Collaborative Writing Package Provides a Structure for Peer & Teacher Review

Before the advent of microcomputers, revising a piece of formal writing usually entailed typing the entire document over again, making changes as necessary based on editorial comments in the margins or between lines. Whether surrounded by Apple IIe machines or the latest Windows 95 laptops, today's students surely are familiar with word processing software such as Claris MacWrite and Microsoft Word. In a matter of minutes, one now can correct spelling, find and replace words, cut and paste whole paragraphs or add/delete footnotes. In fact, by changing fonts and tinkering with the margins, students can quickly create a new document that barely resembles its predecessor. But such conveniences are accompanied by some constraints. The ephemeral nature of onscreen text makes it harder to track revisions; deleting an electronic annotation, for example, forever erases comments that could prove helpful later. In addition, it often becomes difficult to keep straight the suggestions of multiple readers. And most writers have experienced the frustration of constantly scrolling up and down the screen to locate a passage that needs revising, a process that sends them scrambling for eye drops. Breaking Those Binds Not all classrooms in America follow this conventional approach to writing. David Kaufer, head of the English department at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., relies on a next-generation collaborative writing package that allows his students to create and revise electronic documents together. CommonSpace complements word processors' text-editing with a unique column-based interface that provides ample space for annotations. The software, which is called CommonSpace, d'esn't replace word processing applications; instead, it complements their text-editing features with a unique column-based interface that provides ample space for annotations. Kaufer has thoroughly researched the use of computers in collaborative writing. He was even on the research team that developed the product that inspired CommonSpace, which is published by Sixth Floor Media (Boston, MA), a group of Houghton Mifflin's College Division. Kaufer has used the product for everything from freshman writing seminars to master's degree courses in professional writing. In a typical assignment, students are asked to write about a given subject then exchange a first draft with a partner. All work is done on Macintosh computers at 24-hour "public clusters." Partners may attach marginal notes or voice annotations to a document, or duplicate columns and then directly edit the copy. In either case, the original document remains unchanged, preserving a clear history for the author. After receiving their edited draft back, students can compare two columns of text to see exactly what changes should be made. When they edit or move any text, the annotations move with it. In addition, a text-collapsing function simplifies the creation of expandable outlines. For Kaufer, the peer reviews are just as important as the writing itself. He frequently projects documents in front of the class and solicits suggestions for improving the introduction, reorganizing key points, etc. "I can then rewrite the text as it is being projected and the student is giving me advice." After a few students have made their recommendations, the class views a comparison report and considers the various strategies for revising the document. "The side-by-side alignment allows a teacher to use changes as visual objects for discussion and reflection." When students finally turn in an assignment (via e-mail), Kaufer can read through the multiple "workspaces" to see precisely what suggestions the writer acted upon. He no longer must sift through piles of paper to figure out how the document changed over time. A Virtual Dialogue Kaufer notes that the columns resemble a "virtual dialogue" between partners. In fact, the latest version of CommonSpace lets those connected to the campus network engage in live peer-review conferences. The professor attributes the software's effectiveness to its utilization of margins. In examining the history of publishing, Kaufer recognized that the margin plays an important role by enabling visual problem solving. "I think if people understand [this history], CommonSpace has a great future in education."

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.