Purpose: This study investigated technical communication practitioners’ and students’ use of online collaborative writing tools (OCWTs), as well as their opinions about these tools. This family of tools includes wikis, online word processors, learning management systems (LMSs), and other collaborative tools. The data gathered were used to illustrate these tools’ value to practitioners, as well as provide educators with recommendations about which tools to teach students.
Method: Surveys were deployed to technical communication practitioners and students; each group had its own survey. The surveys gathered quantitative and qualitative data. The qualitative data were analyzed through a coding system.
Results: Roughly 85% of both groups used OCWTs; however, practitioners used them daily while students used them only weekly. Practitioners primarily used tools chosen by their companies, and their most-used tools were Microsoft SharePoint, Google Docs, and company intranet. Students were features driven, and their most-used tools were Google Docs, PBWorks (formerly PBWiki), and Blackboard. Both groups had positive opinions overall about OCWTs.
Conclusion: Technical communication practitioners appear to be using these tools often in the workplace, and several OCWTs appear to have become standards. These tools seem to hold value for practitioners, who use them for a wide variety of collaborative tasks. Technical communication students and educators should be aware of the OCWTs and collaborative tasks found in industry so that students can learn them. These tools include wikis, online word processors, and SharePoint (or something similar, such as an LMS). Finally, some tasks that practitioners perform (single sourcing, project management, and so forth) appear unfamiliar to students—it would be beneficial if students learned to perform these tasks in the classroom.
Keywords: collaborative writing, wikis, digital collaboration, pedagogy, groupware
- The use of online collaborative writing tools (OCWTs) has become widespread in the technical communication field, with roughly 85% of practitioners using them—and 57% of those on a daily basis.
- Particular tools (for example, Microsoft SharePoint and Google Docs) are becoming standards in some technical communication workplaces. Therefore, it may be advisable for practitioners to embrace these tools, if they have not already.
- Students are using OCWTs, but most only use them on a weekly basis. Some do not see the relevance of using these tools in the classroom.
- Students should be familiarized with not only the OCWTs used in the technical communication workplace but also the tasks for which practitioners are using them.
- Students should also be informed of practitioners’ use of these tools so that using them in the classroom feels relevant, rather than a waste of time.
In a 2007 survey of 1790 technical communicators, Jones (2007) discovered “that technical communicators engage in a wide variety of collaborative writing activities” (p. 290); however, the importance of collaborative writing is no secret to anyone within the field. Equal importance should be placed on the tools and methods of collaborative writing. In fact, after studying 55 articles about collaboration in technical communication, Thompson (2001) concluded that “discussions of collaboration are likely to occur with discussions of other important issues in technical communication, for example, electronic technology” (p. 166). Indeed, as the Internet has become an everyday tool for technical communicators, the prevalence of collaboration via electronic technology has increased. According to an American Business Collaborative study cited by Brown, Huettner, and James-Tanny (2007), 80% of workers are somehow involved in virtual teams (p. xi). This statistic illustrates that technical communicators may already be embracing the tools of digital collaboration.
But what tools are they using and to what extent? Unfortunately, these questions are not easily answered—little research exists on the topic of digital collaboration in general, and most of it focuses on managing virtual teams and similar topics, rather than the tools themselves. Additionally, empirical quantitative data regarding technical communicators’ use of these tools is lacking. Various sources claim, based on author experience and anecdotes, that their use on the rise, yet there are few statistics to back these claims.
As Thompson (2001) concluded, “Collaboration as a research issue… seems firmly rooted in technical communication as a discipline” (p. 167). This well established need for research about collaboration within the field, combined with the aforementioned high level of worker involvement in virtual teams, suggests a need for research in the area of technical communicators’ collaborative work within the context of the modern digital era. This research necessarily encompasses the tools technical communicators employ to work collaboratively via digital media. Such tools may include groupware, wikis (Web pages characterized by distributed authorship), online word processors, and other technologies allowing practitioners of technical communication to write collaboratively with others over the Internet (or another network type).
Further, the use of these tools seems to be on the rise in academia, yet “despite the increasing frequency of their use in composition classrooms, wikis have been largely absent from the published conversation in the computers and writing field” (Lundin, 2008, p. 434). However, much like the case with practitioners, there is little empirical information about technical communication students’ use of wikis and other collaboration tools in the classroom. In fact, Rice observed that instructors “often overlook the rhetorical and dynamic opportunities Web 2.0 technologies offer students’ technical writing practices” (p. 303). This oversight may be caused by the lack of empirical knowledge about the tools used by practitioners.
This article is the result of a study conducted to address the lack of empirical data about the use of online collaborative writing tools by technical communication practitioners and students alike. Specifically, I studied the use of tools from a family I dubbed “online collaborative writing tools” (OCWTs). My definition for this family includes tools that allow users to work collaboratively on writing projects through digital media. Tools in this family can range from real-time collaboration tools to tools that include communication or scheduling functionalities. Some tools within this group are sometimes referred to as Web 2.0 tools; however, not all Web 2.0 tools are OCWTs. Because collaborative writing is so vital in technical communication, it was the focus of my study. Therefore, the study excluded tools used solely for communication (such as e-mail, instant messaging, or voice over Internet protocol programs).
To address the need for empirical data concerning OCWT use, I developed surveys for technical communication practitioners and students to investigate these groups’ tool use. In this article, I discuss OCWTs and their relationship to both technical communication industry and education, and then I describe the methodology used to generate, distribute, and analyze the surveys. The subsequent two sections are devoted to the results of both surveys and a discussion of those results, followed by some recommendations based on the data found in the surveys. Finally, I conclude with other possible avenues of research to expand on this study.
Industry and OCWTs
“As technical communication has evolved over the last 20 years, it is likely that writing processes—including methods of collaboration—have evolved with them,” stated Jones in 1997 (p. 292). Indeed, within the technical communication industry, the tools and methods of collaboration have evolved alongside the field as it embraced the Internet and other digital technologies. Thompson (2011) pointed out that digital collaboration tools emerged as early as 1995, after which “all researchers publishing articles… agree that electronic technology is integral to collaboration” (p. 166), underscoring the early relationship between collaborative writing and technology.
Further, throughout the last decade, increasing numbers of references have been made to technologies similar to some of today’s primary digital collaboration tools. For example, Ray and Ray (2000) discussed predecessors to today’s online collaborative technologies, such as early groupware, which “allows team members (or only selected team members) to create, review, revise, annotate, or otherwise contribute to documents,” enabling “the entire team to participate in the document development process easily yet provide for specified levels of document security” (p. 123). Salopek (2000) provided an example of the expectations for these types of tools: “The trend is toward a browser-based client, easy to use, with little or no training required” (p. 43). Both descriptions sound similar to some technologies in use today, including wikis.
Finally, to underscore the recent prevalence and importance of OCWTs, Wagner and Shroeder legitimized the use of wikis as collaboration tools in their 2010 article, in which they analyze wiki technology within frameworks offered by accepted media choice theories, and then compare this technology to others that have been previously analyzed within these frameworks. The authors concluded, “Wiki-based collaborative content creation enables new communication practices…. Wikis support a considerable variety of communication activities and provide a credible alternative to other business communication technologies currently in use” (p. 68).
These sources seem to indicate that wikis, and OCWTs as a whole, have evolved over the past decades to become both legitimate and necessary within the technical communication field. In light of this evolution, the lack of empirical data about OCWTs is both surprising and perplexing.
Education and OCWTs
While it is easy to see the importance of researching technical communication practitioners’ use of OCWTs, it is less obvious why students’ use of these tools should also be studied. The first reason is the existence of a reflective relationship between the field’s industry and pedagogy. Thompson (2001) argued that industry and education tend to look toward each other when deciding the field’s standards. She concluded from her study of collaboration in technical communication workplaces and classrooms that “courses should comply with workplace practices and focus on the skills and attitudes required to excel at a job. The best determiner of these skills and attitudes is the workplace” (p. 168). Conversely, she also pointed out that “a few classroom-based researchers suggest that workplace practitioners should look to the classroom for advice. Research about classroom collaboration can have functional value for the workplace” (p. 168). This mirror image between industry and education suggests that technical communication research should reflect both of these aspects because anything affecting one side of the mirror will affect the other.
In her 2010 article about incorporating wiki technology into the university classroom, Walsh drew similar conclusions about the relationship between industry and education. She states, “Familiarity with standard workplace technologies recurs in nearly every definition of expertise for technical communicators” (p. 190), which points to industry’s technology use as a guide for pedagogy. Additionally, West and West (2009) emphasize the importance of implementing the collaborative tools found in the workplace into technical communication pedagogy: “Students who engage in online collaboration and wiki work during their education will be well prepared for the challenges of the virtual workplace” (p. 127). These sources both lend further support to the idea that technical communication industry and pedagogy are closely related.
Based on this mirrored relationship and the apparent rise of OCWT use by technical communication practitioners, educators have recently begun deploying these tools in the classroom (Rice, 2009; Tharp, 2010; Walsh, 2010; West and West, 2009). These efforts have been met with varying levels of success.
After implementing the Web 2.0 technologies into the classroom collaboration setting, Rice (2009) received mixed results from students. Some had extremely positive experiences, saying things like, “We write collaboratively so that we get good experience with how others write…. I also thought the Web 2.0 technologies helped show how writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum” (p. 312). Unfortunately, other students were less enthusiastic, with comments such as, “I won’t use Web 2.0 technology in my internship or future job. Why do I need to learn something that I’ll probably never use in my profession?” and, “This course would be better if more time were spent learning technical writing methods and less on writing collaboratively on the Web” (p. 313). These statements have the vital implication that students think they will not be using these technologies in their future careers.
Unfortunately, because there exists little specific empirical research about OCWT use in industry, it is difficult to disprove these students’ assumption that they will not use these tools during their careers. The very existence of literature about these tools implies they are used, but this implication does not replace the need for empirical data. Nobody really seems to know how much, which, or for what purposes OCWTs are used in the technical communication workplace.
Therefore, specific research about OCWTs in this vein is essential; empirical data could justify the inclusion (or exclusion) of these tools within technical communication pedagogy. If technical communication practitioners do in fact use these tools frequently, this information could be relayed to students to increase their enthusiasm for the technology. However, given the opposite discovery, the teaching of OCWTs could be replaced with more practical topics, or (true to Thompson’s 2001 observation that “the workplace can learn from the classroom,” p. 167) the technical communication industry could take its cue from education and begin using the tools that the students have already become accustomed to using.
This section discusses the research questions that drove this study and the methods used to conduct the surveys as well as code and analyze the results.
I used the following questions to frame my research and generate the survey questions.
- Who is using OCWTs (specifically, practitioners or students)?
- How often do they use them?
- Which tools are they using?
- Why did they choose these tools?
- What tasks do they perform using these tools?
- How do they feel about the tools they use?
Because of the mirrored relationship between education and industry, the primary targets for my research were both practitioners and students of technical communication. Targeting both groups would enable me to make observations about and comparisons between their uses of OCWTs. I wanted to include everything from wikis to groupware, yet exclude communication tools (like chat programs or e-mail) and social media. To this end, I explicitly defined the term within my survey to attempt to limit responses to those relevant within the scope of my research.
The surveys were comprised of multiple choice and open-ended questions. The purpose of the multiple choice questions was to establish respondents’ demographics, whether they had used OCWTs before, and, if so, how often they used the tools. The open-ended questions were used to discover qualitative information about the groups’ tool use. The questions from both surveys can be found in Appendix A: Survey Questions.
The surveys were published via the online survey site Zoomerang (www.zoomerang.com). Both surveys were deployed on 29 December 2010 and closed on 23 February 2011. I distributed the practitioner survey via STC special interest groups, the TECHWR-L e-mail discussion list, STC’s LinkedIn page, and word of mouth. The student survey was distributed via the Council for Programs in Technical and Scientific Communication listserv as well as via educators in technical communication programs across the country.
Coding the Qualitative Responses
My first step was to sort through all of the responses and disregard any for which the responses were conflicting or otherwise incorrectly completed. Some examples of discarded (hereafter known as anomalous) surveys included student surveys filled out by professors, a survey in which the respondent said he or she had never used OCWTs but answered the other questions anyway, a survey in which the respondent had used only Wikipedia (for research rather than collaboration), and other similar circumstances.
I then examined all responses to the open-ended survey questions (questions 7-12) and discarded any tools that did not fit the provided definition of “online collaborative writing tools.” For example, I discarded a Google Scholar response to question 7 (“list the tools you use/have used”) because the respondent said she used it for “looking up information, research,” which is not within the scope of this study.
Next, I coded the responses to open-ended questions 10 (“briefly explain why you chose each tool”), 11 (“describe the activities for which you used each”), and 12 (“give your impressions of each”). Following the methodology offered by Hughes and Hayhoe (2008), I defined codes at the phrase and word levels. The highest level categories were reasons, uses, and opinions, which relate to questions 10, 11, and 12, respectively. However, please note that I grouped the codes into these categories based on the code itself, and not according to the question for which it was originally given.
|Response||Reason code(s)||Use code(s)||Opinion code(s)|
|“Like. Several people can edit the same document at the same time, and you can watch what each person is changing. Document permissions are very helpful.”||features-simultaneous users; features-user permissions;||synchronous||positive; positive-feature rich|
|“Highly useful for real-time editing/collaboration. Document types are restrictive, and formatting does not transfer well to other formats (e.g., gdoc to MS Word); the free price is excellent though. Space is limited for storage, which could be a problem in the future.”||price-free;||synchronous; editing||neutral; positive-useful; negative-lacks features|
Table 1 shows two examples of coding based on answers two respondents gave to question 12. Note that although the responses were given specifically for that question, the codes were categorized independently (that is, reason, use, and opinion codes were assigned, even though question 12 only asks respondents for their opinions).
The coding of the reasons and uses categories were straightforward and based directly on the responses given. I took a different approach to the more subjective opinion category. I first approached question 12 at the response level, assigning each response negative, positive, or neutral based on the overall tone of the answer given. Then I coded question 12 responses again, this time at the word and phrase levels, and then categorized this second set of codes into the negative and positive subcategories, as appropriate.
|Response||First coding (overall tone)||Second coding (specific opinions)|
|“Like it overall. Only thing I dislike is occasional glitchiness on certain computers.”||Positive||Negative-glitchy|
|“Easy to edit pages and leave comments, hard to navigate.”||Neutral||Positive-user friendly; negative-unintuitive|
Table 2 shows an example of how I double coded a student’s responses to question 12. Note how I assigned the overall positive code at the response level despite the negative-glitchy code assigned at the word level.
I approached opinions in this way to express respondents’ particular praises or criticisms of the tools while still illuminating their overall attitudes. This respondent is a good example of this: She criticized the tool’s “glitchiness” yet liked it as a whole.
The following section focuses on the survey results. I briefly address the quantitative (multiple choice) questions, followed by a more detailed discussion of the qualitative (open ended) data. A more in-depth treatment of these results can be found in the subsequent discussion section.
Multiple Choice Questions
After discarding any anomalous responses (as explained in Methods), I received 95 practitioner and 69 student responses; however, not all respondents answered all questions, so results differ by question.
For question 4 (“Have you used OCWTs?”) 90 practitioners responded, and 77 (87%) said they have used OCWTs. Out of 67 student responses, 57 (85%) said they have used them. Figure 1 shows the frequency with which practitioners and students used OCWTs. Out of 56 responses, 32 practitioners said they used OCWTs daily. Interestingly, a similar number (30) of the 59 student respondents used these tools on a weekly basis.
Figure 2 shows the respondents’ answers to question 5 on the student survey. As seen in the figure, students used the tools primarily for classes—more than half used them for mostly or only class work—while few used OCWTs solely for professional work. I received 59 student responses to this question.
The survey’s open-ended questions focused on which OCWTs the respondents were using, why they chose those tools, how they used those tools, and how they felt about the tools. These questions were the same for practitioners and students alike. In this section, I will introduce the practitioners’ and students’ responses to these questions, beginning with a general overview of the codes I extracted from responses, followed by a discussion of some of the most popular OCWTs mentioned.
Overview of Qualitative Responses. I assigned a total of 529 practitioner codes, extracted from 57 responses to questions 10, 11, and 12. There were a total of 145 reason codes, and the most common reason category was required (48 mentions) followed by features (41 mentions). In terms of individual codes, the most listed were required-organization/company (24 mentions), features-versioning (17 mentions), and price-free (12 mentions).
For students, I assigned a total of 471 codes from 41 responses. The students’ most common reason category (out of 133) was features, which was tied with required at 34 mentions each. Additionally, the most common individual codes were price-free (16 mentions), required-class/school (16 mentions), features-security (13 mentions), and features-comments (7 mentions). Figure 3 shows the relative amount of practitioner and student reason category responses.
Out of 200 practitioner use codes, the most common category was collaboration, which had 102 codes, and then document management with 53 codes. The most common individual codes were collaboration-writing with 35 mentions, document storage with 29 mentions, and asynchronous with 22 mentions.
Out of 185 student use codes, the most common use category was collaboration. Specifically, the most common individual codes were collaboration-writing (35 mentions), with document management-document storage (34 mentions) and collaboration-asynchronous (33 mentions) immediately behind. Figure 4 shows the breakdown of practitioner and student use categories.
For practitioners, there were a total of 184 opinion codes. Recall that I coded these responses twice: once in terms of the overall tone of the response (positive, negative, and neutral) and again in terms of specific codes. For the first coding, the overall attitudes of the practitioners toward the tools were mostly positive with 49 responses (59%), while neutral and negative had 17 (21%) responses each. The students had 153 opinions from the first coding. In terms of overall tone, the students gave 44 positive (46%), 14 neutral (20%), and 11 negative (16%) responses.
In terms of the practitioners’ specific responses (second coding), the opinion code positive-user friendly was the most common at 24 mentions. The next most common codes were unintuitive at 12 mentions and clunky at 8 mentions. Of these codes, 49% were positive.
For students, 56% of the opinion codes were positive. Positive-user friendly was the most common specific opinion code with 25 mentions. Other common codes included negative-lacks features (12 mentions), negative-unintuitive (8 mentions), and positive-useful (7 mentions). According to these results, practitioners appear to feel less positive about OCWTs than their student counterparts.
Commonly Mentioned OCWTs. This section presents detailed results for the tools themselves. Practitioners mentioned a total of 45 unique OCWTs, not including those I discarded for not fitting the definition provided in question 4 of both surveys (for example, Google Wave). Figure 5 shows the relative and total usage for tools mentioned three or more times. A full list of all OCWTs mentioned by respondents is available in Appendix B: Student and Practitioner Tools.
From left to right, the segments of each bar represent the number of times each tool was mentioned as the most used, second most used, and third most used, respectively. The rightmost segment represents instances where the tool was reported but did not appear as one of the three most used.
As seen in the figure, the five tools used most by practitioners were Microsoft SharePoint, Google Docs, company intranet, MediaWiki, and shared databases.
Microsoft SharePoint, mentioned by 22 respondents, is a centralized content management system for collaboration and document management. In addition to a number of communication functions, it has a wiki feature and can be run on an intranet or on the Web. This tool is a company standard in many organizations; therefore, the company’s or the organization’s IT/engineering team is often responsible for choosing this tool. Practitioners used SharePoint primarily for document storage and sharing and project management. The overall responses were positive, with 13 positive, 6 neutral, and 0 negative responses. Positive-user friendly was the most common opinion code, while unintuitive was the most frequently named negative code.
With 19 practitioner respondents naming it, Google Docs (an online word processor) was the second most commonly used OCWT. Respondents chose it because it was free and convenient, and they used it most commonly for real-time and asynchronous collaborative writing. Much like SharePoint, the reaction to Google Docs was positive. In terms of overall attitudes, 9 were positive, 1 was neutral, and 1 was negative. Additionally, there were 9 positive codes and 4 negative codes. User friendly was the most common positive code, and disruptive was the most common negative code.
Another apparent standard, company intranet was mentioned by 13 respondents. The respondents’ organization/company chose this tool to be used for document storage, scheduling, and collaborative writing. The overall response here was, again, mostly positive: there were 4 positive, 2 neutral, and 1 negative. In terms of individual codes, positive-user friendly had 2 mentions, making it the most common opinion code for this tool.
Ten respondents named MediaWiki. This OCWT was actually one of the earliest wikis, and it is the platform upon which the popular Wikipedia is run. Often chosen by the organization/company, this tool was used by practitioners for asynchronous collaborative writing and policies and procedures development. Overall, practitioners liked this tool less than the more commonly used tools; it received 3 positive, 3 neutral, and 2 negative overall responses. However, it received 7 negative codes (it is most seen as inconvenient and unintuitive) and only 3 positive ones.
Little can be said about shared databases because this OCWT suffers from a lack of data, and few observations can be made. Regardless, it appears disliked by practitioners. In terms of overall reactions, it received 4 negative responses, 1 neutral response, and 0 positive responses. Out of the negative codes, lacks features was mentioned most.
For students, there were 31 unique tools fitting the survey’s scope. The total and relative numbers of responses are shown in Figure 6.
As seen in the figure, the five most often used tools listed by students were Google Docs, PBWorks, Blackboard, Moodle, and wikis (general)—that is, wikis with no particular brand named.
Google Docs was mentioned by 32 respondents and was chosen primarily because it was free, had an easy-to-use interface, and had commenting and file sharing features. Students used it primarily for document storage as well as real-time and asynchronous collaborative writing. The general opinion of Google Docs was positive overall (17 positive, 5 negative, and 4 neutral overall responses). In addition, there were 20 positive codes (the most common being user friendly, convenient, and functional) and 13 negative codes (with lacks features as the most common). These data suggest that student users of Google Docs were pleased with the tool.
The second most mentioned tool (named 14 times) was PBWorks, a wiki formerly known as PBWiki. Students chose it for its commenting feature, for its easy-to-use interface, and because it was required by professors. This tool was used primarily for document storage and asynchronous collaboration. Finally, respondents felt slightly positive toward PBWorks, with overall responses consisting of 4 positive, 4 neutral, and 2 negative. The most common positive code (out of 6) was user friendly, and the most common negative code (also out of 6) was unintuitive—an interesting contradiction.
Blackboard is a learning management system (LMS) often used by educational institutions. In addition to communication and document storage tools, Blackboard also has wiki functionality. Seven respondents listed this tool and frequently chose it because it was required for a class. It was used most often for asynchronous collaboration and document storage. Although the overall responses were slightly positive, with 3 positive, 3 neutral, and 1 negative, students mentioned 5 negative codes (the most common being lacks features) and only 3 positive codes. These data imply a more neutral opinion of Blackboard.
Similar to Blackboard, Moodle is an open source LMS; it was mentioned by 6 respondents. Students used it because it was required for class; they also used it for document storage and discussions. Students viewed Moodle positively, with 2 positive, 2 neutral, and 0 negative overall responses. Among the 5 positive codes were feature rich and user friendly; conversely, clunky was the only negative code for this tool.
Wikis (general) were the fifth most mentioned tools, mentioned by 6 students. Unfortunately, they were typically listed as third or “other” in terms of relative frequency, so they have few codes associated with them. All of the opinion responses and opinion codes were positive, yet because the sample size is so small, it is unclear whether this is an accurate representation of students’ opinions of this tool.
Within this section, I analyze in more detail the observations I have drawn from the data presented in the previous section. I open the section with a discussion of certain considerations that readers should be aware of when examining my results. I then discuss the practitioners’ responses, followed by the students’, and close the section with a comparative look at both sets of data.
This section contains the considerations for and limitations of my survey results in terms of their accuracy and representation of technical communication students and practitioners.
There may have been some skewing of my results due to the surveys being circulated within specific communities like schools and companies. For instance, if a school required students to use Blackboard, every respondent from that school would list it, possibly giving an unrealistic impression of how many people use it. Similarly, if a company’s policy was to use an internal wiki, every respondent from that company would say they used internal wikis, possibly inflating the usage for that tool. Despite this issue, the most commonly listed tools and codes were mentioned both often enough and far enough apart (in terms of respondent numbering) that this phenomenon likely impacted the results only minimally, if at all.
Additionally, I allowed no consideration for respondents’ technological capabilities. For example, if respondents were using their home Internet connections or computers, their impressions of the tools may differ from those gained using the systems and connections at their places of work. As a result, if a tool was described as slow, clunky, or glitchy, it may have been due to a slow computer or Internet connection, rather than the performance of the tool itself. However, this issue would primarily affect the opinion codes, which I viewed and coded much more broadly than the other code categories.
The final, and possibly most problematic, concern with this study was its small sample size. With fewer than two hundred respondents in total (and no notion of response rates due to the use of discussion lists), it is difficult and possibly misleading to overstate conclusions about either group. As with any study, a larger sample size would have been better; however, the information gathered in this study represents more knowledge than previously existed about this topic. Therefore, it is best to think of this research as preliminary data for what has the potential to become an expanded study in the future.
According to practitioner responses, OCWTs were chosen because they are required by respondents’ companies, IT/engineering teams, or bosses/supervisors. However, practitioners also chose tools for their features, especially versioning (which includes version control and backup/restoration functionality), which was the most popular feature. Budgetary concerns were also driving forces in OCWT choice, especially for free tools. Some tools were also chosen because they were open source—a reason completely unmentioned by students. Another practitioner-only reason for choosing a tool was for the ability to reuse content; however, it was mentioned only twice, so this result’s real interest lies in the fact that students did not mention it.
Practitioners had a much wider range of uses than did the student respondents; many uses went completely unmentioned by any student participants. These included the entire internal subcategory, which included project management, policies and procedures development, project tracking, and best practices creation. Other practitioner-specific uses were single sourcing, collaborative planning, document maintenance and publishing, and information sharing. Despite these additional uses, asynchronous collaborative writing was still the most common use among practitioners; OCWT use for real-time collaboration was roughly half that of asynchronous.
Practitioner respondents appear to have an overall neutral-to-positive opinion of OCWTs. Usability is a very important factor to these respondents—their primary praise was user friendliness, while their two largest criticisms were unintuitiveness and clunkiness. Additionally, some practitioners mentioned that a tool was inadequate for their needs. This may be a result of tools being chosen by somebody else within the company, rather than by the practitioners who actually use them.
The most mentioned practitioner OCWT, Microsoft SharePoint, seems to emerge as an industry standard in technical communication for companies that leverage collaboration among technical communicators. In fact, somebody other than the respondent frequently chose it. This tool was used surprisingly little for collaborative writing itself. Rather, practitioners used it primarily for document storage and project management. In terms of collaboration, SharePoint was used more for coordinating collaboration via communication, such as through information sharing and scheduling. The fact that the practitioners used their most commonly listed online collaborative writing tool for purposes other than (but related to) collaborative writing begs the question of whether practitioners possess a wider definition of collaborative writing than students.
There exists an interesting contrast between Microsoft SharePoint and Google Docs, which was practitioners’ second most used OCWT. Google Docs, unlike SharePoint, was only rarely chosen by somebody within the company—perhaps implying that, given the choice, technical communication practitioners would choose Google Docs over SharePoint for collaborative writing. Practitioners chose this tool because it was free, convenient, and easy to use. Also unlike SharePoint, practitioners used Google Docs primarily for collaborative writing and equally for real-time and asynchronous collaboration. Respondents performed some document management and communication activities with this tool, but its use was mainly for collaborative writing. Practitioner opinion of Google Docs seemed very positive because it was seen as user friendly; however, some users pointed out some disruptive aspects they encountered when using the tool, such as printing and formatting issues.
As a whole, technical communication students seemed to have positive attitudes toward OCWTs, despite their downsides, such as formatting issues. Most students used these tools on a weekly basis, with some daily and monthly use by a smaller number of respondents. These data suggest that these tools are familiar to students. Further, there seems to be some correlation between OCWT use outside the classroom and increased frequency of use, suggesting that students may encounter these tools more outside their curricula. It must be noted, however, that this observation could be attributed to the small sample size, so it cannot be represented as fact.
When OCWTs were not chosen to meet work or class requirements, students chose tools based on features and price (for example, free). Some of the most common features were in the features-security subcategory, which included not only privacy but also aspects like user permissions. Student respondents also focused on esthetics, mentioning how simple, customizable, or attractive the tools’ interfaces were.
Student respondents used OCWTs nearly equally for document storage and asynchronous collaborative writing. In addition, the tools were used for real-time collaboration roughly half as often as asynchronous work. Another major use was discussion, which likely stemmed from using these tools within the class environment.
Students seemed to feel quite positive toward tools that are user friendly and useful (that is, fitting their needs), yet they are turned off by a lack of features and a clunky, unintuitive interface that is difficult to navigate or search. Interestingly, these respondents have negative opinions when features are lacking, but rarely mention positive opinions focused specifically on features. Regardless, judging from their choices of tools based on available features and their negative opinions of tools they see as lacking features, it seems that technical communication students are very features driven.
Google Docs is clearly the most popular tool among student respondents. It is both the most frequently listed tool overall, as well as being mentioned often as students’ most-used tool. Students have overall positive opinions about Google Docs despite a few complaints. Students used this tool nearly equally for real-time and asynchronous collaboration, and they also used it as a document repository. Respondents chose this tool because it was free, but in some cases, they chose it for specific features or because it was required for class or work. One student mentioned choosing this tool was because group members already had Google accounts—an interesting reason that was not listed for any other tools.
The second most mentioned OCWT, PBWorks (formerly PBWiki), is interesting in that it was rarely mentioned as students’ most used tool. It was often a secondary, or even tertiary, tool for students. It was frequently a requirement for class or work, or even an arbitrary choice. Most respondents used it as a document repository, but others used it for asynchronous collaboration and to provide comments and feedback on peers’ work. Students’ opinions about PBWorks are slightly on the positive side of neutral; although it fit their needs, respondents found this tool difficult to use.
Blackboard, Moodle, and other LMSs accounted for a reasonably large number of student-used OCWTs. This result is interesting not only because it was restricted only to student responses, but also because LMSs were never mentioned on the survey, nor did I encounter them within my secondary research. Yet several students mentioned using them for document management, collaboration, and communication without any external prompting. However, LMSs share many functionalities with other OCWTs, so their inclusion by student respondents is reasonable. In fact, several students mentioned specifically using LMS wiki functions. Predictably, these OCWTs were used primarily because of class requirements. Student reactions to Blackboard (the most mentioned LMS) were barely on the negative side of neutral (a lack of features and hard-to-use interface being its major drawbacks), while students felt much more positive about more and feature-rich LMS Moodle.
Overall, the reasons various OCWTs were chosen, the ways they were utilized, and the way respondents felt about them were generally similar across both groups. Both groups felt positive about the tools as a whole, yet the students seemed to have better specific opinions of them. This difference may stem from the fact that the student respondents had more freedom to choose their own OCWTs, whereas in many cases, practitioner respondents’ tool use was dictated by company authorities.
One of the most interesting results from this study is the fact that roughly 85% of both respondent groups said they had used OCWTs. This result suggests that education and industry do indeed tend to mirror each other, as discussed earlier in this article. However, although similar numbers of respondents had used the tools, the frequency of use varied. Half of the practitioners said they used OCWTs on a daily basis, while slightly more than half of the student respondents used the tools on only a weekly basis. This suggests that although the same percentage of respondents said they had used the tools at all, practitioners seem to use them more frequently. The disparity in frequency between the groups may also indicate that there is a slight lag between education and industry in the use of these tools.
Another distinction between the two groups’ responses lies in the assigned codes, which reveal some interesting differences between the groups. First, the practitioner respondents have fewer reasons for choosing various OCWTs—possibly stemming their relative lack of freedom in choosing the tools they use. However, the practitioners utilize the tools for a wider variety of purposes than the students. The practitioners’ wider range of OCWT uses may be the reason this group uses the tools on a daily basis, compared to the students’ weekly use.
One surprising result is that students seemed to focus more on security aspects than did the practitioners. This may be because some practitioners work for companies with their own security measures. Therefore, this result may suggest that practitioners take security for granted while at work, whereas the students need to take extra precautions. Another difference is the students’ focus on OCWT esthetics. Students mentioned aspects such as attractive, simple, or customizable interfaces more than practitioners—in fact, practitioners only mentioned customizability and not any of the other aesthetic traits students listed. Much like other cases mentioned here, this disparity may link back to the students’ relative freedom in choosing OCWTs; if practitioners are generally unable to choose their tools, esthetics may be considered a nonissue.
Finally, when it comes to OCWTs chosen by respondents (rather than by somebody else, such as a professor or supervisor), Google Docs seems to be the overall most popular tool for both groups. In addition, although SharePoint was the most used tool among practitioners, it was used for tasks beyond collaborative writing. This may suggest that Google Docs is both groups’ most popular tool used specifically for online collaborative writing. Despite some conflicting opinions, such as, “Like the app; works well; has lots of features,” and, “I hate the reformatting because it interferes with proofreading. Also, I dislike the lack of comments features,” both groups had overall positive responses to this tool. Students and practitioners alike found Google Docs to be user friendly and convenient—and, of course, free. However, despite this praise, several respondents from both groups mentioned problems working with this tool. For example, they had difficulties editing, reformatting, converting/exporting to other file formats, and printing. Regardless, Google Docs appears to be a popular and useful OCWT for students and practitioners alike who are involved in online collaborative writing. One student response particularly summed up respondents’ overall opinion of Google Docs: “LOVE! Free!”
Although this study may only be a pilot, the results nevertheless imply that OCWTs are indeed prevalent in the field of technical communication. They also suggest that some of these tools have become company standards and, as such, are here to stay. Furthermore, these data empirically support past claims to this effect made in the field’s literature. To reiterate the findings, practitioners are using OCWTs on a daily basis for collaborative writing and other collaboration-related tasks (such as scheduling, document sharing, and more). Students, by comparison, use them weekly and primarily for collaborative writing specifically.
The results of this study suggest that technical communication practitioners are using OCWTs often, implying that these tools hold much value for them. This value can be seen in the wide variety of collaborative tasks for which these tools are used. In a business climate in which 80% of workers participate in virtual teams on a weekly basis (Salopek, 2000, p. 39), it seems vital that practitioners embrace the tools that best enable collaborative teams to work efficiently.
In fact, in an older article about considerations for matching team needs with appropriate collaboration technologies, Ray and Ray (2000) note, “Perhaps the most notable for technical communicators… are the extensive document management features that groupware offers” (p. 123). They suggest that some of the vital traits for collaboration technologies are user access controls, searchability, information sharing, and communication. The results of this research seem to underscore the importance of these traits. Indeed, technical communicators are using OCWTs for similar purposes today. Further, Ray and Ray mention some drawbacks of early groupware programs—they were expensive, required training, and were inflexible—which have largely been negated over the past decade. Recall that the OCWTs most used by practitioners in this study were preferred because they are free, intuitive or easy to use, and often customizable. Therefore, the results suggest that OCWTs do, in fact, meet the needs of today’s collaborative teams.
Additionally, these results seem to indicate that some OCWTs have become company standards within the industry. With roughly 57% of practitioner respondents using these tools on a daily basis, it appears that they are on the rise in the workplace. Practitioners already using these tools appear to be on the right track, while the rest may find themselves struggling to catch up as OCWTs’ prevalence increases in the workplace.
Finally, consider the mirror image relationship between technical communication industry and pedagogy. The results of this study suggest that 85% of students are encountering these OCWTs, both in and out of the classroom—these students are already learning how to use these tools. Once these students enter the technical communication workplace, they will likely continue to use them, reinforcing the apparent existing standard of using these tools. One can surmise that OCWT use in industry will further increase with the influx of students who have already been exposed to the tools.
Therefore, it seems that the best course for technical communicators is to continue to embracing these tools. Practitioners currently using these tools should refine how OCWTs are best used for technical communication, as well as assess how each meets the needs of the technical communication team. For holdouts who perhaps have not yet accepted the usefulness of OCWTs, hopefully these results will illustrate the value of incorporating these tools into the workplace.
Regarding technical communication students, educators have long understood the importance of preparing them to collaborate in the workplace. The results of this study suggest that practitioners in the technical communication workplace use OCWTs for their collaborative activities—and educators should prepare students to meet that expectation. In other words, students must be exposed to these tools in and out of the classroom so they will be able to use them effectively and efficiently in the workplace. This assessment agrees with the following statement by Walsh (2010): “Because preparing students for the workplace has remained a perennial concern of technical communication educators, incorporating wiki pedagogy in the technical writing classroom seems like a natural step” (p. 184)—however, wikis are only a single tool within the spectrum of OCWTs, and educators should not neglect the other options.
Specifically, educators should focus on the tools used most commonly within industry. In addition to wikis, educators should prepare students to use Google Docs and Microsoft SharePoint (or tools with similar functionalities). These three types of tools appear to represent the bulk of OCWTs used by technical communication practitioners. Wikis and Google Docs are already seeing some utilization in the classroom; however, SharePoint may be more of a priority because this study shows that this OCWT is more widely used by practitioners. Because it may be difficult for educators to implement SharePoint in an educational setting, LMSs may serve as alternatives. SharePoint and LMSs share many functionalities, such as wikis, document storage space, communication and scheduling tools, and more. Also, LMSs are already implemented in many educational institutions, making them ideal for familiarizing students with this family of tool.
Furthermore, students should be instructed in the specific types of collaborative tasks performed in the workplace using OCWTs: real-time and asynchronous collaboration; discussion and scheduling; document storing, sharing, and maintenance; information sharing; distance collaboration; project management and tracking; and others. This study also revealed tasks performed within the technical communication workplace that are apparently unfamiliar to students, given that no students mentioned them. These activities include controlling versions and revisions for documents with multiple authors, single sourcing, authoring best practices, and managing and tracking projects.
Being a pilot, this study is obviously not all inclusive, but I have endeavored to fairly and accurately represent the technical communication field despite the limited number of responses I received. Further, although the limited scope of this study did not allow me to examine every facet of the data I gathered from the surveys, I strove to analyze the most relevant and applicable aspects. That said, in addition to repeating this study with a larger sample size, there are several ways this research might be expanded upon in subsequent studies. For example, I should have asked practitioners for the size of the companies they worked for, which would have given me a more accurate picture of the various situations in which OCWTs are used.
Another possible research avenue focuses on yet another group vital to the technical communication field: educators. Even though this study has produced knowledge useful to technical communication educators, it would be valuable indeed to determine their use of and opinions regarding OCWTs in the classroom, as well as how they are preparing students to meet tool-related challenges in the technical communication workplace.
In fact, a number of educators responded to my survey. Unfortunately, those responses were discarded from the main data set because they were outside the study’s scope. However, I offer some examples here to provide a taste of what this group has to offer. Several educators (who responded to the student survey) said they were using the Blackboard LMS and a number of different wikis (Wikispaces and PBWorks, primarily) in their classrooms. Also represented were Google Docs (mentioned by the sole practitioner-educator) and Google Sites. In general, those who used Blackboard did so because it was already implemented at the school, while wikis were chosen because they were free and convenient. The educators as a whole were generally pleased with these tools, but there was some frustration with certain aspects (such as not enough space to store documents, printing problems, and so forth). However, this is a very small sample, and it cannot be said that it is representative of technical communication educators as a whole.
An expanded study on educators’ use of OCWTs in the classroom would provide valuable insight into how and why educators are (or are not) using these tools to teach technical communication students. Additionally, such a study may reveal whether educators are aware that OCWTs are widely used in industry—and, if so, whether they are capitalizing on that knowledge. Finally, it could also determine if educators are shying away from these tools. As Lundin (2008) states, “Despite [wikis’] popularity, academia often lags behind, both in its acceptance of resources such as Wikipedia and in its use of wiki software” (p. 433). One could surmise that wiki popularity in particular lags in education due to Wikipedia’s poor academic reputation—to many, the word “wiki” is synonymous with Wikipedia.
To summarize, the results of the student and practitioner surveys suggest that 1) technical communication practitioners have not only embraced OCWTs as effective for workplace and virtual collaboration, but they should continue to do so; and 2) technical communication students must become more exposed to OCWTs because these tools will be frequently encountered in the workplace. In closing, I offer the following thought from Salopek (2000): “The tools will inevitably come along. The real question is, will we come along with the tools?” (p. 39).
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About the Author
Jessica Behles graduated in 2011 with a B.S. in Technical Communication from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. She recently moved from New Mexico to realize her childhood dream of living in downtown Chicago. Jessica is interested in the apparent disconnect between academia and industry in Technical Communication and its effects on students’ preparedness for the workplace. Contact: email@example.com.
Manuscript received 13 May 2011; revised 5 October 2012; accepted 16 October 2012.
Appendix A: Survey Questions
|1||How old are you?|
|2||Please indicate your gender.|
|3||What is the highest level of education you have completed?||What best describes your student status?|
|4||What is your job title (and/or primary duties)?||Have you ever used online collaborative writing tools?|
|5||Which of the following describes your use of collaborative tools?|
|6||On average, how often do you use (or have you used) online collaborative writing tools?|
|7||Please list the online collaborative writing tools you have used and/or are currently using.|
|8||If you listed multiple tools in Question 7, please list them in order of relative use, with most used at the top of the list.|
|9||If you listed a proprietary tool (or tools) in Question 7, please briefly describe it (or them) in terms of relevant features and primary uses.|
|10||For the three most commonly used tools you listed in Question 8, please briefly explain why you chose each tools.|
|11||For the three most commonly used tools you listed in Question 8, please describe or list the activities for which you used each.|
|12||For the three most commonly used tools you listed in Question 8, please give your impressions for each.|
Appendix B: Student and Practitioner Tools
This section contains the lists of all applicable OCWTs mentioned. The tools are listed in order of most commonly named to least.
|Student and Practitioner Tools|
IMB Web Content Manager
Microsoft Team Foundation System