Strategies for Online Collaborative Writing

The "Learn" environment mentioned throughout this wiki is an open-source course management system built on Sakai, created and used by the University of Winnipeg. From January through April 2007, as a long-distance contract instructor, I taught an upper-division online undergraduate course called "Rhetoric and the World Wide Web" using "Learn" for the first time. I kept track of my course (re)design and pedagogical decisions in LiveJournal.

Online instructors have to walk a fine line between concision and redundancy to convey "the right" balance of information and resources. To communicate suggestions and requirements for planning and preparing the collaborative writing project in Rhetoric and the WWW, I considered creating an assignment-description PDF. This, however, would have yielded an 8 - 10-page missive. Instead, I created a learning module on this topic: an approach allowiing students to read step-by-step or skip back and forth as they preferred ... as long as they completed all the "interactive" bits. Click here for a sample module.

The modules, combined with a tendency I learned over the years to err on the side of redundancy in online teaching, ideally allow learners to find important information on several places in the site as well as encourage exploration and creative "back-tracking." This redundant, exploratory approach arguably reflects the hypertextual structure and mode of thought engendered and made possible by the web. However, it requires students to be self-directed, not reluctant to think non-linearly, and not unduly distressed if the same thing comes up more than once.

One "best practice" may be to make the intention and philosophy behind this "redundancy" and "back-tracking" as clear as possible to students--perhaps opening up discussion on the pros and cons of hypertextual thinking.

Student comment:
... teams using Learn must pay particular attention to the multiple possibilities where shared information can be sent. They must religiously check PMs [private messages], all discussion threads (since only the last post is featured), all discussion forums (module discussions, seminar discussions and team discussions) and announcements and modules to make sure that they have ALL of the information.
~Kimberley Burron

This comment above also speaks to the structure of the discussion forums in "Learn," the CMS used for Rhetoric and the WWW.

Student comment:
In the future I’d recommend exchanging personal information (private email, maybe even phone #) so you can get in contact with someone in an emergency situation – such as being the first presentation team!!! – or if you just have a question. People are far more likely to check their hotmail every few hours over Learn.

This comment above speaks to the truism that in online teaching, one can't repeat important information often enough. In the Rhetoric and the WWW module on team preparation and planning, the first recommended step for newly formed teams is to exchange "off-Learn" contact information. However, this step wasn't posted elsewhere or repeated later.

Student comment:
I would recommend that future teams allocate enough hours for this project. It sounds a lot simpler than it is and we spent a lot more time working on our project than any of us anticipated we would. It ended up being a fair amount of work. And we found it was easier to tackle in person. [emphasis added]

Except for the last point about working in person, this is also advice that falls under the categoy: can't be repeated often enough. On the other hand, over-emphasizing the "difficulty" and time-thievery of online work too early and too often can be discouraging or could cause perfectly capable students to back away from the course. Part of learning to collaborate online is to learn about one's own capacity for managing and delivering on a project when you may never meet your team face-to-face. Perhaps the most practical approach is to include a general warning in the course description about the fact that online collaborative work (including teaching) often takes quite a bit more time than the face-to-face equivalent, followed by regular reminders about deadlines and the need for frequent, regular log-ins.