B. Busschots, L. Raeside and J. G. Keating
Department of Computer Science
National University of Ireland, Maynooth
S. Waddington
Department of Geography
National University of Ireland, Maynooth
Collaboration, Collaborative Writing, Learning Environment.
This paper discusses the design of the VTIE Collaborative Writing Environment (CWE) and the functionality
of the various components that make up this environment. The advantages of supporting collaborative writing
are also discussed as well as different organizational schemes that can be used when structuring collaborative
writing exercises. The paper also contains technical details on the implementation of the VTIE CWE.
As broadband internet access becomes more wide-
spread in schools more and more resources become
available to teachers and students. Some great exam-
ples of such resources are the Telescopes in Education
Project (, 2005), Faulkes
Telescope Project (, 2005) and
Bug Scope (Thakkar et al., 2000). These projects al-
low students to do real science from their classroom
with state of the art equipment, this was simply not
possible in the past. The VTIE Portal was initially de-
signed to provide teachers and students with the tools
they need to get the most out of internet-based tele-
scopes. As such some of the tools developed as part
of the VTIE project are specifically targeted at As-
tronomy, however, other tools are much more general
and are perfectly at home away from telescopes and
astronomy. The VTIE CWE (Collaborative Writing
Environment) described in this paper is one of these
general tools.
A central aim of the VTIE project was to provide
all the tools developed to schools in such a way as to
make the tools as easy as possible to integrate into the
school environment. It was considered important that
schools not have to spend any money on software in
order to be able to use the VTIE tools. This means that
the VTIE tools themselves should be free but also that
the tools cannot depend on any other software that is
not free. The VTIE tools should also not be tied to any
particular operating system so that all schools can par-
ticipate. Finally, as schools do not tend to have dedi-
cated computer technicians the VTIE tools should not
require complicated installation in the schools. By
creating all the VTIE tools in a web environment all
these aims can be easily met. Hence, the entire VTIE
portal is web-based and all schools need to take part is
an internet connection and the FireFox web browser
(, 2005) which is available on all major
platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux and many Unixes).
The current VTIE CWE is the direct result of a
rapid prototyping model including formative evalua-
tions with students over a three-year period and a year
of consultation with teachers from local primary and
secondary level schools. Our initial prototype did not
support collaborative writing but all our evaluations
showed a need for the software to properly support
group working and collaboration.
Collaboration is a very broad term, Erkens, et al. give
the following definition; “A collaborative learning
situation may be defined as one in which two or more
students work together to fulfil an assigned task within
a particular domain of learning in order to achieve
a joint goal” (Erkens et al., 2005). Given this def-
inition, it is possible that a wide variety of learning
tasks can be envisaged as involving a degree of col-
laboration, ranging from those which are extremely
practical, such as cultivating a garden and carrying
out scientific experiments, to the group writing of a
Busschots B., Raeside L., G. Keating J. and Waddington S. (2006).
In Proceedings of WEBIST 2006 - Second International Conference on Web Information Systems and Technologies - Society, e-Business and
e-Government / e-Learning, pages 221-228
DOI: 10.5220/0001254302210228
novel. The focus of the VTIE CWE is on the devel-
opment and usage of collaboration both within the re-
search process (in the form of the sharing of informa-
tion gained) and in the production of a written report
on the work.
Collaborative working can be seen as having a vi-
tal role in the development of students for their fu-
ture lives as part of the knowledge society as “Knowl-
edge work is characterised by systematic knowledge
advancement, sharing of expertise, and collaborative
elaboration of knowledge products” (Lakkala et al.,
2005, p. 338). It has also been suggested that collab-
orative learning experiences can:
Improve motivation some students find working
with others encourages them to complete a task.
This has been found to apply more to male students
than females, for example a study by Hidi et al re-
vealed that after receiving the same instructional
programme, improvement in performance was im-
proved more for male students than for female ones
if the subsequent task involved collaboration with
others (Hidi et al., 2002).
Facilitate the construction of knowledge and the
development of understanding, as the instant feed-
back from others encourages students to explore
their current knowledge and exposes flaws or limi-
tations and to review their ideas.
Encourage the development of metacognition and
reflection in thinking.
Facilitate student-centred learning.
It is because of these wide ranging justifications
for the use of collaboration in learning that Collab-
orative Learning Environments (CLEs) using ICT, in-
cluding the present project, have been developed. The
main areas of collaboration involve the sharing of
resources/information between small groups of stu-
dents and the production of a combined report on the
Writing is one area where “co-operative work may
be problematic as it was originally designed for in-
dividual learning” (Klein et al., 1994). However, it
has also been suggested that it is an area where col-
laboration is likely to improve the end product for
many students and so various strategies have been ex-
plored to facilitate it. While there are, doubtless, a
very wide range of possibilities for this, including e-
mail exchanges and Wikipedia-type approaches, the
present project, focussing on younger children was
considered to require a more structured and less wide-
ranging approach to collaboration, so that the students
would feel more comfortable in participating.
It was decided that for each section of the report
a draft should be produced which would then be re-
vised based on comments from the other students in
working on the report and rewritten to produce the
final report. Zammuner identified three basic orga-
nizational approaches, some relating to pairs of col-
laborators, while others involved larger groups (Zam-
muner, 1995). Three basic variations were identified,
as shown in Table 1:
Table 1: Organisational Approaches to Collaboration.
Initial Draft Revision Final Version
Group/pair A Group/pair B Group/pair A
Group/pair A Group/pair A Group/pair A
Individual Group/Pair Individual *
The scheme adopted in our project is equivalent to
the third organizational approach in Table 1. While
there are arguments in favor of the adoption of all of
the above strategies, Zammuner contrasted success in
producing written work by students working individ-
ually, with those working in collaboration patterns 2
and 3, reporting that “The most significant changes
(usually improvements) in the quality of revision op-
erations occurred when the revision was carried out
cooperatively rather than individually” (Zammuner,
1995, p. 122). He suggests that this was because the
‘outsider’ would provide immediate feedback, similar
to that provided by another person in a conversation,
unlike in the usual, solitary process of writing. As
noted by Erkens, et al. (Erkens et al., 2005, p. 3),
“Collaborative writers need to test their hypotheses,
justify their propositions and clarify their goals. This
may lead to increased awareness of and more con-
scious control over the writing and learning process”.
It was, therefore, decided that this method of individ-
ual writing, followed by feed back from the rest of the
group feeding back into revisions of the text would be
adopted for the VTIE Collaborative Writing Environ-
Working successfully with CLEs can be extremely
demanding on both students and teachers, particularly
in relation to the need for students to develop the so-
cial skills and thinking skills necessary for collabo-
ration simultaneously with the technical/ ICT skills.
Many teachers express concerns that their role may
become that of ‘technician’ if the CLE is technically
demanding and the teacher is critical in determining
the success or failure of the collaboration, as his/her
role must be in “organising the community’s activi-
ties and establishing the underlying conditions of the
learning environment, and building up appropriate
infrastructures for collective effort” (Lakkala et al.,
2005, p. 338 - 339). This makes it essential that
the environment produced be as simple to setup and
use as possible and that the environment provide suf-
ficient support and resources for the teacher and stu-
dents. Ideally the technology would become trans-
parent to the users and they would be free to concen-
trate entirely on the task at hand. This was one of the
driving factors towards adopting a web based inter-
face as this removed the need for complex software
installation and allows users to transfer their existing
knowledge and experience of using the internet to our
The VTIE CWE provides an interfaces to support
both teachers and students throughout the writing
process from project design right through to publica-
tion of the students’ work. Our CWE can be consid-
ered to consist of three components:
1. The Project Design and management Interfaces
2. The VTIE ScrapBook
3. The Writing Interfaces
Our CWE is built around a model which has de-
veloped throughout our formative evaluations and our
discussions with teachers and is in agreement with the
research discussed in Section 2. Although our tools
were designed around this process it should be noted
that the environment does not force teachers or stu-
dents to stick rigidly to this process, this makes the
environment more flexible. The process starts with
the teacher designing the structure of the projects that
the students will complete. We envisage this design
phase being completed in class with the teacher show-
ing the students the evolving structure with a data pro-
jector and the students having an input into the design.
The design of the project is represented in a graphical
way and as as it is manipulated the visual representa-
tion changes. This same visual representation of the
project is used throughout the rest of the process both
in the teacher and student views. Once the structure
is defined it is referred to as a Project Template and
can be saved for re-use in the future. From this tem-
plate the mentor can then create project instances and
assign students to these instances. The teacher breaks
the group/class into teams and assigns one team to
each project instance. Within each project instance
each section is assigned to a single student who then
writes that section. The rest of the students in the team
and the teacher can see the current state of each sec-
tion and a messaging system is provided to allow them
to provide advice and help as the student works from
an initial draft towards a final version. This is con-
sistent with Zammuner’s third model shown in Table
1. It is envisaged that the students will use the inter-
net to gather information for their project. The VTIE
ScrapBook was developed to provide the students and
the teacher with a means of gathering and sharing in-
formation and images they find on the web. Finally,
when the teacher is happy with the project instance
it is published to a digital library in both HTML and
PDF format. This allows future students to use the
work of past students as part of their research on a
3.1 Project Design Interfaces
The project design interfaces allow the teacher to
manage and control their projects and project tem-
plates and manage their students. They can create
classes/groups, edit classes/groups, create templates,
edit templates, create projects, view the progress of
their students’ work.
In order to protect the anonymity of students on the
system we store no information about students at all,
not even their names. All Students are referred to as
‘Student 1’, ‘Student 2’ etc within each class/group.
The teacher can print off a table on which the stu-
dents’ real names can be written.
Projects are created with a direct manipulation in-
terface. As the teacher clicks to add and edit sec-
tions a graphic representation of the template up-
dates in real time to show the current design of the
project template. A screenshot of a template being
generated in this way is shown in Figure 1. Project
Templates consist of global thoughts/notes and sec-
tions. Each section has a title, optional initial con-
tent and thoughts/notes for that section. When creat-
ing a project form a template the teacher is presented
with a 4 step wizard. In the first step the mentor is
asked to name the project, pick the class/group that
will do the project and pick the amount of teams the
class/group will be split into. The second step al-
lows the teacher to name each team. By default the
teams are named ‘Team 1’, ‘Team 2’ etc but it is
envisaged that the teams could decide on their own
names as a first group/team building activity. The
third step allows the teacher to specify which stu-
dents go into which team. Finally, the fourth step
presents the teacher with a graphical representation
of the template chosen but with extra features to allow
the teacher to assign students to the different sections.
At this point the teacher can edit the design of the
project by adding sections, removing sections, edit-
ing sections and thoughts and editing the title. When
the teacher is happy with the design and student al-
locations they can then click a button to generate the
project instances, one for each team.
3.2 VTIE ScrapBook
The VTIE ScrapBook provides students and teachers
with a personal portfolio. It has been implemented as
Figure 1: A screen shot of a template being generated.
a FireFox browser extension so that it is always avail-
able to the students and teachers while they are brows-
ing the web as shown in Figure 2. At any stage they
can drag and drop text, links or images onto a drop-
zone to add them to their ScrapBook. The students
and teachers can also create notes as they go and save
those into their ScrapBook. Teachers can then make
any of the information in their scrap-book available to
students in one of their projects and students can share
any of their information with the other students in one
of the teams they belong to. All information stored in
the VTIE ScrapBook is actually stored on the VTIE
server rather than on the machine being used by the
student/teacher at the time so as students move from
one machine to another their portfolio will always be
available to them.
The teacher can also see the contents of of all their
students’ portfolios and can delete any scraps they
deem inappropriate for any reason. Each scrap also
stores the URL from which it was saved so the teacher
can see where the students got their information from.
The VTIE ScrapBook also interfaces directly with
the Writing interface via JavaScript. This make it as
easy as possible for students to incorporate the re-
sources they find on the internet into their reports.
3.3 Writing Interfaces
When students or teachers view a project they are
first presented with the graphical representation of the
project. They can then view the content of any section
by clicking on it which takes them to the writing view.
In this view all the sections of the paper appear as tabs
across the top and the contents of the current section
appears in the main area of the page below the tabs.
When a student enters the writing view they can
Figure 2: A screen shot of the VTIE ScrapBook in use. The ScrapBook is the sidebar on the left and is always there when
surfing the web.
see the content of all the sections in the project but
can only edit the sections they are assigned to. When
editing a section the students are presented with a
WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor
that allows them to generate their content. Our eval-
uations showed very clearly that it is important not to
provide the students with more formatting tools than
they need, hence the WYSIWYG editor only provides
them with the tools they really need. They can make
text bold and italic and the can create bulleted and
numbered lists and that is all the formatting they can
do. In the writing view the students can also see all
comments made by the other students in their team
and their teacher on the current section. They can also
add a new comment. Figure 3 shows a screenshot of
a student using the writing interface.
Like a student a teacher can see the contents of all
sections in their projects. The teacher can also see all
the comments that have been made and can add addi-
tional comments to each section to help the student.
The writing view also provides access to a simple
version control system for each section. There are
always two backup version of each section, one the
student controls and one the teacher controls. Both
the teacher and the student can see both backup ver-
sions. The student’s backup version is automatically
updated each time the section is saved, then teacher’s
backup must be manually updated by the teacher. The
student can choose to revert to their backup version at
any time. The teacher’s backup version should be up-
dated by the teacher only when the teacher feels there
has been progress. This mechanism ensures that if a
student accidently makes a major mistake and looses
good work in both the current and backup versions the
teacher can still restore the section to the way it was
the last time the teacher took a backup.
When the decision was made to implement our soft-
ware as a web application a number of decisions were
also taken on standards to develop to. Our web in-
Figure 3: A screen shot of the the Writing Interface in use by a student showing the WYSIWYG interface.
terfaces are all developed to comply with the follow-
ing World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards;
XHTML1.0 and CSS2.1. In order to prevent the
need for so called CSS hacks to deal with the miss-
implementation of the Box Model by browsers like
MicroSoft’s Internet Explorer, the decision was also
taken to target the FireFox brower. As well as re-
moving the need for messy CSS hacks this also has
the added bonus that it allows us to implement some
of our client-sode code as FireFox Browser Exten-
sions like the VTIE ScrapBook. For the schools Fire-
Fox also has the added bonus that it is more secure
and so less likely to bring viruses and trojans into
the school’s network. This is especially important as
many trojans today manifest themselves by displaying
pop-up windows containing explicit advertisements
for pornography.
The basic architecture of the VTIE CWE is shown
in Figure 4. As you can see from this figure the code is
distributed over the client and server side and utilizes
Figure 4: The basic architecture of the VTIE CWE.
many technologies.
The project management interfaces within the col-
laborative Writing Environment make extensive use
of object-oriented JavaScript and DHTML. These in-
terfaces communicate with the server via AJAX and
make use XML to transfer the complex data involved
between the client and the server.
On the server-side the decision was made to de-
velop the code in Java. This decision was partly mo-
tivated by the number of Java packages available to
help with the code and partly motivated by the skill-
set of the VTIE team. The server-side code is imple-
mented using Apache’s Java Struts framework and is
deployed with the Apache Tomcat Web Server.
As XML is used extensively within the VTIE sys-
tem to store and transfer complex data types such as
project templates and instances the initial prototypes
of the VTIE Writing Environment used Apache’s
Xindice native XML database to store data but this
technology is still very much underdevelopment and
was found not to be up to the task yet. Instead the
PostgreSQL relational database is used to store the
data. Much of the data is still stored as XML but
within a relational structure with meta-data stored
separately to speed up searching of the database.
Based on Erkens’ definition of Collaboration dis-
cussed in Section 2 the VTIE Collaborative Writing
Environment supports collaboration in two ways. Our
system supports collaborative writing by adopting a
model in which a student creates an initial draft, all
members of their sections all members of their team
then comment on this draft and these comments feed
into a cycle of revision resulting in the end product.
According to the work of Zammuner this is one of
the better approaches to collaborative writing. As
well as supporting collaboration while writing the
VTIE ScrapBook also supports collaboration while
researching the topic the students will be reporting
on by allowing them to easily share the relevant re-
sources they find on the internet.
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