Collaboration has long been part of the fabric of teaching and learning but over past two decades has received much attention in the popular discourse. In particular, there has been much in the media about the need for employees to be able to collaborate and, therefore, a need for students to learn this skill in schools. While I would argue that schools have long been a site for collaboration, the Internet and ICTs have expanded the possibilities for collaboration. In short, Web 2.0 technologies have opened the door for teachers and students, parents, and others to collaborate locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. Wikis, blogs and shared document spaces such as Google Documents and Adobe Acrobat Buzzword allow groups to work together in a single environment while programs such as Skype allow for live communication across distances.
Below I share a few tools that can foster and support collaboration in K-12 classrooms (or any classrooms). All have free versions that are robust enough for classroom use. Some, like Google Docs and PBWorks, offer quite a bit of storage with their free versions.
Blogs. Blogs are one of the early Web 2.0 tools that were adopted in some classrooms. They can be used to replicate traditional forms of writing in English classes or in more innovative ways to foster interaction between writers and readers. Blogs are great for discussions of topics in science, social studies, fine arts, or math or for book discussions in an English language arts class. Schools can use them to host discussions among teachers and teachers can use them to communicate with parents and families.Here are few blogs I have used and like:
- Edublogs. As the name suggests, Edublogs is a blog site created for educational purposes. The nice thing about Edublogs is that it allows flexibility in creating "gated" or "closed" communities so that teachers don't have to worry (as much) about who can post. It also allows teachers to hold students comments until they have been reviewed. Edublogs also makes signing up students easy (no need for email addresses). The site also provides many templates so that you have options for how your blog looks.
- Tumblr is a formatted blog site. By that I mean it has categories for posts that include texts, quotes, photos, audio, links, etc. Tumblr also has a clean look and is easy to use.
- Blogger. Well, what you see is what you get. This is a Blogger blog. Blogger is a Google product and has many of the same features as Edublogs but is less clearly for classroom use. Blogger is an excellent choice for those who already use Google Applications.
Wikis. Wikis are websites that offer two essential features: 1) they are organized so that the authors can easily create pages and folders for content, and 2) the allow multiple users to collaborate on uploading, editing, and sharing that content. There are many wiki sites out there. I offer a few suggestions for those that I have found to be the most useful in classrooms:
- PBWorks. Yes, making a wiki is as easy as making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Well, almost. PBWorks is the wiki site with which I am most familiar. That doesn't make it the best but I do like it's well organized layout and navigation scheme. It's easy to add users and
- WikiSpaces. WikiSpaces is a favorite among some of my students and colleagues in classrooms. It's much like PBWorks but has more visual appeal.
- Google Sites. While not technically a wiki, it's just about the same thing. Google sites allows users to set up websites using preformatted templates.
The possibilities with wikis are virtually endless. They can help organize any content that can be uploaded--classroom projects, classroom and school websites, portfolios, etc.
Shared Document Spaces. In the shared document spaces market, Google Documents (Google Docs, for short) is the most widely known and used. Microsoft has Office Live but charges a fee. Google Docs is free and over time has become more user friendly and more sophisticated. Google Docs is now part of Google Drive which offers several gigabytes of free space "in the cloud" for storage. Google Docs has word processing, spreadsheets, forms (like online surveys), presentations (PowerPoint), and drawings. You can also upload, store and share other documents such as Microsoft Office documents and PDFs. The great part about Google Docs is that you can invite others to share and co-author documents with you. Not only can several people work on a document at the same time using different computers, you avoid the problems of email different versions of a document around a group (and losing someone's work, for example). You can share with a group using emails or give anyone a link to edit. I have students write their papers and unit plans in Google Docs. I use the comments feature to provide feedback and grade them thus avoiding having students print off a copy (no more "you lost my paper").
Other Tools. Okay, so there's more to collaborating than using wikis, blogs, and documents. Indeed, there are many tools available to foster collaboration in classrooms. I share just one below but there are many others.
- Skype. Skype flew below the radar screen for several years but has become widely adopted by military families, extended families, college students...and yes, teachers and students. It's a web-based communication tool that allows for video and audio calls as well as text chat. Skype computer-to-computer calls are free (Skype account to Skype account) but Skype can link users to phones for a fee. There are many possibilities with Skype including having speakers "skype" into your classroom or having students in one school talk with students in another (across town or around the world).
What tools do you use for collaborating? Post your comments and suggestions.