Goals for this Service
This document is being written on a new web-based word processor, Write.EServer, which allows authors to collaborate either synchronously (simultaneously), or asynchronously (whenever they have time to work). This document is a first public test of the current beta version of this software/web service.
At EServer.org, for several years we've been very interested in developing writing interfaces which are server-based (the popular phrase today is "cloud-based") and designed to foster writing practices reflective of common needs, supported by contemporary composition research and user experience research. As we've looked at systems like Google Docs and Microsoft Office 365, several EServer researchers who study composition pedagogy have considered what a web-based writing tool should look like, and how a writing system could be designed to foster active, engaged online classroom collaboration as well as to interoperate with the wide range of web services being developed elsewhere around the world, as well as popular and emerging devices such as tablets, smartphones, and phablets.
For twenty-five years, writing instructors taught students to write papers using desktop-based applications like Microsoft Word. These offered many formatting features but often failed to foster effective collaborative writing and offered only limited tools to disseminate writing online. Today instructors may choose between several web-based writing services when teaching students to compose online, but some of these have problematic revenue and/or privacy models. It's important, we believe, that rhetoric scholars play a more active role developing the next generation of tools to foster and teach quality writing. If possible, these should be free of charge (probably open-sourced), should support open standards and emerging genresextending inroads already begun by wikis and content management systems.
Notable scholars in rhetoric and professional communication have been working along similar lines. Roland Barthes wrote an essay about the differences between thinking about documents as finished objects or as dynamic projects in motion (he noted that we too-often discussed instances of writing as finished "works," rather than fluid and emergent "texts"). David Kaufer, Christine Neuwirth and others designed a networked word processor in the early 1990s, the PREP Editor, which offered powerful annotations and networked collaboration, influential on Microsoft Word's later (and less-powerful) "track changes" system. Bill Hart-Davidson, Mark Zachry, and Clay Spinuzzi's recent work on activity streams argue for the use of tracking software to visualize interactions among and between collaborators. Karl Stolley's work with Git studied common software developers' toolsintegrated development environmentsto extend these into writing environments. Cheryl E. Ball, Kathie Gossett et al. have been working on funded research to facilitate peer review of multimodal compositions in online journals, which clearly also points to implications from this area of study. This system, Write.EServer, is a similar attempt to articulate rhetorical theories and perspectives within web applications, studying the interface elements we'd want in a web application in order to write better together, and to research, learn, and teach collaborative writing techniques.
Learning the Interface
To learn how to use this system's interface, go to http://write.eserver.org/, enter the name of a new document, then begin editing. click the user icon in the top right corner and enter your name (so your contributions can be seen by others as yours). This will eventually be connected to a system of accounts which will automatically display people's names, after they create and authenticate an account via email.
Then, try editing some text. Use the formatting buttons in the top left menu bar to add styles and/or headings to your writing. If more than one user has this document open at the same time, all participants will see the updates live, as they're made. There is no
save featurethe system automatically, constantly saves all edits as they're made. If you wish to make a comment about the document, click the
Chat tab in the lower right corner of the screen, then type there. This allows live collaborators to converse with one another, but also permits
meta commentary/discussion about the text, attached to the document itself.
Next, explore the control buttons in the top right.
Explore the settings (the
gear button in the top right), which permit you to display a running commentary of
chat messages left by contributors on the right side, show or hide colors to display which contributors wrote which sections of the current text, and hide or display line numbers on the left side.Click the
star icon when you wish to mark a moment of significant contribution, one worth noting. Click the button with the left and right arrows to download this document in your preferred format, or upload a document from your favorite word processor (please don't here, however, as it will replace this text). Use the '>' button to see the URL for this document or (X)HTML code you might use to embed this editor into any website, to invite someone else to work on this document via email, or to post a link to this document to various popular social media platforms. You may also use the
read only checkbox if you'd prefer users to merely watch the current version of the document, rather than be able to edit it. Click the
clock button to play back a scrollable video of all the edits which have been made here, showing by whom.
Using this System for Teaching
In recent years, we've taught business and technical communication courses which assign reports and other documents to groups of three or four students. When the assignment is first introduced, students often express unhappiness with how group writing projects have worked for them in the past; they tell stories of having to manage complex schedules to meet in common study areas, often late at night; how one member of past groups has failed to participate actively; or how progress has been hampered by one member of the group having the "current" version of the writing project, delaying forward progress by others.
Word processing technologies have been of little help when teaching collaboration; they have too often been devoted to what Barthes termed
the work, rather than
the text. Student teams would submit final documents in MS Word or PDF format, which didn't preserve any history of edits (except when students left
track changes comments or marks turned on, which only tracked some edits, didn't produce a clear history of modifications, and couldn't be relied upon to track which person made which edits.
Some instructors (including myself) would then assign an additional assignment, asking students to write a reflection on their group, describing which group members performed which parts of the collaborative assignment. This was sometimes useful (when all team members pointed out one underperforming member, for example), but the reliability of such reflections were always suspect.
A word processor like this one, particularly one (like this) which can be embedded within most popular content management systems and/or learning management systems, would permit advanced communication instructors to bypass all of these concerns. By hosting locally a web service like Write.EServer, or by trusting web services with strong privacy policies (for universities or organizations which can't host systems like this themselves), it may be possible to teach collaboration more effectively than we have been able to accomplish in the past. This document is a proof-of-concept for the idea.
Barthes, Roland. "From Work to Text." InLe? plaisir du texte, Editions du Seuil: Paris, 1973. Online translation by Stephen Heath athttp://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/barthes05.htm.
Neuwirth, Christine M., David S. Kaufer, Ravinder Chandhok and James H. Morris. "Issues in the design of computer support for co-authoring and commenting." In CSCW '90 Proceedings of the 1990 ACM conference on Computer-supported cooperative work. pp. 183-195. Online athttp://dx.doi.org/10.1145/99332.99354.