Collaborative writing assignments across the curriculum can meet many of the theoretical and practical goals of WAC:
Not all writing assignments can be converted from individual writing tasks to group writing tasks, nor should they all. But at least some writing tasks work best in collaborative groups.
Several years ago, a mechanical engineering professor at CSU, Patrick Fitzhorn, spoke eloquently about the essential nature of collaboration in engineering design:
For example, in any complex design, one person doesn't do the entire design. For example, in the design of a car there could be one thousand engineers who are working on various subsystems of the car, and where those subsystems interact everyone at that interaction point has to understand exactly what's occurring there. So there's a lot of information exchange communication across these interfaces between subsets of very complex designs. The more complex the design, the more important that communication and the more interfaces that will occur across these communication boundaries.
Faculty and students alike recognize the importance of collaborative writing tasks as preparation for workplace communication, as do accrediting agencies and organizations throughout STEM and education disciplines. Bartle et al. (2011) provide a particularly succinct and clear explanation of the advantages of collaborative learning and its extension into collaborative writing. (See the introductory section.)
One particularly intriguing recent collaborative writing activity draws on theories of situated cognition and active learning strategies. Vázquez et al. (2012) explain their conceptualization of "writing to teach" in which second-year chemistry students "worked in small groups to develop a supplemental text for the quantum mechanics section of the course" (1027). Teachers prepared a list of textbook selections, real-world illustrations, and practice problems with annotations. In a studio setting reminiscent of an artist's studio, student groups wrote explanatory text about one topic from the three lists. Students had available to them a peer mentor who had just completed the course. In addition, extensive peer review within the group "focused heavily on a writing sample's utility as a teaching device" (1027)." Vázquez et al. also include evidence from their assessment of the approach and suggestions for implementing a similar strategy in other laboratory courses.
Also drawing on the collaborative learning inherent in peer review of writing, Cathey (2007) explains a writing task for a social psychology course in which students wrote personal essays applying course concepts to life experiences. Online student interactions via peer review resulted in strong course engagement as a welcome addition to clearer grasp of course concepts.
Rice (2007) takes a more structured approach toward integrating ethical issues into business communication courses as "a supplement to ethical discussions and readings that provides students with a practical, contextual, and public understanding of what writing ethically and rhetorically means for a professional in today's world"(471). He describes a detailed sequence of collaborative writing and reviewing activities to help students grapple with ethical dilemmas and to see the consequences of their ethical choices from a variety of reader/client perspectives.
Despite the advantages noted above, however, we have all experienced challenges with collaborative writing tasks. Two recent articles offer approaches to anticipate pitfalls. Rentz et al. (2009) present a useful chart with key elements to consider when planning a group writing task. They also include three substantive examples of group projects to illustrate how the decision points in the chart work out in assignment design. Kampf et al. (2004) draw on rhetorical theory to work out concrete solutions for a project management collaborative assignment.
Also noteworthy in recent literature on collaborative writing tasks is increasing emphasis on computer technologies to support collaborative writing. Wikis garner the most interest as evidenced by titles such as those by Davies et al. (2011), Dishaw et al. (2011), Fernheimer et al. (2009), Gehringer et al. (2008), and Khandaker & Soh (2010). Alternative technologies include proprietary tools as well as Web 2.0 applications. (See Alvarez et al., 2012; Blue & Tirotta, 2011; Calvo et al., 2011; Cathey, 2007). "A Student's Guide to Collaborative Writing Technologies" (Barton & Klint, 2011) provides an accessible explanation of potential computer tools and how students might use them.
Alvarez, I., Espasa, A., & Guasch, T. (2012). The value of feedback in improving collaborative writing assignments in an online learning environment. Studies in Higher Education, 37(4), 387-400.
Barton, M., & Klint, K. (2011). "A student's guide to collaborative writing technologies." In C. Lowe and P. Zemliansky (Eds.), Writing Spaces: Readings on writing (vol. 2). Parlor Press.
Bartle, E.K., Dook, J. & Mocerino, M. (2011). Attitudes of tertiary students toward a group project in a science unit. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 12(3), 303-311.
Blue, E., & Tirotta, R. (2011). The benefits and drawbacks of integrating cloud computing and interactive whiteboards in teacher preparation. TechTrends: Linking Research and Practice to Improve Learning, 55(3), 31-39.
Calvo, R.A., O'Rourke, S.T., Jones, J., Yacef, K., & Reimann, P. (2011). Collaborative writing support tools on the Cloud. IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies. 4(1), 88-97.
Cathey, C. (2007). Power of peer review: An online collaborative learning assignment in social psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 34(2), 97-99.
Davies, A., Pantzopoulos, K., & Gray, K. (2011). Emphasising assessment "as" learning by assessing wiki writing assignments collaboratively and publicly online. Australasian Journal of Education Technology, 27(5), 798-812.
Dishaw, M., Eierman, M.A., & Iversen, J.H. (2011). Wiki or Word? Evaluating tools for collaborative writing and editing. Journal of Information Systems Education, 22(1), 43-54.
Fernheimer, J., Nieusma, D., Chi, L., Montoya, L., Kujala, T., & LaPadule, A. (2009). Collaborative convergences in research and pedagogy: An interdisciplinary approach to teaching writing with wikis. Computers & Composition Online. http://www.bgsu.edu/departments/english/cconline/
Gehringer, E.F., Cassel, L., Deibel, K., & Joel, W. (2008). Wikis—collaborative learning for CS education. Proceedings of the 39th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, 379-380.
Kampf, C., Eiler, T., Carlson, R., & Toglo, Y. (2004). The triple constraint of the document: Coordinating concepts in rhetoric and project management for engineering students. 2004 International Professional Communication Conference, Proceedings, 83-88.
Khandaker, N., & Soh, L.K. (2010). ClassroomWiki: A collaborative wiki for instructional use with multiagent group formation. IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies, 3(3), 190-202.
Rentz, K., Arduser, L., Melancon, L., & Debs, M.B. (2009). Designing a successful group-report experience. Business Communication Quarterly, 72(1), 70-84.
Rice, J.A. (2007). Bridging the gap: Contextualizing professional ethics in collaborative writing projects. Business Communication Quarterly, 70(4), 470-475.
Vázquez, A.V., McLoughlin, K., Sabbagh, M., Runkle, A.C., Simon, J., Coppola, B.P., & Pazicni, S. (2012). Writing-to-teach: A new pedagogical approach to elicit explanative writing from undergraduate chemistry students. Journal of Chemical Education, 89(8), 1025-1031.