Collaborative Composition Technologies

I am engaged in a project at school to reproduce the functionality of DIWE, the Deadalus Integrated Writing Environment. Our English teachers used this superb piece of desktop/server software to structure writing activities for students but find themselves unable to use it any longer, because it does not handle a mixed-platform environment well or have a web component. We aim to determine the best way to make DIWE or another interactive writing environment available to teachers and students here and at home. At one level, this involves discussion of Terminal Servers and dual-boot Macs, but we are also considering replacing the entire system.

It may intrigue my fellow edubloggers that this writing environment far outstrips blogs, forums, or wikis in its richness and support for student writing activities. While I have seen many terrific examples of student work in our favorite ubiquitous online technologies, reviewing DIWE makes me understand that our favorite Web 2.0 tools, still in their infancy, have a long way to go before they provide the level of sophistication that many teachers expect from classroom learning tools. DIWE embraces the concept that “writing is thinking.” Writers engage in the cyclical process of guided critical inquiry -> prewriting -> drafting -> guided peer reviewing -> guided revision. Effective bloggers may learn to incorporate some of these traits into their writing, but DIWE provides a more effective tool to learn how to write.

Blogs, forums, and wikis all start with a single container. DIWE provides a set of writing prompts that students may use either during prewriting or reviewing activities to kick off their compositions. Students here do not encounter the problem of writer’s block, because the prompts stimulate critical thinking about the selected topic, providing the raw material for a student to begin writing. The tool then combines the student’s responses into a single document that the student may use to begin their first draft. Teachers may use a “prompt manager” to create new sets of prompts that may vary in number. I have seen nothing like this in the world of Web 2.0 writing tools. Sure, one could list a set of prompts above a single text field, but DIWE provides a much deeper level of age-appropriate structure and direction.

Similarly, this richness extends to commenting. The system provides collaborative peer review, in much the same manner that a group of bloggers would form a community of practice through commenting on each others’ blogs. However, DIWE even structures peer review through a series of prompts, providing far more support to students writing reviews of their peers’ work than a simple comment box.

DIWE provides a live chat tool that a number of existing Web 2.0 services should be able to replicate. Students engage in real-time discussion about an idea or piece of writing. DIWE automatically saves each chat as a separate object and preserves all transcripts by default. At first blush, Drupal’s Chat Room module looks like it could replicate this functionality, because it creates a separate node for each chat room.

DIWE provides some course management features similar to those in Moodle or DrupalEd. Teachers and students meet online in a shared course web space, in which teachers may publish a plan for the week and students may upload files or post online text to posted assignment objects. DIWE allows teachers to determine whether the assignment submissions are public or private.

Outside of DIWE, these English classes also WEDGE (Writing Every Day Generate Excellence), similar to blogging but usually private to the writer.

Does another structured, collaborative composition system exist out there that we should consider adopting? Has anyone else tried to build a web-based system that replicates the functions of this terrific piece of desktop/server software? Would anyone like to work with us to develop these tools in Drupal? I wonder whether a standalone Drupal site could do the trick. If one provided teachers with the ability to administer content types, they could create a series of prompts and text fields to make up each structured activity. Better yet, we could contract the creation of a new Drupal module to provide this function, and we should be able to use existing Drupal modules for everything else. Would anyone like to help fund the authorship of a new Drupal module or Moodle activity?

2 comments

  1. Konrad Glogowski says:

    Richard,

    First of all, thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts on this post and also for your comment on my blog.

    I am familiar with the DIWE environment and agree that it is a superior piece of technology designed to support student writers and help them develop into critical and reflective authors. I was fortunate enough to use DIWE with a mixed-ability group of high school students several years ago and was very impressed with what the environment helped them accomplish and how it empowered my students. Unfortunately, the cost became prohibitive and I was not able to continue to use it in my class.

    Eventually, I turned to discussion boards (<a href="http://www.uni.edu/darrow/r…">CSILE &amp; Knowledge Forum</a>) and then to blogs.

    Now, let’s see if I can answer your question about replicating DIWE with web 2.0 tools.

    I believe that it is possible to replicate DIWE by using a classroom community of bloggers. Granted, the environment would be much more distributed than DIWE just because you cannot and should not try to clearly define every single aspect of the community. DIWE offers a well-defined box that provides all kinds of support. A blogging community is different – it can certainly provide tremendous support, but can never be a self-contained environment. There will always be other conversations and other entries that, while potentially distracting, also add to the richness of the community and its interactions. So, I think the first step would be to think about moving away from the structured and teacher-driven environment of Drupal. I guess you could do it with Drupal if you were trying to replicate the environment, but I think that a less well-defined community can offer something else – it can be user-driven, which is what I am trying to accomplish with blogging in my classroom. In other words, what you’re suggesting involves putting the teacher very much in the driver’s seat. I think that it would be interesting to see what happens when some of the features of DIWE are implemented in an environment that is not as teacher-controlled.

    Anyway, these are just my initial thoughts. As you can see, I am not a big fan to Content Management Systems 🙂 . This, however, certainly does not mean that I’m not interested in learning more about what could be done with Drupal. However, I’d be really interested to see if a more open environment can be used.

    If you’re looking for people to build a DIWE-like environment using Web 2.0 tools, I’m definitely interested.

    – Konrad

  2. rkassissieh says:

    Thanks for the feedback and your expression of interest, Konrad. I find Drupal infinitely flexible — we can create whatever kind of environment we want within there, from teacher- to student-directed or somewhere in between.

    Many aspects of DIWE are easy to replicate using Web 2.0 tools. The structured response format, however, seems unique. I want to try to build a proof-of-concept for structured response using a Web 2.0 tool. Do you have another tool in mind that could do the trick?

    I would love to build a functional proof-of-concept anytime. Let me know if you have a few minutes to speak directly about this sometime.

    Richard