Supporting Writing Collaborations through Synchronous Technologies

Singing our SSONG about Working Together at a Distance

In: Critical Collaborative Communities
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Abstract

Academia in general, and academic writing in particular, are often isolated endeavours (). Isolation can hamper academic success – most of us have felt the heightened effects of intense work demands when our support system is not present. This can be even more palpable when collaborative partners are globally located. With the advent of technology, collaborators now have tools to assuage academic isolation and foster rich, productive collaborations. Using synchronous technology, a common passion for SoTL work and collaborative work has led to lasting partnerships across continents that support both personal and professional development. Synchronous and asynchronous technologies offered the authors ongoing opportunities to actively participate in academic dialogue and collaborate on multiple publications, despite being scattered over three continents. This unique academic collaboration is called a Small Significant Online Network Group (SSONG). The name SSONG was modified from work describing “small significant networks” (, ; ). The authors included the online component, which provided the apt overarching metaphor of a song, situating song as a collaborative work of art. Singing our SSONG has a choral ring to it, underscoring the strength in its collaborative cacophony of voices. The SSONG highlights academic writing’s multi-modal elements. The richness of the different author voices in a SSONG bring confidence, encouragement, and personal and professional transformation.

Many of us in the field of academia have come to a point during our careers where we realise that academic writing can often be an isolated endeavour (Fergie, Beeke, McKenna, & Crème, 2011). However, the authors of this chapter found a way to work collaboratively across continents – supporting both personal and professional development. Chance meetings at an international conference and the use of synchronous technology granted the authors the opportunity to engage in academic dialogue and collaborate on various publications to share their experiences despite being scattered over three continents. This chapter represents this unique academic collaboration, which we have called SSONG (Small Significant Online Network Group), in both its process and content. The acronym SSONG was modified from the term, “small significant networks” as described by Roxå and Mårtensson (2009, 2012) and Verwoord and Poole (2016). The group added to the term to include the online component as well as the fact that we were working together as a group. Once the acronym was agreed upon, it provided an overarching metaphor of a SSONG, singing, choir and “the music” of working together that you will find throughout this chapter. Singing our SSONG has a choral ring to it, with a collaborative strength in its cacophony of voices. There is safety in numbers and reassurance, creating even more opportunities to write. The SSONG reminds us that writing is a multi-sensory and a multimedia process. There will be more harmony in the tune the more we can blend the voices and use all the ways of communicating, so that writing informs and transforms discussion (and vice versa).

Many academics relish the opportunity to travel to conferences where they can discuss issues of interest, continue their own learning experiences, and find like-minded individuals who may display passion towards a topic that is important to their own work (Hickson, 2006; Levy, Hadar, Te’eni, Unkelos-Shqigel, Sherman & Harel, 2016; Vega & Connell, 2007). Over time, relationships that begin at conferences can flourish and evolve into potentially co-authoring papers, books, and chapters (Crossman & Clarke, 2010; Hickson, 2006). However, in many cases these “fast friends” and colleagues become lost in the ongoing demands of academic work, as once exciting possibilities of collaboration quickly fade into the everyday teaching, researching, marking, planning, writing, and administration duties that take priority (Baird, 2016).

The academics that make up this SSONG (three from Ireland, two from Australia, and one from the United States) met when they attended an international conference in Los Angeles in 2016. At that conference Gary Poole presented on “small significant networks” as described by Roxå and Mårtensson (2009, 2012) and Verwoord and Poole (2016). In response to this workshop, and other ideas shared at the conference, the new-found friends discussed the possibility of capitalising on their newly formed small significant network to synchronously connect with one another after the conference and continue their discussions throughout the following year. By meeting regularly online and keeping reflective journals, the group maintained their relationships and collaborated on a conference presentation and other publications sharing their experiences of being part of a SSONG.

Technology has a significant role to play in developing these relationships beyond a conference into a sustainable partnership that can lead to further learning as well as collaborative writing opportunities (Baird, 2016; Levy et al., 2016). Synchronous communication is frequently used as a means of connecting colleagues, making collaboration between international colleagues possible (Shu & Chuang, 2012; Smithson, Hennessy, & Means, 2012). Video conferencing sessions through platforms such as Skype®, Adobe Connect® (used by this SSONG), and Elluminate Live!® allow colleagues to collaborate through audio-visual communication, live chat, and digital whiteboards (Exter, Rowe, Boyd, & Lloyd, 2012). Such developments in technology use can connect colleagues from around the world with speed, clarity, and ease, which means that academic writing collaborations can become flexible and fluid (Shu & Chuang, 2012; Strobl, 2014).

This chapter describes how we established our SSONG, starting with the formation of relationships through resulting publications authored online via synchronous (and occasionally asynchronous) technology as a means of collaboration. It explores how participating in the SSONG led its members to try new teaching and learning approaches, as well as the unique conversations and writing opportunities that it afforded.

Challenges of Academic Writing

Academic writing is often associated with several challenges and difficulties. Academics and students face various issues that can affect their ability to commence, continue and complete a writing task. The challenges and difficulties that present themselves in academic writing include, among many factors, time management, motivation, and isolation.

Many academics identify time constraints as a major challenge affecting their ability to undertake an academic writing task (Murray, 2015). The process of academic writing does not just encompass a mere “passive assembling” or a “write up” of all the research and knowledge that has already been achieved. It involves a complex set of processes that overlap considerably with researching itself and, indeed, may contribute dynamically to knowledge making (Badley, 2009). Furthermore, Badley (2009) describes academic writing as a process of “constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing knowledge, connecting, disconnecting and reconnecting concepts, describing and re-describing our views of the world, as well as shaping, mis-shaping and reshaping ideas” (p. 211). The academic writing process is therefore not a small task. The processes that must take place to even begin to write an academic article are complex, time consuming, and multi-faceted.

Time constraints and the multiple responsibilities placed on academics, both in their professional and personal lives, may lead to a lack of motivation to commence, continue, or finish a research or writing task. Motivation is therefore a significant challenge in the academic writing process. A lack of enjoyment and a lack of an individual’s belief in his or her innate ability to achieve goals may further lead to a feeling of isolation, challenging an academic in one’s writing ability (Surastina & Dedi, 2018).

A Collaborative Approach

To help overcome the feeling of isolation when writing, many academics attempt to write in collaboration with others. Collaboration with like-minded individuals can positively impact upon the academic writing process (Murray, 2015). Collaboration is typically defined as “working with someone to produce something” (Collaboration, n.d.). Reed (2018) called it a “deeply human activity” (para. 3) in which at least two people work with one another toward achieving shared goals. This definition weaves processes and purpose in with the basic requirement of number of individuals involved, presenting in further detail what it means to partake in a collaborative endeavour. Ontological definitions of collaboration discuss the ways of being embodied in a critical collaboration as described by Schuman (2006) and Coleman (2012). Their findings concluded a need to foster trust, equity, compassion, respect, intellectual engagement, and innovation in communication as well as processes as part of the definition of critical collaborations. A human-centered, ontological definition also provides space for critical collaboration to occur, that is, a collaboration that is less production-centered and acknowledges the human connection that makes successful collaborations possible.

Roxå and Mårtensson (2009) have identified the fact that

most [academic] teachers rely on a small number of significant others for conversations that are characterised by their privacy, by mutual trust and by their intellectual intrigue. Individual teachers seem to have ‘small significant networks’ where private discussions provide a basis for conceptual development and learning. (p. 547)

This collaboration in small significant networks aids academics in overcoming the challenges of academic writing mentioned above.

Many academics attend national and international conferences to network and collaborate (Hickson, 2006; Levy, Hadar, Te’eni, Unkelos-Shqigel, Sherman, & Harel, 2016; Vega & Connell, 2007). By creating a Small Significant Online Network Group (SSONG), we found that these invaluable small significant networks established at conferences can flourish into meaningful opportunities for collaboration and encourage others to consider creating their own SSONG to sing with others.

Technology Enhanced Writing Opportunities

When collaborations are discussed, the scenario that frequently comes to mind is an in-person group or network that comes together to complete a project or solve a problem. With the advent of technology and the ensuing improvements and innovations, collaborations are no longer limited to people in the immediate local vicinity. With this globalization, opportunities for collaboration abound. Scholars and professionals are not limited to connecting only at conferences or discipline-specific events. We can connect with experts and enthusiasts much more readily and consistently, whether technology facilitates the collaboration entirely, or is used to cement and sustain networks created in person. This access is vital to innovative, productive scholarly collaborations.

Technologies such as email, blogs, Skype, ZOOM, Adobe Connect and Elluminate Live! can play a significant role in developing these relationships beyond a conference into a sustainable SSONG partnership that can lead to further learning as well as collaborative writing opportunities (Baird, 2016; Levy et al., 2016). The use of synchronous forms of technology allow academics and colleagues to connect and collaborate from around the world with speed, clarity, and ease (Shu & Chuang, 2012; Strobl, 2014).

Creating SSONGs supported through the technological applications mentioned above turns individual academic tasks into social tasks, encouraging group collaboration and authoring (Koh & Lim, 2012). These technological platforms allow more group interaction and the development of social relations among team members. This therefore reduces the risk of networks that have been formed at conferences fading into the abyss of everyday life as a busy academic.

Establishing Our SSONG

The members of this SSONG met at the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSoTL) conference in 2016. We were drawn to one another by our shared interests in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), and a wish to learn from and alongside one another. The two delegates from Australia travelled to the conference together and decided to attend different sessions to gather as much information as possible. In their individual sessions they met the colleagues from Ireland and the United States and ended up not only sharing information but introducing people as well. We all became fast friends and enjoyed the rest of the conference and social activities together. As we each returned home to our respective countries and institutions, the process of fulfilling the ‘pinky promise’ we made to meet together at least once began. The two Australians in the group were particularly interested in ensuring that previous experiences of conference networking, in which relationships that have been built are quickly forgotten once the conference ‘bubble’ is burst, were not repeated in this instance. Once returning home, we created journals for each of the SSONG members and glued photographs of our time together at the conference on the covers of the journals. Inside we wrote our first reflection question, the date and time of our first meeting and an encouraging comment about seeing each other the next year at the following conference. These were mailed out to each SSONG member. This was followed by an email with the time and date for the first SSONG meeting.

Because of Michelle’s experience and access to Adobe Connect® through her institution, we chose to use that platform for our SSONG meetings (see Figure 14.1). Adobe Connect® supports video conferencing, as well as text chat, whiteboard displays, and file sharing. The audio-visual capabilities of this platform help keep the SSONG anchored in human connection: we don’t drift off to become merely disembodied names in an inbox. As a group, we agreed that this was a solution to not being able to meet face-to-face and while we did use asynchronous applications such as emails in between meetings, we wanted the chance to see one another when we held our SSONG sessions. When the time came for us to meet, we each logged on (from three different time zones) and spent some time familiarising ourselves with the platform and catching up with one another. We also discussed our initial reflections, regarding what we learned and had already implemented from the ISSoTL16 conference, and what our goals were for the SSONG.

Figure 14.1
Figure 14.1

Screenshot from a ssong meeting, conducted via Adobe Connect®

From that point, the SSONG meetings quickly became a well-harmonized chorus of voices from around the world. One member made sure to send out emails prior to each meeting (every 6–8 weeks), giving new reflection prompts that served as discussion points for the following session. She therefore was responsible for facilitating and guiding the discussions, which helped to ensure we stayed on topic and that everyone had a chance to share. This team member also sent around brief notes after each meeting. These emails ensured everyone was “singing from the same song sheet,” as our SSONG member Marian poetically put it, and provided a means of documenting our discussions for future reference (Felten, 2013; Trigwell, 2013).

Our first meeting had established our goals: that the SSONG meetings would provide a space for us to discuss how we can engage in the work of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) and provide a way to support each other as we venture further into the field. This initial goal setting then guided the discussions in the subsequent meetings, as we talked about connecting with others beyond our own SSONG, implementing SoTL in our work, and discussing the use of technology through a SoTL lens. We also conversed about how meeting together in this way has been beneficial to us, and how significant being a member of the SSONG has been.

A secondary goal of the SSONG that we had established from the beginning involved sharing our process with our peers at the ISSoTL 17 conference. We therefore also spent time throughout the year (both in our meetings and via email) working on the conference abstract and presentation, as well as laying the foundation for a journal article about the SSONG. These discussions ensured that we were all making contributions that matched our expertise, and meeting deadlines proposed by the group. Using both synchronous (video conferencing) and asynchronous (email, Google Docs®) technology tools for this purpose, meant that we could be certain that our expectations and meanings were aligned without misinterpretation, while keeping the time-commitment manageable.

To prepare for these dissemination opportunities, we divided the workload into smaller chunks (e.g., writing up the logistics of the SSONG or teasing out the benefits of the SSONG from our journal reflections). In one of our meetings, we established who would be responsible for each section, and created a GoogleDocs® so that we could collaboratively plan both the conference presentation and journal article. This formed the basis of our ISSoTL17 conference presentation, which was given in a ‘tag-team’ approach so that each team member could communicate their perspective. As we prepared for the conference presentation, each person wrote up their section for the journal article. This work was continued after ISSoTL 17, with a team member being responsible for ensuring that the article was coherent and clear. In our online collaborations we identified a need for specific pieces to be added such as a clearer discussion of our theoretical framework underpinning the SSONG approach, and we worked together as a team, each writing a section to fulfil this need. Draft versions of the article were regularly emailed around to the team, with tracked changes and comment functions utilised to keep track of what had been, and what should be, amended. The penultimate version was then emailed to the team for final edits prior to submitting it to the journal chosen as most appropriate by the team in one of the SSONG meetings.

In this way, every member of the team was able to contribute in a significant way to the journal article, and it reflected our varied perspectives and experiences. Our voices shone through, thanks to frequent use of quotes drawn from our reflections as well as the shared process of writing. Having one member of the team conducting the article helped it to be focused, coherent, and completed in a reasonable amount of time. A similar procedure was put in place when writing this book chapter, however the job of conducting this piece was shared to another team member.

Practice Makes Perfect

Our SSONG’s collaboration is a deeply human endeavour in which a group of individuals share purposefully and relate critically, compassionately, creatively, and respectfully to one another on a variety of levels. Whether individually, the group as a whole, the collaborative process itself, or the agreed-upon outcomes, the SSONG enabled us to collaborate at every stage. Our varied levels of professional experience and SoTL expertise created an opportunity for collaboration; for us to sing together. It was in this space that we engaged in a dynamic, interactive, non-linear process of learning by doing, shifting continually between thinking, discussing, and writing.

With members on three continents, our SSONG would have had little chance of survival without our shared commitment and the opportunities provided by technology. With these new avenues to promote international collaboration, our SSONG has evolved into the supportive, productive collaboration we all enjoy. Synchronous technology allows us to interact as if we shared a physical location; we are able to see facial expressions and hear changes in tone and inflection. Supplementing these interactions with asynchronous technology has enabled us to have richer, more comprehensive discussions and writing opportunities. We collaborate in a unique space that is both group and individual space. We can be responsive to the interests, expertise, and excitement of the group as a whole and to individuals. This supports the fluid nature expected for successful collaborations.

Writing – as both a process and a product – remains at the core of our productive international collaboration. We have used reflective journals to explore ideas and bring those insights to our online meetings, where they can help shape others’ current and future projects. When SSONG members have needed to be absent from a meeting, they have used writing (through emails) and other application (such as premade videos to show in the meeting or using Padlet and Pathbrite) to share ideas with the group. As we prepared to share our experiences as a SSONG with others through a conference presentation and journal article, our writing (separately and together) solidified our ideas and clarified our understandings of how our collaboration had impacted us. Each of these written expressions, from the spontaneous to the deliberate, supported the distillation of meaning and enabled a SoTL approach that facilitated the documentation of practice through the naming, sharing, and critiquing of its parts.

Our collaboration injected energy and vibrancy into our writing, removing the oft-felt sense of isolation in academia. Having a synchronous deadline, and close colleagues to keep us accountable, motivated us to write. Knowing that it would be first read by those whose opinions we valued, and who we knew cared, opened us up to peer review at all stages of the process. Writing is an act of confidence that needs to take us beyond the blank page and is intermingled with discussion and commentary. The informal nature of our SSONG breeds good writing, for it comes from within, arising out of authentic conversations about meaningful issues. Our SSONG meetings built ideas as well as confidence in our abilities to contribute. This was further supported by our division of labour into bite-sized chunks, allowing us to participate in “snack writing” (Murray, 2015, p. 50) rather than becoming overwhelmed by the work required.

At the same time, writing has kept the collaboration whole and alive. As the collaboration thrives, so do our chosen projects. We become energized by our individual and group participation. We are intellectually stimulated through one another’s contributions as a paper takes shape, and we find new connections within the literature and embodied experience. Our work as individuals propels our collaborative efforts in an engaging and supportive way.

Discordant Harmonies: Challenges in SSONG

Time for academics (or lack thereof) has been identified as a major barrier to implementing changes in the work that we do whether in curriculum development, establishing relationships or growing one’s profile. This is demonstrated by a plethora of studies that show how academics feel under increasing time pressure within their roles (Allmer, 2018; Antony, 2015; Brew, Boud, Crawford, & Lucas, 2017; Carter, Kensington-Miller & Courtney, 2017; Martins & Nunes, 2016) to name but a few. This lack of time and time pressure were the major bumps in the road for this SSONG. We each needed to make the time to meet and, with those meetings occurring across three time zones, some of us invariably needed to stay up late or get up early.

There is no doubt that a strong commitment to the team and the ideals of the SSONG helped alleviate stress around making the time and logging on outside working hours; it became less about work and more about building common ground across continents and SoTL practices (Van Waes et al., 2016; Williams et al., 2013). The relationships were underpinned by a shared passion and interest in SoTL and a curiosity around the added value of a SoTL community to our individual and institutional contexts (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, 2015). This also helped to sustain levels of motivation in terms of knowing that there were upcoming online meetings planned to which we each wanted to contribute.

There were occasions when one of the team members might have been unavailable given the other elements of our lives outside academia (e.g., Ph.D. completion, family commitments, travel, sickness, and so on). However, we worked hard to overcome anyone’s apparent missing voice in the synchronous meetings by calling on other asynchronous means. These included sharing a short video of reflections, emailing notes of reflections, or using other online platforms such as Pathbrite®.

Our SSONG was powered by knowledge sharing, rather than being task driven (Wenger, 1998). It existed and was sustained because of the fundamental aspect of knowledge sharing, which was in turn was only possible through a commitment to being present. This facilitated a range of collaborative activities, including the co-construction of a conference presentation, journal article, and this book chapter. Being familiar with each other in both social and academic contexts made this process of task negotiation much easier.

As dissemination opportunities arose, so too did challenges related to their associated deadlines. The best laid plans can run awry, and other pursuits may interrupt time that was set aside for collaboration and writing. Various members of the SSONG have had to change or reduce their contributions as deadlines encroached and time ran short. The strong relationships that we have created have enabled us to realign and recalibrate the harmonies, supporting one another as needed. In all cases, we have enabled each SSONG member to contribute as much as possible, to ensure fully representative input.

Conclusion and Final Encouragement

It is clear that academics face many challenges and difficulties when it comes to beginning and completing an academic writing task. These challenges may include time management, motivation, and isolation. Our experience indicates that collaboration with like-minded, passionate academics significantly reduces the challenges and difficulties faced throughout the academic writing process and therefore enhances the productivity and quality of an academic’s work. In order to meet and collaborate with like-minded individuals, we propose the formation of a Small Significant Online Network Groups (SSONGs). The formation of SSONGs incorporates the use of technology to facilitate regular online group meetings to ensure that collaborations and friendships formed at international conferences and via various networks do not fade away. SSONG will enhance the cognitive performance of those undertaking an academic writing task in any field, as communication and collaboration among like-minded individuals boosts motivation and enjoyment and increases one’s interest and desire to complete a difficult writing task which is multi-layered, time consuming, and thought provoking.

Despite our distance, we succeeded where many stumble. We shared in collaborative discussions that deepened our engagement with topic area that was a passion for each of us (in this case, SoTL), and successfully authored papers and presentations. Our process involved each member volunteering for a particular part of the workload, writing individually, and then coming together to assemble the pieces into a whole and revise the product. This isn’t a new way of collaboration, yet through our commitment to SSONG, consistency, trustworthiness, and use of writing as both communication and product, we were able to create and meet deadlines even though we do not share physical space. Our accountability emerges from our genuine interest in our topic and care for each member. Our use of synchronous and asynchronous technology to support our interactions has kept our SSONG vibrant, responsive, and fruitful.

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Critical Collaborative Communities

Academic Writing Partnerships, Groups, and Retreats

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