Wiki as Collaborative Writing Tool
Today one of the first steps in planning a collaborative project might be to decide what technology we might use. However, in spite of the promise of technology, and our growing dependence on it, we still don't fully understand the effects it can have on the collaborative writing process. Using technology to write collaboratively is not a simple matter of selecting an existing technology and starting to write. As collaborative writing researchers Sharples, Goodlet, Beck, Wood, Easterbrook, and Plowman (1993) have suggested, tools that support collaborative writing "must be based on a good understanding of the cognitive and social processes of writing" (p. 27).
One of the reasons such an understanding is needed is that collaboration is inherently complex and adding technology to the mix only increases that complexity. Writing of any kind is a social activity, or as Jo Allen (1999) explains, "writers not only write to readers, but also write with them" (p. 235). Allen's statement was intended to emphasize the close relationship writers have with their audience, but it also begins to demonstrate how socially complex collaborative writing can be. In collaborative writing, we must not only consider the needs and demands of our ultimate audience, but those of our co-collaborators as well, which in itself can be quite demanding.
Clearly, then, we must be extremely deliberate in our choice of technology. Lee-Ann Kastman-Breuch (2002) suggests that when deciding what technologies to use for the classroom, teachers might consider conducting a "'contextual analysis' of technology that considers political, economic, social, or cultural factors." This process, she reasons, "might mean not only requiring students to use technology that will be useful to them in the workplace but also reflecting critically on their experience of and with that technology” (pp. 273-274). Such a "contextual analysis" could be beneficial for selecting technology for collaboration in any situation. While it is becoming second nature for users to think of the technologies they use as tools, users are often only concerned with how tools can make work easier and better.
One area that writing teachers and scholars should examine more is the area of how technology affects the activity of writing collaboratively. How, for example, does our choice of technology influence social interaction among collaborators? How might the tool help us facilitate communication among collaborators, or address the needs of our ultimate audience? How do issues of cost and access to technology affect individuals from different socioeconomic groups or cultures?
In collaboration, these considerations are important even before technology enters the picture. As Burnett, White, and Duin (1998) explain, "these issues [[of culture, authority, conflict, and gender]] also signal an evolution in the theory, research, and practice of collaboration as attention moves beyond establishing that collaboration exists and focuses instead on contextual factors that influence (and sometimes interfere with) collaborative interaction" (p.134). Technology compounds these factors, for as Tim Peeples (2003) explains, "When writing is understood, also, as a social practice, technologies become more than mere tools; they become part of the context in which writing takes place [[and]]…. technological issues broaden" (p. 219).
Contexts of Cost, Access, and Culture
In educational settings these issues broaden considerably, and a technology related contextual analysis should also include consideration for issues such as social and cultural differences, and economic concerns such as access to technology. As Burnett, et al. (1998) warn, "Technologies that link collaborators create communities as well as boundaries to those communities" (p.144). In fact, access to hardware and software may be particularly problematic for certain individuals or groups, for as Inez Marquez Chisholm, Jane Carey and Anthony Hernandez (2002) observe,
- "The increased commitment to technology in higher education and our society's growing dependence on technology for personal, social and economic development have a tremendous potential for disenfranchising these technologically poor segments of society and placing them at a disadvantage. If our universities and colleges hope to furnish equitable access to higher learning, then they must concern themselves with equitable access to IT" (p. 58-79).
Using open-source technologies such as wikis rather than relying on proprietary software is one way of ''making access easier for students." Students who might not be able to afford the latest version of an expensive software program need only a browser in order to become web authors or to participate in a collaborative project. At Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi we provide open labs for students who do not have their own computers, and students who qualify for assistance through our Title V program can check out lap tops.
Constructivism, Community, and Conflict
Even when all members of collaborative groups have access to the same hardware and software, there are still other contexts to consider. In particular, navigating the social territory where collaborators interact, and negotiating the conflict that is inherent in collaboration can be challenging. Social construction theory has been influential in developing an understanding of the complex process of collaboration, because the essence of social construction is also the essence of collaboration. As Thralls and Blyler (1993) explain, "To summarize, the social constructionist approach focuses on community" (p. 13). If social construction and collaboration are about community, then wikis are about building constructive communities, as a look at the free online interactive encyclopedia Wikipedia can confirm. In fact, as Cunningham and Leuf (2001) point out, wiki communities are "inherently democratic—every user has exactly the same capabilities as any other user" (p. 17).
Still, while Kenneth Bruffee's (1984) notion of consensus among a "community of knowledgeable peers" (p. 46) provides a foundation to help us to understand the complex nature of collaboration, there is a lot more to it than that. Bruffee has been accused of placing too much emphasis on consensus and ignoring issues of authority and conflict (Burnett, 1993; Burnett et al., 1997; Trimbur, 2003; Weiss, 1991). Obviously, collaborators must reach some degree of consensus or they will never get anything accomplished. On the other hand, it can sometimes be productive to forestall agreement and even to encourage certain types of conflict in collaborative groups. Burnett, (1993) and Burnett, Hill, and Duin (1997), using language borrowed from psychologists such as Putnam (1986), have described conflict as "affective, procedural, or substantive" (Burnett, 1993, p.145; Burnett et al., 1997, p. 151). Affective conflict includes interpersonal and emotional disagreements; procedural conflict can include disagreements about procedures and planning. Both affective and procedural disagreements can be destructive and counter-productive if not dealt with in a timely and efficient manner. In contrast, substantive conflict, which "deals with content, context, and concepts" (Burnett et al., 1997, p. 151) can not only be productive, but if managed appropriately, can contribute to a better written product. In fact, as Burnett, Hill, and Duin (1997) mention, "Experienced collaborators often defer, and in some cases even resist, consensus in order to explore alternatives and they value disagreement to help them focus on potential problems" (p. 152).
Wikis Can Help Co-authors Negotiate Conflict
Conflict, then, is an inherent part of the collaborative process, and while it can be destructive, it can also be extremely productive. Wikis provide a means to negotiate conflict and to build upon the positive aspects of conflict. In writing and working collaboratively with wikis, users must create and agree on the structures, forms, and methods that are necessary to accomplish their collaborative task. In an activity as socially complex as collaborative writing, such required structuring can be extremely beneficial. In essence, conflict is built into the process early in the collaborative experience, because wiki authors must agree on procedures early in the process, thus working through procedural conflict: How are we going to set this up? What are we going to call it? Who is going to do what? And so on. They must also learn to work together as a team early in the process, negotiating or averting affective conflict. In this way, they can quickly move on to what Burnett, Hill, and Duin (1997) call the "content, context, and concepts" of productive substantive conflict (p. 151).
The implications of these factors for using wikis for classroom collaboration are substantial. As Ede and Lunsford (1990) point out, one of the characteristics of effective collaborative assignments are that, "they allow for the evolution of group norms and the negotiation of authority and responsibility" and "allow for and encourage creative conflict and protect minority views" (p. 123). Wikis promote this negotiation early on, and do so without further complicating these issues.
A Community Commitment to Sharing
Collaborative writing is a social activity that requires a number of commitments from all group members. They must not only agree to share the duties and responsibilities of the task, but above all they must be comfortable and willing to share their work and their ideas with others. This requires an emotional commitment as well. In order to determine the effects of this new technology, and to see how users felt about using it, we conducted a survey that was designed and administered to students and teachers in upper-division and graduate-level technical writing courses. Participants were asked how they felt about allowing others to edit their work in a wiki. In all, 77% (69 of the 89 individuals who responded to this question) felt neutral, comfortable, or very comfortable with this activity.
Sometimes when people are introduced to the wiki concept, one of their first questions is how to keep just anyone from going in and messing up pages that are developed. Most wiki users don't worry about this, however, for two reasons. First, if someone does create havoc with a wiki document, the document can be restored by simply clicking on the Page Revisions option and then restoring the page to the desired format. This is easily accomplished because all changes are automatically archived within the wiki system. Second, since it is so easy to restore wiki pages, users who get their fun out of wreaking havoc see wiki pages as offering little challenge, so they don't usually waste their time on them. An option is available in wiki, however, wherein pages can be password protected. More than half (61.4%, 54 of the 88 respondents who answered the password question) indicated that they rarely or never used the password feature. Feeling comfortable with allowing others to edit their work in wiki and opting not to use the password feature a majority of the time would seem to indicate that most users in our survey find wiki to be a useful tool for collaboration and feel at ease with the open nature of the tool.
This willingness to share can have substantial implications for the classroom, where peer review and peer editing are common collaborative practices. Wiki technology not only supports these practices but might also contribute to the kind of community ethos that can lead to such sharing. It is significant to point out that when students in our survey were asked, "In your opinion, how effective is Wiki in sharing coursework with fellow students?", 91% (78 out of 86 respondents) identified wiki as being effective to at least some degree for that purpose.
Collaborative writing is a complex process that requires collaborators to negotiate social relationships of authority, power, responsibility, and conflict. Technology can have positive effects on this process, but if the technology is not appropriate for the particular collaborative situation, it can also further complicate the process and those negotiations. The technology chosen for collaboration essentially becomes a shared space, where collaborators not only write, but also negotiate this shared space.
Therefore, careful consideration must be given when choosing technology to facilitate collaborative writing, and specific attention must be given to the contexts within which technology is to be used. These tools should above all be flexible, and most wikis, including PmWiki, offer not only inherent simplicity and flexibility, but other distinct advantages as well. Not only do wikis allow for the negotiation of shared space, they require it, and this collaborative structuring usually occurs early in the process. Engaging in this early collaborative decision-making and negotiation can help to resolve or even avoid affective and procedural conflicts, allowing collaborative authors to proceed more quickly and easily to the productive stages of collaboration. More important, this required negotiation of space can lead to a better understanding of the social processes that underlie any collaborative activity. In these ways, wikis not only build constructive communities of writers, but also accommodate differences among members of these communities, which in turn can allow all voices to contribute to the conversation.