Strategies for Online Collaborative Writing

Tony Bates and Gary Poole (2003) note that in online teaching "[t]he main instruction or tutoring … is likely to take place in the instructors’ discussion groups …. Good discussions take time to build …" (p. 220).

From the Rhetoric and WWW Module on team preparation and planning:

Use your team-specific Discussion forum for assignment planning and collaboration. Your team forum will be set up as soon as your team membership is finalized. This forum is your team workspace: use it to stay in touch, discuss process and tasks, share documents and research, bounce drafts back and forth, and evaluate and monitor your work as a group.

Bates and Poole also favour threaded (nested) discussions for the following reasons:

Threaded discussion software allows an argument or discussion to build over time … A good discussion topic will often generate several single threads with over twenty or more comments and generally, the longer the thread, the better the discussion, because the topic will have captured students’ interest and the thread of argument builds a momentum of its own (2003, pp. 226-229).

In my own experience with threaded discussions (ex WebCT) as both teacher and student, I’ve found them useful for tracing the pathway or evolution of a discussion, seeing at a glance how much “weight” participants give a topic, and noting interrelations of sub-topics with major topics. It’s also handy to be able to reply directly to a posting without worrying about “quoting” it or being concerned that your response, even with quote, will get lost at the bottom.

Whether or not a discussion forum tool allows nested threads, students must certainly be able to create different sub-topics within a forum. Topic threads serve as a primary tool for teamwork and planning:

Student comment:
[Our] team usually communicated by postings in the group forum. I found the topic threads to be a great way to keep threads of conversation and information organized and easy to access at a later date if you needed to reference them. M_ and L_ met in person on two occasions, and M_ and I chatted a few times in a Chatzy chat room that was also a great experience.

All collaborative groups in Rhetoric and the WWW were required to post the gist of any "off-Learn" activities in their tream planning forum--for reasons of accountability, staying on the record, and to some extent ease of assessment. Though groups were also encouraged to try out a range of other online tools that might better suit their collaborative style or purpose (i.e. wikis or Googledocs), they all had to report back, as it were, to their team forum:

From the Rhetoric and WWW Module on team preparation and planning:
If you'd like to use other means to communicate during this project (see above), or collaborate in ways other than exchanging attachments, please post the gist of your exchanges inside this forum for the record.


A few students disliked the discussion forum tool available in "Learn" because it didn't seem very organized. This comment below hints at a preference for nested threads, whereas in the discussion forum tool in Learn (which is php-based), responses follow each other chronologically from the top down--newest at the end.

Student comment:
For the most part, we communicated through personal email or through our Learn preparation forum, although we did occasionally call each other. On several occasions we met in person. When we met, we usually had already completed the portions we were responsible for and then just worked together to make the final project flow.
~Dina Beaucage
Student comment:
The chat room on "Learn" isn’t conducive to online collaboration, and the online forums are sometimes difficult to work with as you can get a dozen posts a night that way and it clogs up "Learn." We also found that accessing "Learn" from a dial-up internet connection was close to impossible ...

This last comment also underlines the fact that not all online students have (or choose to have) high-speed internet. Slow connections impact students' online experiences and interactions, no matter what CMS is used. Not only for that reason, though, is it helpful for online collaborative groups to experiment with and use whatever technological tool best aids and abets their purpose and desired outcomes.

Some students seemed pleased to do much of their collaborative planning "off-Learn"--in many cases face-to-face; or using varieties of instant messaging/chat ... or picking up the tried-and-true telephone. Suggested collaborative writing tools included a wiki and Googledocs; two groups group did in fact use one of these tools.

But none of the seven collaborative groups in Rhetoric and the WWW used the discussion forums in the CMS to the exclusion of all other tools. Indeed, many students found other communication technologies, including meeting in person, to be just as (if not more) effective than the discussion forums. This suggests strongly that a "best practice" for teaching online collaboration is to discuss other tools, make them available either within or outside the CMS, and outline how those tools serve collaborative purposes. Restricting collaborative groups to discussion forums simply because that tool is a convenient part of a CMS may be letting the technological tail wag the pedagogical dogma.


Bates, A. W., and Poole, G. (2003). Effective teaching with technology in higher education: foundations for success. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.