The University Record, October 28, 1998

Computer-aided collaboration builds writing skills

By Nancy Ross-Flanigan
News and Information Services

Students who work together on writing projects become much better and more flexible writers than those who labor alone. And when they collaborate via computer, their progress is even more dramatic. But teachers whose students work this way must maintain a sense of presence and authority online and may need to steer students around the pitfalls of electronic collaboration.

These are some of the conclusions from a two-year U-M project in which Department of English faculty and instructors evaluated computer-aided instruction in English composition classes. Their findings appear in “E-COMP: Observations on Teaching Writing with Computers,” published in the spring 1988 issue of Learning Technology Review. (The article may be found at http://ed.info.apple.com/LTReview/current/ecomp.html.)

When the project began in 1995, the faculty and instructors already shared a strong belief in the value of collaborative writing as an instructional technique, explains Eric Rabkin, a professor of English and the University’s acting director of academic information processes. In fact, in a 1990 book, Teaching Writing That Works: A Group Approach to Practical English (U-M Press), Rabkin and Macklin Smith, associate professor of English, described ways to use collaborative writing in the classroom.

But as Rabkin and others in the English department began to realize that e-mail, mail-groups, conferencing software and World Wide Web publishing could enhance the collaborative process, they set out to systematically explore ways to use electronic media in their teaching. The group designed courses in which students worked together via computer to write essays, reports and proposals and to critique and grade one another’s work. At weekly meetings, the teachers talked about what worked and what didn’t. Later, using the same techniques their students had used, they distilled their observations into the Learning Technology Review article.

While the overall result was positive—students who used computers to collaborate on writing projects became better writers and learned to adapt their writing styles to different media—teachers who use these methods should be aware of a few realities. For example, students may get so caught up in discussions among themselves that they forget the teacher exists. While this could happen momentarily in a traditional classroom, the possibility is even greater in cyberspace, where people are separated in time and space.

Conscientiously responding to students’ e-mail and asking to be included in students’ mail-groups can help teachers maintain a sense of presence and authority. Teachers also may need to step in when students’ online exchanges are too frank, Rabkin and his co-authors note. While shy students become more communicative online, outgoing students may become too forceful—even brutal—in their critiques. And even when students’ comments are not excessively harsh, they may miss some important points. For example, Rabkin’s group noticed that students who collaborated electronically were more likely than others to pick apart sentences word-by-word, commenting on awkward syntax or odd diction. While their attention to sentence-level details led to important insights about effective writing, it sometimes kept the students from commenting on larger issues, such as overall organization.

Other problems occurred in groups of students who collaborated on the writing itself, exchanging drafts by computer. They sometimes fell into writing to please one another, forgetting to aim their work at a wider audience. And in trying to agree on ways to express their ideas, they backed away from controversial points and tended to hedge and to qualify their statements.

However, all of these problems are easily solved, Rabkin says. Teachers can give assignments that force students to step back and consider other audiences—writing an advertising campaign for a favorite charity, for example. They can offer guidance on how to evaluate others’ writing. And when all else fails, they can have students print out what they are critiquing. Reading something on paper seems to shift one’s attention away from details to the overall quality of the writing.

In spite of the teaching challenges, Rabkin and co-authors Bryan Alexander, Jim Crowley, Deanne Lundin, Vicki Mudry Perkins and Stephanie Palmer are convinced that helping students learn to collaborate on writing projects via computer is essential. After all, Rabkin points out, that’s how most writing is done in the real world these days.

The final product results from “an ongoing process of discussion and writing, of listening and revision and of editorial suggestion, both in words spoken and in words written,” he says. And increasingly, those “words written” are tapped out on a computer keyboard and shared in cyberspace.


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