Collaboration has long been hailed as a key to success in industry, the sciences, and composition studies (Bruffee, 1984; Lunsford & Ede, 1994). One of the basic assumptions behind such claims is that when students work together, they are likely to encounter and learn how to respond to “difference”--in the form of different students and different ideas, different approaches to problem solving, different values, and different sets of expertise. Those who support group work (and we’re among them) believe that, ideally, students’ encounters with others will be fruitful and productive, not just in terms of the scholarly work they produce (thus yielding more sophisticated and nuanced analyses, insights, prose), but also in terms of their growth and development as humans learning to recognize, respond to, and account for others through their social interactions. Those who are more critical of group work (e.g., Jarratt, 1991) argue that, rather than fostering careful consideration and inclusion of others, consensus sometimes comes at their expense. Worse still, quick consensus formation often fails to produce nuanced and sophisticated work or perspectives. While much has been written about attempts to introduce collaboration in writing and similar courses and attempts to integrate writing or group work into science and engineering courses, few scholars have explored how collaborative writing across the curriculum might affect both faculty and student interactions. Even less is written about how one might effectively evaluate and assess such group-authored pieces.
To better understand, and potentially measure, what composition scholars call "classroom community," we worked with colleagues in Management Information Systems (MIS) who also study collaboration, typically focusing not on interactions among students but those among corporate entities. According to social capital theory, social relations are often seen as the “invisible glue” that brings and holds communities together (Bourdieu, 1986; Cohen and Prusak, 2001). People engaged in collaboration derive value from their social relations where goodwill, mutual support, shared language, shared norms, social trust, and a sense of mutual obligation are cultivated through interaction (Huysman and Wulf, 2005). To achieve successful collaboration, Gwendolyn Lee and Robert Cole (2003) point to the importance of establishing norms of trust, cooperation, and openness toward the sharing and critiquing of ideas. In communities with shared responsibility for and participation in knowledge construction, individuals with different perspectives and expertise are embedded in a highly dialogical network of relationships. The high degree of trust and the flow of communication and resources among these individuals enables them to openly convey their opinions and interests in order to influence others, while at the same time using others’ insights and expertise to identify and solve their own problems. The close social relationships not only provide opportunities for individuals to identify new knowledge and expertise, but also serve as channels for mobilizing this knowledge and expertise (Nahapiet and Ghoshal, 1998). Thus Nahapiet and Ghoshal contend that “[t]he kind of personal relationships people have developed with each other through a history of interactions” (1998, p. 244) forms the normative basis that underpins cooperation and control in a community, such as trust and reciprocity. Accordingly, people who have stronger ties and connections are more capable of judging the quality of information provided by group members and are in better positions to engage in in-depth discussions online (Ellison et al., 2006).
Rhetoricians and compositionists may be more familiar with the term ethos, but the overall set of assumptions is similar--people who know each other better and interact more frequently are better equipped to make judgments about an individual, his or her expertise, and its potential contribution to achieving shared objectives. James Coleman (1988) also argues that individuals are more likely to respond to each other when their social relationships have established a sense of obligation, an expectation of reciprocity, and a degree of trust. Since trust and cooperation help to remove feelings of uncertainty and suspicion, they grease the wheels of communication and collective invention.
With this framing in mind, the project attempted to answer the following questions:
- Epistemology and social knowledge construction
- Might emphasizing deep collaboration, and using a wiki to foster it, improve the overall quality and sophistication of group-authored projects?
- Social relations and collaboration
- Might wikis help to strengthen social ties among group members, thus allowing them to build greater trust and more willingness to engage in the highly interactive process of deep collaboration?
- Might wikis allow greater transparency in students' collaborative writing processes, thus making their progress easier to discern, both for themselves and their instructor?
Skeptical of the high praise much collaborative pedagogy receives, David Smit points to the lack of supporting evidence for such claims: “Properly executed collaborative practices may constitute an effective pedagogy, but to be certain, we need a great deal more evidence--evidence clearly rooted in consistent theory, and tightly reasoned and documented by the methods best suited to test the hypotheses of that particular theory” (1989, p. 55). Smit thus calls attention to the important question of research methodology. In an attempt to answer the questions above, our team formulated several testable hypotheses:
- Deep collaboration improves the overall quality of prose and thinking generated in group projects.
- Wikis help students, especially those who might not know each other well, to develop trust and expectations for producing new knowledge by providing a forum for interaction to take place and for group writing to become public and thus available for critique and revision.
- Wikis, because they make the writing process more transparent, help students to see writing more as a process--something that develops incrementally, recursively, and iteratively as well as something that benefits from revision.
- Wikis, because they provide a structured mechanism for interaction, encourage students to interact more frequently and more "deeply", not simply by exchanging parts, but by engaging one another about the development and evolution of the project (and their writing with respect to it) as a whole.
- Wikis, because they provide a record of interaction, help instructors and group members alike assess and evaluate who contributed what and when.
As our reflections suggest, we initiated the wiki project without having resolved all the tensions surrounding the project's framing. On the one hand, we came to the technology with a certain set of assumptions about what it was supposed to do (e.g., wikis provide a medium for interaction, thereby fostering communication, thereby facilitating deep collaboration), and on the other hand, we had specific assumptions about what kinds of classroom communities are necessary to get the most benefit from the wiki technology. These assumptions led us to ask how the advantages associated with the tool could best be utilized to achieve specific classroom and learning goals, but what struck us was how social interaction and trust were at the heart of both sets of assumptions. In order for wikis to be populated with ideas and for groups to use them to create new knowledge, the people using the tool needed to establish effective patterns of interaction and trust. Of course, effective patterns of interaction and trust were necessary for the learning goals of deep collaboration to be achieved as well. So social interaction and trust were both what the wiki was supposed to facilitate (and what we hypothesized it would) and also what were necessary to have developed in order for deep collaboration to take place. This chicken-or-egg dilemma made it very difficult to measure precisely what role the wiki played in facilitating increased trust and interaction among group members, an increase which we hypothesized would, in turn, make students more willing and able to engage in deep collaboration. Obviously our research questions and aims were ambitious, perhaps overly so. In order to focus the project, the research team attended carefully to the various layers of methodology needed to answer our research questions.
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Continue reading the Methods section.