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The Collaborative Mind: Tools for 21st-Century Learning [Available Full-Text, Free]

By Ernie. J. Cox - Posted Sep 1, 2009
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A language arts class is in session, and the teacher needs a project that incorporates research, proper citation of sources, and a written product.

Scenario One: Seventh-grade students are writing reports about what life was like in colonial America using word-processing software installed on every machine in a lab. Some members of the class are frustrated because they can’t access the files at home. The only way to transfer these projects off campus is via email, and access is blocked. Lists of resources consulted are formed into bibliographies using print templates provided by the teacher. Maybe the students are even graded on their ability to memorize the proper form of citation for magazines, books, and websites. Each student will need to print a draft of his or her paper so that the teacher can proofread it. When all of the papers are completed, they will all be bound into a class file. This product will go on a shelf in the classroom next to previous projects.

Scenario Two: Students are invited to write about a topic that they are personally passionate about and that could benefit their local community in some way. Teams are formed based on complementary topics. For example, two girls are dog lovers who decide to learn more about preventing animal cruelty in their town. Later that evening, the students begin forming possible guiding questions using shared, web-based documents. These initial questions are the basis for the research they conduct in a computer lab over subsequent days. As websites are located, they are entered into an online citation generator and notetaking tool. Students share access to documents, working bibliographies, and notecards with their teachers, facilitating formative assessments including comments and revision histories. All of the final products are posted to the class wiki and shared with family, friends, and the larger community.

Collaboration is one of the defining characteristics of the 21st century, but many educators are still searching for ways to embrace this idea in their schools. Some technologies facilitate the creation of a collaborative learning environment better than others.

Several factors are shaping the classroom of scenario one. Schools are plagued by policies and budgets that stifle the use of Web 2.0 resources, the very ones that enable collaboration to blossom. Current teaching practices may not actively encourage team-based inquiry. As described in scenario two, there are a number of technology tools that can lead to collaborative student and teacher engagement while also addressing budgetary and infrastructure issues. This article offers suggestions for overcoming these barriers using simple tools that foster complex thinking.

The Collaborative Mind

Some people believe collaboration is the next educational fad, and they look forward to the day it passes into history. On the other hand, many educators believe collaboration to be a vital component of learning and living in the present and preparing for the unknown future. While the theoretical basis for collaborative learning has been around for decades, its broad-based consideration and implementation is just beginning in earnest. This can be attributed in part to the recently rewritten learning standards of several professional organizations (see Box 1).

The American Association of School Librarians (AASL), the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills all place collaboration as a central piece in the education puzzle. One of the desired skills described in the AASL standards is to "Participate and collaborate as members of a social and intellectual network of learners." The emphasis on the social nature of learning is highlighted in this passage and throughout the document. These documents present ambitious goals for teachers in K–12 environments. We will only attain these if the barriers to success are understood and removed.

Barriers to Introducing Technology

Aging Educational Models

In scenario one, I picture the economics teacher from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (played by Ben Stein). If this reference doesn’t resonate with you, let me describe it briefly: Ben Stein’s character is a teacher who lectures in a dry monotone voice. He recites all of the facts that students will be responsible for remembering on standardized exams.

The teaching approach in scenario two is different. Students are encouraged to select topics, work together in the formation of guiding questions, and connect their learning products to the larger community where they reside. As we build our toolbox for 21st-century learning, it will become apparent that the classroom of the past doesn’t match up to the potential of what students can do with these tools.

Strapped for Cash

Lack of funding has been—and is likely to always be—an issue in education. Schools have spent an incredible amount of money to purchase and maintain simple tools such as word-processing programs. But now there is an array of well-tested and reliable tools that cost little to nothing! Many Web 2.0 tools can deliver a cost savings in addition to functionality.

And Locked Down

The obstacle I have heard cited more often than any other is lack of access, and it’s at its most frustrating when it is a result of policy and not logistics. With the great potential of these tools also comes apprehension and fear, so playing it safe has become the standard operating procedure for many schools. The best toolbox we can build will offer assurances to policymakers and network administrators and give students and teachers access to the full potential of Web 2.0.

Attributes of the Necessary Tools

When we go shopping for tools of the 21st century, a few key attributes should be on our list (see Box 2). Ubiquitous access is at the top of the list. This feature may not seem that important in terms of on-campus use, but it is essential if we intend to offer tools that reflect "real-world" functionality. When schools adopt web-based applications, they open the creative potential of their students. Learning isn’t restricted to the time they are on campus. Any basic toolbox will provide this ubiquitous access and administrative control over various features and passwords.

Schools have a peculiar way of creating environments that bear no relationship to the wider world. For example, we still teach students how to tell time on traditional clocks. When asked what type of clock they have at home, the answer is predominately digital. We want to pick tools that look and feel like the things students are naturally using outside of school. When Google Apps Education Edition was introduced to students at my school, there was immediate recognition. They use Google on a daily basis—it is an authentic part of their web experience. It is a tool that looks like the web they surf. In short, it doesn’t look like school as they have known it.

An intuitive design and functionality are also key attributes for our tools. Interface development has come a long way in the last 5 years, and the benefit in ease of use has been substantial. The greatest effort we want students to make is in the learning process and the creations they envision, not in learning about the tools.

Two related attributes of tools that are also vital are ease of sharing and portability. The students in scenario two will need to share a common space to form questions, gather resources, and publish results. The work done in these spaces should be portable across platforms. Fortunately, many developers of web-based applications and tools have intentionally built their systems for portability. For a few companies, this is a direct response to the restrictive, proprietary stance of early system developers. Schools can make the choice to teach open sharing of ideas through the adoption of open learning environments.

The Toolbox

To facilitate learning in the style of scenario two, I would open a toolbox containing Google Apps Education Edition, NoodleBib, and PBworks (see Box 3).

Google Apps Education Edition is an ever-expanding workspace. Currently I have access to a start page, email, calendar, documents (including presentations and spreadsheets with web-based forms), sites (webpage creation), and contacts. When students log into their documents account, they are presented with an array of options for creating, sharing, labeling, and storing projects (see Figure 1). When students open a document, they will find features common to any word-processing program. The powerful difference is the language of 21st-century learning built directly into the application. The names of the features invoke a mind-set of collaborative teaching and learning. Students can share documents (see Figure 2) and define the type of use (e.g., collaborator) other people may have (see Figure 3).

With Google Apps Education Edition, one of our dog lovers in scenario two creates a document and shares it with her teammate, making her a collaborator. Over the course of the evening, they will each add guiding questions and ideas into their web-based documents. (Each document has a unique URL assignment; it is at once a document and a webpage with the potential to be published to the open web.) Having developed essential questions and ideas (and hopefully more interest in their topic), the team begins consulting resources of all types (print, electronic, video). How to have them document and think about these resources is one of the biggest challenges for 21st-century educators. NoodleBib has been my answer to this demand.

NoodleBib from NoodleTools, Inc. is a citation generator and note-taking application. We want students to properly cite and attribute the sources they use in research. Untold amounts of time and energy have been wasted in the past on the memorization of proper citation forms. The key learning outcome should be that students understand why to cite sources and that they are able to locate the necessary information to create these citations (in either MLA or APA format). NoodleBib provides step-by-step guidance for inputting the pieces of a citation and then creates the complete citation (see Figure 4).

With the citation in place, students can begin using the most dynamic feature of this tool—note taking. Note cards can be created for any citation. Students have three fields to complete in each note card: Direct Quotations, Paraphrasing, and My Ideas. This feature reinforces the type of critical thinking outlined in the many new standards mentioned earlier. The tool encourages higher-level thinking. This is where we want students to mentally exert themselves (see Figure 5). Citations and related note cards can be tagged according to the individual student’s organizational scheme. NoodleBib offers an easy way to provide consistent ethical use of sources across the school environment.

The final product from scenario two will be shared on a class wiki page hosted by PBworks. This platform offers a robust web presence for student work. The difference between Google Apps and wikis such as this is becoming more and more blurry. As of this writing, wikis still offer several features that are not completely developed in the web development tools of the Google Apps Education Edition. Wikis also offer a larger number of choices and options for open commenting and interaction to the larger community. One of my favorite wikis is a literature project by a fifth-grade class (see Box 4). A ClustrMap ( is embedded at the bottom of the wiki. It has tracked scores of visitors from across the globe. This type of widget use is easy with a wiki format. All of these tools cost little to nothing and offer strong administrative controls.

The time spent on the project in scenario two will create an interesting and relevant product. The skills, processes, and thinking enacted by this model of teaching and learning are built into many 21st-century learning tools, such as Google Apps Education Edition, NoodleBib, and PBworks. These tools will be applicable to the next class project and to life beyond the schoolhouse.

Ernie J. Cox is the library and information services coordinator for St. Timothy’s School in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached by email at


The Collaborative Turn: New Learning Standards for the Collaborative Mind


American Association of School Librarians: Standards for the 21st-Century Learner


International Society for Technology in Education: National Educational Technology Standards


Partnership for 21st Century Skills: Framework for 21st Century Learning




Key Attributes of Collaborative Tools

Ubiquitous access


An out-of-school appearance (authentic)


Ease of use (intuitive design and function)


Content sharing among users


Portability of creative products


The Toolbox


Google Apps Education Edition






Going Further


An example of a class wiki from the Woodward Academy

More great websites for 21st-century teaching and learning from AASL

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