1. Introduction
2. The Assignment
3. The Tools
4. The Process
5. The Purpose
6. Reflections

Discussion Forum

Acadia/Wake Forest University Writing Project:
Composition, Collaboration, and Computers
Anne Boyle, Wake Forest University
Patricia Rigg, Acadia University

In this article, we describe and assess the first collaborative writing project set up between students at Wake Forest and Acadia Universities. The project was designed to study the value of peer review in a situation where students could only rely on the written word to establish a relationship and become helpful and critical readers of one another's texts. We were also interested in introducing students to true collaborative writing practices, rather than group "cut and paste" patchwork assignments. After assessing this project, we were inspired to develop more sophisticated, research-based assignments that we continue to use and refine.

1. Introduction
Having met at a conference called, "Computers and the Classroom: A New Pedagogy," Patricia Rigg, an Assistant Professor of English at Acadia University, and I realized we shared more than the accident of teaching at two universities that require students to own their own laptops; we shared many ideas about the teaching of composition. Amidst much discussion about the use of technology in the classroom, we both strove to consider what makes students become better writers. We questioned if and how computer technology could be used to teach our students how to think critically, how to write with a greater sense of audience, purpose, and precision, and how to work collaboratively (as many of them will in their professional lives).

During the summer, we kept in contact, e-mailing one another our syllabi (Boyle's & Rigg's) and our ideas about how we might design a project that would allow our students to be peer editors of each other's works and then publish those works on a Web page. The result of our own collaboration was that, during the fall of 1997, two sections of students enrolled in Wake Forest's Writing Seminar were engaged in a writing project with students from Acadia University, in Nova Scotia. The project, described below, allowed our students to practice collaborative writing and peer editing while they reflected upon both the process and the new technologies of writing.

About the authors...

2. The Assignment
The assignment was based upon a common topic and expository pattern that Pat and I discovered as we swapped syllabi: a description of place. Our students were to locate a place on campus or on the fringes of campus, describe it in concrete and vivid terms, and combine this with a reflection of the place based upon their interpretation of its literal and/or symbolic meaning. The students were then to publish their descriptions, along with pictures of their chosen places, on a Web page.

Assignment 3 as an example in the Schedule drawer.
Acadia University's Web page on this writing project.

(~370KB) Audio annotation from Anne

3. The Tools
Students used the Wake Forest Template, an electronic sharing environment built within Lotus Notes. A kind of online filing cabinet, the Template allows users to store, organize, share, and in some cases, edit data in different filing "drawers". In addition to drawers for materials, schedules, and notices, students have access to drawers for general, team, and private discussions. Rich editing features, such as colored pens and a variety of fonts, allow students to collaborate and maintain a clear record of individual contributions. Students from Acadia had been using NortonTextra Connect, a collaborative writing program, but, for this project, ventured into the Wake Forest environment through the Web.

Wake Forest Template
Wake Forest Lotus Notes Cabinet was used for organizing the syllabi, reading materials and student writing assignments. For example, students in Eng 111 Spiritual Quests Across the American Landscape found the copy of syllabus in the Schedule Drawer of the WFU Lotus Notes Cabinet. Class reading such as Wake Forest Guide to Academic Reading was placed in the Material Drawer.

4. The Process
Dividing our students into twelve groups, of four to six students, we matched six groups from Acadia with six from Wake Forest and assigned each group a team cabinet. (Teams from Acadia continued to use NortonTextra for collaborations among themselves, while Wake Forest had a second team cabinet for their group work.) Once students from Acadia were given user ID's and passwords so they could access their cabinets through the Web, I sent out a welcome notice to Acadia students with instructions on how to use various drawers in the cabinet. Pat Rigg responded with a brief description of Acadia's landscape and weather and information about the collaborative software package her students had been using.

Students on both campuses set out to identify places they thought held special significance to them. Once they found these, members of each team began an online dialogue as they responded to and tinkered with one another's texts. By the end of the first week, they were to construct a draft of their collaborative description and post it in their shared team drawer.

Both Acadia and Wake Forest students had experience in creating dialogues among class members and posting their collaborative responses for class discussion. Pat Rigg's students had been doing this through NortonTextra Connect and my own students had been responding to questions for team discussion on works of literature that had been placed in the Wake Forest Template since the beginning of the semester. What was new and exciting to them was sharing their ideas, their writing, with students from a far away university and publishing their work on the Web.


Because Wake Forest students were practiced in Lotus Notes, they posted their collaborative descriptions first and asked the Acadia students to act as a critical audience, evaluating their writing based upon the clarity and coherence of their descriptions. Some students experienced technical difficulties as they tried to access our Lotus Notes cabinet, but during the first class period the students were able to post quick responses to our descriptions. Next, Acadia students began their collaboration in the classroom and posted their own descriptive paragraphs. Wake Forest students exchanged roles and began to act as an audience, asking questions and assessing prose.


A sample of students' response in team discussion.

Initially, Pat and I were discouraged by the responses that our students posted. They were not as critical or as well developed as we anticipated. Instead of gaining voice and authority through online peer review, we feared our students were becoming vague, hesitant, and overly polite in their responses. Maintaining contact through e-mail, Pat and I decided to take extra time to coach our students to use their critical voices. After assuring them that their audiences expected serious feedback, I set up an online workshop on peer review. Soon we began to see improvement in the quality of their responses to one another.

Online Workshop on Peer Review
Students were asked to consider questions about style, substance, and structure of the essays. Wake Forest students responded to these questions in the Team Discussion Drawer.

While the students were engaged in their long-distance exchange, we used class time to talk about common expository strategies used in descriptive writings. We had studied Loren Eiseley and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and were in the midst of Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs, a text set on the Maine coast, not unlike the landscape surrounding Acadia University. Students had been analyzing the different descriptive techniques used by Jewett, and re-considering issues involving organization and diction.

Pat and I felt it was important to allow students to submit individual descriptions for our comments, and we also wanted the opportunity to assess their progress on an individual level. Thus, twelve days after the project began, our students were given fifty minutes to write individual descriptions of their places. Pat and I commented upon these essays and returned both marked and clean copies to the students. Teams of students compared their individual essays and began to construct a second collaborative response. These were posted for a second round of peer response before the final revision was due. 

Examples of students' descriptions of their places:
Wake Forest

The second and third rounds of peer responses were much more critical than the first. Not only were Acadia students more used to using the Template, but more students from both campuses began to rely much more heavily and self-consciously on the only form of communication they had with their peer audience--the written word. In comparison with traditional in-class review sessions, students seemed less concerned with how their words would affect the writer, more concerned with how their words would affect the text. As the text became the primary focus, students began to trust one another to make certain that the essays published would be clearly-written, meaningful statements about their lives during their first college semester.

Students' second and third rounds of peer review in team discussion drawer.

Students from both universities took pictures of their places with digitized cameras. Acadia students created a Web page with 12 links, each link containing a one-page essay and a photo of the place. Understandably proud of their work, Acadia and Wake Forest students students hastened to publish their essays for parents and friends to read.

Thumbnail pictures that the students took.

Figure 1. An example of the pictures taken by students at Wake Forest University. The picture shown was a photo for an essay about a secluded, natural retreat.

5. The Purpose 
Students learn to write in a variety of ways. To make students more conscious of their own writing processes, to make them think critically about their texts, teachers of writing often set up peer review sessions. These sessions allow writers to become readers of one another's texts. As readers, these students are asked to locate the power and potential of their drafts, and point toward possible problems in development, coherence, and clarity. Peer review benefits the student as reader in that it allows him/her to exercise authority over the text, and it helps the writer whose sense of purpose is enhanced through anticipation of a response from a supportive and interested audience. 

Pat and I added the collaborative nature of the assignment to prepare our students not only for academic discourse, but the kinds of writing projects they may be faced with in their professional lives. We wanted to encourage them to understand different perspectives, to gain distance from their own prose, and to center their attention on the integrity of the text, rather than their own point of view. By allowing students to publish their work on the Web, we enlarged their sense of audience and asked them to consider how their words would be received beyond the classroom.

6. Reflections 
The Acadia/Wake Forest online writing project allowed students, who will probably never communicate face-to-face, access to peer review solely through the written word. Because students were forced to rely on the written word to establish a relationship and communicate clearly, the help they offered and received differed from that they obtain through in-class review sessions with friends; they seemed more focussed on the text than on the writer. After an initial period of uncertainty, students' responses became pointed and objective. While Pat and I found that some groups, at times, strayed from the task and used e-mail to engage in personal communication about campus life and local lore, these seemed to generate trust and camaraderie; they did not affect the critical quality of the peer review.

Through the project, we hope students realized that true collaboration involves more than cutting and pasting different sections written by different students. By struggling to understand different perspectives, students' visions of their places became richer and more complicated. During the last week of the project, most of the Wake Forest teams met evenings--on and off-line--to integrate and transform their material.

Pat and I were pleased with our students' responses to this assignment, but we are continuing to work to refine our strategies and evaluate our successes and failures more systematically. At the semester's end, students evaluated the course and the project. Students' praise for the project outweighed their criticisms by far. All rated it as a valuable assignment, and more than one half described it as the assignment that taught them the most about the writing process. Even students who identified themselves as writers who prefer to work independently claimed they appreciated learning to understand multiple perspectives and came to value different strengths in others' writing.

General criticisms included frustration at some technical glitches; the length of time spent on the project (close to six weeks); concern that online peer review would not be effective because different professors and their classes would approach the assignment differently. The first two criticisms remind teachers that the new technologies are not necessarily easier or faster than conventional classroom tools. The third suggests how significant are the relationships that can develop in a classroom and how important it was that Pat and I maintained our own collaborative relationship with each other as we coached our students during the early stages of the process.

Other general and favorable comments included knowledge of grammar and usage gained through editing and proofreading texts; increased motivation for writing with a specific goal in mind (purpose and audience); overcoming fear or ignorance in regard to technology; learning through peers; and excitement about writing about a subject that allowed students to reflect on their lives in college. One student's evaluation ended with an idea echoed by many: "The accomplishment I feel upon the completion of this project is probably the greatest reward ... The bringing together of people's ideas into one piece of work is a difficult project. We managed the task quite well, however, and were able to respect each other's talents in writing and collect the best aspects of each essay to create our masterpiece."

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IMEJ multimedia team member assigned to this paper Yue-Ling Wong