Agile Software Development and User Research for Community-Focussed Teaching Association of Teachers of Technical Writing 2010 ACCEPTED PROPOSAL

This panel proposal was written and submitted by Matt Penniman based on input from John Monberg and Michael Wojcik.


The panel will consider the successful use of agile software development techniques and user research methodologies in teaching mixed graduate / undergraduate courses, with a special emphasis on courses that identify and attempt to meet a community need. Panelists will present the creation of as a case study.


“Make a website.” At some stage in many technical and professional communication classes, students are asked to engage in website development. In many cases, the products of their work last for the duration of the semester and then disappear into the ether, perhaps to emerge in a later portfolio. These works rarely have value to the community as a whole. We present strategies for changing this outcome, by adopting agile software development techniques and user-centered design philosophies from the world of professional developers for use in the classroom and the community. We also examine a recent project, the creation of, as a case study of this approach.

Students in technical communication, new-media writing, digital rhetoric, and similar areas are increasingly being asked to write software (or near-equivalents such as complex HTML and CSS designs). The agile software development methodologies which have become so popular in the corporate world — XP, Scrum, AUP, etc — are also well-suited to these kinds of class projects, with their emphasis on small teams, frequent stakeholder input, short cycles, revision, and demonstrable progress. Michael Wojcik, a graduate student at MSU and professional software developer at Micro Focus, will explore agile development and its affinities with good writing-class practices, as well as its use in an academic research center.

Ethnographic methods developed in the academy have been reconfigured by corporate strategists who have a financial incentive to better understand the social worlds of their users. The OurMichiganAve project reclaims these user research practices to support civic engagement. Through methods such as interview, activity mapping, persona creation, and others, the social worlds of users can be integrated with a technologically mediated online experience. John Monberg, an assistant professor at MSU, will explore the practice of these techniques in a writing classroom and in a community.

Another component of successful websites is their orientation toward a defined audience. In many classes, this audience is assumed to be the teacher or the students themselves, but a richer possibility lies in looking outside the university. We will present strategies for identifying stakeholders in university-community partnerships, including community leaders, academic administrators, city planners, and regional economic development strategists. Coordinating efforts with community members requires sensitivity to embedded knowledge, expectations about time, duration of commitments, political and budgetary issues, and more. In Lansing, it requires an awareness of how the challenges and opportunities associated with globalization are affecting this medium-sized industrial region. Matt Penniman, a graduate student at MSU and technology consultant to several Lansing nonprofit corporations, will explore working and writing across the boundary between university and community.

John Monberg initially brought all of these factors together in a 400-level telecommunications class in spring 2009. The members of that class used an agile approach to develop and deploy a public, feature-rich, Ruby on Rails website,, to encourage public deliberation on the future of a major commercial corridor in Lansing, Michigan. John's 300-level technical-writing class that same semester also contributed content to the site, and further user research and development for it is being undertaken this fall by his 400-level digital-rhetoric class. The project's success validates the application of agile development and ethnographic user research methods in this environment.