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Both education and business regularly take advantage of online collaboration. In education, students are often asked to collaborate online to discuss course readings, to work on group projects, or to edit each other’s work. In business, employees often work together online to brainstorm and develop ideas and projects. The online environment allows people who are in different physical locations to work together virtually. In addition, online collaboration sites allow everyone to keep track of each participant’s contributions.
Some basic etiquette rules apply to all online collaboration situations. You will notice that many of the rules hold true for any group work situation. (See Chapter 11 "Academic Writing", Section 11.3 "Collaborating on Academic Writing Projects" for more on general guidelines for working collaboratively in academic settings.)
Technology has introduced a whole array of platforms and tools for group projects. Course management systemsA web-based learning environment that organizes the work of a course (e.g., Blackboard)., such as Moodle, Blackboard, or eCampus, tend to excel as spaces to post course materials and external links, to conduct group discussion boardsA digital space for brief posts and responses by a group of students, usually set up in a course management system by the instructor., to provide for electronic submission of essays, and to manage records like grades, calendars, announcements, and deadlines.
The following is an example of how a richer kind of threaded small-group class discussion about possible connections between video games and violent behavior can be conducted online, even in a face-to-face class. This discussion was conducted after each of the seven students in a writing group had posted their initial response to a couple of opposing readings on the subject. In order to keep the online conversation going, the students were asked to respond to at least one group member’s initial post, using the following questions:
Do you think the following threaded discussion opens up new avenues of exploration for the students involved? Think about how the debate progressed in this online environment, and consider how it might have operated differently if conducted face-to-face in a traditional, oral class discussion.
Because course management systems are not really designed for collaborative composition courses, they’re not really ideal for group writing projects. WikisAn interactive, shared website featuring content that can be edited by many users., another type of collaborative technology tool, are beginning to replace course management systems for certain kinds of collaboration because they can make group work much more convenient, visible, and meaningful. Professors can set up a wiki as a free online collaborative platform that offers workspace for class-wide group or individual projects. Within a site, individuals can have private workspaces to which other students do not have access unless the site “owner” invites them. Students can use a wiki to gather notes and compile a writing project from beginning to end. Within a wiki, students can save all versions of a draft allowing for retrieval of previous information. Being able to save different versions also allows multiple students to edit, for example, Pete’s draft so that Pete can then access all the edits and choose the changes he wishes to make.
Since each student has a private log-in and password, wikis can easily keep track of who made what changes and when the changes were made. You can even use the settings on your wiki account to have it send you an e-mail whenever someone adds something to your space. Students and teachers can also upload files and place links on the wiki to relevant materials elsewhere on the Internet, such as to an American Psychological Association (APA) or Modern Language Association (MLA) citation builder. Wikis also offer a platform for publishing the final version of a project for viewing by the instructor, other classmates, and even the general public, if desired.
Group work is often lopsided and unfair—a few tend to do most of the work. Do your fair share. You would be ill advised to try shirking your part of the work in an online situation since the collaboration program will keep track of each participant’s contributions.
Most sites will maintain all versions of a document or file being drafted collaboratively. As a rule, you should always work in the most current version unless the group mutually decides to revert to a previous version.
Determine which group member is best able to complete different technology aspects of the project, such as scanning, uploading, and creating diagrams. If all members of the group are expected to perform certain technological tasks, make sure the learning curve is not too steep by writing explicit directions. Discussing such aspects up front will make the project go more smoothly.
If the group seems to be going around in circles, consider a conference call (over the computer or by telephone). With an in-person (or at least synchronousTaking place at the same time.) conversation, you can often straighten out issues that are difficult to handle through chains of e-mails.
On the other hand, if you need to talk to only one member of the group, do so through e-mail. Save the group site for communication intended for the whole group.
Keep in mind that written words do not include voice intonations or facial expressions and are thus more easily misunderstood than are in-person spoken words. If a group member’s comment strikes you the wrong way, give the person the benefit of the doubt instead of being defensive.
Respond to each of the following issues that tend to come up in online writing groups.