What I Learned About Collaborative Writing from a Wiki Project

A screen capture of my class’s wiki.

Last spring I used a wiki in a course for the first time.  It had its ups and downs, but for the most part it went well and it was a useful tool. However, as these things go, it of course had some pitfalls (caused by me, not the wiki itself) — the most surprising to me was the way that student collaborative writing went. The ease of collaborative writing was the aspect of using a wiki I was most sold on, and it did not work out at all the way I’d expected.

How I Planned to Use the Wiki

The course I used a wiki in was Introduction to Women’s Studies, which at W&M is a 4-credit course that has a semester-long service project component.  Students work on these Community Action Projects (CAPs) in small groups of four or five students, and their projects require collaborative written assignments along with all of the group work of executing the activist project itself.

I wanted to use a wiki for this course for a number of reasons, but the most obvious and exciting one for me as the instructor was the collaborative written CAP assignments.  Wikis are excellent for collaborative writing, right? I imagined that with a wiki, my students would be able to easily write their proposals and final reports as a group, using the wiki to produce a document where all parts were written, edited, and revised by everyone.

The Medium Did not Magically Produce the Results

Well, for the most part that didn’t happen.  Students did great work throughout the semester, and did work really well in their groups, but I made a major assumption about using a wiki that hindered the collaborative writing goals I had in mind: I thought that the medium itself would produce the circumstances that would create something magical I thought of as “collaborative writing.”  Don’t get me wrong, the wiki still did work as a tool to facilitate a group writing project, but it definitely wasn’t all that I and the students needed to achieve “collaborative writing.”

By making the above assumption, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking through some of the questions that I now know I should have asked: What was it that I wanted student collaborative writing to look like? How did I imagine the process? Then, the trickier question of: What could I do to help students achieve those goals?

Below I’ve identified a few of the things that my assumption about the wiki as all I needed to get students to write collaboratively in the way I’d expected.

Lack of Experience with Collaborative Writing Projects

I didn’t think a lot about this, but I believe that it’s very true: most students don’t have a huge amount of experience with producing a collaboratively written project.  Although writing collaboratively is a skill that many people end up needing in their lives after college, that doesn’t mean that students will automatically know how to do it well. This is just fine, though if I had thought more about it, I could have spent more time discussing and teaching this as a skill rather than assuming that they knew how to do it already.

I noticed on the wiki that some students seemed uncomfortable with the idea of editing someone else’s writing — although it was a group-written assignment, the different parts of the text still belonged to someone for the most part, which made it awkward for them to edit.

One thing that I did do in my class, that I’m glad I did, was give them 10-15 minutes at the end of class about once a week to get together in their groups and assess their projects.  I encouraged them to get out their laptops and work on the wiki if they needed, and I did see groups doing this from time to time — that way they were writing more “as a group” than when they individually worked on their projects asynchronously.  This is a particularly interesting aspect of the wiki as a tool to me because I thought that it would be awesome for group work because of the fact that they wouldn’t have to do face-to-face group writing, but as it turned out, maybe there are some definite benefits to collaborative writing face to face versus online.

For next time I’ll keep in mind that writing collaboratively is a skill like any other, and that although the wiki can allow for multiple people to work on and edit a text project, it doesn’t necessarily teach people the best ways to do that.

Lack of Clear Goals for Collaboratively-Written Project

In my imagination, I had a utopian vision of a written project via a wiki where everyone wrote and edited all parts of the piece — instead, students mostly divided and conquered — taking on the different sections necessary for the written projects and writing them individually.  Students did seem to like the ability to work on the project more smoothly via the wiki rather than emailing documents around or having to meet face-to-face, but the divide-and-conquer was not what I was hoping for.

What did I expect from a collaboratively-written project, though?  I think that dividing up and assigning sections of an assignment is a great way for busy students to get such a project done.  However, initially I was disappointed that students for the most part didn’t share in the responsibilities of writing all parts because that meant that not all students were familiar with, say, the project’s basis in the ideas from our class readings (one of the required sections). I did realize, though, after some thought that my expectations were a bit unrealistic.  What would the process of writing such a project actually look like? How would I have approached a similar project and how could I encourage students to approach the project in the way that I wanted?

Having a clearer idea about the goals for collaborative writing projects in the future would let me express my expectations and figure out ways to help students get to where I’d like them to be.

How Not to Use a Wiki: Copying and Pasting

One last thing that surprised me about using a wiki for my class was the way that many students seemed to use the wiki.  Instead of using the built-in text editor in W&M wikis, students tended to copy and paste their writing from a word processor into the wiki. I think this also added to the divide-and-conquer strategy of group writing — if a project is due at 5pm, and students copied and pasted their finished portions of the assignment at 4:45, there’s not a lot of time to look over each other’s sections (though not too many people in my class did this).

This is something that, had I thought of it beforehand, I would have more strongly suggested “best practices” for writing with a wiki.  I spent time in class showing them the technical aspects of how to use the wiki, but not any time talking about how to use it in terms of what would help them take advantage of the wiki as a writing tool.

For Next Time

All of the above said, I would us a wiki again in a class.  Overall, I was impressed with my students and their work — it was my own expectations and goals that needed adjustment, not my students or the tool of the wiki itself.  Some of the things I would do differently:

  • Think about how to encourage students to write as a group — perhaps by asking (requiring) students to choose a section that someone else had written to revise/edit or otherwise provide feedback on.
  • Figure out and then explain to students what the ideal for collaborative writing is.  In what ways do people successfully collaborate on a writing project, and how might we do that? Having a discussion with students about their expectations for collaborative writing may also be a fruitful way to get that conversation started, rather than never talking about it and assuming that students will do it a certain way.
  • Along those lines, I would also consider the ways that I could have students model collaborative writing perhaps on a face-to-face in-class exercise, or include more class time where we could talk about and do wiki-writing.
About Kim Mann

Kim Mann is the editor and a writer for the Academic Technology Blog. She earned her BA in English from the University of Minnesota in 2003 and her MA in American Studies from William & Mary in 2009, and her PhD in American Studies at the College in 2014. Her research is on technology, the interface, and the body in mid-twentieth century science fiction.