Writing-based collaborative activities can be used as a conversational space for learning. Ideas that exemplify this approach include students co-creating guidance documents to capture findings from inquiry-based learning, using Chat channels purposefully to resolve a problem, annotating digital artefacts collaboratively, creating glossaries, and running a ‘book sprint’ as an active and immersive writing retreat (Heller & Brinken, 2018).
This chapter considers approaches explored in a sharing practice workshop at the Global Festival of Active Learning 2021. The workshop itself used co-writing, epitomising co-operative networked authorship (Johnston, 2010; Middleton, 2018) – an idea with far reaching potential. Together we considered what we have done, the benefits of such generative pedagogies, the practical considerations, and what more we could do. We considered how writing can be equally quiet or furious social activities, and how our familiarity with the act of writing can be used to promote inclusion and the development of a supportive learning community.
This chapter summarises what was discussed and produced, and is aimed at academic innovators interested in designing inclusive active and collaborative methods for a hybrid learning context.
What is co-writing?
Co-writing describes situations in which people access and edit the same document at the same time. This can be achieved using common software like Microsoft Word or Google Documents. The same approach can be taken with other file types including presentations, spreadsheets, and digital whiteboards. The use of wikis in education raises many of the same possibilities and questions, however, their use tends to be more fragmented as often different pages in a wiki building assignment are given to different individuals or groups, with sites being constructed from disassociated pages (Boulos et al., 2006; Su & Beaumont, 2010). As a result, the research and presentation of ideas through a student-generated wiki site can lack a sense of collective thinking and synthesis. In contrast, this chapter emphasises situations in which the student authors place their cursors in the same document because doing so demands interactivity and avoids the simpler trick of assembling disparate writings together in a disjointed fashion. Therefore, fundamental to co-writing is a commitment to co-creativity and the social co-construction of knowledge.
Such activities can happen synchronously, asynchronously, or multichronously. Multichronicity highlights how a document creates a learning space which can be accessed (like a room) at the same time or over time, on your own or with others. In this way, the shared document can be thought of as a familiar collaborative learning space in which ideas can be developed with others fluidly.
Engagement with such learning activities reveals something in general for active learning: without contradiction, immersive activities can be fast, loud and intense, but they can also be quiet, considered and personalised. The energetic co-creation of a product through synchronous activity leads to an extended, even persistent or latent value in the object being created. Therefore, co-writing activities should be designed with understanding of the immediate value of co-creation within the writing space and the value associated with acts of preparation and later acts of using what has been produced: creating knowledge, articulating knowledge, applying knowledge.
Some examples of this include: the co-creation of group lab books for writing up experiments together; case-based research in which evidence is gathered and interrogated together; collaborative portfolios in which artefacts are first assembled before being elaborated upon through co-writing, and then presented or published.
A shift to co-writing as an academic exercise, from tasks which may have hitherto been assigned to individuals, implicitly expands the potential learning outcomes because, as with many active learning pedagogies, the task introduces a need to negotiate learning and give and receive intrinsic feedback within the act itself.
Co-writing activities are versatile and, given the options they provide around time, task, and learner location, co-writing is best approached as a space for learning rather than a specific academic writing method.
Why is co-writing useful?
The value of co-writing is that it gives a writing task academic purpose and authenticity, removing it from a purely abstract academic domain. Authenticity, in this case, reflects the sense of common purpose in the task itself and the practical focus of such writing, for example, as an outcome of a collaborative activity or inquiry. Co-writing also has the advantages of it being a negotiated act.
As a learning space, the document can be used in many ways. For example, the teacher could set up documents beforehand to guide a group’s thinking around co-creating an artefact, for example structuring the activity around a topic and subtopics, or related questions. Alternatively, the co-writers could be asked to begin their task by negotiating a structure and methods that will work for them as a design for achieving their research goals. Either way, collaborators are involved in making decisions about how to research and how to write in a shared space, and it requires that they dive deep into the task to develop and agree their methods and bounds.
Writing, editing and agreeing what should be produced introduces collaborative processes that begin by considering possibilities in a structured way before converging around decisions that reflect the knowledge, interests and skills of all participants.
How can co-writing be used?
In this section, I briefly introduce three co-writing assignments. I will then reflect on some of the issues that need to be considered when using such a collaborative space.
1. Producing guidance
I use this approach regularly as a community of enhancement approach to developing good academic practice. Academic participants have gone on to use it with their students.
The challenge of producing guidance requires the authors to have a thorough understanding of the process they are explaining. They need to define and understand their specific audience. This knowledge and sense of audience adds to the authenticity of the task: the authors must write with authority based upon their experience and research and the quality of the authors’ engagement is shaped by the artefact having actual users in mind. Further, the task represents a common scenario that is likely to be encountered by the graduate later in their professional life. The formative assessment is authentic too: a guidance document can be tested on, and by, its intended audience.
Setting out a process should be a straightforward matter for the co-authors. They will need to explain to each other what they did themselves. This creates a well-defined, goal-centred activity as they analyse and compare in detail their own experiences of the process.
Processes often benefit from annotated diagrams or photographs and adding these to a guidance document can extend its value to authors and readers alike. Processes, like recipes, tend to be brief and highly structured. In a large class, groups can build a collection of different but related process documents for their mutual benefit.
2. Glossaries, FAQs and encyclopaedias
Co-writing glossaries or frequently asked question documents (FAQs) is an authentic assessment where students are involved in project-based or research-informed learning activities. Such activities can be brief and focused on a specific activity, or extended to a unit of study, or even a whole course. Students have created whole online encyclopaedias this way, pulling together and presenting current disciplinary research, for example on Linguistics or Medical Science (Middleton, 2018). Such ambitious challenges can be highly motivating and acquire great kudos, and this can attract and be passed down to new students.
3. Co-writing as a research space
A shared document, more than a writing instrument, can be considered as an accessible space; a room in which dispersed participants can come together. Think about who you would like to involve and how you would facilitate the meeting as a research activity, and the benefits of participating in the meeting to the subjects as co-authors.
Creating a barebones structure around a subset of headings or questions can help to focus the minds of those who ‘join’ the document. I recently ran a series of workshops about reflecting on innovation in the pandemic. I created two document ‘spaces’, one headed ‘War Stories’ and the other ‘Pushing the Boundaries’. While both spaces were related, they were different enough to prompt and collate examples of resilient innovative practice and future thinking while the activity was founded on recognising that all participants had valuable experiences to share and build upon.
In conclusion, I reflect on what we expect of writing in the academic domain and what the value is in the act of writing.
In co-writing, the addition of the social context is significant. The metaphoric notion of document as a familiar room is also important; it signals that process, negotiation and the affordances of the space should be appreciated, at least as much as the more usual idea of a document being an end in itself.
Writing has many purposes in academia and different conventions and styles come into play. This should be clear to students in such activities. In the case of co-writing activities, the writing style is likely to be determined by the needs and expectations of the intended audience. The students’ tutor as assessor will not always be the primary audience, and this should be discussed and made clear.
Time for the students to prepare, write, and use or publish the knowledge in focus should be considered when approaching co-writing as a pedagogy. The academic should be clear about how such activities sit within the learning and in relation to other contexts in which the writing may be used. In a book sprint co-writing activity, for example, the idea of a tangible book being held and used by ‘real world’ readers may be so motivating that it may inadvertently obscure the academic context and distort its academic purpose and assessment.
The co-writing space has proven to be a versatile student-centred active learning space during the 2020-22 pandemic. It has accommodated students in highly motivating authentic activities in many disciplines. A familiar space, academics have demonstrated their ingenuity in devising both short and long challenges that result in substantial resources for readers and authors alike and, as academics have come across the techniques, co-writing pedagogies have proliferated.
Boulos, M.N.K., Maramba, I., & Wheeler, S. (2006). Wikis, blogs and podcasts: A new generation of web-based tools for virtual collaborative clinical practice and education. BMC Medical Education, 6(41), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1186/1472-6920-6-41
Heller, L., & Brinken, H. (2018, November 20). How to run a book sprint – in 16 steps. Impact of Social Sciences. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2018/11/20/how-to-run-a-book-sprint-in-16-steps/
Johnston, M. (2010). The photobook club. http://photobookclub.org/
Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining spaces for learning in higher education. Palgrave Learning & Teaching.
Su, F., & Beaumont, C. (2010). Evaluating the use of a wiki for collaborative learning. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 47(4), 417-431, https://doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2010.518428