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Collaborative Convergences in Research and Pedagogy: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Teaching Writing with Wikis

Janice Fernheimer, Dean Nieusma, Lei Chi, Lupita Montoya, Thomas Kujala, Andrew La Padula


Collaboration has long been hailed as a critical key to success in industry, the sciences, and composition studies (Bruffee, 1984; Lunsford & Ede, 1994), and more recently wikis have earned a reputation as collaborative tools. For several years, composition (Moxley & Meehan, 2007; Carr et al., 2007; Garza & Hern, 2006) and science instructors (Chen et al., 2005; Hamilton, 2000; Kussmaul et al., 2006) alike have been exploring and writing about their experiences using wikis in the classroom. Although much has been written about attempts to integrate writing into hard science and engineering courses; surprisingly little addresses how wikis might be used to foster collaborative writing pedagogy across the disciplines. Moreover, the extant scholarship does not correlate wiki use with overall quality of student writing. As David Smit aptly points out, “we need to know more about exactly what produces effective writing in collaborative pedagogies--the structure, the amount and range of response, or the sheer time spent in practice” (1989, p. 55). Investigating how wikis might effectively harness collaborative potential to enable students to produce high quality essays, this article analyzes the incorporation of wiki-aided collaborative writing projects into two courses—a writing intensive Introduction to Engineering Design course and a junior level Product, Design, and Innovation course at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Data was collected from student surveys distributed and wikis used during the Spring 2008 semester. They were analyzed by an interdisciplinary team of rhetoric, management information systems, environmental engineering, and science and technology studies scholars.

Our team investigated how wikis might be used to create what we have termed “deep collaboration” among writers working on multi-authored projects. Although students are often required to engage in group-work, when they are asked to provide one “group essay” they usually break the work into component parts and then assemble the pieces into one document just before it is submitted. We hoped, however, that wikis might enable students to engage one another about their writing process, from inception to delivery of the document, thus leading to deeper collaboration, more recursive revisions, and higher quality essays. This article explores how we attempted to use wikis, with their ability to track a history of revisions, to facilitate what we term "deep collaboration" among students writing group-authored documents in engineering and design courses. Ultimately our research shows that when students are co-located, wikis ironically provide a tool for the assessment of individual contributions to group-authored projects.

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