• Day 12 - Assessing the Process with RSS Published 2006-12-29 under ,

    RSS - sounds technical and at first look, it is not pretty. But for my money, RSS is the biggest advance in the Internet since the graphical browser. That is a pretty big claim, so let's see how RSS can change the way you view the Web - and then let's see how RSS can play an important role in collaboration.

    For those scratching your head asking "what is RSS?", you are probably not alone. It has been my experience that many educators are not familiar with this technology, yet its presence is widespread. You have probably seen on Web pages the RSS orange in the form of an icon or chicklet . Simply stated, RSS is the technology that allows you to keep up to date on all of your favorite sites as well as news information - all from a single page. Many sites, and most of the big ones - including this blog :-) have a special URL that lists all of the new content from the site. When you collect these RSS feed URLs into a "reader", you can see what is new from all of your feeds. There are many different types of "readers" including standalone applications, browser plugins/extensions, and websites. (List of RSS Feed Readers)

    I use Bloglines - a web-based reader - to view all of my feeds. Since I use several different computers, I want my feeds to be stored remotely. You can view my feeds by clicking here. Notice that you can organize your feeds into a directory folder structure which allows you to either view a feed individually or all feeds in a folder. Thus, with one click, I can see all of my "Ed Tech" articles. No need to browse to each of the individual blogs to see if anything new is available.

    I also use Google's personalized homepage which allows me to customize my Google search page with little boxes (channels) that show the headlines from RSS feeds. While not as extensive as my Bloglines list of feeds, Google lets me keep track of those feeds in which I am most interested - e.g. ESPN's News from English Football.

    So how can RSS feeds help educators? Save time! Almost all of the tools that I have mentioned in the 12 Days of Collaboration have an RSS feed that lets you as the teacher keep track of changes to your students' projects. So, when Billy adds something to his group's writeboard (see Day 1), you will see a new item in your RSS reader since you "subscribed" to Billy's group's writeboard RSS feed.

    By subscribing to the feeds from those collaborative tools your students' are using and organizing them in a reader like Bloglines, you can monitor each group's progress. Actually, you can monitor each student's progress within each group since all of the online collaborative tools mentioned let you know who contributed what. By monitoring your students' contributions to the collaborative process, you can gain a better view into their understanding of the topics of the assignment. RSS provides teachers the opportunity to take an active role in project's lifecycle. You can offer feedback, direction, compliments, and even the gentle nudge forward when the development of the project is made so visible.

    For me, RSS enables assessment to move from being dominated by the end product to a focus on the process where the learning is more evident. You can see who is taking risks, how are decisions being made, and who is contributing what. In other words, assessing the collaboration.


    Success with the tools that I have discussed in 12 Days of Collaboration requires that you approach collaboration differently than traditional group work in the past.

    1. When explaining the project, it is important for you as the teacher to clearly define your expectations for "positive interdependence" within the group as well as individual accountability. (Johnson and Johnson, 1999) Discuss the social skills needed for groups to be successful.
    2. Too often, teachers assign group projects and then sit back as the students work. For collaborative projects to work, teachers must "monitor students' learning and intervene within groups to provide task assistance or to increase students' interpersonal and group skills". (Johnson and Johnson, 1999) In other words, we must take an active role in each group's success.
    3. Assess student learning as well as how well the groups functioned. Provide members of the groups a chance to evaluate their group's performance, how well they worked together, and how they can improve next time. (Johnson and Johnson, 1999)
    4. Incorporate regular opportunities for collaborative learning into your curriculum. (Smialek and Boburka, 2006) Occasional group work does not provide students the opportunity to learn how to collaborate. Working in groups on a regular basis allows students to become much more proficient at collaborating, and as a result, they take away much more from the project than they would have if they were not given the opportunity to develop skills in collaborating.

    I hope that this series on collaboration will provide you with tools and motivation to develop projects that promote active learning within groups requiring collaborative skills.

    RSS Resources
    Simple RSS Tutorial
    More Extensive (and technical) RSS Tutorial

    The Effect of Cooperative Listening Exercises on the Critical Listening Skills of College Music-Appreciation Students
    Thomas Smialek; Renee Reiter Boburka
    Journal of Research in Music Education, Vol. 54, No. 1. (Spring, 2006), pp. 57-72.
    Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0022-4294%28200621%2954%3A1%3C57%3ATEOCLE%3E2.0.CO%3B2-T

    Making Cooperative Learning Work
    David W. Johnson; Roger T. Johnson
    Theory into Practice, Vol. 38, No. 2, Building Community through Cooperative Learning. (Spring, 1999), pp. 67-73.
    Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0040-5841%28199921%2938%3A2%3C67%3AMCLW%3E2.0.CO%3B2-O

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  • Day 11 - Chat by the Campfire Published 2006-12-24 under ,

    Yesterday, I mentioned my friend Mr. French who teaches pre-calculus and calculus (regular and AP). He like so many teachers is extremely dedicated to his students. The night before a major test, Jo makes himself available via IM (chat) so that students can ask questions. This got me thinking about the power of instant messaging. It is a preferred method of communicating among kids. As group members of a project are working at their desk, they can collaborate via IM.

    My biggest reservation about including chat (IM) as a collaboration tool has been the inability to record the conversation. As you should know by know, I feel that the power of the online collaboration tools is to help make the process of collaboration more visible to a teacher. Thus, for me to endorse IM as a collaboration tool, teachers would need to be able to "replay" the conversations.

    CampfireEnter 37 Signals' Campfire, "a web-based group chat tool that lets you set up password-protected chat rooms in just seconds". When you setup an account with Campfire, you create a URL for your chats. You can create multiple rooms to help organize your chats and only those that you want to invite can participate in chats. One of the great feature is the ability to upload files while chatting. If you upload an image file, it previews in the chat window. This is a fantastic tool for math and science courses where equations are often discussed. But the feature that I like the most is repository of chat transcripts. A teacher (or student) can look up chats based on person and/or day. One can also search the transcripts.

    The service is free but it only allows four simultaneous people chatting at one time. You can have more people registered with your chat area, but only four can be active across all of your rooms at one time. This is a bit restrictive if you are running a review session for all of your kids. But it would work if the chat area was only for a small group project. You can also upgrade your service to one of the premium plans (that costs money!).

    I am just starting with Campfire and it is working well for one of my projects where synchronous communication is necessary. I am also experimenting with Google Talk which allows both synchronous and asynchronous communication both in IM format and voice. You can also review past conversations. One restriction is that conversations are one on one, not within groups.

    I would love to hear what you are using for this type of communication.

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  • Day 10 - Blogging Your Class Published 2006-12-23 under ,

    Yesterday, I discussed the power of groups (forums) for creating a collaborative environment where students can respond to a message created by a teacher or student. In that post, I mentioned the similarity between blogs and groups, and indicated that one should not dwell on which is the best tool. Today, I will advocate blogging as the clear choice for capturing your class.

    bloggingI started talking about the power of blogging in the curriculum back in early '04 and I still cite the fantastic work of Darren Kuropatwa and his AP Calculus, Pre-Calculus (11) and Pre-Calculus (12) classes. Darren has his students post a summary of the topics covered in class on the class blog. One student is the "scribe" for the day and posts his/her notes on the class. This provides a wonderful documentation of the class as well as a great exercise for the scribe as he/she is asked to publicly explain what was discussed in class that day. Darren also has students reflect on the unit/chapter in "Blogging on Blogging" or BOB.

    Because the blog is public, students take the job of scribe very seriously and even try to out do other scribes. The quality of their work is outstanding and students get a kick out of knowing that others (across the globe) are reading their post.

    There are numerous sources for information on blogging, but one that I just stumbled upon is by Robert Jones - his "Blogging for Beginners" series. Robert (aka Mr. Jones) came to my attention at breakfast with a friend - Mr. French whose AP Calculus class also blogs. Apparently Mr. Jones posted a comment on the class blog, but the students thought it was just Mr. French posing as a Maths teacher from Scotland. One enterprising student verified Mr. Jones' existence and posted his research.

    There is nothing like having an international audience to motivate you to posting the best content as possible.

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  • Day 9 - Google and Yahoo Groups Published 2006-12-22 under ,

    One of the oldest online tools for collaboration has been user forums where folks post questions and others post responses. Each "thread" contains the original message along with all replies ordered in a tree structure. Back in the days of CompuServe and early AOL, this was how people shared their expertise. I recall being involved in many discussions on the best way to resolve a problem posted by someone else in the Clipper forum. I learned quite a bit about the programming language Clipper by books and experimenting, but the CompuServe Clipper forum is where I mastered my understanding. The value of this learning tool came from both having questions answered by others in the forum, but also by answering questions. Teaching a concept really does make us learn it.

    Google and Yahoo bring these user groups into the 21st century by improving the user experience - making it more accessible. The user-friendly experience begins with the ease of which it is to create a new group and manage the groups settings. Once created, posting new messages, replying to existing messages, and finding message threads is very easy.

    groupsBoth Google Groups and Yahoo Groups offer similar configuration settings. Though only some of these are available to you when you initially setup your group, you have access to all of the settings from the "manage group" page. Some of the more important settings include:

    • Access Levels - who can view, and post messages to your group
    • Membership - who can join the group (anyone, moderated, or invitation only)
    • Visibility - are the messages in the group included in search engines and is the group listed in a directory of groups (and by what category)
    Again, both Google Groups and Yahoo Groups offer similar basic forum (group) functionality. Yahoo offers extras such as polls, databases, and calendars integrated into your group, though I have never used any of these. Google Groups - Beta improves on the look and feel of Google Groups and gives you more control on customizing the look and feel.

    How might you use forums (groups) in our world of education? There are numerous ways you can enhance your curriculum by incorporating forums into your class. You can use it as a way for students to ask and answer questions; you can post discussion questions; you can use it as a review tool where students answer questions that you have posted and even correct other students' answers.

    So far in the 12DaysOfCollaboration, we have been focusing on how these tools can be used to enhance collaborative projects in class. Let us not forget collaboration among teachers. Forums are a great way for teachers to get and give help on a variety of topics. AP teachers should all be participating in their subject's Electronic Discussion Group. When I was teaching AP Computer Science and AP Calculus, these groups were a valuable part of my professional development and directly contributed to my students' success.

    The great thing about forums (groups) is that they allow you to reply to replies; in other words, your discussion can branch out into separate directions. I have often been asked which tool is better for collaboration, blogging or forums. While similar in structure, there are two major differences. First, all comments in blogging are treated equally. While one can make a comment about a comment, this message is not treated (organized) any differently than other comments. When a person replies to a reply in a forum, a new branch of the discussion is created. (Note: some blogging software is now allowing this more structured commenting - replying to a comment.)

    The second, and most important for me, distinction between blogs and forums is in the significance of the first (original) post. In general, blog posts can stand on their own whereas in forums, the messages are designed as the start of a thread. There are forums where the messages are more just announcements and blogs where the posts are questions and the meat of the post lies in the comments. On Alan November's blog, the posts are usually in the form of a question. The real value of the site lies in the comments. I would argue that this type of blog would be better run in a forum, though I understand that there are other considerations that might direct Alan to using a blog.

    Both blogs and forums are fantastic collaboration tools and you should not dwell too long on which is the one that would best suit your needs. I just wanted to (re)introduce you to the tried and true forum - now groups - idea. They are easy to setup, manage and use, and have a long history of providing educational value.

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  • Day 8 - ZohoShow for Digital Storyboarding Published 2006-12-21 under , , ,

    This post is not about the educational benefits of digital storytelling. Much has been written about this by such experts in the field as Joe Lambert and Bernajean Porter. My focus is on the storyboarding process and more specifically how to record this process.

    Digital Storytelling is not about the end product - the video - as much as it is about the story, the planning, and the collaboration. From a teacher's prospective, insight into the storyboarding process provides a richer assessment of the students work than the actual digital media that results from the project. From Wikipedia: "[This] process of visual thinking and planning allows a group of people to brainstorm together, placing their ideas on storyboards and then arranging the storyboards on the wall. This fosters more ideas and generates consensus inside the group."

    I am a big fan of storyboarding with the following offering some ideas why.

    For some, storyboarding may seem like a hassle, or a tedious extra step in the process of digital storytelling. This is not true. Storyboarding is a valuable step in digital storytelling. It allows the user to organize images, text, motion, interviews, and music before they begin making their digital story. It allows the user to visualize how the story will be put together and what holes exist so that they can be filled. Storyboarding also inspires new ideas for the user’s digital story because the user sees all of the pieces of the story laid out in front of them.
    From "Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling"

    There are many ways to produce a storyboard online. One option would to use a service like Google Docs and put the storyboard in a word processing like document. Another idea is to use a wiki putting each cell of the storyboard in a separate page.

    Zoho ShowI would like to suggest trying ZohoShow, an online presentation creating service where you can create, share, view, and publish PowerPoint like presentations. As with the other solutions that I have mentioned, your work is stored online making it available to everyone in the group wherever there is an Internet connection. With ZohoShow, it is very easy to create storyboard cells with the requisite information. Like PowerPoint, ZohoShow allows you to create slides from a template but you can always add additional elements like text blocks, images, or graphical symbols. The information that you require your students to include in each cell (slide) of their storyboard will vary but it will probably include the narration, description of the image, animation, and audio effects.

    What I like most about using a presentation type of approach to storyboarding is the ease by which you can move cells around in the story as well as move elements within a cell around. The drag-and-drop approach provides an intuitive (as well as easy) way of reorganizing your story.

    The biggest drawbacks to ZohoShow are lack of an RSS feed, versioning, and concurrent editing. As I will explore tomorrow, RSS feeds help teachers keep track of work being done on a project. By not saving versions of the storyboard (presentation), ZohoShow makes it difficult to see just how the board was developed and who did what. Finally, ZohoShow does not allow multiple users to work on a presentation at the same time, though might not be a critical issue. (Writeboard does not offer concurrent editing but I have found it to be one of my most valuable tools for collaboration.)

    ZohoShow is still in beta, so who knows what features will be available in the future. For simple presentations (and storyboards) it works well. It does not have all of the bells and whistles of PowerPoint, but I see that as a plus, after-all we want our students to focus on the storyboard and not the page transition effects.

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  • Day 7 - Google Docs and Wikis for Science Lab Write-ups Published 2006-12-20 under , ,

    In my last post, I spoke of the great advantages of using Google Docs over the traditional word processing application. When creating a collaborative document, it is a great asset to have that document available for all group members to edit anytime, anywhere and even at the same time.

    A feature that I did not mention about Google Docs on my last post is its flexibility of publishing the final document. Once you have finished editing a document, you can use the "Save As..." feature to save the document in HTML, RTF, Word, OpenOffice, or PDF format. I really like the option to save the document in PDF format and which allows me to add it to a web site for others to view.

    Lab work in a science class is a great opportunity for students to collaborate. Lab partners work on the experiment together, record their observations, and summarize their results. Using Google Docs, lab groups can store their results in an online speadsheet (see below). Like Google's word processing application, more than one person can be adding data to a spreadsheet at the same time. Care must be taken to avoid putting data in the same cell, but I am impressed at the speed with which the application refreshes and shows changes made by other users.

    The lab write-up can be done in a Google Docs word processing document and both the data and write-up can be saved as PDF documents. These PDFs can then be uploaded to a class wiki on a page setup for the lab assignment allowing other students to review your results and conclusions. At the end of the year, each of the labs in the course will have a separate page with data and write-ups from each of the lab groups. By documenting each lab in this way, you and your students can review the results and discuss reasons for discrepancies.

    Google Docs offers a variety of features that makes collaboration much easier and convenient. I hope you have a chance to explore all that Google has to offer.

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  • Day 6 - Google Docs for Creative Writing Published 2006-12-19 under , ,

    Collaborative writing assignments have always been limited by the problem of merging the contributions of multiple authors. One approach has been for a document to be passed among authors, each making their corrections and additions. This method of collaboration required those authors without the document to be idle making the whole process a bit inefficient as well as frustrating.

    Google DocsGoogle Documents approaches word processing from a different paradigm, one where documents are not exclusive to a single editor or computer but instead can be edited by two or more authors at the same time on different machines. Google (which purchased Writely, the originators of this idea) allows authors to create documents which reside online and thus can be accessed from anywhere there is an Internet connection. Authors can then invite others to collaborate on the document. At the bottom of each document is a status bar showing who is currently editing the document.
    Google Doc Editors
    As other authors open the shared document, you are told of their presence, and as they make changes to the document, their changes show up on your screen - automatically!.

    Google Docs has a "revisions" feature that allows you to clearly see the edits made by other contributors as well as a revision history which allows you to view past versions of the document and even revert to one of these past states.

    Google Revisions

    Google Docs is a great tool for any group project that includes a write-up as it provides a central location for the document that any member of the group can access and edit at any time he/she wants. It is especially useful in collaborative writing assignments where two or more people are working on a document simultaneously.

    However, my favorite feature stresses the collaborative relationship between teacher and student. Using Google Docs' Revision feature, a teacher can step through the creation of a document gaining insight into the student's writing process. Teachers can give feedback (using the comments feature) directly on the document making it easier for the student to follow-up with further revisions.


    At a party the other day, I overheard a mother of four mention how much they hate group projects. Of course my curiosity was peaked and I quickly joined the conversation to find out what about group projects she found distasteful. One of her biggest complaints was the effort required to find time for groups to meet in person to work on their projects. I describe Google Docs to her and a look of "wow, that's what we need" came over her.

    Google Docs is not the answer to all collaboration problems, but if you require your students to turn-in written work (usually produced on a word processor), I would highly recommend that you have them use Google Docs. When you are added as a collaborator, you can offer feedback directly on the document and gain a better insight into the students writing process. Finally, by having the student store the document online, issues of corrupt disks, jammed printers, or failed emails are no longer relevant.

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  • Day 5 - Problems with Collaboration Published 2006-12-18 under ,

    In graduate school, I acquired some of the most important knowledge of my degree program in my very first semester. The lessons I learned revolved around a course that stressed group projects for all of its assessments. I found myself in a group of very qualified individuals but each with completely different personalities and motives. Cutting to the chase, collaboration is not easy. Here are some of the problems we encountered and discussion on how to resolve each one.

    Clear Understanding of Project Goals/Objectives

    Sounds obvious, but before starting a project it is important to have a clear understanding of what is expected. In the final project of the class, we were to write a paper on the effects of e-commerce on the transportation system for another professor in the Information Science department. Before starting the project, we should have asked who is the audience (transportation experts?), what is the professor going to be doing with this paper (submitting it for peer review), what type of article is this to be (scholarly, trade, popular, or general interest?). Instead, we each had our own idea of what the project was all about and it was not until just before the article was due that we realized that our ideas conflicted.

    One of the first things students should be required to do when starting a project is to outline their perception of the project goals and objectives. This outline should be one of the project deliverables and should be reviewed by teachers, at the beginning, to be sure the students do not have some terrible misunderstanding of the project's objectives, and at the end of the project to help evaluate how well the group met the objectives that they defined. Two groups can have vastly different objectives for the same project with both being equally valid. For example, teacher of a U.S. History class might assign a collaborative project to create the students' own Bill of Rights. One group might outline their objectives to produce a document that updates the Bill of Rights into more accessible language more relevant to today's concerns. Another group may describe their objectives as crafting a document that reflects the issues of teenagers.

    Clear Understanding of Members' Goals/Objectives

    In collaborative projects, group members often have varying personal objectives, some of which may even conflict with each other. My project group consisted of a student who had just graduated from an undergraduate program (limited life/professional experience), a PhD candidate who had to get at least an A- in the class, and myself, a maturing educator who thought going back to school would be "fun". Each of us approached the transportation assignment described above with completely different objectives. Our young college grad viewed the project simply as something that the professor assigned and her objective was to give the professor whatever he wanted. The PhD candidate saw this as an opportunity to get her name on a published paper and impress a professor that she wanted as her thesis advisor. I just thought that exploring how e-commerce affects transportation sounded interesting.

    As a result of the differing objectives (and because we had not discussed nor agreed upon our approach to the assignment) we each tackled the research differently. The recent grad required specific directions on what to research, the PhD wanted us to adhere to suggestions (including sources) from the advising professor and I was content to read summative articles on the subject from periodicals.

    Had we had a discussion of our personal objectives before starting to work on the project, the end product as well as the learning process would have been much more successful. In our case, it would have been better for me to produce an initial review of the topic from which we could have created an outline and approached the advising professor for feedback. From there, research from peer-reviewed materials could begin with the recent grad being given specific research tasks. The initial draft of the document could be tasked to the PhD student who had the most experience in crafting the content into text appropriate for a journal.

    Division of Labor

    As mentioned above, it is important to spend time considering how to divide the tasks of a project among the groups members. Too often the division of labor follows the approach we took; topics are assigned to group members for research and one person is nominated as the person who puts it all together. This approach is really an attempt to minimize the interaction among members - not really a collaborative approach. In our project, we did not share the research until a few days before the due date when it was discovered that one of the group members had not completed her assigned task due to a family emergency. We got the paper completed but the process (division of labor) by which it was done was completely obfuscated to outsiders.

    It is so much easier today to task a project so that members are constantly reviewing other members' work, improving upon it and learning from it. The days of segmenting a project into task to be done in isolation are over. Instead, students should be encouraged to take an iterative approach to working on a project. Research is recorded on a more accessible medium (e.g. wiki or writeboard) where team members can review each other's work. This approach makes it easier to identify problems earlier and make decisions to redirect the focus of research when it becomes apparent that it is going in the wrong direction. But the most important aspect to this approach is that students are involved in more than their little part. They are gaining a better understanding of all of the research, not just their own.

    Waiting Until the Deadline ...

    "Don't wait until the night before the assignment is due to get started!" - The mantra of teachers everywhere. With today's technology, teachers have the ability to monitor group work and see the process in action. While this is not good news for procrastinators, it makes the collaboration more accessible to both participants and observers.

    In our transportation project, we could have eliminated most of the headaches if we could have seen (monitored) the work as it progressed. Similarly, my approach to the writing of the final document could have been stopped before I got too far. Instead, we had to completely rewrite the paper (requiring an extension).

    It is important for teachers to include milestones and process requirement into their grading rubric. In the past, this was limited to such things as submission of notecards and rough drafts. Now, teachers can monitor the process in (almost) real time. They can see the interactions, contributions, confrontations, and resolutions of all members. With this emphasis on the process over the final product, students cannot wait until the last minute to do their work.


    One of the most challenging aspects of collaboration is criticism. It is important for team members to interact, evaluate each others work, discuss possible improvements, and resolve differences of opinion. For our group, criticism almost lead to the project's failure and permanently hurt feelings. I won't speak for the others, but I know I can still improve my receptiveness to others' point of view. By receptiveness, I am speaking of the skill to discuss a topic passionately but not take it personally when others disagree. This is not an easy skill to learn but it is certainly a valuable one. We need to give students more opportunity for peer review and for learning how to both give and take criticism. Collaborative learning is a wonderful tool in this process.


    We do our students a disservice when we assign group work without teaching them first how to collaborate. Just as students need direction to improve their study skills, so too do they need help learning the skills required to work as a group. Next time you assign a collaborative project, consider the issues discussed above and consider ways you can direct your students to be more successful in the collaborative process than we were.

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  • Day 4 - Wiki Review Sheets Published 2006-12-17 under , ,

    I have tried a number of approaches to preparing students for an exam. I have created review sheets, chapter outlines, and practice exams. But it always struck me that I was doing all of the work. The students should be the ones creating these review documents.

    I ran into logistical problems whenever I asked students to come up with practice problems or review material. By the time I had put all of their work together, there was little time for the students to review their cumulative work.

    Wikis to the rescue. If you have never used a wiki, it is a type of website where viewers (with permission) can edit the content on each page and even create their own pages. Wikopedida is, perhaps, the most famous wiki in production.

    I use PBWiki to create a wiki site for a class, and have students record the concepts presented in class. As an example, each chapter might be placed on a separate page with an overall description or summary of the topics/concepts discussed during that chapter. Subsequent pages are developed from this chapter page detailing each of the topics/concepts. Each chapter in the wiki is created while that chapter is being discussed so that its content can not only be used for a final exam but also for a chapter test.

    The class as a whole is responsible for ensuring that all material is accurately covered. Because you as the teacher can review individual edits to the wiki, it is possible to assess each students contribution to the project. Furthermore, this wiki comes to represent the class' knowledge and is a good tool for you to assess any areas of confusion or weakness PRIOR to a test or exam.

    Another example of using wikis for review can be seen from the work of Darren Kuropatwa's classes that create solutions manuals. As will be seen in a later "12 Days..." post, Darren's classes are doing some excellent work in collaboration. You can check out some of their wiki examples:

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  • Day 3 - YackPack Your Point of View Published 2006-12-16 under , ,

    One of the valuable aspects of classroom discussion that is missing from most online learning environments is the opportunity to verbally articulate a point of view. Blogs, wikis, discussion forums, and email allow students the opportunity to gain valuable practice communicating ideas through writing. An equally important skill in communication is the spoken word.

    YackPackYackPack is a new service that allows groups of students to communicate verbally. As a member of the group, you can choose to send a "voice message" to one or all of the group members by simply selecting the recipients and talking into your computer's microphone. There is no software to install other than the Flash Player which most browsers already have.

    These asynchronous conversations can be used in small groups to discuss ideas or in full classes to continue a conversation that began in class. As an example, a controversial subject might arise in your class that captures the interest of your students but for which you just don't have time to address in detail. You might ask your students to express their thoughts on the subject in your YackPack when they go home. They can then listen to their classmates comments and continue the conversation with a response. As the YackPack administrator you can review all messages and even provide feedback to individuals or the whole class.

    Another use of the YackPack is to provide a forum for students to ask questions. You or (preferably) your students can provide the answers thus producing a collaborative help service for your class.

    If you teach a foreign language or are an ESL teacher, YackPack is a great tool for students to practice speaking in their new language. Students can carry on conversations while you "monitor" them, providing feedback as necessary.

    I discovered YackPack quite by accident at a conference in Monterey this past November. Since then, I have had the chance to play around with the service and am continually thinking of new ways it can be used in education and in my personal life.

    For Information: video for educators

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  • Day 2 - Brainstorming with Your Writeboard Published 2006-12-15 under , ,

    Writeboard is a (free) service from 37 Signals that provides groups with a webpage that can be used for developing ideas, documenting discussions, and just brainstorming. The system is very simple - a characteristic of all 37 Signals services. Yet the result is an extremely useful tool for collaboration.

    After you create your password protected Writeboard, you are given a blank workarea. writeboard workarea The first thing you notice is that Writeboard does not employ a WYSIWYG editor. At first, this may appear to be a downside of the application, but I would argue that it is actually an asset. Instead of worrying about formatting, the simple editor allows us to concentrate on content. There are some formatting styles that you can use, but the beauty of the system is its simplicity.

    The most powerful feature (from a collaboration standpoint) is Writeboard's versioning capability. writeboard versioning Every time a change is made and saved, a new version of the document is automatically created. This allows groups to proceed in one direction with the knowledge that they can always return to a previously saved version of the document. For technologically challenged users, the comfort of knowing that any mistakes they make will not permanently effect the document provides them greater confidence to use the system. I have worked on a number of projects where some of the group members were initially intimidated with the idea of using the Writeboard for fear that they would "mess up what someone else had done." Once they understood the idea of versioning and that we could always revert back to a prior version, they became much more liberated to use the system.

    As a teacher, the versioning feature gives you insight into the process by which ideas are developed in your project groups. For example, you have assigned your biology class to become plant doctors. The project requires students working in groups to brainstorm ideas on:

    1. How to identify and describe "problem plants" (unhealthy plants)
    2. Develop tests to identify possible cause of the problem(s)
    While the final deliverable would be a document addressing these two items, of equal interest is the way the student reached their conclusions. Documenting the collaboration process on a Writeboard will give you valuable insight and a better ability to assess students' contribution to the process as well as understanding of key topics.

    I use a Writeboard for all of my projects and have found that it is invaluable for documenting the process. Also, requiring people to write their ideas down forces them to really think about them and have a certain level of "buy-in" to the idea. It is one thing to sit in a group and throw out ideas; it is a completely different thing for you to write these ideas out.

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  • Day 1 - Del.icio.us Online Research Published 2006-12-14 under , ,

    In a recent project with which I was involved, participants in a U.S. History workshop developed an annotated list of websites relating to American History. There are over 100 sites reviewed providing teachers and students a wonderful place to find a site that might relate to a topic with which they are interested.

    The problem with the resource is that the only option for viewing the list is to see all sites in alphabetic order. If your needs are specific, such as looking for a site on the Civil War, you need to go through each site and read the description to find one that might relate to your particular interest.

    A similar problem exists when you bookmark a site on your browser - the site is just added to a long list of other sites. As the list of bookmarks grows, the more difficult it is to find a particular site. Browsers have helped users organize their favorite sites by allowing bookmarks to be placed in a directory structure. Thus, a site relating to the Civil War might be placed in the "Civil War" folder within the "US History" folder. This certainly makes it easier to find a particular bookmark.

    Several issues remain:

    • What do you do if a site relates to multiple topics? Do you create the bookmark in each of the requisite folders?
    • What if you want a list of all bookmarks within a folder and all sub-folders within that folder? In the example above, what if we wanted not just Civil War sites but also Revolutionary War sites?
    • What if we want to share our bookmarks as part of a collaborative project? (After all, this is about collaboration.)
    The answer is social bookmarking - "tagging" specifically. The king of online bookmarking and site tagging is Del.icio.us. With Del.icio.us, you can bookmark sites with categories (tags). For example, a particular journal article relating the differences between the presidency of Andrew Jackson and that of John Quincy Adams could be tagged with "us history", "presidents", "jackson", and "adams".

    This bookmarking could be part of a bigger project in which students are assigned the task of researching a particular topic in U.S. History. Each online source would be bookmarked in Del.icio.us using appropriate tags. One of the tags would be term designed to identify the bookmark as part of a particular assignment. For example, students would include the tag "MrsSmithsAmHistoryProject06" on each of their bookmarks identifying it as part of Mrs. Smith's American History Project for 2006. Then a student could see all of her bookmarks for this project by clicking on her "MrsSmithsAmHistoryProject06" tag.

    The student is not restricted to just viewing her own bookmarks. She could also view all bookmarks on Del.icio.us for a given tag (or set of tags). While each student is working independently, they are forming a collaborative effort by tagging their sources with the project identity tag. At the end of the project, the class will have collaboratively developed a list of resources on U.S. History that not only can be shared within the class but with the whole world (including other U.S. History classes - current and future). Another benefit of this method is that the teacher can monitor the classes progress by occasionally reviewing the "MrsSmithsAmHistoryProject06" tag.

    Del.icio.us also allows you to annotate your bookmarks. This space can be used by the students to provide details about the site that will be useful to not only themselves but others viewing the bookmark. By writing a description and/or summary of the site, students are engaging in reflection, enhancing their research process. It also provides a vehicle for formative-assessment whereby other students (and/or teacher) review the annotations providing the student with feedback on their summary.


    Del.icio.us provides a wonderful tool for students and teachers to organize their online resources so that they can be easily accessed and pooled into a collaborative list of resources.

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  • 12 Days of Collaboration Published 12/14/2006 10:55:00 AM under ,

    To celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas, I will be writing an article a day through the 25th. These posts will be on the theme of collaboration looking at various ways to get students and teacher to work together as part of a bigger project. This "12 Days of Collaboration" undertaking will explore issues with collaborative projects, tools for collaboration, and frameworks that you can use with your own projects. While I have not been so clever as to link each topic with the series number (e.g. two turtle doves), I hope you will find the content interesting and perhaps even useful.

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  • Firebug is Amazing! Published 2006-12-11 under

    Let me start by confessing that I am a Firefox fan.  I try (with some success) to get all those I work with and for to convert.  Tabbed browsing is my biggest pitch as it reflects how the web should be used - jumping back and forth from one site to another to another.  You read about about something that sparks an interest, so you open a new tab and Google it.  You come across a word that you don't know so you look it up at an online reference site. But with the release of IE 7, tabbed browsing is no longer owned by Firefox.

    My true favorite part of Firefox is its extensibility.  Extensions (for those not familiar with Firefox) are small scripts that you can install that allow you to add functionality to your installation of Firefox.  There are hundreds of extensions; in fact you can write your own.  I have the del.icio.us extension installed in all of my systems.  It allows you to quickly tag (and store) the current page in your Del.icio.us bookmarks.  Similarly, my Bloglines Toolkit extension gives me quick access to my Bloglines account as well as a quick way to add a site to my feeds.

    But, you may say, there are similar tools for IE.  Why should I switch to Firefox?  The answer is simple - FirebugFirebug (v1 beta) is a web developers best friend.  It allows you to "edit, debug, and monitor CSS, HTML, and JavaScript live in any web page".  This tool is a must for anyone working on the web from developing sites to writing content. Jesse Newland has a great screencast that provides a short introduction into Firebug.

    So, if you are a developer, webmaster, content writer, blogger, etc. you need to get Firefox and install Firebug!  Don't take my word for it, check out the buzz behind this extension.

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