Analysis Report Project: Audience, E-Writing, and Information Design. (My Favorite Assignment)

Article excerpt

WHEN BUSINESS STUDENTS are asked to explain whether a Website is effective or not, they often lapse into vague generalities and abstract qualifiers. Since many of these students will soon become entry-level managers with some connection to an organization's intranet or the Internet, they need to develop an awareness of what components contribute to Website effectiveness. They also need to develop their writing skills, specifically writing skills for electronic media, often referred to as e-writing (Wilhelm, 1999; National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2000; US Department of Labor, 1993). The analysis report project described in this article aims to meet both these goals. It presents students with the opportunity to evaluate e-writing techniques and information design components of two financial and investment Websites. In doing so, students develop criteria for judging excellence by defining and justifying best practices. Students identify with the audience by learning the sometimes unfamiliar mater ial on the site as they become readers, users, and evaluators of the sites. This article describes the assignment and discusses some strategies for teaching e-writing and assessing the project.

Theoretical Background

Because the assignment turns students into evaluators, they develop all of the cognitive skills listed in Bloom's (1956) taxonomy: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Meeting the assignment's objectives requires analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, which, as Dyrud and Worley (1998) point out, helps "... students to extend themselves beyond the information-gathering stage to a consideration of what that information means, how it can be applied, and the consequences of application" (p. 63). Students must learn specific e-writing techniques, classify information design components, compare and contrast site effectiveness after analyzing the audiences, synthesize the information in a report, and make specific recommendations. Because students must say why or how an e-writing technique is effective and use concrete, specific examples as evidence, they are forced to analyze rather than merely describe (Hoger, 1998; Vamer & Pomerenke, 1998).

I use the three-part information design model developed by Carliner (2000) and discuss how the physical, cognitive, and affective aspects all work synergistically to create user-centered sites, so students begin to understand that each site must be created from the audience's perceived needs. While the primary objective is to analyze e-writing techniques, students also develop an increased awareness of how design components help or hinder the audience's understanding of the material (Andrews & Dyrud, 1996).

Assignment Description

This five-week assignment is based on a short case study that provides context and background, so students will think about audience in terms of both the report objectives and the report readers and be assessed accordingly (Varner & Pomerenke, 1998). As part of the case study, students become members of a Web development team at an investment firm seeking to attract college students and young, new investors. Appendix A reproduces the handout with details about the assignment. To simulate the first step in a development project, the student/Web developers write an analytical report comparing two effective investment Websites: Fool.com (Investing, 1995-2002) and Fidelity.com (Understand, 1998-2002). Although the students are business majors, most have not yet had a finance class, so the sites and their financial information are new to them. I provide some background on the Motley Fools and Fidelity Investments and note some of the assumptions I make about the audiences for each site. We then discuss issues abou t the audience so the students get an idea about the analytical process.

I also give them a set of questions to help them assess these two sites, characterize their audiences, and discuss the e-writing techniques and the information design components of each site (Appendix A). …