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Co-Authorship via the Web for Distance Learners

Judi Baron

University of South Australia



Distance educators are continually striving to improve the interactive learning environment. To this end a co-authorship component of a postgraduate subject within the Faculty of Business and Management at the University of South Australia has recently been designed. This subject was already set up in a flexible, modular learning format with an emphasis on self-directed and active learning. To further improve the subject, several students were given the opportunity to trial the collaborative building of a website in the area of Information and Records Management.

They were provided with a skeleton of a website (essentially text-based) and were required to collaboratively research and contribute to the website. In addition the students were encouraged to implement the website into their workplace and to customise the materials for their own organisation's specific use. Ongoing interaction and student evaluation were embedded into the website via a 'discussion group'.

This paper elaborates on the androgogical objectives and the design approach employed as well as an evaluation of the trialling of the project which will be fully implemented into the curriculum in 1998.


The Faculty of Business and Management at the University of South Australia offers a Graduate Diploma of Business in Administrative Management (GDAM) which has been operational since the early 1980s. It is presently available in internal, external and mixed modes with one subject already being offered online. Commencing in 1998 the entire GDAM course will be offered online. This will result in an increased blurring of distinction between modes of delivery and supports the view of Wootten (1997) who considers that the category "distance learningí does not aptly describe online delivery. The course, rather than extending in nature, is a multi-skilling one and students can be broadly categorised into three types:

Type A Students

Recent graduates of a non-business degree who seek to attain skills and knowledge to make themselves more employable. Generally these students prefer to study internally and attend regular lectures and tutorials. This group of students includes full fee-paying international students
Computer literacy level: low-medium

Type B Students

Students who are practising professionals, eg nurses, pharmacists, engineers. They wish to develop business and management knowledge and skills, often due to changes in job structures and responsibilities and to allow them more flexibility in their career development. These students usually study in the external mode due not only to work commitments but also self-directed learning preferences.
Computer literacy level: medium

Type C Students

Practising business managers who wish to update and/or require formal recognition of their skills and knowledge and experiences. These students usually study in the external or mixed mode for same reasons as Type B.
Computer literacy level: high

Commencing in 1998 students will be given the opportunity of undertaking a co-authoring/www project within a subject set up in modular format. It is envisaged that the project will be chosen as an assessable option by largely Type B and C students who have regular access to Internet facilities, who prefer an active, student-centred environment and are, in the main, vocationally orientated.

Androgogical Underpinnings and Learning Theories

In support of the principles of contemporary cognitive learning theory (Reeves 1992), of constructivism as outlined by Phillips (1996), Agostinho, Lefoe, Hedberg (1997) and others, and the promotion of a flexible learning environment through application of enabling technologies, one of the constant challenges for teaching staff within this course has been to address the varying needs and interests of the three diverse groups of students and to be mindful of the principles of adult learning (andragogy).

Indeed the andragogical concepts of autonomy, self-directedness, learner-centred learning as documented by Moore (1986), Candy (1991), Burge (1988) and others, along with the guided discovery approach to learning where the student builds their own structured knowledge of a topic (Phillips 1996:65), have significantly influenced the co-authorship/WWW learning program discussed in this paper.

In addition there is an awareness that, in the main, the learners undertaking this postgraduate business course are vocationally orientated. As alluded to above, their primary concern is with the relevance of the course to their career (intrinsic orientation) and also recognition of the worth of the qualification (extrinsic orientation) (Taylor, Gibbs, Morgan 1981).

It is also acknowledged that, for successful learning to occur, the adult learner should have choice in how their learning takes place and choose where to sit on Candyís hypothetical learner control continuum (Candy 1991). The matter of choice, though relevant, is a topic in itself and will not be elaborated on to any great extent in this paper. Rather, before leaving this overview of the underlying principles that influenced the design of coauthorship/www project, the relationship between interaction and co-authorship will be expanded upon.

Interaction and Co-Authorship

This coauthorship/WWW project is based on the premise that self-directed learning requires effective dialogue and interaction (Juler 1990). In addition to Mooreís (1989) distinction between three types of interaction, learner-content; learner-instructor and learner-learner, this project identifies learner-workplace interaction.

While all four types of interaction are inherent within the project to be described herein, the specific aim of the project is to bring about interaction between learner and content, with the content being hypertext documentation that is continually changing. This is the essence of co-authorship.


Co-authorship as defined by Slatin (Snyder 1996:72) is facilitated in hypertext when readers interact with the system to the extent of becoming "actively involved in the creation of an evolving hyperdocumentí. Hypertext is a form of online help where users either browse or search for specific information and then leave the system. It becomes highly interactive when the user begins to co-author the original text by creating new nodes and linking them to pre-existing nodes. (ibid:73).

The learners are in effect creating their own learning environment which is constantly being added to, edited, updated, and refined by other co-authors who may be other learners or the facilitator, or even personnel within the workplace.

The Project Objectives

The objectives of the project support the principles of androgogy while addressing the varying needs and experiences of these learners. The strategies to be employed include:

The expected outcomes include:

Design of Project

The area of study is Information and Records Management and the project will introduce students to this subject by presenting them with an end product - an example of one form of manual that can be used in the workplace. Further projects will look at other types of online manuals for use in the workplace.

This will be in the form of a skeleton of a web site, a version of Phillipsí (1996) "starting at the endí strategy which is an online Email Etiquette (Netiqette) Manual. Students will co-author this hypertext document by researching and adding new information and links to the manual. They will be placed in groups according to the topics to be researched and will collaborate within and across the groups asynchronously via an online discussion list as well as email. Rather than add all of the new information to the original Email Etiquette Manual, students will also create their own web pages according to topic, which can then be linked to the original Manual as well as to other web pages if relevant.

They will in effect build their own collaborative learning environment which has the potential to become another learning resource to be implemented into future curriculums. The project will enable cognitive learning leading to a deeper understanding and analysis of various aspects of Information and Records Management via "tunnellingí into background information by hyperlinking to other "pagesí as required. For example, the Email Etiquette Manual will include procedures for deleting and storing email messages which have been formulated from various "deeperí sources researched by the students, including Electronic Record, Retention and Disposition Guidelines and "Legal Implications of Emailí. These "pagesí in turn form part of the broader area of study of Information and Records Management.

Rather than use a linear or hierarchical approach the co-authorship/www project supports Phillips and DiGiorgioís WWW hypermedia structure, the use of hyperlinks based on an n-dimensional structure where students can build their own knowledge. (Phillips 1996). See Figure 1 for an example of such a structure.

This manual will have the potential of being customised and implemented within individual organisations. This can be done via the creation of a template (undertaken by the students) and the customising of it for specific organisations, taking information from the websites created by the students themselves.

As stated by Kilian (1997) in support of hypertext as an alternative to a logical or linear approach to thinking:

Actually we think more the way minestrone soup cooks, with ideas rising unpredictably from the depths, like beans or pasta, and then sinking back again.


The design and development of this constructivist/co-authorship approach to learning will require ongoing formative evaluation in order to determine whether learning has eventuated, how the design and interactivity can be improved etc. Students will be required to provide ongoing feedback via online conferences and personal journals and also email and online questionnaire forms. Feedback from organisations who trial the "final productsí will also be encouraged.

Trialling of Project

Figure 1: Example of Unstructured Hypermedia - a series of web pages created and co-authored by students, some of which link to an Email Etiquette Manual

With some variations to be discussed later under Outcomes, a group of ten self-selected students undertook a trial of this project in 1997. They were all postgraduate students who were interested in learning more about the Internet and an innovative approach to teamwork and learning. None of them were experienced in co-authorship, html or web design though all had experience researching on the Internet and using email as a preferred means of communication. The majority of self-selecters were Type A students.

The pilot group received a three hour face-to-face html and web design training session at commencement of the trial where the objectives were described and the students placed in groups of their choice (topic dependent). Areas researched included legal implications, email usage policies used in organisations, changes to style of business communications, retention and disposition guidelines, email etiquette and rules for online behaviour. The skeleton of the Email Etiquette Manual website was viewed by the group and main areas requiring research identified. They were then required to research their specific areas, co-author and each group separately present their contributions to the facilitator on disk in html format for uploading to the Web. All students were encouraged to view the Web site regularly as it was updated, to post individual comments to the online conference (Webboard), and to collaborate with the other groups to further enable co-authorship.

Collaboration then took place with a few organisations who viewed the online Manual and provided constructive feedback to allow fine-tuning and customisation for use in the workplace.

Trial Outcomes

Not all outcomes and issues that came to light are able to be discussed here, including infrastructure limitations and access and equity issues. The outcomes mentioned here are perceived as being crucial to the success of the co-authorship/www project to be implemented in 1998. They are not presented in any order of importance and some are interrelated.


As with the project described by Rimmington and Gruba (1997), the trial group gained skills and experience in teamwork, communication and organisation. The benefits were that the trial group consciously reflected on team structures, on scheduling and coordinating, as well as their personal role preferences within groups. Some students would have liked role responsibilities to be assigned. There was a conflict between self-directed study and working with others in a group which supports the findings of a two year study within a flexible learning environment which found that groupwork can inhibit autonomy and self-pacing (Baron, Thiele, Hintz 1995). These findings would appear to support Scott, Cramton, Gauvin, Lobert, Steinke, Pattersonís (1997) findings that teamwork was one of the least things liked about their project.


The pilot group gained skills and experience in asynchronous communication and found it beneficial to have time to reflect and respond. Some considered that there was a need for more orientation to online interaction via the Webboard which not all students found "user friendlyí. This trial supports findings of the Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference in Hawaii (1997) in that online learners want more synchronous communications via online chats.

Structure and Feedback

The trial also supported Harasim et al (1996:125) in that online learners want well defined structures and roles, more detailed instructions and syllabuses due to the fewer cues of this form of learning. The students would have liked more structure imposed on them via the online discussion and meeting of deadlines. The students wanted more feedback from the facilitator, they wanted assurance that they were "on the right trackí and they wanted to be able to compare their group efforts with the other groups in both extent and quality of research. This would appear to contradict the adult learning preference style earlier espoused and supports Burgeís (1988) view that learners do not necessarily always want to be self-directed. It may well be that studentsí prior knowledge and experiences and the associated degree of familiarity with the learning environment may affect where the student chooses to sit on Candyís (1991) control continuum.

Graded Assessment

The studentsí contributions were not assessed or graded. Rather they were exempted from 20% worth of assignments in a subject during the semester of the trial in order to allow them time to work on the pilot. This proved to be one of the biggest demotivators of the trial. However this will not be an issue in the pilot next year, but rather the issue of individual versus group marking.

Time Management

With a lack of stringent timelines, the self-selected students found it very easy to "shelveí their research and co-authorship activities which resulted in the trial extending longer than planned. This is not expected to pose a major problem during the implementation of the project next year as it is a University requirement that assessment dates (which can be equated to timelines) are published prior to commencement of any semester studies.

Personal Reflection

In support of one principle of constructivist learning (Driscoll 1994) the students were encouraged right from the commencement of the trial that they should keep a personal journal and jot down their reflections on a regular basis. The emphasis was to be on the learning process as well as the learning outcomes in order that constructive feedback could be given. This keeping of a personal journal was not a new concept to the students as it is an assessable segment within two other subjects. Nevertheless not all students in the pilot adhered to the journal. In retrospect it is considered that it would have been a valuable ongoing evaluation tool if they had been required to post their journal online within a private conference area that only their peers and the facilitator had access to. This will be implemented in the project next year.

Orientation and Study Skills

As with Rimmington and Gruba (1997), Baron, Thiele and Hintz (1995) found that students require orientation to new ways of learning. They also require the development of study habits and skills which complement constructivist-oriented and collaborative, student-centred learning. This was not done during the trial to any great extent and a more comprehensive orientation program will be integrated at the commencement of the project next year.

Online Interaction

Online interaction peer to peer and peer to facilitator did occur during the trial but it was not as frequent as desired. This appears to be a very common problem area, and received a great deal of attention at the Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference in Hawaii (1997). Harasim et alís (1996) strategies for improving interaction and involvement will be a firm focus of the coauthorship project commencing in 1998. On interviewing the pilot group it was also revealed that the students often "lurkedí and read the online postings but did not reply. On reflection some of the facilitator postings were "closedí in nature and did not invite responses, serving as a reminder that we need to resist taking control of student activities and become learning facilitators rather than knowledge transfer controllers.

An interesting student response was

I would have done a lot more online communication if I had been an external student.

There was a network already established amongst most of the students who saw each other regularly at other classes within the course. They tended to interact more peer to peer in this way whereas they communicated with the facilitator via online facilities.

Ownership and Control

As mentioned earlier, the pilot students were self-selected. Anecdotal evidence suggests that those who did not volunteer, although very interested in learning more about the Internet and web page construction, would have preferred to put their efforts into something that would more clearly identify their individual contributions. In their minds co-authoring a WWW site implied a joint effort and did not motivate them.

Linked to this, the students considered that they lost control of their work, as rather than take responsibility for the creation of their own site, they transferred their research efforts to the facilitator in html format for uploading to the site. Qualitative interviews with the self-selected students and ensuing input from the whole class revealed that the project design would be improved if each individual student or group of students were responsible for the development of their own WWW sites which would then be hyperlinked to each other. The studentsí research and web page creation could thus be identified and assessed independently of other groups.

Co-Author in Stages

In support of the need for more structure the trialling of the co-authorship WWW project also pinpointed that students felt lost and overwhelmed at times. It was identified that dividing it into several parts would be more manageable for both learners and facilitator. Firstly, students should undertake the research and compilation of information which would be handed in for assessment. HTML and web design training would then follow. Each group would then design and create their own web page using their own research materials and this would also be assessable. Each web page would then be brought together (hyperlinked) to form a larger site, a hyperdocument with potential to further evolve via coauthoring.

In Closing

It is acknowledged that the toe has hardly been dipped in the water, that there is still a lot of fine-tuning in this co-authorship/WWW project and more research needs to be done into the effectiveness of co-authorship as an alternative method of learning. It is further acknowledged that the author/facilitator will require instructional and web design as well as technical support, as what started as a germ of an idea is growing into a monster! However some comfort can be taken from the following online teacher statements with regard to designing and teaching an online course:

Because no-one knows much about online learning, weíre all defacto learners here; weíre lucky if weíre two jumps ahead of our students.


We learn something new and unsettling about ourselves. Our role is changing, so is that of our students. None of us is entirely comfortable with the change. (Kilian 1997)

The author looks forward to sharing experiences and collaborating with others who are undertaking similar online learning projects.


Special thanks to the following self-selected students within the Graduate Diploma of Business (Administrative Management) who trialled the co-authorship/www project during 1997 and provided the instructor with valuable feedback: Shahabudin Abdullah, Bao-Huan Chen, Karen DeMichelle, Somying Ditwises, Olivera Dragojevic, Belinda Elliott, Sok Wui Koh, Jordi Lapiedra, Karen Ng, Mitra Sabet.


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(c) Judi Baron


The author(s) assign to ASCILITE and educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author(s) also grant a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the ASCILITE 97 conference papers, and for the documents to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.


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