An ecological online collaboration
Cooper (1986) contended that “purposes, like ideas, arise out of interaction, and individual purposes are modified by the larger purposes of groups; in fact, an individual impulse or need only becomes a purpose when it is recognized as such by others” (p. 369). To demonstrate this idea at its most fundamental level—that it is social recognition and interaction that helps a “topic” become purposeful—we assign as the final enacted product of this multi-week assignment sequence a problem/solution composition on a local issue or controversy. Dirxk and Smith (2004) argued that collaborative student groups should “confront complex, real-life situations that are messy, ill-structured and have no clear resolution or right answer” (p. 137), so we insist on topics that are currently and locally meaningful. Including primary and secondary research components and group involvement in all data collection, we hope to reveal the ties between any topic the student has chosen in the apparent isolation of the academic setting, exacerbated by the physical isolation of the online environment, and the world in which people who live that topic as an actual problem are actively engaged in seeking solutions. Chief among the evaluative criteria, ultimately, is the writers’ eventual awareness of the issue’s importance to the local population: as they prepare their final drafts, students find themselves using persuasive techniques to demonstrate that their audience, even if it does not already, should care about the topic and alter aspects of their behavior that would contribute to a solution.
A central feature of the assignment is that the groups share a general topic. Though individuals occasionally ask to depart from the group, to pursue an individual interest, a shared approach exemplifies Cooper’s definition of purpose. Further, such an approach necessarily contributes to community building, not just by the collective data that group members will eventually accumulate but by the process of coming to consensus on a topic in the first place. As Palloff and Pratt (2007) argue, forming a learning community “does not necessarily mean giving up autonomy … [but] is a mutually empowering act—a means by which people share with each other” (p. 28). As they negotiate possible topics, students acknowledge their own embodied experience and the relative distribution of their information and knowledge, and integrate their distributed knowledge with classmates’. Of necessity, as they contribute to topic conversations, group members present themselves to one another in meaningful ways, since what they know and care about pertains to what they do with their lives and the communities in which they find personal meaning and connection. The research steps require further integration of the collective’s emergent knowledge with the various types of knowledge they encounter in their inquiry, as they literally create information through data collection and collation as well as assembling scholarly bibliographies. Finally, though, each writer’s enacted product deals with a singular aspect of the general topic and offers an original discussion of causes, consequences, and solutions, reflecting each student’s emergent knowledge of the topic and attempt to participate in a larger academic or professional discourse community in which the topic means and matters.
The project can be done with only very basic technological tools. Our students talk with their groups in Blackboard discussion forums and by email, occasionally with discussion scripts that we provide to productively shape their conversations toward the desired ends. All documents are produced in word processing programs, sometimes according to simple templates that we have created, and shared through basic file exchange software on Blackboard or by email attachment. Students collect secondary research with a web browser and available online library resources; to generate primary data, they distribute word-processed questionnaires by email and collectively compile data, usually, in a spreadsheet program like Excel, but even if Excel is unavailable or beyond students’ expertise, a simple table in a word processing program suffices for group members’ to comprehend their results and share them with one another. Highly sophisticated technology certainly holds potential for online composition courses if it’s available and well utilized, but we maintain that with thoughtful and deliberate pedagogy, any of us can more than make do.