For some years I’ve been building collaborative writing into 2nd – 4th-year writing courses, and peer critique (which isn’t the same thing) into 1st year courses. Almost since the start of my online teaching efforts in the late 90s, I’ve taken various stabs at designing team-based online writing assignments that will prove effective in that faceless environment. In my next few entries, I’ll take this process apart for Rhetoric and the WWW, looking at how my practices and my uses of “Learn” tools for managing this assignment (particularly the Discussion forums) affect online community building.
The collaborative assignment Rhetoric and the WWW asks students to work in teams to create a short interactive presentation (Word doc, PPT, or media-based) inquiring into how or whether at least two web sites rhetorically construct community. The “Learn” Discussion Forums are supposed to be the main means for students to manage the inventional, organizational, and community-building processes involved in completing this assignment.
Before I get into what’s happening in the Rhet & WWW forums, though, I’ll talk a bit about why one would include teamwork or collaborative work in online writing courses.
First, many online instructors do build in such assignments. There are sound practical reasons for this. As Bates and Poole put it, “collaborative assignments are a legitimate way to reduce instructor workload”; as well, teamwork helps ensure that the resulting work is high quality [2003, p. 238] and, thus, easier to mark. Another practical justification is the fact that individual, academic, and corporate projects are moving online. Online instructors help prepare students for their future work by providing skills and strategies for “joint planning, developing and evaluating … [projects] from any location simultaneously and consecutively” (Peters, 2004, p. 88). Pedagogically, a well designed online teamwork or collaborative assignment moves students into what Peters (2004) suggests is part of paradigm-shift in learning: privileging collaboration, engagement, flexibility, and student autonomy.
Rhetoric and composition teachers who build collaborative writing into their face-to-face courses have long been part of this paradigm-shift. The pile of literature discussing the rationale and benefits of this shift is now enormous, but for many of us in the field, Kenneth Bruffee’s 1984 article “Collaboration and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’” constituted a paradigm shift in and of itself. Bruffee defines knowledge as the property of peers rather than experts, and argues that learning takes place when peers work together to create knowledge. It’s through this peer-driven, collaborative process—not a top-down model of teaching—that we create sustainable communities of learners and scholars. Bruffee’s work, among others, has encouraged many writing teachers to shift away from “full frontal” mode and explore how writing can facilitate the growth of peer learning and viable discourse communities.
There’s so much more I could say to justify online collaborative writing assignments. Doubtless, more will creep into subsequent entries. For now, let these points stand as my main practical and pedagogical reasons for integrating a collaborative assignment in my current course.
Next: what are the student teams doing to create “community” in the “Learn” online environment, and what role do the Discussion forums play?
Bates, A. W., and Poole, G. (2003). Effective teaching with technology in higher education: foundations for success. San Francisco:
Peters, O. (2004). Distance education in transition: new trends and challenges. 4th ed. Oldenburg: Bibliotheks-und Informationssystem der