Thursday, 3 February 2011

Collaborative work on web apps for schools

Copy of an email to my Geography department:


A couple of your have asked about my Y7 Haiti lesson on the G drive, it’s actually an approach that works well in lots of contexts.


It’s based on the idea of multiple users having  live access to a simple web based word processor which enables groups to collaborate on co-authoring one document without having to save it and they can access the latest version at any time just by going to a web address (that you put on a worksheet/ email to them). They can be on there at the same time (some limit how many can be on at once but normally half a dozen in a group work idea are fine), and they can even use a chat window to talk about who is going to type what or people can drop in and out over a few days adding their bit and editing friends work.


In the Haiti work I set up a few pads each with a question, increasingly high level and let the kids differentiate for themselves, with a bit of prompting from me.


It works well if you explain it and tell them about being responsible, not rubbishing others ideas/ but at the same time being open to other people’s improvements to their own work and signing in with their real name- not to use nicknames or false names. If you tell them that in the work place people rarely write a document alone and people work in teams to draft and redraft there’s a really useful skill here to learn. The web means in the future we will increasingly work alone, perhaps from home, but in groups through collaborative tools to other workers. It makes group work for homework a real possibility- and cuts down how many things you have to mark, but obviously it’s hard to come out with teacher generated assessment level but great to ask students to peer and self assess their efforts.


The tool I use is called which you can access on a 3 month trial, it’s obviously aimed at the primary market but my Y7 weren’t offended. This is much safer as you can take control of the pad and shut it down at the end of the exercise- so you can guarantee it doesn’t get hijacked as an un-moderated chat room- which is the risk here.


With older students you could use  but it doesn’t have the same teacher controls so as long as you are clear it’s just a web based tool that they might finds helps with a group activity but they could also just set up a group email ‘distribution list’ and collaborate like that. The other far more sophisticated approach to this is Google Docs where you can use this web based multiple access approach to a full suite of office applications including spreadsheets, drawing, presentation and interesting for fieldwork forms that can be sent to people to fill in to collect data.


The pads are quite simple and don’t have much in the way of formatting but when you close the pad down I copy and paste it into Word, tidy it up, save it as a Pdf and email it to all the kids. It can work well as a revision tool that you get the class to make revision notes together, correct each others’ errors- peer learning- and then you circulate the finished version which they can print off and learn.


The draw back with Google docs is users need to create Google accounts and students in school may have trouble with internet filtering to be able to do this- e.g. accessing a Gmail account to collect a password etc. But there is huge potential for staff using Google docs when working on a document as a team- saves multiple versions flying round on email and you not editing the ‘latest version’. A group approach to the department development plan is one idea, I’ve also done it as virtual meetings with people I work with across the UK chatting to people on Skype whilst working together on a Google Doc action plan- in other words writing the minutes and action points together as we talk.


I don’t promote this technology across the school as we don’t have a tool that the students use their own school user name and password with so it is potentially risky in that we can’t trace who said what, they could use false names when they sign in etc. But if you want to be innovative and can trust a class have a look and ideally use primary pad and be prepared to kill the pad at the first sign of misuse. It works well with Y7 because you can read them the riot act but also they are genuinely impressed and grateful!


So on safety grounds I’m not telling you to do it, but if you want to take responsibility for trying it yourself it’s a very interesting way of working and we can only justify the work of setting it up on our school system or paying for a full primary pad account if some teachers pilot it and know they need it. And, after all, these tools are out there for kids to abuse as they wish, we’d be showing them how to use them for good!