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Tools for Collaborative Writing

Jesse Stommel - February 10, 2014 9:15 am MDT
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This post was written collaboratively by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel.


In short, collaborative writing has completely changed the way we work and even the way we think. As we wrote in a previous post, “Collaborative writing is a kind of apex learning activity.” The two of us, Sean and Jesse, have known each other for almost 13 years. We’ve worked closely, inhabited physical space together, and have jointly built new virtual spaces. We didn’t really know each other, though, until we started living inside each other’s sentences, paragraphs, and even semi-colons. Writing together has fundamentally changed the way we approach the acts of editing, teaching, and thinking. We even brush our teeth differently, sometimes with Sean propped on a box atop Jesse’s sink for a brainstorming session as Jesse’s electric toothbrush whirs away.

There are many tools for working collaboratively, and this post is a review of those tools. But we must point out, here at the start, that the specific tools you use for collaborative writing are less important than how you use them. We’ve used Google Docs extensively but have just as deftly passed notes back and forth with paper and pencil, our jumbled analog cursors co-habiting the space of an 8 ½ by 11 sheet of looseleaf paper. What’s at issue here is a way of thinking — a way of processing ideas — that’s altogether more vulnerable, letting a virtual flurry of cursors inside our own thinking and writing processes.

In 2011, Jason B. Jones surveyed some of the available collaborative writing tools. The field has changed dramatically in the last 3 years. And three years from now, the tools and how we use them will be just as different. So, as you play with the various tools outlined here, think not only about what you can use them for but about how they can change the way you work, how their utility can last beyond their own extinction. A tool is only as good as what it can do even after it’s dead.

Google Docs:

This is the tool within which we both cut our synchronous co-authoring teeth. In “Theorizing Google Docs: 10 Tips for Navigating Online Collaboration,” Jesse writes, “There is something slightly crazy about a shared writing space, especially when there are more than 2 contributing authors. A Google Doc can seem to write itself, a new digital ecosphere that bubbles with lively and chaotic energy.” Google Docs is, quite simply, the most robust and widely adopted tool in this list. This post was authored inside a Google Doc. But it’s a tool not unlike a wrench, good for a lot of stuff, usable for almost anything, but not tailored well to any one thing in particular. (For a deeper dive, some lesser known features are highlighted here.)

Editorially:

This tool is not designed for synchronous co-authorship. Instead Editorially takes one feature of other collaborative writing tools and perfects it: versioning and the ability to push draft copy to one or more editors. The interface is stripped down and lovely, foregoing elaborate formatting for an emphasis on the text itself. For more, see Nathaniel Mott’s “Editorially is the collaborative writing tool we’ve been waiting for”.

CommentPress:

A plugin for WordPress, CommentPress allows post-publication marginalia on a piece of writing. This tool can be used to collect feedback on your work from a much broader public right within the confines of your own blog. You can find out more about the tool and see a demo here. While you can certainly make a Google Doc public and can even embed one on your own site, CommentPress can be used to offer a more fully integrated user experience.

Etherpad

Etherpad is an open-source writing platform, which has been forked for dozens of iterations, such as PiratePad. While not as robust as Google Docs, or as elegantly designed, the fact that Etherpad is open-source means that it can be customized to suit the needs of a specific organization or project.

GitHub:

Speaking of open-source, development for Etherpad is coordinated via GitHub, which is primarily used for the collaborative writing of code. However, GitHub can also be used for text documents, such as this recent e-book published by Hybrid Pedagogy, “Learner Experiences with MOOCS and Open Online Learning.” Kris Shaffer writes more about Github in “Push, Pull, Fork: GitHub for Academics.”

iCloud Pages:

Although Pages is still in beta and so growing in its feature-set, it does appear to be the first real competitor for Google Docs. As is true about most Apple products, Pages glows with a certain “you must refashion your entire life for me” charm. What’s missing at this point, though, is the ability to comment on and chat about a work as it’s in production. What we find so useful about Google Docs are the layers of conversation that arise around a document as we move back and forth between the text, the comment function, and the chat box. This kind of meta-level dialogue, missing so far from Pages, has become essential to our process.

Penflip:

If you find the synchronous aspect of Google Docs overwhelming or distracting (and you’re not alone), this might be the app to try. Whereas Google Docs encourages a somewhat chaotic dance, the Penflip experience is altogether more organized, akin to passing a piece of paper back and forth across a table. Unfortunately, the interface is not all that attractive to look at. While we are both note-passers at heart and so enamored of the idea, this is currently not a piece of paper we’d want to pass to anyone.

Draft:

A very simple tool for working with editors or getting feedback from peers on a piece of writing. Like Editorially, Draft has a clean interface that keeps the focus on the text itself. Includes robust version control, carefully tracking changes made to a document. Draft does not facilitate co-authoring, as much as it attempts to smooth out and enhance the relationship between writers and editors. And the best part: you can shut off your internal editor by using “Hemingway mode,” which basically disables your “delete” button and allows only one way through to the completion of a piece of writing: forward.

Gingko:

Last but not least is our new favorite of the tools listed here. We’re not sure yet exactly what Gingko is or how we’ll use it. (In fact, the name of the tool is currently being changed, so we’re not even sure what we’ll ultimately be calling it.) What we do know is that this tool has forced us to rethink how we work. Not exactly a writing tool, Gingko is more of a productivity app. In fact, we wouldn’t even recommend it for writing, since it encourages outlining in a way that is often detrimental to the writing process.

In Writing Without Teachers, Peter Elbow writes,

Most advice we get either from others or from ourselves follows this model: first try to figure out what you want to say; don’t start writing till you do; make a plan; use an outline; begin writing only afterward… This idea of writing is backwards… Think of writing as an organic, developmental process in which you start writing at the very beginning — before you know your meaning at all — and encourage your words gradually to change and evolve. Only at the end will you know what you want to say or the words you want to say it with. (14-15)

For this reason, we recommend approaching Gingko with a certain wonderment. It may not change the way you write, and probably shouldn’t, but how else can it change your workflow. We’ve begun to experiment with it for collaborative brainstorming sessions, to do lists, and meeting notes. Let us know in the comments what you build with this or any of the other tools listed here.


[Photo, “Busy bee“, by kiran kumar licensed under CC BY 2.0.]

9 comments

  1. Many thanks for this, Sean, i was just telling colleagues at work that I was lookin for something just like this, and who better to write it than you 🙂 I wonder if you intentionally meant to skip over wikis as a v basic collabo authoring tool… And RapGenius (never used it, but I understand it allows annotation like CommentPress does?)

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