Collaboration is a tenet of many writing classrooms. Professors assign students to work in groups with peers to produce texts, participate in peer review, solve problems, develop communication skills, and enact collaborative knowledge making. Collaboration has been a topic of research and pedagogical best practices in composition for decades (Bruffee, 1984; Lunsford & Ede, 1994) and a recent addition to the scholarly strand is Joanna Wolfe’s book Team Writing (2010). Wolfe’s guide offers two main reasons we collaborate: “to prepare students for the workplace” and “to improve the educational experience through collaboration with fellow students” (p. 5).
While student-focused collaboration is well documented, this project taught us new things about productive collaboration between faculty and the negotiations, efforts, and costs required to make this sort of working collaboration happen. By taking on a team-management approach to assignment design, grading, and classroom management set in a multimodal, online space, we consider ways collaborative online teaching encourages multimodal literacy and composition skills for both faculty and students and also enacts active learning and pedagogy.
The explosion of technologies and new media spaces predicated on Vygotsky’s (1978) vision of the social construction of knowledge along with conceptions of collaborative authoring—whether defined as groups of writers creating one document or groups of individual writers producing connected texts (Gerber, 2009)—is redefining composition pedagogy and practice. Opportunities for online authoring and ways new media spaces encourage collaborative learning and knowledge creation clearly have ramifications for student writing, but also for faculty as instructors and researchers.
- New communication technologies, particularly commons-based peer-to-peer technologies, are empowering teachers, students, and Writing Program Administrators (WPAs) to radically transform composition pedagogies — changing the roles of teachers and students, changing the content of our curriculums, and changing our processes of composing and collaborating. (Moxley, 2008, p. 182)
The shift toward collaborative approaches to writing feels risky to some teachers and this sense of risk may be heightened by the thought of moving toward more collaborative approaches to instruction. Many of us work in academic environments that privilege individual contributions over group efforts. A single-authored article is still considered, by many, as superior to one that lists a faculty member as a co-author. How, then, should we assume that collaborative teaching efforts might be valued? Writing in online spaces clearly foregrounds "the importance of group self-regulation and self-explanation” (Hemmi, Bayen, & Land, 2009, p. 7) over individual knowledge creation, but how does that translate to vita lines and credit for tenure? Many tenure committees struggle with assessing co-authored work, perhaps especially when such collaborations takes place in a multimodal space. Mark Warschauer and Douglas Grimes (2007) explained ways new technologies are changing ideas of authorship, ownership, and text. Speaking specifically of wiki technologies, the authors noted that “wikis fulfill the prophecy of authorship fading away. In essence, the distance between the author and audience is eliminated when the audience can directly edit the author’s work” (p. 12). The three faculty involved in this Virtual Teams project have all been part of group-authored publications and presentations, but in the wiki space we found ourselves writing and teaching alongside rather than for our students. We saw the distance between us and our students shrinking, as Warschauer and Grimes suggested, and found the physical distances between dispersed classrooms and faculty also diminishing.
This article, then, asks how writing for wikis can change educators. Academics often team up to combine diverse expertise from differing fields and classroom approaches to plan projects and co-author articles, but these collaborations frequently require face-to-face planning sessions and even travel. Distributed groups—whether in the same building or scattered across the world and connected via technology—are an essential element of business, education, and other spheres (Gibbs, Nekrassova, Grushina, & Wahab, 2007; Gopal & Melkote, 2007; Hulnick, 2000). The development of digital technologies such as wiki, Google Docs, Dropbox and other networked virtual tools aid in facilitating intellectual co-production. These technologies allow users access to a single working space—like the one this article was created on—whereby each participant can modify documents, tether individual knowledges to the work of the collective, and perform textual construction both of the document and of themselves as author and knower. Such involvement is expected to provide for synergistic partnerships leading to higher quality final written products. Research on Wikipedia, for example, shows that in general more edits and interaction on a Wikipedia entry produces a better quality entry than those with fewer authors (Warschauer & Grimes, 2007). Might this also be true of instruction? It seems likely that involving multiple experienced teachers would result in a multifaceted and even richer curriculum. Collaboration via wiki requires only an Internet connection and basic wiki literacy and may strip away some of the barriers to instructional collaboration, enabling faculty to more quickly get to the content of the work.
In a collaborative space where modifications may be made by all participants without approval and therefore in absence of hierarchy, faculty and students must reframe the ideas of distance and group work in the classroom. One lens through which to view collaborative instruction done via technology like wiki is virtual teaming. Jennifer L. Gibbs, Dina Nekrassova, Svetlana V. Grushina, and Sally A. Wahab (2007) provided a comprehensive review and critique of the virtual teaming principle discussed in communication studies. While such publications have foregrounded factors like trust, conflict management, leadership, knowledge sharing, and identification, our project, enacted in classrooms of various fields, positions virtual teaming as a fruitful form of collaborative knowledge and text construction. It is an approach concerned not only with a final product, but also with team-building processes and communication strategies and therefore fosters active teaching and learning via group text production.
A true cornerstone of the Virtual Teams project is the introduction, use, and celebration of the multiple modes of communication and composition enabled or encouraged by the wiki environment as well as the nature, goals, and processes of the project assignments. Although multimodality has become a buzz word and focus of study in composition studies journals and at rhetoric conferences (e.g., Atkins et al., 2006; Hull & Nelson, 2005; Leander & Vasudeval, 2009; Squire, 2008; Vasudeval et al., 2010), the term “multimodality” is used broadly across language- and design-based disciplines, referring not only to the tools and technologies of communication but also to the philosophies, performances, methodologies, and epistemologies of communicative practices.
The interdisciplinarity of the Virtual Teams project immediately presented the need to problematize existing definitions of modality or multimodality. For this project, multimodality became a form/format/way of being in which project participants enacted their subjectivities, co-produced knowledge, carved out research goals, and engaged in active learning and teaching. For us, like authors Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps (2000), multimodal spaces like wikis foreground ways that "as more people interconnect online, we increase our capacity for both independence and interdependence" (p. xxiv). In this way, multimodal spaces themselves encourage collaboration and new ways of thinking about teams and groups. The concept of group work is closely linked with collaborative learning in many writing classrooms and we define it here as any project that brings together two or more students, whether assigned or self-selected, to complete an assignment. Though group work is intended to foster and even force meaning making with more than one person, it is possible for group work to simply become redistributed individual work with many group members working in related but ultimately divided tasks in pursuit of a larger goal. For our purposes then, we chose to build teams rather than groups. It is certainly still possible for team members to divide work, but through purposefully open-ended assignment requirements and directions, transparent communication afforded by the wiki space, and explicit team-building strategies and assignment components, we attempted to create teams of students who would be interdependent learners focused on one another instead of on teacher directives. For the purposes of the Virtual Teams project, then, collaboration required scaffolded team building. The transition from grouping to teaming, whether in virtual or face-to-face settings, requires time and dedicated work on both the part of the faculty and students involved.
Participants in the Virtual Teams project relied on multimodality as a way to both socialize and produce assignments. As student reflections and comments indicate, some of the class communication took place outside the wiki: in email, face-to-face meetings and in various interactions with the businesses, organizations, or initiatives whose environmental projects the seven groups researched and critiqued. Most of the collaboration, however, originated and resided in the wiki space, yet varied significantly among the teams based on the student interpretation of the assignment, communication styles, technological savvy, and level of interest in the enterprise. For faculty, most of our work remained in a wiki space, but we had a faculty-only space where we could hash out, create, and change assignments before presenting them to students. Though building a team atmosphere for and with our students, we were also mindful of possible issues related to faculty "working out" curricular issues in front of students. While equality among faculty seemed fairly second nature for a group of instructors who had also been friends for six years, that same equality—even in a multimodal space that celebrates and fosters collaborative meaning making—seemed harder to express with our students.