Using Social Writing Tools
Similar to wikis, social writing tools, in general, are best for allowing small groups of students to create writing and reflect on writing process and aspects of writing such as organization, focus, tone, diction, and the role of the audience. Social writing tools can also be used by individual students to collect their writings and revisions over time and/or share their writings with others for virtual critique. Social writing tools, like those powered by Google Docs and Zoho, combine the collaborative abilities of a wiki with the more familiar aspects of a word processor (and other tools, like spreadsheets, presentation software, etc.). For this presentation, we'll focus on the word processor tool.

The Tool

  • Social word processing is both an online file manager and an online text editor. Copies of the files are stored in the user's account and can be organized into folders. Individual files can be edited very much like a traditional word processor (like Microsoft Word). In addition, the history of each file can be viewed and compared (as with a wiki), and each file can be shared with selected users to allow others to edit or comment on the file. Finally, files can be published to a static URL, exported to a blog, or saved to the computer's hard drive in a number of file formats.
  • Advantages
    • All files the student creates using the online software will be stored online and accessible from any internet-connected computer.
    • Files are saved regularly and automatically, minimizing the loss of data.
    • Students can work in small groups to collaboratively develop documents.
    • Students have complete control over who has access to a document.
    • Students can share files with others to receive "virtual critiques." This includes sharing files with the teacher, which can greatly reduce "paper management" difficulties.
    • Students can build an online portfolio of their work, and the revision history of each file is always present for each work, allowing for greater reflection on process and development.
  • Disadvantages
    • Files are stored in a users account, not made public. This is mostly a benefit; however, others cannot easily find the files of a user without an email or link to the public address of the file.
    • Files are separate and do not exist within a larger framework (as pages do within a wiki site).
    • Students can only access and work on the files when they have access to the internet.
    • Sharing files with multiple users can quickly become overwhelming without a strong and consistent method for organizing the files.

Ideas for Use

  • ePortfolio development ... have students create (or at least upload) all course writing into their online account and regularly reflect on their writings
  • Virtual critique groups ... have students share their files with select students to provide "virtual workshops" for their writings
  • Projects and group papers ... students can prepare project outlines or papers collaboratively
  • Drafting center ... students can develop drafts for their blog posts or wiki additions and then export or copy the final versions

Evaluation

  • If students are working collaboratively on a paper, then the questions relevant to the evaluation of a wiki project would apply, along with the standard evaluations of the final writing.
  • If students are using the tool for their individual writings, then the standard evaluations of the writing assignments would apply.
  • However, in both cases, you have the added benefit of having access to the revision history, which tells you how extensively the writing has been revised and can provide insight into the student's understanding of the writing process (either collaboratively or individually).
  • In addition, I find that my comments on writings submitted through these tools tends to be both more holistic and more extensive.

Getting Started

  • Start by exploring the major competitors in this field, setting up a few accounts and experimenting with features:
  • Consider how you want your students to use this tool and which of the above offerings best meet those needs/concerns. (And again, check with your school's policies.) For example, if you have students using Google Reader to read blogs, then it makes sense to use Google Docs (so they won't have to create yet another login).
  • Clearly explain and demonstrate to students how to use these tools and the requirements you establish. For example, do the titles of the documents have to include the student's name or the specific name of the assignment?
  • See the resources under "wiki" for other ideas about using these tools collaboratively.