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13.3 Collaborating Online

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand general group work guidelines.
  2. Identify technology factors in an online collaborative site.
  3. Recognize special social aspects of working in an online group.

Both education and business regularly take advantage of online collaboration. In education, students are often asked to collaborate online to discuss course readings, to work on group projects, or to edit each other’s work. In business, employees often work together online to brainstorm and develop ideas and projects. The online environment allows people who are in different physical locations to work together virtually. In addition, online collaboration sites allow everyone to keep track of each participant’s contributions.

Some basic etiquette rules apply to all online collaboration situations. You will notice that many of the rules hold true for any group work situation. (See Chapter 11 "Academic Writing", Section 11.3 "Collaborating on Academic Writing Projects" for more on general guidelines for working collaboratively in academic settings.)

The Role of Technology in Group Project Design

Technology has introduced a whole array of platforms and tools for group projects. Course management systemsA web-based learning environment that organizes the work of a course (e.g., Blackboard)., such as Moodle, Blackboard, or eCampus, tend to excel as spaces to post course materials and external links, to conduct group discussion boardsA digital space for brief posts and responses by a group of students, usually set up in a course management system by the instructor., to provide for electronic submission of essays, and to manage records like grades, calendars, announcements, and deadlines.

The following is an example of how a richer kind of threaded small-group class discussion about possible connections between video games and violent behavior can be conducted online, even in a face-to-face class. This discussion was conducted after each of the seven students in a writing group had posted their initial response to a couple of opposing readings on the subject. In order to keep the online conversation going, the students were asked to respond to at least one group member’s initial post, using the following questions:

  1. What patterns do you notice about your group members’ or classmates’ responses to the readings?
  2. Where do you notice differences in opinion between your responses and those of your group members or classmates, or among their responses?
  3. What are any possible clarifications and interpretations of specific moments from texts that group members or classmates seem to be having trouble with?
  4. Which texts (or which aspects of texts) still warrant special attention before the class moves on to the next unit of assigned readings? Be specific about what you want your group members or classmates to discuss. What additional questions do you have about the readings?
  5. What ideas do you have for ways specific group members or classmates could use their responses to develop their understanding of the questions into a full-fledged essay?

Do you think the following threaded discussion opens up new avenues of exploration for the students involved? Think about how the debate progressed in this online environment, and consider how it might have operated differently if conducted face-to-face in a traditional, oral class discussion.

  • Bill: In response to Amber’s post: Do you think that violence in video games causes the violent action or do you think that it just adds fuel to the fire? I play violent video games, but I don’t go around hitting people and blowing things up. I was in the Marines for the last five years and never shot anyone. So my belief is that these people are already messed up in the head. I think the lack of morals in teens comes from parents not being able to punish their children as they see fit resulting in a generation of misbehaved misfits who have grown up undisciplined. My suggestion would be for parents to monitor their children’s use of video games and explain the difference between games and real life.
  • Amber: As I read other people’s posts I see most people say no. Well I still stand by my opinion on the whole thing. I didn’t say that everyone who plays violent video games will make them a violent person. I just think that violent video games have the potential to play a role in children’s minds today in the United States. Not every person who plays these violent video games will have a negative effect on their minds. I don’t think that people should stop playing violent video games, but I do think that young children today should not play them as much or until they are old enough. I will always think that violent video games will lead to violence in a child’s mind because they see it on these games played.
  • Adam: Having read other students’ posts, I can tell that there are those who say yes and those who say no, but to those who say yes I have to ask, Would you rather someone release their anger and rage on real people or virtual avatars that have no feelings, have no sense of pain, feel no fear, or anything? All I’m asking is, If there are going to be people with violent behaviors, would you rather the result be virtual or real?
  • Brandy: I noticed that several of my other group members noticed the lack of concrete evidence on the yes side of the argument. Two of them, I believe, brought up something that I had forgotten could be possible. It may be that violent games children play bring out the violent and aggressive side in them that already existed but lay somewhat dormant, for lack of a better description. I can’t imagine a mentally stable child being driven out of his or her balanced mind-set of some sort of common sense and morality and a distinction between reality and a virtual world simply and solely by a violent game. If anything I believe it would, as Jamal said, “desensitize a person,” but not turn that child into an aggressive child.
  • Malcolm: Violent video games will be a problem when presented to individuals who already have a problem waiting to come out. A hundred years ago, without video games around, there was still influence from books to trigger acts of violence. Not everyone that read books found the desire to act violently, but some people found glorification of violence in books, enough for it to suggest to them that it was the right thing to do. This is no different from video games today.
  • Jamal: As my classmate, Amber, brought up, there could be a negative impact on young children. My thought, though, is that the level of reality that the game takes on could be a factor. Games that are trying very hard to look real and have all the lifelike components of war, gang life, or even mercenaries could be a little over the top for some ages. It is the same reason you do not let an eight-year-old watch SAW or something like that. They are unable to process that kind of information without having a nightmare or at least looking under the bed.
  • Becky: After reflecting more on the issue, and everyone’s responses, I’m also unable to say yes or no to the argument. I still don’t see any value to these kinds of games and think they serve no positive purpose, but I can’t confidently say that violent video games lead directly to violent actions. There are just too many other factors that require recognition. Just as the no responses claim that those committing violent acts are already “messed up” and cannot differentiate between right and wrong because they were not taught so, the same idea can be flipped to suggest that violent video players who were taught certain values will not commit violent acts. Where is the control group? I don’t see how either side can present a solid story with so many variables.

Because course management systems are not really designed for collaborative composition courses, they’re not really ideal for group writing projects. WikisAn interactive, shared website featuring content that can be edited by many users., another type of collaborative technology tool, are beginning to replace course management systems for certain kinds of collaboration because they can make group work much more convenient, visible, and meaningful. Professors can set up a wiki as a free online collaborative platform that offers workspace for class-wide group or individual projects. Within a site, individuals can have private workspaces to which other students do not have access unless the site “owner” invites them. Students can use a wiki to gather notes and compile a writing project from beginning to end. Within a wiki, students can save all versions of a draft allowing for retrieval of previous information. Being able to save different versions also allows multiple students to edit, for example, Pete’s draft so that Pete can then access all the edits and choose the changes he wishes to make.

Since each student has a private log-in and password, wikis can easily keep track of who made what changes and when the changes were made. You can even use the settings on your wiki account to have it send you an e-mail whenever someone adds something to your space. Students and teachers can also upload files and place links on the wiki to relevant materials elsewhere on the Internet, such as to an American Psychological Association (APA) or Modern Language Association (MLA) citation builder. Wikis also offer a platform for publishing the final version of a project for viewing by the instructor, other classmates, and even the general public, if desired.

Online Collaborative Sites and Group Projects

Group work is often lopsided and unfair—a few tend to do most of the work. Do your fair share. You would be ill advised to try shirking your part of the work in an online situation since the collaboration program will keep track of each participant’s contributions.

Most sites will maintain all versions of a document or file being drafted collaboratively. As a rule, you should always work in the most current version unless the group mutually decides to revert to a previous version.

Determine which group member is best able to complete different technology aspects of the project, such as scanning, uploading, and creating diagrams. If all members of the group are expected to perform certain technological tasks, make sure the learning curve is not too steep by writing explicit directions. Discussing such aspects up front will make the project go more smoothly.

Social Aspects of Working in an Online Group Situation

If the group seems to be going around in circles, consider a conference call (over the computer or by telephone). With an in-person (or at least synchronousTaking place at the same time.) conversation, you can often straighten out issues that are difficult to handle through chains of e-mails.

On the other hand, if you need to talk to only one member of the group, do so through e-mail. Save the group site for communication intended for the whole group.

Keep in mind that written words do not include voice intonations or facial expressions and are thus more easily misunderstood than are in-person spoken words. If a group member’s comment strikes you the wrong way, give the person the benefit of the doubt instead of being defensive.

Key Takeaways

  • Most standard group work guidelines apply to online collaboration.
  • Some technology factors that affect online collaboration include the tracking of participating individuals, the need to work in the current version of a project, and an awareness that members of the group most adept at technology should be tapped to handle or teach those aspects.
  • Online collaboration creates some unique social issues, such as general confusion that requires a face-to-face or phone conversation, more narrowly private issues that require the use of e-mail, or easily misunderstood communication that requires giving other group members the benefit of the doubt.


Respond to each of the following issues that tend to come up in online writing groups.

  1. One member posts this message: “This project is not working. We should start over completely.” You think that the project is a good one but that the group needs to do more in-depth planning. How would you respond to the post?
  2. One member’s contributions are ridden with typos and spelling errors. What would you say or do?
  3. Both you and another member said you could do the scanning, so you split the scanning between the two of you. The scans are due tomorrow and you are having trouble getting your scanner to work. What would you say or do?
  4. A group member posts this remark: “What were you thinking? I’m not sure what the page you just posted even means.” How would you respond?