Karrah Keck, Haley Lathrop, Angel Mancini, Maddie News, Julia Park, and Jacqui Stewart (centered map) used color changes to represent various portions of their theory of writing. All three student maps include images (books, tears, balloons, etc.), emotions (crying, celebrating, etc.), and key concepts of their theories of writing (audience, discourse community, etc.).

Students Victoria Pappas and Iyla Stebbins (top) created a two-page looped map. Marissa Martin, Erin Payne, and Lydia Shaloka (bottom left) created an endless map that emphasized establishing points while composing. Alyssa Ames, Autumn Peters, Becca Proulx, and Caitlyn Stumpf (bottom right) created a map with connected shapes and a legend. The maps use shapes and decisions to demonstrate the continuing nature of writing.

Students Lindsay Messina and Evan Pugh (left) designed a circular snack break that can be repeated depending on the choice of the robot – and even send the robot back to the beginning of writing. Ginger Bradbury, Leah Hoffman, and Emma Padner (right) designed practices within their theory of writing to be recursive, but also optional (as they explained possibly to the detriment of the student-author). In both maps, the students used the decision programming openness to show writing complexities.

Conclusions

When given a few open-ended prompts, and not confined by the intended use of a technology, students critically engage with technologies (Wajcman, 2004). In disrupting the expected uses of technologies like coding robots, students explore the ways technologies support their learning and composing practices instead of exploring the ways technologies design learning and composing practices.

Acknowledgements

Special thank you to the Center for Academic Excellence at Millersville University for the funds that allowed me to purchase these Ozobots. Special thank you, also, to the participants at my maker session during Feminisms and Rhetorics 2017 for their early feedback on these ideas. Finally, thank you to my ENGL 110 English Composition students from Fall 2017 who happily volunteered their maps for this webtext.

References

Wajcman, J. (2004). Technofeminism. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

About Author(s)

A Nicole Pfannenstiel is an Assistant Professor of Digital Media at Millersville University. Her research focuses on composition theory, digital rhetoric, and videogames.

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