Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Collaborating online

Teaching writing online doesn't mean the end of collaborative learning

One concern teachers have about teaching writing online is that the collaborative aspect of their teaching--and, for many of us, collaboration is vital--will be lost.

Your online writing class can still have a great deal of collaboration, and, again highlighting an advantage of online writing instruction, that collaboration can focus closely around texts and be driven by the students' writing instead of their speaking skills.

Here are a few collaborative activities/projects that you can use in your online writing class:

Peer review

By using message boards, you can place students into three- to five-person groups and have virtual writing workshops. Ask every student to start a thread by attaching (or cut-and-pasting) their paper to a post. Then ask them, using specific questions/guidelines, to critique each paper. Require them to account for previous posts in their critiques so you won't get the same responses over and over and a workshop-type environment can develop. You can even ask students to respond to their review posts.

Team projects

Again, I use WebCT. It is easy to establish a group in WebCT and associate a message board space just for the members of that group. One team assignment I have used with success is to have students collaborate to create an argument Website. I continue to be pleasantly surprised--and I'm sometimes amazed--at the work my student teams have done strictly by collaborating electronically. I think that as long as the assignment and the students' objectives are clear, they can do excellent work together in the e-environment.

Discussion sub-groups

Many teachers like to start general class conversations by having groups of students break off and discuss specific aspects of a reading or topic before convening as a whole. This helps students talk and think in a more close-knit, and thus perhaps less intimidating, environment. You can have the same dynamic on message boards by having small break-out groups of students focus on a particular aspect of a topic before having a general conversation with the whole group. Actually, if you're finding your message boards are flat, you may also use this method to get students to come out of the woodwork and be more assertive.

Synchronous communications

I want to disclaim that I don't use chats that frequently in my classes, so I don't want to feign expertise that I don't have here, but there are lots of tools--both free-standing and within course management systems--that can provide white spaces for groups of students to work, chat areas, and even voice conferencing arrangements. You don't need to get complicated: explore around in your course management system and see what is available. Having students work together on a white board or even participate in a chat moderated by you--which will be quite different from the casual chatting they are accustomed to--can help them see how an idea can develop based on collective writing.

More than 20 years ago, Kenneth Bruffee wrote, "Knowledge is the product of human beings in a state of continual negotiation or conversation" (1), helping frame a model of composition teaching that embraced collaboration. In some ways, it was a hard-fought battle, one that we still fight today when we are faced with conceptions of plagiarism that ignore the fact that writing, thinking, and being are collaborative endeavors (for instance, Spigelman discusses how writing groups complicate the academy's concepts of plagiarism and textual ownership [2]). We don't want to lose the essence of that teaching philosophy when we teach online, and there's no reason we should.


1) From Kenneth Bruffee, "Collaborative Learning and the Conversations of Mankind," College English, 46.7, pp. 647-8.

2) See Candace Spigelman, Across Property Lines: Textual Ownership in Writing Groups.