Opportunities for Instructors: riding a "new paradigm"

In Distance Education in Transition (4th ed., 2004), Peters argues that recent and often massive changes in the socio-economic conditions of education—the “educational paradigm shift”—mean post-secondary institutions must “act as agents of change” (pp. 27-28) in order to survive and thrive.

... we will have to think the unthinkable, namely that our traditional system of education in school and university buildings, in face-to-face classes and lectures, cannot possibly cope with the tasks ahead of us. (p. 28)

Peters urges administrators and instructors to take advantage of “new information and communication media ... for devising, designing and developing new systems of learning and teaching ...which transcend the barriers of place, time, and circumstances and can be more flexible, variable, effective and adaptive to various types of students” (pp. 28-29). Well-designed online collaborative writing assignments can provide students with skills and strategies for “joint planning, developing and evaluating … [projects] from any location simultaneously and consecutively” (p. 88). From that practical standpoint alone, online collaborative writing provides students with vital professional and social skills ... and is there a writing instructor on Earth who wouldn't want to provide students with the opportunity to hone those skills?

More philosophically, a well designed online collaborative writing assignment also moves students into new modes of learning that Peters suggests are outgrowths of this paradigm shift: collaborative knowledge-creation, engagement, flexibility, and autonomous learning. The last concept does not conflict with cooperation, collaboration, or knowledge sharing. When students engage and work together to create meaningful, rhetorically situated knowledge, they become autonomous: no longer "objects of educational guidance, instruction, influences, effects, and obligations, but the subjects of their own education.... they themselves take over and exercise the functions of teachers" (Peters, 2004, p. 217).

In distance education, attention needs to be paid to the developing sense of community within the group of participants in order for [this active, collaborative, constructivist] learning process to be successful. (Palloff and Pratt, 1999, pp. 28-29).

Since an effective collaborative writing project invites students to take responsibility for their learning, find meaning and engagement in the learning activity, and share their knowledge with others, such pedagogy challenges all sorts of traditional presumptions about what good teaching is: including that the teacher's main role is to transfer knowledge to students and that the power-knowledge equation comes down on the teacher's side. Online collaborative writing thus invites us as instructors to expand and reflect on our own teaching presumptions and tried-and-true strategies--to do what we expect our own students to do.

Writing instructors and the administrators who support them should consider this ongoing, rapid educational paradigm shift not as a threat but as an exciting opportunity for new teaching and learning.


Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace: effective strategies for the online classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Peters, O. (2004). Distance education in transition: new trends and challenges. 4th ed. Oldenburg: Bibliotheks-und Informationssystem der Universität Oldenburg.