7(3), August 1990, pages 43-53

Electronic Bulletin Boards:
A Timeless Place for Collaborative Writing Projects

Diane Thompson

Collaborative Computer Writing Projects

A computer lab can support collaborative writing projects that extend beyond regular class time and yet provide the kind of structure and focus for writing that is often feasible only in the classroom. A computer is an ideal communal workplace because the text on the screen can be read by more than one person at a time and is easily changed. Additionally, multiple copies of a text can be quickly distributed either by copying to floppies or by printing out hard copies. The very presence of computers seems to encourage collaboration (Grow, 1988; Papert, 1980; Selfe & Wahlstrom, 1985; Sills, 1988). Computers are also convenient writing tools: One person can add to a shared text file without the co-authors being present.

Bruffee (1984) urges writing teachers to create situations that engage "students in conversation among themselves at as many points in both the writing and the reading process as possible" (p. 642). When students co-author a text, they must constantly reread and discuss what they are writing and how they are writing in order to compose that text (Daiute, 1986; Dickinson, 1986; Ede & Lunsford, 1983; Hutson & Thompson, 1985). If the text being co-authored is in the computer lab, some of this discussion will occur in print as the members of the writing group enter text and comments on other students' writings in their shared file.

Although collaborative computer writing is desirable, the process consumes time: Students must learn to work together effectively as a team; they must negotiate a topic, which can take hours or even days; and they must blend the mass of diverse material generated into a coherent whole. Finally, these group projects can drag on for a surprising number of weeks because each stage of the writing process is dependent on the work done by the team members, not all of whom may be equally reliable and prompt.

Students who collaborate require increasing amounts of class time to work on their projects. If the teacher can provide methods for helping these students to work together out of class, valuable class time can be set aside for other instructional strategies. Unfortunately, this is especially difficult in a commuter college because most of the students work part-time and leave campus as soon as their classes are over for the day. One solution is to use electronic bulletin boards to create a single shared text that can be added to individually as personal time allows. [1] Using this approach, students can do some of their work together in the classroom; some of their work together outside of class; and much of their work individually, working in the computer lab as their schedules permit and adding their work to the group text on a shared word-processing file.

Bulletin Boards

An electronic bulletin board allows anyone who is authorized to sign on, to read whatever messages are posted there, and to add messages in response. Normally, such a bulletin board is accessed through a modem and phone line and links users into a community that shares some interest. I am using the concept of a bulletin board to describe, within a single classroom, a shared file to which a group of students have access for writing about the research they are doing, for reading the writing of other students in their group, and for responding to that writing.

If each group shares a single text file, to which all group members have equal access, several students can work on the same project: sharing their ideas, responses, research and skills; developing a supportive sense of being a group working on a shared project; and yet, doing much of the actual writing individually, according to their personal schedules.

Bulletin boards also help the teacher to manage group-generated texts. Because the bulletin board is always available in the lab, the teacher can monitor each group's progress outside of class time, giving input when needed by reading the bulletin board and writing comments. Another advantage of the bulletin board is that students create text with a word-processing program, which means that they can organize and edit their group text into a report without having to recopy their entries.

How Bulletin Boards Work
Students sit at a networked computer workstation and select the appropriate class Bulletin Board Menu. The following menu, as an example, lists the names used by the groups in one Basic Writing class. Students select their own group bulletin board by pressing the corresponding number key:

The actual bulletin board is simply a word-processing text file, such as the one being used to write this paper. Each student in the group can read whatever is already written in the file, can add their material to the end of the file, and can write responses to other students' entries. Students are instructed to add their new entries to the end of the total file, which encourages them to read over the writing of their group each time they enter the bulletin board. Each entry begins with the name of the authoring student and the date of writing, so the bulletin board begins to look like this:

Jim 10/07/88
Response to Mary's article--The Good Jobs for Newsweek.
Response: What will Dukakis do for people in society who are less fortunate?

Mike 10/07/88
My response to Jane's article is that I am very [sic] that he is please [sic]. I also think that Dukakis is worry [sic] about those people who do not have very much.

These examples are shorter than most bulletin board entries but typical of their overall appearance, including careless spelling and punctuation. One important aspect of bulletin boards is that they provide a place to develop drafts, sketch ideas, and share writing that is still forming. Only at the end of the writing process does the class work on proofreading their group report--until then the emphasis is on gathering ideas and sharing them in writing.

Division into Group and Individual Tasks
The actual lessons used with bulletin boards are a combination of alternating group and individual tasks. Some of the group tasks are best done in class, where they may or may not be accompanied by class instruction; other tasks can be performed at the convenience of the group. This division into group and individual tasks is important for collaborative work in a time-constrained environment: It allows some of the work to be done as a group in class; some of the work to be done as a group out of class; and much of the work to be done individually, placing no demands on the varied schedules of the members of the group.

The alternating group and individual tasks, all centered on a single collaborative project, create a structural rhythm of group and solo work that helps students to continue working on their writing projects outside of the actual class. This approach supports weak students who normally tend to avoid out-of-class writing activities and who quickly lose any sense of the purpose of their writing when they are not receiving immediate feedback from the teacher or from peers.

The steps involved in the collaborative writing cycle are listed below. Activities best done by the group with the teacher present are labeled (T), those group activities which do not require the presence of the teacher are labeled (G), and individual activities with neither the teacher nor other group members present are labeled (I).

Much of the time, students work individually according to their personal time schedules as they read articles and interview professionals in their chosen topic area. Students write up the information they have found, read one another's entries, and write responses to some of these entries. Occasionally, they meet together to discuss new directions for their research.

After accumulating a number of article summaries, interviews, and response comments in their bulletin board, the students meet during class time to discuss using this material to write their reports either as a group or separately. Class instruction uses this group-generated material as texts for lessons in how to create outlines from a body of data and ideas; how to use simple computer-editing techniques; how to compose introductions and conclusions; how to edit for style; and, finally, how to proofread. The advantage of using collaborative texts for such exercises is that the texts are important to the students although no individual feels particularly threatened by criticism or analysis when the text belongs to the whole group.

Technical Issues
Bulletin boards can easily be set up without a computer network by using floppy disks or a single hard disk to make a file for each group. These files can be created using any word-processing program, and they can function as any word-processing text file. If floppy disks are used, each group should have its own floppy disk and back-up disk with a safe, yet accessible, place to store these disks in the writing lab. If a hard disk is used, a directory can be made for the class, and each group can have its own file within that directory. It is important to keep all bulletin boards backed up so that someone does not inadvertently destroy the group's work by erasing or overwriting the bulletin board.

Only one student at a time can use a single bulletin board. When more than one student wishes to work on the same bulletin board at the same time, they can write their entries on their own floppy disks. Then, the lab attendant or teacher can add the new student entries to the existing bulletin board when it is free, using a file-merge command to add new material to the end of the file instead of overwriting it. Students should also make an updated copy of the bulletin board on their own floppy disks each time they use the bulletin board so that they can access the entire file in a nearly current form.

Positive Outcomes
The bulletin board files grow quite large--the Basic Writing class compiled texts averaging between nine and ten single-spaced typed pages before they began the editing process. This mass of material in itself was exciting to the Basic writers involved, most of whom had never produced writing of more than a few paragraphs in length. The text size did create problems in editing; but, at this stage, it was a real source of pride to the students who created it.

In general, the students were enthusiastic about their bulletin board projects. When they were asked to evaluate the project, typical responses included

I have learned a lot from doing [it] and l like working in groups. . . .

So far I have thought that it was pretty fun. l like working with other people on papers because it makes it more interesting and it divides the work up between others.

It has been real fun working as a group and getting a lot of information together. It took a long time to put everything together. l don't think that I have ever spent that much time on a paper.

The group, not the teacher, became the center of each writing project. The writing tasks had a real audience because the students were sharing their ideas and information with their group. Each student's writing was important to the group because the other group members read and responded to the entries. Further, the group projects provided structure while a student worked on his or her share d the project even when neither the teacher nor other group members were actually present.

Constant reading and rereading of the shared text was a major aspect of these group projects. Each new stage of the project required thoughtful rereading and discussion of the text. Another source of rereading text was centered on the entries responding to other students' writing. These responses furthered the course goal of integrating reading, thinking, and writing as each student had to read through the text produced by the other members of her or his group in order to write responses to those entries.

Interestingly, the groups with the weakest writers tended to respond more to one another than to the articles themselves; the stronger writers were more inclined to respond critically to the content of the text itself. The typical weak writer's response was vague, general, and personal:

I think that Jim's article is well written. It shows a lot of good points. I like the way he writes the interview. Jim is a real good writer. He is easy to talk to. I had never had any problems out of him. . . .

The stronger writer's response usually focused more on the text itself and the issues involved:

I chose the one on excuse makers. I can understand why people make excuses but to me [sic] they are being a bad loser. I like how she used real instances. . . . I really liked how you pointed out the problem, but I would also like to know what a person should do to alleviate the problem.

Because of these differences between weaker and stronger writers, mixing them within a single group helps the weaker writers by exposing them to the more specific, more critical thinking and writing of stronger writers. The stronger students also benefit from applying their critical skills to other students' writing, which, as Hawkins (1976) remarks, "makes students better judges of their own writing" (p. 221). The group projects, even though largely done outside of class, increased the sense of cohesion and belonging within the class itself. When asked to comment on group work, typical positive responses included

Do want to work in groups.

Vote yes for groups.

Groups help you decide on things a whole lot easier and if you have more than 2 [sic] you can decide on things a lot easier.

We want the same groups at least we want to stay in ours.

Some students wanted to reform or change groups, especially when they had lost members through attrition; but very few wanted to discontinue group work entirely.

Eventually, the collaborative texts became too large for the groups to edit effectively. The teacher and students went over some of the group texts to pick out main themes and then looked at how those themes could be organized into a simple outline that could be used as a guide for moving the sections around to form a coherent text. In theory, this was a good plan. However, most of the Basic writers were notable to deal with the mass of text they had accumulated. Final edited reports ranged from one paper by four students that integrated all the main ideas into a coherent narrative to others that simply rearranged the unintegrated entries, and to one in which each student submitted an outline of her/his own section with a brief paragraph of introduction.

The one generally negative comment students gave about the bulletin board was that the project had been too long. This comment was true. Each student had been asked to write up two interviews and four articles before beginning to edit the group material. Two articles and one interview would have been a more appropriate start for a Basic Writing class.

Another problem occurred when a group was incompatible, too small, or too weak. In one group, there was a domineering young woman who insisted on doing things her way. Another member of the group went along with her peacefully, but the other two students soon withdrew from group activities and eventually disappeared from class entirely. A different group, formed from two weak students and one highly motivated student, dissolved over time, leaving the one motivated student alone to do all the editing of the bulletin board. It is a good idea to start with groups of four or five students so that even if one or two students disappear, there are others left to sustain the group.

It is important to avoid penalizing stronger writers for the weaker members' efforts by providing some sort of individual grade along with the group grade. Stevens, Madden, Slavin, and Famish (1987) point out that "research on the use of heterogeneous teams that are rewarded on the basis of individual members' performance has established the instructional effectiveness of this approach" (p. 438). If there is no individual grade, the stronger students may see collaborative work as hurting their performance record, as McLaughlin and Fennick (1987) noted when they studied collaborative writing.

As discussed above, time is a major issue with any kind of collaborative writing project. Time becomes a special source of difficulty when some students do not enter their article summaries and interviews on schedule as that keeps other students from writing responses to them.

Lessons that seemed appropriate for one week required between two and three weeks to be completed. Because each student can delay the work of others, plenty of other assignments are needed along the way to keep the more advanced students productive while they are waiting for the slower students' entries.

Other Applications
Bulletin boards can be used in more advanced classes to create shared databases on a topic. For example, in First-Year Composition, one class used bulletin boards for a research project. All members of the group negotiated a single main topic and selected their individual subtopics. Each student was responsible for finding articles and writing bibliographic entries and summaries for the groups. Annotated bibliographies were then prepared using the shared summaries. Finally, each student wrote his or her own paper on a selected aspect of the overall group topic. This worked well and seemed to avoid the issue of how to arrange a huge text file into a coherent report. However, these students were also more advanced than students in Basic Writing, and they were able to separate and organize ideas and data.

Collaborative bulletin board projects could be useful in any discipline that wanted students to work together on researching and solving problems, whether or not the students finally produced a single text or several individual ones. For example, a history project might profit from having several students share a general topic, divide it into individual subtopics, and then gather the information they found into a shared bulletin board in which each student would be exposed to all the information located by the other students in the group. This enriches each student's experience and probably gives the group a better sense of the complex issues involved than if each student worked alone.


To be effective, bulletin boards must be carefully managed by the teacher 90 that the assignments do not become too cumbersome for the students and so that the group is not penalized for the nonperformance of particular individuals. The bulletin boards also must be backed up regularly and managed so that they are added to rather than overwritten. However, none of this is particularly difficult once the time and organizational issues involved are recognized.

The time involved in setting up bulletin boards is offset by the opportunities they create. Bulletin boards offer a timeless place for students to meet, exchange ideas, share information, and plan projects. Students learn to negotiate with peers, to cope with multiple points of view, to write interactively with peers, and to view their own and others' writing as material to be manipulated into a final product. The bulletin board provides a structure for writing out-of-class and a focus for group and class cohesion. It also offers the teacher a constantly accessible record of his or her students' work in progress so that she or he can monitor their out of class activities and tie them into the classroom process. All of these features make bulletin boards especially attractive for a community-college or commuter-college environment in which the students are generally isolated from one another once they leave the classroom.

Diane Thompson teaches English composition at North Virginia Community College, Woodbridge Campus.


  1. I am using the term "bulletin board" to refer to a special kind of shared computer text file. The idea of using such a file for shared class activities was suggested to me by a paper presented by Selfe (1988). She used a bulletin board, which she referred to as a "computer-based conference," as a kind of class-dialogue journal where students in a graduate course on grammar wrote weekly entries commenting on their readings, on the class content, and on one another's entries.

Support for the work reported in this paper was partially provided by funds from the Annenberg/CPB Project ENFI Grant. The term "ENFI," originally developed by Trent Batson and others for use with deaf students at Gallaudet University, is copyrighted by Gallaudet University.


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