Why do Computers Aid Collaboration?

Linda Flower and John Hayes, in their article "A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing" explain the cognitive processes that take place in a writer's heads. The main point of Flower and Hayes's article is that writing is a continuous process that cannot be defined in clear-cut steps. On the contrary, writers are constantly planning (pre-writing), composing (writing), and revising (re-writing). Hypertext may be one of the most effective forms of writing that can exhibit this process. This idea of writing as a process and not as an imposed linear structure reinforces my theory that collaboration should be centered on the student-writer, "By placing emphasis on the inventive power of the writer, who is able to explore ideas, to develop, act on, test, and regenerate his or her own goals, we are putting an important part of creativity where it belongs--in the hands of the working, thinking writer" (299). This focus on the writer will enhance the development of her cognitive process of writing and will therefore produce better writing. Writing as a process means that student writers are the most important revisers and advisors of their own texts, not tutors nor teachers that may impose structure or ideas on the writer. Therefore, in conferencing and in any type of collaboration, student writers should hold more control than a tutor or teacher because the writer is the locus of creativity for the paper.

The cognitive processes described by Flower and Hayes are further developed using the new computerized format of writing: hypertext. The authors practically provide an answer to the question I initially posed to myself before writing my Midterm Project: What is inside the student writers' heads? Or, in Flower's and Hayes's terms, "What guides the decisions writers make as they write?" (285). They explain how writers' minds work, and it is comparable to the format (or lack of format) of hypertexts. Several writers have many problems with writing papers because of the linear format many teachers and professors require. Many writers think in a "stream of consciousness" fashion. One thought triggers another that is not completely related to the first, which can lead to the incoherence of student writers' papers. This cognition is similar to the process that Flower and Hayes describe. Teachers impose the linear organizational pattern on students because that is the traditional format for papers. Hypertexts, however, reflect the complex cognitive processes involved in writing papers. In Step 2 of Flower and Hayes's model of a writer's cognitive process, they explain that the "distinctive thinking processes" (Step 1) of writers have a "hierarchical, highly embedded organization in which any given process can be embedded in another" (286). They emphasize that writing is a hierarchical process, but is "not fixed in a rigid order" (292) [my emphasis]. The concept of ideas or processes being embedded in writing is similar to links in a hypertext.

The writer has a meaning she wants to communicate, and she needs to find the best way to express this meaning. Due to recent developments with computers, she may find the best way to express her meaning in the use of hypertext. While writing she needs to consider how her idea or subject will best be conveyed using her speaker, to her specific audience. Sometimes the readers of hypertexts may not be clear about the path the writer wants them to take. This is why linear papers have traditionally been used. But hypertexts allow writers a way to express their ideas in the order they think about them, or in the order that they feel is most appropriate.
The concept of the issue tree, a tactic that should be frequently used in the writing center, shows how writers' cognitive processes, as explained by Flower and Hayes, are similar to hypertexts.

An issue tree is like a concept map, it does not linearly outline a paper since it does not show the exact order that the paper will follow. An issue tree simply identifies the main issues that are addressed in the paper, and how these issues relate to each other. This is a modern alternative to the classical rhetoric outline that shows ideas outlined in a structured format established by a series of numbers and letters in heading and sub-heading format.

Computers and technology in the classroom further the enhancement of writers' cognitive process, and of student writer-based collaboration. In Valerie Balester, Kay Halasek and Nancy Peterson's article, "Sharing Authority: Collaborative Teaching in a Computer-Based Writing Course," the authors explain how computers enriched the learning and peer collaboration of students in their collaboratively taught summer writing courses. The authors explain at the end of the article that writing cannot be seen as "an exact science that can be . . . transmitted uniformly from student to teacher" (9). This idea reinforces that writing is a process of composing, as opposed to a definitive step-by-step, linear activity. The authors here profess that collaboration is key to the learning of writing, because peers aid each other in the transmitting of information and ideas. Later, the authors explain that computers allow for this collaboration. While collaborating, students give input on others' writing that leads to more exploration of ideas by individual writers; consequently, exploring caused by other peers and critiquing of other peers make the student writers more active and critical of themselves. The computerized techniques that the teachers used in this study were publishing of students works; FORUM, or synchronous conferencing that was saved on the hard drive of computers for later use; and, MAIL, the email system that allowed for communications between peers and teachers, regardless of timing due to everyone's busy schedules.

The publishing of students' works on the computer, or even in printed form from the computer, led to more peer critique which led to increased knowledge about how others write and how students can improve their own writing. The authors comment that "We also extended the concepts of peer response and collaborative learning by opening every student text to the critical eyes of more than 60 fellow writers" (10). The published works could be viewed by three sections of the same class, that is why there were 60 peer writers. The publishing of these students' works is similar to the placement of our English 376 Midterm and Final projects on the Web, which increases the audience of our papers greatly. This increased audience of peers changes the way students write, because it usually creates more detailed and clearly written papers.

Peer and student-writer based collaboration is effective because one person, the teacher in the classroom, or the tutor in the writing center, is no longer viewed as the "sole determiner of `correctness' or `truth'" (Balester et al, 4). The program FORUM played an integral part of the students "negotiat[ing] meaning, develop[ing] a sense of community, and collaborat[ing] to create propositions"(4). FORUM is very similar to the Webchats we had in our English 376 class, there were small groups formed throughout the class who sent messages back and forth to the group or to individuals in the group. All the individual messages in one group are visible to all participants in the group. This format of synchronous conferencing is especially important in a writing class because the visibility of the student writers' ideas on a computer screen causes them to see how these words have an impact on others and their thinking processes. A verbal group discussion usually consists of one person speaking and consequent responses from others. In synchronous conferencing, however, students can all send their initial ideas simultaneously in the first set of messages, and their peers can send responses directed specifically to one student or directed to the group. In essence, synchronous conferencing is like four or five people speaking at once and then responding to each other individually or as a group on certain topics. More students can relate their ideas to others, therefore, more students have the opportunity to express their own voice or opinion on a topic. This enhances each individual's cognitive process.

The three sections of this writing course were taught collaboratively by three professors and MAIL, the email system used by these three classes allowed for communication between the three different professsors and their over sixty students, even when they were not in class. Students received out-of-class help from any of the three professors in this way. The email system allowed for this help even though the professors and students did not have the time to physically meet, due to busy schedules.

According to evaluations at the end of the semester, the students learned in, by watching their professors collaboratively teach and share authority, that "More than one authoritative opinion about a piece of writing could be had and was, in fact, useful" (8). In this way the collaborative teaching showed that the teacher is not the sole determiner of knowledge and this proves the theory of collaboration as achieving its goal of giving more control to the student writer.

Collaboration with the use of computers proves itself highly effective in association with English as a Second Language (ESL) and Learning Disabled (LD) students.

Back to the Introduction

Back to Table of Contents