Posts Tagged ‘etherpads’

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.