What are the future concerns for digital writing studies research?
Increasingly, to defray the costs of maintaining software run by thousands if not tens of millions of people, companies are turning to software-as-a-service (SAAS) and platform-as-a-service (PAAS) models. Moving away from shipping physical materials for customers to load themselves, many software companies have shifted wholly to content-delivery networks (CDN) and services for delivery. Software is increasingly, if not absolutely and ubiquitously, existing as sub-licensed parts and chunks granted to users through subscription models and pay-per-month access guarded by larger, gatekeeper applications. While users rarely ever owned even their own operating system software in the past, nearly all layers now, from the hardware drivers up to the most amazing graphical interfaces, are delivered, loaded, and updated via internet connections from outside servers.
Even beyond the more obvious shifts into content and learning management systems (CMS, LMS) as a result of these larger industry moves, this has meant for students at many institutions that their educational experiences exist within multiple concurrent systems and software layers simultaneously. Students may have personal archives on one cloud service while submitting their work for grading on another. At any one time, a student may be logged into competing brands of cloud services and systems, using whatever their institution may mandate and trying to move work into and out of one system or another. If there ever was a time of simply using a word processing suite on one operating system to compose, it is long gone as cloud computing and the educational move toward greater technical accessibility has swallowed the world.
On the one hand, then, all of these changes have allowed for an unprecedented level of admission for those who would not have otherwise been be able to afford education. Access via subscription-model funded services has lead the way for students at all levels to create, update, and submit in ways like never before. Instead of needing special software on their own systems, they can log into or pull up an interface to remote and often web-hosted composing software. Through version control and near-instant backups, works are no longer static, saved content existing as single files, but a history of changes, revisions, and thoughts refined over time and sometimes across physical space as students move between locations and write across different devices.
On the other hand, and specific for the larger fields of composition and writing studies, such digital artifacts of spiraling outward connections of updates and changes represent a deep, rich vein of study for how users create, edit, and ultimately publish their content on different platforms. However, these are also locked behind personalized gatekeepers and interfaces. They are bound up in learning management systems and sometimes even purged to save institutional resources soon after submission. Even as access has become easier for an individual user, the ability to study these artifacts continues to be compounded by two larger interconnected themes: researcher access and ethical concerns around intellectual property rights.
As a result of content moving away from centralized locations, the underlying questions for writing studies in digital spaces becomes not “How?” but much closer to the realm of “Should we?” and “At what risk to participants?” Under cloud and CMS/LMS access, researchers would need to be granted access by the participants or those in control of the final versions of the artifacts. Instead of being given physical or single file artifacts, often the medium of the cloud system is even a part of the presentation as the artifact is integral to the very platform from which it was created upon by the user.
Added to these concerns are also those surrounding the fluidity of subscription-model software rights. If a user creates content on a service but is then locked out of the platform, is it still theirs? Should they be allowed to retrieve it? At what cost? Are students owed access to their work? Is it a right of a student, even when the work is changed as a result of submission for grading, for example, to be granted this new version? When dealing with layers of software services, which part is a participant’s property? Is any?
There are no easy answers to these questions. The digital rights concerns around a student’s intellectual property shifts in the same way it does for other users. Safe and ethical access for researchers continues to be an important and powerful consideration for all research endeavors. Navigating the necessary tightrope walk around protecting participants and studying them without overdue risk is a vital discussion for all researchers. The intellectual property challenges coming for digital writing research are many. None, however, are insurmountable.