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Collaboration in Today’s Classrooms: New Web Tools Change the Game [Available Full-Text, Free]

By Kelly Driscoll - Posted May 1, 2007
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Technology is playing a key role in various types of communication within the classroom today, changing the way communication takes place in a way that is having a real impact on learning. A different breed of technology, leveraging the power of simplistic Web 2.0 design principles, is proving to finally break through with a real impact on students and teachers. Technology such as online learning communities is proving to offer a more dynamic learning experience, with direct benefit to students and teachers. It's a refreshing change for educators who have struggled with the complexity, cost, and practicality of the last generation of technology tools.

We see technology being used for different types of communication—for presentation, for class interaction, and for collaboration. No matter what type of communication is being used in the classroom, it is an important motivator for teachers and for students. Presentation begins with a simple sharing of ideas or information with someone else. Interaction involves not only sharing ideas or information with someone else but also receiving feedback. Collaboration engages groups of people in not only sending and receiving feedback but working together for creating, building, and editing.

To accomplish these different types of communication, teachers and students today are becoming less dependent on big enterprise-labeled communication systems that became popular in the '90s, such as course management and learning management systems. Instead, they are seeking out simple, inexpensive, easy-to-use tools that accomplish specific communication tasks. Despite all the buzz surrounding technology, there is not one technology that can do it all. Many teachers are finding it is best to mix and match. The freedom to mix and match technology is possible today because of two factors:

* Easy accessibility of computers and high-speed Internet

* A new breed of Web-based technologies often referred to as Web 2.0 (including blogs, wikis, learning communities, podcasts, audio and video conferencing, and online office applications)

Make It Easy, Make It Affordable

There are common threads that connect this array of communication technologies. The first thread is price. The majority of these new tools and applications are either free or very low cost. This puts cash-strapped public K-12 schools on equal footing with large universities—everyone has easy access to these tools.

An important thing to point out related to this price thread is the fact that a number of these technologies are fully hosted. That means that no expensive infrastructure (servers, data centers) needs to be purchased, no IT staff needs to be bothered, and end users don't have to go blurry-eyed thinking about setup and configuration. Teachers and students can simply sign up and drive.

This concept leads to a second thread connecting this technology trend—ease of use. This movement is grounded in the principle that less is more. Fewer bells and whistles equals software that does its job and gets out of your way. There is only a small learning curve, if any, for a teacher to jump in and start using the technology in his or her classroom. This shift has made a dramatic impact on education. The teacher can now focus on the important question, "Why do I want to use this technology?" instead of "How do I use this technology?" Teachers are free to spend their time investigating technology-supported learning experiences and how to integrate technology into their curricula instead of sitting in tedious training sessions.

Likewise, for students using these technologies, they can simply focus on learning their course material and taking advantage of the new communication opportunities instead of having to learn a new technology. Today's tech-savvy student generation is actively participating in social networking and other online communities, so most students not only understand how to use Web 2.0 teaching tools, they thrive in the environment when Web communication solutions are integrated in the classroom.

Web Communication Tools: From the Classroom to the Any Room

So what are these new communication opportunities? How are teachers and students using these technologies to present, interact, and collaborate?

Blogs are simple online journals primarily used to support communication in the form of presentation, and they provide a great tool for class interaction. Blogs are easy to set up and free of charge. Some of the more popular blog software tools used in classrooms are Blogger (www.blogger.com) and Edublogs (www.edublogs.org). Teachers can choose to have one blog that they use to post teaching materials in the forms of images, files, and links. Or, depending on the teacher, additional blogs can be created for each student to form a community of blogs, where they can all present their own findings and discoveries.

Blogs are organized by time like a journal, which is a structure many people find easy to follow. New content is displayed right at the top, and old information gets archived. Additionally, blogs offer RSS (real simple syndication) feeds that allow anyone to "subscribe" to be notified when new blog posts become available. Comments, which are connected to individual postings on the blog, give the author of the blog the opportunity to get feedback from visitors.

These comments could be posted by the teacher, by classmates, by parents—by anyone who has access to the blog. Receiving feedback about course work not just from your teacher but from your peers or possibly from the outside world can be very empowering to students. In their eyes, having the ability to publish their writing on a blog suddenly transforms them into authors and publishers.

What if teachers want their students to be able to work together in an online publishing environment, but they need a tool that will not limit students to organizing their work by time? What if the teacher needs tools that will be collaborative in a much less structured way? Enter the wiki. Wikis such as PBwiki.com and Wikispaces (www.wikispaces.com) are very popular in the classroom today because of their flexibility and their collaborative editing features.

Wikis are often used for group-based writing projects, collaborative note taking, or brainstorming. Teachers can set up wikis for groups of students, giving them the opportunity to all join in on equal footing to give feedback, to make suggestions and changes, and to jot down ideas. With a wiki, everyone is an author of the wiki at the same time. The authors can start with very informal ideas and gradually edit and create drafts of their writing to be further edited and shaped by other authors of the wiki.

The most well-known example of this phenomenon is Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com), a content encyclopedia written collaboratively by users around the world. If someone had approached me 10 years ago and said they wanted to create an online collaborative encyclopedia, I would have been very skeptical. Without discussing in detail the use of Wikipedia in the classroom, its global popularity is truly a testament to the strength that the collective has when united to communicate, share, and build content together. At a much smaller and more controlled environment, the capabilities of a wiki in the classroom can be a broadening learning experience, as student groups build rich, deep content over time.

If you are looking for more school-specific collaboration tools, you may be interested in checking out more established online learning communities that can address schoolwide or even cross-institutional or districtwide communications. An example would be the Elgg educational social network (www.elgg.net) that leverages blogs. Another example is the Digication learning community (www.digication.com), which is based on e-portfolios.

One of the features Elgg offers that is unique from all the technologies mentioned is that it allows schools to run and host their own social network on their servers locally. If you have the necessary expertise to support such a network, you can download the software free of charge and have complete control over the underlying code.

Digication's e-portfolios use the format of more traditional Web sites but with customizable navigation, giving teachers and students the ability to personalize their content to share and to showcase. As one of Digication's founders, I obviously have an interest here. However, I am not touting Digication but showcasing it as one of the tools available to educators seeking to tap the collaborative learning power of online communities.

Brian Beard of Bellaire High School in Houston offers a great example of the impact online learning communities can have in the classroom, as he uses Digication as part of his day-to-day communication with students. Beard recently started posting his students' work online on his class' Digication e-portfolio Web site.

"I've organized the content by class so it's easy for my students to find, and they tell me that they enjoy looking at their published work and reading their friends' work as well," said Beard. "We're now working on a personal narrative project as part of a unit of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. When I announced that they would be writing a personal narrative, they wanted to know if it would be published on the site. It motivates them to work to the best of their ability, because there is a huge difference between writing a paper for the teacher and writing one for your peers."

Recent movements in the world of online office applications can represent major advancement in access to software for cash-conscious schools. For example, Google for Educators (www.google.com/educators) and other lesser-known Web-based office tools such as the Zoho Office Suite (www.zoho.com) are starting to match—and even, in some cases, exceed—the richness of traditional office tools such as Microsoft Office.

For starters, these tools are free of charge. But aside from cost benefits, since these tools are available online, it means that any user who has even the most basic computing equipment can now access office tools such as full-featured word processing and spreadsheet software without ever having to install anything on their computers. Furthermore, because these tools are Web-based, they offer the opportunity for multiple people to be editors of the very same documents, in real time. By real time, I mean that when collaborators or students are typing in a piece of text on their computers, potentially miles apart from each other physically, the text will show up on both people's computers as it is being typed. Users don't need to hit "Save" or even to refresh their Web browsers.

New Media Drives New Teaching Potential

Another aspect of today's technology is the feasibility of including rich media as teaching, learning, and even collaborative media.

With the increase of bandwidth and hardware available in schools, podcasting gives teachers and students an audio distribution and syndication ability to share their research, perspectives, and stories with an audience beyond their classrooms. Teachers are discovering many cross-curricular projects such as conducting interviews, creating classroom news broadcasts, recording class discussions and explorations, sharing feedback about books, or discussing papers they have written. Podcasts are offering ESL students, and those with learning disabilities, the chance to review lectures at their own pace for increased comprehension.

Although podcasting does have a bit of a learning curve and requires some additional hardware such as a microphone and sound editing software, it is much easier to deal with than video. Audio files take less storage space, require less production preparation (sometimes even less than the written word), and still provide very engaging materials—so engaging, in fact, that teachers such as Lars Brownworth from Stony Brook School are becoming podcast celebrities. His podcast on the Byzantine Empire was listed as one of the top 50 most downloaded podcasts. Who knew a high school history lesson could gain so many listeners?

Teachers are also finding ways to engage their students in real-time conversations about projects with students in other countries with audio conferencing or even with video conferencing. MSN Messenger (www.msn.com) and Skype (www.skype.com) offer free or inexpensive ways for teachers and students to connect with other classrooms. With a single laptop, a Webcam, a projector, and an Internet connection, a teacher can broadcast the classroom and begin collaboration with any other classroom that has a similar setup. While this requires access to a high-speed Internet connection as well as hardware, the cost of entry has dropped by a significant amount. This is a very progressive use of technology in the classroom, as the price of high-speed Internet continues to decrease and more cameras are built into laptops.

Collaboration Breeds Creativity, Motivates Participation

But logistics aside, why do classrooms want to talk to other classrooms? Using technology to communicate and collaborate across different countries can create a more global learning environment, can allow for cross-cultural studies, and can enhance understanding and appreciation of education in contexts other than your own.

The myriads of technologies being adopted in schools today, including blogs, wikis, online learning communities, and online office tools, are keeping teachers and students connected in and out of class. They are creating opportunities for groups to share, collaborate, showcase, and grow together. They are allowing for the exchange of information and ideas to happen not only within the confines of a classroom but across schools, districts, states, and the world. The new-generation Web 2.0 solutions are easier and more engaging to use, and they are proving to have a larger impact on collaboration and communication in the classroom than complex technologies of the past.

For many teachers, the first step in collaboration is providing opportunities for students to share processes, progress, and work. As an educator who works closely with other teachers across the country, I find that they are amazed at how simple tools for sharing work and ideas can positively transform the classroom. Web tools are extending communication well beyond the classroom to allow continued learning and collaboration anywhere, at any time. Students who may avoid live class participation are leveraging new communication forms to become more active and vocal in class. The freedom to publish and share ideas creates a learning environment that empowers and motivates teachers and students to become active participants in the educational experience.

Kelly Driscoll , co-founder of Digication, Inc. (www.digication.com), is an active educator, helping teachers develop technology skills for improving the teaching and learning experience. She has taught graduate and undergraduate courses at Bryant University and the Rhode Island School of Design, including current courses titled Integrating Technology into the Classroom and Visual Literacy in Digital Media. Send her an email at kdriscoll@digication.com.


 
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