Posts Tagged ‘collaboration’

In an OISE grad course called Computers in the Curriculum (CTL1606) I was discussion leader last week and decided to use etherpads as a medium for a collaborative discussion to be followed by a collaborative writing session. Here is what happened and my thoughts on it.

1) Scheduling is a problem even when you use a tool like WhenIsGood. Of the 4 students in my group, 2 signed up right away and could have an etherpad meeting with no problems. 2 others signed up later and chose more limited times, one student chose one hour only, and it was that same evening! So there was no time for me to set it up. So that student ended up not participating in the exercise.

To set this up effectively, it would have to be done more in advance, and students could be requested to choose at least 3 times when they were free. And although WhenIsGood is a really great tool, just posting some times and having students write their names under the times would also work, and might work better in that when a student has posted their name, they feel some obligation to keep that time free, which may not be the case when they have posted many free times on WhenIsGood.

Point 1: Scheduling is difficult!

Solution: If I did it again, I’d ask students to organize themselves and choose times together.

2) Even when you type clear instructions, students may have their own ideas about how to do something. I wonder how much this has to do with the fact that it was grad students I was asking to participate in the exercise, and they are often in a position to lead, not follow, as many of them are teachers already.

For example, I posted the following instructions in the etherpad. “Please use the chat box on the lower left to discuss your ideas on these two questions. Please use this white pad to write the document you’ll post later as a note in our class forum. So based on what you discuss in the chat, you write a joint document here based on your chat that answers the questions.” But in both of the etherpad meetings, students didn’t discuss ideas first, they started typing on the whitepad right away. When I inquired about why they had skipped that part, it turned out that one of the students (who participated in both of the etherpad meetings that took place) had used etherpads before in a class but they had only used the whitepad part, not the chat. So that was how she handled this exercise too.

Point 2: Even when directions are clear, students may not follow them in the way you expect them too.

Solution: If there were a next time, I’d join the exercise! This way students would do it the way it was planned and maybe they’d realize the value of first discussing an idea and then writing about it.

3) There were some stability issues with all of the etherpads I used. We used PiratePad for collaboration between discussion leaders prior to Week 4, and our pad that we made is not longer accessible. Likewise of the 2 ietherpads used, one is available now for viewing and one is not. We used TitanPad only once but it’s still there! But one student said there were lag times in the texting. “[T]here were many times I had to delete a response because by the time I typed it into the message box, the topic had changed before I could press return.”

Point: Etherpads are not very stable. This is a big problem.

Solution: Use Google docs next time. (Now I am wondering if unstable etherpads are a conspiracy to force people to use Google docs! It was Google who released the code for etherpads, they must have known they were unstable!)

4. Even tho the students in my group didn’t use the chat, they still had good experiences and wrote collaborative texts. So the exercise was a success from this viewpoint. When I read their co-constructed text, it flows well, with the ideas of two people mixing together*. This is collaboration! So just when students don’t do things the way you were expecting, it’s the end results that matter most.

Point: Students don’t always do what you are expecting them to do.

Solution: Go with the flow! Give over some control of the exercise to the students. As long as the outcome is good, it doesn’t matter if it’s done in a different way from what you were expecting.

*Actually on one of the etherpads, one student posted and another student posted after her. The first student didn’t post onto the second student’s writing. This is not very collaborative. It may be the result of a misunderstanding on the part of the first student as to what collaboration is. But on the second etherpad, the two texts are interchanged, and both students are posting onto what each other had written.

5. Finally, collaboration occurs on many levels. In our discussion forum, we collaborate by posting our ideas and commenting on others’. In the etherpad exercises, students collaborated by co-constructing a written text together. In an online chat, ideas flow between people, and negotiation of meaning is done in realtime (like When ideas have sex, TED talk). My friend Stian would say that these are granularities of collaboration. And I would agree with that. Collaboration happens on many levels! I think that collaboration on all of these levels would be a good experience for anyone hoping to use collaborative exercises in their own classes.

Final Comment: Well, in taking risks, we learn! That was one of the ideas we discussed this week. I took a risk by using a tool that looked promising, but I didn’t know that stability would be such a problem, or scheduling. Now I know! And I’ll be chatting and using etherpads again. I may use a Google Doc plus chat as well to collaborate.

Update (August 2012): I no longer use etherpads. I use Google docs only because of their stability and Google docs’ many useful tools. More on Google docs later.


(Image from Collaboration Techniques) 1

Situating this post: I am on a flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo, listening to Astor Piazzolla.

The CSCL 2011 conference (see 2 below for a brief description of CSCL) was fantastic, with tech luminaries for keynote speakers (Erik Duval, Roy Pea, and Ed Chi, now a research scientist at Google) and an overwhelming array of presentations at a very high level of research that really boggled my mind.

One interesting part of this particular conference is that presenters were told to make a 5 or 10 minute presentation (depending on whether it was a short paper presentation or a long paper) and then we all broke up into smaller groups to talk with whichever presenter had caught our interest the most. This put a lot of pressure on the presenters as presentations delivered in the usual type of conference are usually 30 or 40 minutes long (in my experience), so presenters had to really compact their description and their findings into a tiny slot. But the collaboration afterwards was fantastic! In fact, I think it benefits the presenters themselves at least as much as the participants, as they got so much feedback (mostly positive, but some constructive negative feedback too) on their research.

In a typical conference, there might be a few questions after a presentation, but little actual dialogue, and I’ve often seen Q&A sessions where the question asked was not really answered by the presenter. In our collaborative discussions, topics of interest were discussed in depth, and I have to say that although I wish the presentations themselves could have been longer (they really were squashed 3), this represents a new and very participatory way for researchers to engage in dialogue. I learned at least as much from the collaborative after-sessions as I did from the presentations. So this heightened my awareness of the importance of collaboration in learning, which can be done in both online and f2f environments. My own personal experience in collaboration has been minimal. This needs to change (I’m working on ideas on how to change it).

This brings up the point that we as teachers need to be involved in collaboration before we can understand the value of collaboration and share it with our students. In a recent study by Austin, Smyth, Rickard, Quirk-Bolt & Metcalf (2010), researchers found that the level of engagement of teachers in collaborative learning had a positive effect on the success of collaboration of their students. This is very important! The less engaged in collaboration the teacher was, the less successful was the collaboration of her students. Therefore if we hope to reap the benefits of collaborative learning for our students, we had better get collaborating ourselves! An interesting parallel is with technology. It seems likely that the better our own personal experiences with technology are, the more likely we will be to use them in class successfully. So let’s get playing with a variety of technologies, and let’s get collaborating! Let’s collaborate on our learning experiences with technology! 🙂


Austin, R., Smyth, J., Rickard, A., Quirk-Bolt, N., & Metcalfe, N. (2010).  Collaborative digital learning in schools: teacher perception and effectiveness.  Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 19(3), 327-343.

1 I read recently that the use of images helps us to better internalize and retain information so I am going to be using images in posts whenever possible. In the physical version of Wired (July, 2011), I read, “When information is presented verbally, a person will retain about 10% of the message 3 days later; add a picture and retention soars to 65% (John Medina, cited by Carmine Gallo, p. 108). I wonder what the retention rate for written text is?

2 Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, thus there was a focus on collaborative learning (CL) and how computers and technologies support and enhance CL.

3 All papers were given to us in pdf format on a flash drive on the first day of the conference, so even with the very short presentation time, we could get the whole paper that very evening if we wanted to (this was also a huge improvement over waiting for months for the proceedings to eventually be published.)

I have to write about how great my collaboration experience was with Anni and Dan. It’s the first time I have had such an intense experience and it was just great. Big hugs to both of you! What a team effort we made. (Our paper is available for viewing at )

We started out by using the KeC forum and this we kept as a base throughout the whole project. We had our first Skype chat (at that time the KeC chat tool had a problem) in early February and Anni volunteered to write summary notes which she posted in the KeC view. We scheduled weekly chats. We decided to write a paper as our final product (tho I don’t remember actually discussing that) and to break up the paper into three main sections: constructivism, collaboration, and social presence. We decided that each of us would write about one topic and that we would add to and edit other sections. The other two topics of moderation and tips for online classes we decided to merge into the rest of the paper instead of each having their own section.

The problem with our initial plan (Plan A) was that we ended up with three separate articles that all referred to the same problems that Leanne (the instructor in our case study) was having. So it was impossible to join them together without cutting out huge chunks of text. So we went back to the drawing board and Dan wrote first about constructivism, then Anni wrote about collaboration, basing her writing on what Dan had already done, and then I wrote about social presence, picking up where Dan and Anni had left off. This worked much better!

We used a variety of media to communicate, and this was interesting too. We used the main Case Study view in KeC (discussion board, so asynch discussion), we used KeC’s private message tool (like e-mail) often (probably 30 or more private messages over the past few weeks), as well as quick chats in KeC and planned much longer chats using Skype (both synchronous CMC). These were all invaluable tools. Also the online U/T library was invaluable for finding the articles we needed.

I wrote a mini-introduction which I later expanded and Anni helped by finding some references I needed. Anni was the “go find it” master! She is the one who finally found us a reference for how many Canadian students are studying online, (our opening sentence!) which Dan and I both tried to find, but failed.

We then checked with Clare to see if we were on track, and we were, but we hadn’t considered the questions that the instructor asked at the end. This changed everything! We had thought we were almost finished, and then we had to quickly make Plan B (actually Plan C) to be sure that all of Leanne’s questions were answered in our text. We first analyzed the questions to see which section they logically fit into, and then assigned one or more questions to each of us, based on our topic.

Up to this time, we had been acting rather cooperatively, in that we each had our own task to do and then we put what we did together. But then the real collaboration began. We had a weekly chat which became increasingly focused. “Have we answered all the questions? What has been left out? Which areas are weak? Let’s go check.” And we would all go and look for weak areas or things that hadn’t been done yet.

The last three online sessions were at least two hours long and the last one was almost five hours. We were in top form then, editing, looking for references when need, identifying and rewriting weak paragraphs. There are some sentences that have words from all three of us! We all shared reference work, meaning that if someone said something but couldn’t back it up, we’d all hunt thru our articles to find a good ref. It was like a race at some points.

This was all rather stressful as time was becoming a big issue, but it was also very enjoyable, for me at least. The best parts were getting silly together, making jokes, teasing each other. One of us had “a tendency for pedantic meandering” and another had a deleting addiction… “Why edit when we can just delete? Let me delete it…” I had to several times admonish Dan and Anni for dancing and drinking beer (both emoticons in Skype) before we were finished – yes, I was the task master 😦

The last chat was particularly collaborative as we went thru the paper with minute attention to detail, “looking for scabs to pick” as Dan called it. Every sentence was considered, and all weak areas were identified (we hope!). Dan is a past editor and this was a fantastic surprise that he saved for the last day to tell us. He knew all about colons and semi-colons (I have to look it up!) and he explained patiently and clearly how “ill-structured” does not mean “poorly structured”. I hope my teammates learned something from me too! 🙂

But it’s the groove part that I want to get across, the feeling of intense immersion in something and the extra four arms and two brains that I acquired in those last few hours. This is an excellent example of distributed cognition, knowledge building (Dan and I had an animated discussion of what exactly constructivism meant and what it included and didn’t include, poor Anni just waited politely for us to finish) and even distributed intelligence. We were three people with our computers and our articles, our minds all in the same space at the same time, functioning together in harmony and productivity. Yes, I was definitely in a state of flow then, and yes, it was awesome. Now I know what true collaboration means! I think it also helped that we were a small group of three students, and that we had a common goal and compatible schedules. I really think that the Skype chats were what made this project so collaborative. It would not have been the same using asynchronous discussion only. Should I post one of our chats somewhere to show how it went?

So it was odd when I woke up this morning for the first time in 4 days and didn’t go right into a chat with them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad it’s over! But I think I will always remember those Skype chats and the very intense feeling of intricate collaboration with two great students, who have become friends, when we had a shared goal of writing the best possible paper together. I hope I’ll have more experiences like that when I write future collaborative papers, but I think that this first will always be the most memorable experience for me.