TECFA: Writing together
By Giulia Ortoleva (TECFA)
Collaborative writing activities aim at combining the pedagogical effects derived from the activity of writing per se, and the ones associated with the task of learning in a collaborative setting.
Collaborative writing encompasses a wide range of activities:
• learners can co-construct a written text
• cooperate by contributing different sections of the draft
• read and comment constructively the text written by their colleagues.
Technology affordances, and particularly Web 2.0 development, offer the ideal environment to conduct collaborative writing activities, allowing for the collaboration to happen across time and space.
The activity of writing has historically been considered a unique way to learn new information1 and develop ideas, beliefs and knowledge. The organisation and transformation of previously acquired knowledge, as well as the creation of new knowledge are elicited through the cognitive process used during the task.
Different metaphors have been formulated to explain the effect that writing has on learning.
Writing, for example, has been described as a problem-solving process2, carried out using specific procedures such as:
• planning - generating ideas, organising them and setting goals,
• translating - transforming plans into text; and
• revising - adjusting the text produced in order to improve quality.
On the basis of this model, different strategies have been identified in writers:
Knowledge telling: strategy of writing everything the writer knows about a given topic, without paying attention to the structure and organisation of the text.
Knowledge transforming: method of transforming ideas, modifying concepts and creating a hierarchy of information, keeping in mind clarity, plausibility and effectiveness of the text.3
Knowledge crafting: strategy implying that writers adapt their texts to their readers, and on the basis of their characteristics, select the information to present, as well as the way of presenting it.4
More recently, the English researcher David Galbraith5 pointed out that writing activities also represent a knowledge constituting process. While writing, new ideas emerge and elicit the reorganisation of previously acquired concepts. These writing strategies are not considered as mutually exclusive, but placed on a continuum and are interdependent.
The design of writing activities
Even though writing is considered as beneficial to the learning process, there are some conditions that have to be met, in order for the task to be productive:
1) students’ previous knowledge and beliefs should be taken into account,
2) the writing task should encourage students to reflect on their own experiences
3) the task should require the elaboration of new knowledge, rather than the simple creation of a summary or factual report,
4) students should be encouraged to solve practical problems through theoretical knowledge
5) the writing task should be integrated into the school curriculum, with the organisation of relevant sessions going from class discussions to small-group activities.6
The most efficient way to exploit the writing activity for learning purposes is to combine them with oral discussion and reading.7
Collaborative learning (also termed cooperative learning by some authors) comprises a number of different situations in which learners are required to work together on a set of tasks. The scenario is usually quite precise and specifies how the work should be organized, distributed and planned over time8. Collaborative scenarios prompt students to engage in discussion, express what they have understood and gain from others’ perspectives.
The design for collaborative learning activities
Though collaborative learning activities can be a powerful tool for deep learning, its actual effectiveness depends on many factors - ultimately on whether students effectively engage in productive interactions. Two conditions found to be particularly relevant for the success of collaborative learning activities are the following:
• collaboration between peers does not happen spontaneously, but has to be triggered and guided through the design of the activities. Well-designed activities should place students in situations in which they need to interact to complete the task (positive interdependance) and in which the role and responsibility of each member are clearly identified.9
• pedagogical scenarios should not only include collaborative group-learning activities but also individual and collective tasks.10
Different types of collaborative writing activities can be identified:
• learners can be asked to engage in the complex process of collaborative knowledge building and of the co-construction of knowledge. In this type of activity, they are prompted to collaborate from the beginning in the creation of the content required.
• learners are required to provide each other with comments and assessment of their work. Different forms of peer feedback can be implemented. In Peer-comment activities, learners are asked to comment on the work of their colleagues, providing constructive criticism and suggestions. In peer-assessment activities, participants are required to evaluate and rate each other’s performance. Learners may have reservations about peer assessment as they may not appreciate having their work evaluated by a peer. These reservations soon disappear as they gain more experience with this type of assessment11.
Collaborative writing tools
The development of computers and the increased availability of Internet connection have brought about the emergence of a number of tools supporting the collaborative writing process, thanks to the functions of sharing, version tracking and collaborative editing.
It is useful to differentiate between “traditional” Web (Web 1.0) and its more recent development, Web 2.0. The first one provides users with the opportunity of accessing a large amount of information. Of course, internet users can also create web pages of their own, but in a static fashion, which does not really provide opportunities for direct collaboration and communication between the reader and the information provider.
On the other hand, web 2.0 is based on the idea of providing the ability to directly collaborate and share information online, transforming the static web into a more dynamic environment. In this type of web environment the content is not given a priority, but co-constructed and negotiated between the participants. This type of environment is therefore ideal for the conduct of collaborative activities based on writing.
Web 2.0 provides various tools, such as blogs, wikis, forums, and social networks. Wikis represent a common choice for activities aiming at collaborative learning and particularly collaborative writing. See the article dedicated to Wikis.
1 Emig, J. (1977). Writing as a mode of learning. College composition and communication, 28(2), 122-128.
2 Hayes, J. R. and Flower, L. S. (1980). Identifying the organisation of writing process. In L.W. Gregg and E. R. Steinberg (Eds.), Cognitive process in writing (pp. 3-30). Hillsdale, NJ : Erlbaum.
3 Bereiter, C. and Scardamalia, M. (1987). The psychology of written composition. Hillsdale, NJ : Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
4 Kellogg, R. T. (2008). Training writing skills : A cognitive developmental perspective. Journal of Writing Research, 1(1), 1-26.
5 Galbraith, D. (1999). Writing as a knowledge-constituting process. In D. Galbraith & M. Torrance (Eds.), Knowing what to write. Conceptual process in text production (pp. 137-158). Amsterdam : Amsterdam University Press.
6 Tynjälä, P., Mason, L., and Lonka, K. (2001). Writing as a learning tool : Integrating theory and practice. Studies in writing, vol. 7. Dordrecht, The Netherlands. Kluwer Academic Publisher.
7 Tynjälä, P. (1998) Writing as a tool for constructive learning : Student’s learning experiences during an experiment. Higher Education, 36, 209-230.
8 Dillenbourg, P. (1999). What do you mean by collaborative learning?. In P. Dillenbourg (Ed.) Collaborative learning : Cognitive and computational approaches (pp. 1-19). Oxford : Elsevier.
9 Slavin, R. E. (2011). Instruction Based on Cooperative Learning. In R. E. Mayer & P. A. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Learning and Instruction (pp. 344-360). New York: Taylor & Francis.
10 Dillenbourg P. and Fisher, F. (2007). Flexibility in macro-scripts for computer-supported collaborative learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 23, 1-13.
11 Dochy, F. and McDowell, L. (1997). Assessment as a tool for learning. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 23, 279-298.