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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