Engaging in Virtual Collaborative Writing: Issues, Obstacles, and Strategies

Engaging in Virtual Collaborative Writing: Issues, Obstacles, and Strategies

Patti G. Wojahn (New Mexico State University, USA), Kristin A. Blicharz (IBM Corp., USA) and Stephanie K. Taylor (IBM Corp., USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-994-6.ch004
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In this chapter, the authors discuss factors useful for virtual collaborators to consider when initiating a new writing project. They identify the importance of and challenges common to getting to know others through virtual means. They then address issues associated with establishing expectations and protocols for the collaborative processes to be used for a given project. They do so by drawing from the literature on and their own experiences with virtual collaborative writing, as well as from communication logs and survey responses gathered from a small pilot study conducted in 2007. This pilot study focused on behavior and perceptions related to multiple types of communicative tools for interacting in daily workplace practice. They argue that behaviors, perceptions, expectations, and previous practice can all inform rules of engagement that can benefit teams working in virtual contexts. Time spent planning for the collaboration by defining common goals, rules, and guidelines in early stages of a virtual project can improve the collaborative experience: subsequent efficiency; role, task, and deadline delineations; and group satisfaction.
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I learned two weeks ago that I have a new manager who works in another part of the country. Talk about needing to interact and create identity “out there” ... I'm going to have to convince my manager that I’m doing a good job, differentiate myself and my work from that of my peers (some who work at his location), all while my current focus is writing for a product that he does not manage. And then there is the writing and communicating I'm already doing every day with people in four different locations ... It can get confusing. (A collaborating writer)

For many people, collaborative writing projects are a daily workplace reality, as are collaborative projects that include writers working at remote locations. Members of writing teams large and small interact with colleagues across the globe using such tools as instant messaging (IM), videoconferencing, e-mail, and phone. Collaborating writers now intermittently switch between typing and talking orally in their communications through newer technologies that combine the affordances of screen-sharing, IM, and embedded voice-over-Internet software. They distribute drafts, files, images, and notes through shared databases and content management software. They share professional and personal information with people whom they have never met in person and likely never will. They experience frustration and enjoy successes together and remotely.

When beginning to work on a virtual collaborative writing team, what factors should be considered? In this chapter, we address some of the issues and strategies that can be critical to new groups of virtual collaborative writers. These issues and strategies speak directly to the need to develop a culture of collaboration and to establish trust among writers, which are the first and third principles that ground this book as discussed in Chapter 1. We draw from the literature on and our own experiences with virtual collaborative writing. We also draw in part from a small pilot study conducted in 2001 that focused on three writers working for high-technology firms at three different locations. On specific days, the participants kept logs of every type of interaction they initiated or took part in, noting the nature and purpose of each interaction, its duration, the parties taking part in the conversation, and the medium used to communicate. Participants also responded at length to questions about their remote interactions and the communication tools used to support them. Using these pieces as a backdrop, we address issues related to unifying remote individuals into a team of writers working on a shared project.

Although some people believe that writing collaboratively makes writing easier, we argue that writing collaboratively requires additional care, coordination, and cooperation and can substantially complicate the writing process. In general, when writers attempt to arrive at a shared understanding of what needs to be said in a piece and how to say it, communication problems and other difficulties seem inevitable (Kraut, et al., 1988). Difficulties can occur as team members try to convey their ideas, agree on goals and purposes, share personal knowledge or perspectives to arrive at common understandings, coordinate individual and shared perspectives, use both individual and collective contributions, and then guide all of the distributed writing to a unified end (Bond & Gasser, 1988). Given such factors, writing collaboratively is not easy to do—even when collaborators are colocated, sitting next to one another in an office (Fleming, Kaufer, Werner, & Sinsheimer-Weeks, 1993). Collaborative writing can be even more challenging when colleagues write and interact in virtual environments.

Communicating online in general can be a difficult endeavor. Virtual communication makes some aspects of communication more difficult, introduces new issues, and mitigates if not reduces others (Siegel, Dubrovsky, Kiesler, & McGuire, 1986; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). Virtual teaming on collaborative writing projects, we argue, does the same. We know much about teaming and small group work processes from theory, research, and practice (see, for example, McGrath, 1984; Cohen & Bailey, 1997; Hirokawa & Salazar, 1999; Gouran & Hirokawa, 2003; Salas, Priest, Stagl, Sims, & Burke, 2006; Klein, DiazGranados, Salas, Le, Burke, Lyons, & Goodwin, 2009). We know far less about the implications of teaming and small group processes when collaborators write solely or primarily online.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Verbal Processes: “Clauses of saying” (Halliday, 2004, p. 252), usually contributing to the creation of narratives by setting up distinctive dialogues and reported speech. Examples of verbal clauses include: praise, insult, say, speak, report, announce, question, inquiry, ask, criticize.

Social Presence: According to Rourke et al. (2001, p. 51), “social presence is the ability of learners to project their personal characteristics into the community of inquiry, thereby presenting themselves as ‘real people’.” Later on, Garrison (2006, p. 2) describes social presence “as the ability to project one’s self and establish personal and purposeful relationships.”

Teaching Presence: Anderson et al. (2001, p. 8) define “teaching presence as the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes.” According to them, teaching presence begins with the course preparation and “continues during the course, as the instructor facilitates the discourse and provides direct instruction when required” (2001, p. 8).

Relational Processes: “Serve to characterize and to identify” (Halliday, 2004, p. 210) general nouns, be they human or inanimate subjects. Examples of relational processes include: be, become, remain, taste (like), turn into, represent, constitute, express, signify, stand for.

Existential Processes: Only represent “that something exists or happens” (Halliday, 2004, p. 256). Examples of existential processes include: exist, remain, stand, lie, emerge, grow, erupt, prevail, flourish, ensue.

Material Processes: Construe “a quantum of change in the flow of events as taking place through some input of energy” (Halliday, 2004, p. 179), with mostly an action performed by a subject onto someone or something. Examples of material processes include: appear, emerge, develop, cut, modernize, brush, sweep, open, close, leave.

Behavioral Processes: “Processes of (typically human) physiological and psychological behavior” (Halliday, 2004, p. 248), regarded as a mixture of material and mental processes. Examples of behavioral processes include: smile, cry, laugh, listen, dream, breathe, sing, dance, faint, talk.

Cognitive Presence: Garrison (2006), inspired by the work of Dewey (1933) on reflective teaching, defines cognitive presence as “the exploration, resolution and confirmation of understanding through collaboration and reflection in a community of inquiry” (p. 4). In another text, Garrison (2006b, p. 4) explains that “cognitive presence is the process of collaboratively constructing meaning and confirming understanding in a sustainable community of inquiry,” highlighting the importance of facilitation to maintain the construction of knowledge and interaction by means of discourse production.

Footing: More commonly related to participants’ alignments, their social projection, and the way they represent themselves while taking a role in a social encounter. In other words, footing “is another way of talking about indexing…the process whereby we link utterances to particular moments, places, or personae, including our own self at a different time or with a different spirit (e.g., emotional vs. distant, convinced vs., skeptical, literal vs. ironic)” (Duranti, 1997, p. 296). Paiva and Rodrigues-Junior (2004, 2007) have investigated which roles the footings of participants play while they are interacting with their peers in online academic forums. According to them, “within online interaction, interpretive resources usually present in a given context are transferred to utterances produced by interlocutors in virtual interaction” (Paiva & Rodrigues-Junior, 2004, p. 175, our translation). Moreover, nearly all paralinguistic features easily identified in casual talk, due mostly to the cues immediate contexts provide, become linguistic and discursive elements often used by interlocutors when they are virtually communicating with their peers, like, for instance, emoticons, interjections, punctuation, capital letters, and so forth (Paiva & Rodrigues-Junior, 2004, 2007).

Mental Processes: Construe “a quantum of change in the flow of events taking place in our own consciousness” (Halliday, 2004, p. 197). Examples of mental processes include: see, notice, believe, expect, wish, hope, like, hate, perceive, think.

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