Collaboration–the $2 Interactive Whiteboard vs. EtherPad

Collaboration sounds so easy, so perfect for learning.  But the reality of collaboration requires a lot of pre-thinking on the teacher’s part and a lot of guided practice on the students’ part.  Not that these are bad things, but the idea of jumping into collaboration just isn’t a successful venture without the pre-work.

Teacher: Does the end result warrant collaboration?  Is there another method other than a group for getting the concepts?  Who will do the talking?  How will we ensure that all participants actually participate?  Will a record be kept?  How much time is needed?… the list goes on and on.

Student: Why are we in a group?  When do I get to talk?  What if I have nothing to say?  Who’s writing this all down?  What do I do if I don’t want to work with others?  How do I get all my good ideas out?… the list goes on and on.

To the point: I believe collaboration is an excellent learning tool for students.  I believe that with clear guidelines within a broad subject, all students can be successful in a group setting.  I believe that students get better at collaborating the more they do it.  I believe my carefully thrown out questions can regenerate a collaborative conversation, and I believe the less input I provide, the better the conversation is among students.

Part 1: $2 Interactive Whiteboards

So we have been working in book groups (3-6 students per group).  At each Book Group Meeting, the group gets two $2 interactive whiteboards and one pen.  I’ve been using the Icons of Depth and Complexity to get the group thinking and discussing (this particular cycle focused on Ethics along with our usual Details, Big Idea, and Unanswered Questions).  On the second white board, students brainstorm answers to a questions that connects the Icons (What Details can you find that demonstrate learning Across the Disciplines in this story?).

What it looks like: six groups of 6th graders on the floor and in chairs huddled around their 2 white boards (one 6th grader wields the pen).   The one-pen-approach ensures that the talking is predominant over the “getting the task done.”  I want the conversation to be dominant and the note-taking to be secondary.  In other words, if every 6th grader had a pen, they’d all be writing and no one would collaborate.  Isn’t that my goal?

Part 2: EtherPad

Now that we’ve finished reading our books, I’d like there to be some presentation aspect to wrap up and provide a teaser to other students who might need a new book to read over break.  EtherPad was our tool of choice.  Ms. Mason, our lab coordinator, has used EtherPad with an Enrichment Rotation group and found it quite useful and a good stretch for our young learners.  She set up 6 EtherPads (one for each group).  I modeled how they were used and off we went!

The goal was to 1) brainstorm presentation ideas, 2) figure out which 3 “items” fit the group and book, and 3) assign tasks within the group.

Observations: Who writes in which color was very important to my students.  I figure it’s akin to font choice or Word art choice.  Some students were so fixated with the text just appearing on their screen (from another group member) that they were not actually adding their own ideas.  It was difficult to keep to brainstorming, and often they began working out the nuts and bolts before the brainstorm was done.  EtherPad has a chat box, and students had a hard time separating note-taking from chat–honestly, I didn’t give any clear guidelines about the separate uses.  Deleting your peer’s writing didn’t seem to phase some students as “wrong” or “disrespectful.”  We managed all three tasks by (almost) strictly using the tool.  The disagreements or struggle for voice in the group didn’t seem to be such a struggle with EtherPad.

Conclusions: I think each tool has it’s place.  EtherPad was a bit forced since we were all in the same room, but the task of writing and reading , rather than talking and listening seemed to make the process easier.  The $2 Interactive Whiteboards are my favorite new tool (although hardly new at all), so I’m biased from the start.  We’ll definitely give EtherPad another go after the new year, perhaps around a math investigation.

Next Step: Tomorrow I’m going to ask the students to compare their experiences with whiteboards and EtherPad.  Stay tuned.


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