Google Docs and Microsoft Office365 offer a variety of tools and features for collaborative writing and revision. However, my experience with them has felt lacking. I’ve found they fall short of the goal of inviting robust conversation around a piece of writing, where multiple reviewers can interact with the text, the writer, and each other. An in-person writing conference engages all three elements. So does an activity following the Workshop model. If the major online word processors don’t offer the engagement I want, are there digital tools that do?
Most digital tools I found in my research were geared towards assessing writing. Tools like Peerceptive, Calibrated Peer Review (CPR), and Turnitin all have response elements, but focus more on a summative response at the “final draft” stage of writing. I was interested in earlier interventions, in helping student-writers refine and revise writing over time. These programs were not what I was looking for. So I did some research, had some conversations, and found four tools that seemed viable to allow for all three conversations to happen: Slack, Github, Quip, and Eli Review.
Each tool was reviewed under four guiding questions:
- How does this tool make communicating between reviewers, authors, and text easier or more robust than Office465 or Google Docs?
- What is the learning curve? Would instructors need to spend significant time teaching their students to use the tool?
- What features stand out as exceptionally useful, different, better or worse than other tools?
- Is it worth the cost? Is there “bang for your buck?”
Slack and Github are not necessarily designed for revision of documents. Github is designed to work on coding, but has developed a system for multiple users to edit and comment on a single code. Slack calls itself a “collaboration software” and operates primarily as a workflow organizer and team communication center. Both products, however, hold potential in the sort of revision and response I desire.
The strength of Github, as related to my needs, is in version control. Users can track nearly every edit made to an original document, revert back to the original, or start new branches of revision from nearly anywhere in the timeline. Version control is important in revision, allowing for the author to have final authority over changes and seeing the progress across time. While there’s no direct conversation tool within Github to allow persons to talk, conversations of a sort can happen within the text mark-up.
Because Github is built for coding, there are certain elements that have a steep learning curve. Figuring out how to adapt elements such as the text box and standard comment features to address blocks of text rather than code is my foremost concern. The instructor would have to spend significant time setting up procedures to translate Github’s interface into a useful one for peer review, and spend another chunk of time teaching those procedures to her students. Given the other shortcomings, I am unconvinced that this would be a worthy expenditure of time. However, the price is right. The free version of Github is perfectly usable in the classroom context.
Overall, Github could have use as a tool for response to writing. However, because it’s not built for that kind of work, the amount of effort an instructor would put forth shaping the tool to the purpose makes Github an unlikely choice.
Like Github, Slack is a tool that would have to be repurposed to do the kind of response I’m hoping for. Its strength is in communication between users, and flexibility to build from their base platform. Slack users have the ability to incorporate multiple apps, including Office365 or Google Docs, which allows for a very flexible set of uses. However, Slack itself is primarily a communication and task-assignment tool. Any text editing or revisions would happen through the app in Office365 or Google Docs.
Using the Slack communication interface is relatively simple, but the process of integrating apps and crafting response can become complicated as multiple windows and tools pop up. An instructor can set up the apps for students, then create and teach the procedure. However, in my use, the app interfaces were glitchy, at times unresponsive. I don’t know that Slack adds anything essential to Office365 or Google Docs in terms of responding to writing. While the free version is robust, the limited amount of communications and apps likely limits use to one project per month.
While Slack provides a good platform for communication across working groups, any communication with the text demands a second platform. Because of this, I am unconvinced that Slack adds anything to the response process.
Quip and Eli Review are two tools created for document revision. Though primarily a “productivity tool,” Quip has document integration tools. Eli Review was built expressly as a tool for teaching writing. With some steep prices, the primary question for both products is: are they worth it?
Quip can be a useful platform for engaging with a text and a team of reviewers. There are comments, tools to draw attention to certain parts, and a tracker of changes made. The markup tools in Quip are very similar to most word processing software, and the additional commentary sidebar is a useful way for both reviewers and the original author to see the whole conversation around the text.
The main drawback is a lack of version control. While there’s an easily accessible Document History to see various versions, and changes can be tracked in the commentary sidebar, there’s no easy way to compare across versions or maintain an unblemished original. Further, Quip is expensive. A full classroom, divided into teams of no more than five, would cost at least $120 per month. This is a steep price tag for a document editor. Were it to be used for more tasks, the price may be worth it. However, there are few tasks in a classroom for which Quip would be useful.
As a productivity tool in a workplace environment, Quip is undoubtedly powerful. As a tool for responding to writing, Quip has a lot to offer. It’s easy to use and provides avenues to talk to the text and the reviewers. However, the price makes it difficult to advocate for in a classroom environment.
Eli Review is designed by and for educators as a platform for responding to and revising text as well as giving opportunities for peer review. Purpose built for the task, Eli Review is full of useful tools. The steepest learning curve is for instructors, who have to carefully design many implements of an assignment. Instructors can align writing tasks to each step of review, give instructions to writers and reviewers, and track progress of drafts as well as how much a reviewer is interacting with a text. Students will also need some practice with the platform, but one “practice assignment” is likely sufficient. Eli Review has very clear support documents.
Reviewers have a variety of tools at their disposal. In-text markup tools are available if the document is submitted in the preferred in-browser text editor, and there are fields for overall commentary aligned with the instructor’s assigned task. A variety of methods are available, including rubrics and Likert scales, along with open-entry text boxes. One drawback is the lack of rigorous version control. The user may have to rely on their own locally-saved document to maintain a true ‘original.’ However, with the robust level of feedback, I would call the impact of that drawback minimal.
Eli Review costs $25 per semester, with discounts for full-year subscriptions and institution-level contracts. Given the power of the platform, the ability for instructors to shape tasks towards specific outcomes, I believe that for a course focused on writing and revision, this cost is a worthy investment. The highest learning curve is for an instructor, but the learning happens once. When the instructor has the assignments shaped to her liking, the assignments can be recycled and revised as necessary.
Of the four tools I investigated, Eli Review seems to be the most potentially impactful platform for responding to writing. While Quip provides a useful set of tools for responding to writing, the cost feels too substantial for the return. Slack is a more affordable option, but works only as an extension to platforms like Office365 and Google Docs. The extension may be helpful, but the impact is not significant enough to warrant the extra time setting up the program or teaching it. Github has some potential for collaboration in building documents, but would need significant work to adapt the coding-oriented structures to writing. Eli Review, though costly, provides the most well-rounded suite of tools for both instructors and students to shape response, engage in dialogue with the text and with other reviewers, and provide substantive guidance to the writer.