Challenges Encountered During Synchronous Online Collaborative Writing via Google Docs

Challenges Encountered During Synchronous Online Collaborative Writing via Google Docs

Mufeeda Irshad
DOI: 10.4018/IJWLTT.287554
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This study investigated (1) the challenges encountered by a heterogeneous group of first year undergraduates during a synchronous on-line collaborative writing activity conducted through Google Classroom using Google Docs and (2) their perceptions of the pedagogical approach. Five sub-groups of undergraduates participated in the study, and their written transcripts were analysed for patterns of interaction in terms of equality and mutuality based on the Taxonomy of Writing Change Functions and Scaffolding Strategies (Li and Zhu, 2017). Data on learner perceptions were analysed for underlying themes. The findings, which were interpreted from the perspective of the Complex Dynamic Systems Theory, revealed that synchronous on-line collaboration is complex and challenging due to the dynamic patterns of interaction. This study concludes that Google Docs is a useful pedagogical tool and could be used for second language writing development despite the challenges. However, in transferring the findings to other second language learners or learning contexts, caution needs to be applied.
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In the higher education sector of Sri Lanka, with the recent introduction of Google Classroom, an increasing number of English as a second language (ESL) teachers of the Faculty of Management Studies and Commerce (FMSC) of a leading university have shown interest in using Google Docs, a web 2.0 application, for synchronous on-line collaborative writing.

Google docs is a very useful technology enhanced pedagogical tool (Abrams, 2019) that is simple and accessible. Through Google Docs, learners can interact, collaborate, share, and edit documents while teachers can track students collaborative learning in real time.

Since Google Docs is a useful tool and the interest in using it for teaching writing is apparent, the aim of this research was to conduct a study to investigate the problems/challenges of synchronous on-line collaborative writing when learners interact linguistically (Storch, 2002) in small groups to complete a writing task.

What does collaborative writing mean? There are many definitions of collaborative writing. The concept of collaborative writing has been broadly defined by Storch (2011) as “the joint production of a text by two or more writers” (p. 275). Allen, Atkinson, Morgan, Moore, and Snow (1987) defined collaborative writing as “collaborators producing a shared document, engaging in substantive interaction about that document, and sharing decision-making power and responsibility for it” (p. 70; Yeh, 2014). Similarly, Dillenbourg (1999) described it as a situation in which “two or more participants learn or attempt to learn something together” (p. 1; El-Hamamsy, Johal, Asselborn, Nasir, & Dillenbourg, 2019) and outlined certain criteria for defining it. The criteria are interactivity, the degree to which interactivity influences the cognitive process of the participants; synchronicity, simultaneous participation in the writing process; and negotiability, which is arguing for one’s standpoint, justifying, negotiating, and attempting to convince as opposed to imposing one’s view. Fung’s (2010) definition of collaboration is also similar to that of Allen et. al’s (1987) and Dillenbourg’s (1999). She described the main characteristics of collaboration as interaction among group members, arbitration, management of differences in ideas, and sharing of knowledge and skills.

Collaborative writing can be done synchronously or asynchronously. The current study investigated the challenges encountered by the learners while being involved in synchronous (Yim, Wang, Olson, Vu, & Warschauer, 2017) on-line writing. It is hoped that this investigation would be significant to the Faculty in which the research was undertaken, in particular, and the higher education institutes in Sri Lanka, in general, because much of students’ writing in their personal and professional lives is on-line (Chun, Kern, & Smith, 2016) and synchronous on-line collaborative writing is fast gaining popularity as a promising new technique for instruction (Yim et al, 2017).

Research Questions

In order to investigate the problems/challenges that students encountered during the synchronous on-line collaborative writing process and their perceptions of the pedagogical approach, the following research questions were addressed:

  • 1.

    What problems/challenges do learners encounter in linguistically interacting with group members during synchronous on-line collaborative writing through the Web 2.0 application, Google Docs?

  • 2.

    How do students perceive synchronous on-line collaboration using Google Docs?



Many studies have been conducted on the use of Google Docs (Kessler, Bikowski, & Boggs, 2012) for second language learning. However, most of these studies have been conducted on asynchronous on-line collaboration in the use of wikis (Ducate, Anderson, Moreno, 2011). However, there are only a few studies that have investigated synchronous interaction in classroom-based L2 writing (Yanguas, 2019) specifically the challenges/problems that learners encounter in interacting with group members during the synchronous on-line collaborative writing process.

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