Modern workers are more likely than ever to collaborate with others, and more likely to do so using online technologies.
I use collaborative tech to teach my writing classes. A couple of years ago, I was talking with an art teacher about the process. He and I collaborate on projects together using online technologies, and I’ve visited his class to talk with them about my specialization.
“Do you use Google docs with your classes?” he asked, watching his class work on their computers.
I admitted that I didn’t. “Do you?”
“No.” We stood silently for a minute contemplating the fact that, though we both use the technology for other work, and though we both believe in using such technologies with our students, we never actually did so. “There must be a good reason for that,” I finally said.
Since that time, I’ve tried out quite a few. Here’s what I’ve learned:
- It takes more time. Not because the collaborative tools are inefficient, but because our students aren’t already good at using them. Many of my students have techno joy and are willing to put in the extra effort to learn the programs. Many, however, find it frustrating. Some even have techno fear, and resist using new technologies. If you teach kindergarten, you’re used to having to budget extra time for students to get used to the tools; if you’re used to having your students arrive in your classroom able to read and write and generally use their tools, then you may have to adjust to the idea that you need to schedule that extra time.
- It widens the gap between the more and less able students. Students who are already having trouble keeping up can find that having to add the extra layer of effort required for using new tools is a burden. I also see a privilege gap, with some students having computers at home or mobile devices they can carry with them, and some having no chance outside of class to work with the tools. Finally, there’s a tendency for the students who are most comfortable with the tech to work together, either choosing one another as partners or simply working together outside of class when the less comfortable aren’t making that effort. The solution may be to begin with very small projects designed only to tryout the tools.
- It provides lots of tech practice. Compared with your average computer lab assignment, collaborative projects call upon far more tech skills. Even simple things like taking control of the online work space, setting up a toolbar, or choosing how to communicate with fellow students require more different actions than the average tech instruction option. And since students are accomplishing something, they spend more time on that practice than they typically would choose to spend on tech training modules.
- It facilitates differentiation. I teach writing, and the requirements for my online projects are generally about the same skills as any other assignment: having a clear main point, elaboration, editing, all that. Yet I’ve had students who ask for the HTML to accomplish some special effect, who create and insert graphic organizers, and who do intensive research and share their results in creative ways. I also have students who take advantage of the chance to look up words they need help with, to do research in their native language, or to use tutorial videos. Different groups choose different means of communication and different approaches to collaboration, depending on their strengths and resources. With the entire internet at their disposal (subject to your security and safety rules, of course), students have much more opportunity to control their learning experience.
Online tools to use for free:
- Google docs is one of the simplest and most versatile options. You’ll need a gmail account to set up your document and your students will have to have email accounts of some kind to use it (I use school email accounts and put the students in directly, but you can also invite students in using their personal accounts). Once you have your document set up, you can do just about whatever you want with it. I embed it into my faculty webpage, for example, so the project is always visible to visitors.
- Squidoo is one of my personal favorites for the classroom, but I have to admit that a lot of students have trouble with it. At Squidoo, you can create a “lens” — a page with text, pictures, links, videos, interactive tools, and lots more. The range of options delights students with techno joy, but overwhelms some, and there are certainly lots of ways to mess up. I’ve had students accidentally delete one another’s work, save their work to the wrong place (in many creative and unexpected ways) and also completely lose their places while working and give up. My advice with this one is to do a small project with low standards early in the term and persevere.
- Glogster is an interactive poster maker that requires minimal tech skills. Set up an edu account and you can include your students and maintain control over the workspace. Glogster lets you use basic keyboard and mouse skills, edit, type, browse and select, and even bring in your classroom webcam. You can print your work or publish it online, so your “poster” can include video or audio if you like. This is a very easy program, suited to young kids, but you can also produce great projects with it if you bring some thought and skill to the process.
- Wikis are among the most popular and familiar options for the classroom. The two I know best are Wikispaces and PBWorks. Neither gives you much control over the look and feel of the page (at least not with the free versions I’ve used), but it’s hard to beat them for ease of use and familiarity. Set up your space and invite your students in. Then everyone can add or edit. There are some very useful websites created in this way, and it’s nice to have an ongoing project that you can add to over the years.
- Basecamp is a horse of a different color, and not so much used for academic purposes. However, some great collaborative projects don’t live online. With Basecamp, you can make all the preparations for your international festival, your class debate, or your science fair. You have a calendar where you can put milestones, a to-do list, writeboards (wikis), and room to upload files (such as documents, pictures, and videos). You invite people in, and you have control over what is shared and what is not. There’s no publishing option, but I love it for sheer organization. What’s more, since Basecamp is actually in wide use by companies and organizations, being able to use it is a skill your students can put on their resumes.
It is still the exception rather than the rule, at least in my district, for teachers to use these technologies with their classes, or even with one another. I think it’s worth it, though. Perhaps, if you don’t already use collaborative tools, this is the semester for you to play around with them yourself, in preparation for using them with your class next term.