Monday, April 13, 2009

Making Collaborative Writing Authentic

There isn’t any doubt that collaborative writing, when used properly in class, is beneficial to learners: Learning is social and collaborative writing improves both writing and collaboration skills. Collaboration can also lead to a better end-product than that created by any one individual. My fear is that teachers use collaborative writing as a promising practice, but they struggle to recreate authentic, real-world applications of collaborative writing in their classrooms.

Authentic Collaborative Writing Requires a Purpose for Collaboration

For collaborative writing to be authentic, there needs to be a purpose for writing that calls for collaboration, collective intelligence, and/or a unified voice. I work with teachers from across my school board and they are putting forth a powerful effort to engage students in writing. I have witnessed collaborative writing on white boards with different coloured markers that help the teacher track student contributions. I have listened to accounts of students who resent the time it takes to come to consensus and the work required to co-construct a simple paragraph. My sense is that in many instances, students are questioning the purpose and the value of collaborative writing activities.

Outside of the school-world, we use collaborative writing when we

  • want the product to be the best it can be instead of the best we are able to produce individually and independently.
  • need to represent the ‘power of the people’ in a unified voice.
  • need to represent various perspectives in one text.
  • recognize the value in vetting ideas and creating work with others who may have perspectives that differ from our own.

These same opportunities or needs should drive collaborative writing in the classroom.

Authentic Collaborative Writing Calls for the Right Tools

Word Processing - Let them type the ideas, the draft and the final version, please. When I’ve co-written memos or reports with coworkers we talk, correct and one person types. There are no pens involved because pens can’t keep up with the dialogue.

Google Docs or Etherpad - We often assume that our students know how to use the technology available to them. They don’t, but they need to learn. Just before Christmas, my daughter had a group project due. The group was supposed to write and then perform a 15 minute play. When we were hit with a snow-day, my daughter worried about meeting her due date. I suggested Google Docs. After 10 minutes of explaining (me) and locating classmates (her - all online) they were writing and they added an element that I wouldn’t have considered: instant messaging. The combination of these two tools allowed them to co-construct a text and share their OMG moments when they felt they had written something brilliant. If they had wanted to, they could have invited their teacher as a reader and she could have tracked their contributions.

When we teach students how to use tools like Google Docs or Etherpad to collaboratively create a piece of writing, we give them transportable skills and tools. They can collaborate anywhere (almost) and any time, inside or outside of school. They become better collaborators; they become better writers.

I look forward to your input on this topic. A text about collaborative writing should be collaboratively written, don’t you think?

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