Collaborative Writing: Applying the Digital Medium
Collaborative writing is a challenging concept, perhaps an even more challenging practice, for a discipline still very much entrenched in views of writing as individual effort and product as commodity with a single owner, reinforced by pedagogical practices and assessment measures that perpetuate such perspectives. In their essay “Collaborative Writing, Print to Digital,” Krista Kennedy and Rebecca Moore Howard provide a comprehensive overview of collaborative writing potential in classroom and virtual practice. Drawing from Bruffee’s perspective of collaborative learning, Kennedy and Howard highlight the activity as “a way of engaging students more deeply with the text” and providing “a social context in which students can experience and practice the kinds of conversation valued by college teachers” (37). By referencing Peter Elbow, Karen Burke LeFevre, Lundsford and Ede, and many other social constructivist and collaborative learning theorists, Kennedy and Howard propose that effective collaborative writing relies on several important key components: group dynamics, dialogic exchanges, a medium (physical or digital) of interaction, inclusion of minority views and opinions, and shared tasks and deliverables. The goal of collaborative activities arranged according to these components is to generate “creative conflict” (42), encourage group ownership and accountability (43), and replicate the collaborative experience of the workplace. New media, Kennedy and Howard further illustrate, offers access to tools that can mediate these goals, facilitates effective collaborative writing, and is becoming an essential convergence point for collaboration.
I would like to address specifically Kennedy and Howard’s focus on engaging digital tools for collaborative writing. While I certainly agree that social media platforms such as Twitter, blogs, and wikis bear the potential for student collaboration, I am skeptical of the way in which these spaces are often employed. For this reason, I agree with Kennedy and Howard that “Wikis,” as well as any media a teacher might leverage for collaborative writing activities, “demand more flexibility, training, and support from both the instructor(s) and students” (49). I make this assertion because what I often observe in online teaching, which incorporates many of these digital tools, is an assumption that the collaborative potential of certain technologies results in meaningful collaboration. In other words, the tool is perceived as both mediating technology and user ability. Students are thus thought to possess an inherent understanding not only of the digital tool they use for collaboration, but also of how to collaborate by means of that tool. Then, when a digital tool doesn’t produce the hoped-for effect or the project falls short of objectives, the experiment with virtual tools is abandoned and the instructor reverts to the practices of comfort and the methods of tradition.
The incongruities I often see resulting from misapplication of digital tools for collaborative writing activities in online courses has prompted me to ask a couple of questions.
1- Are the tools available in a Learning Management System, like Blackboard, sufficient for robust collaborative writing activities? If not, which digital tool, social media application, or technology platform best mediates collaborative writing?
2- What does “training” students for virtual collaborative writing activities consist of? How much emphasis should be placed on learning the technology? How much on effective collaboration?
3- What advantages if any do synchronous communication tools such as Blackboard Collaborate, Adobe Connect, and other Video-Web programs offer in terms of collaborative writing potential?