The backbone of any type of collaborative effort takes place in the context of communication. Many features of collaboration tools are geared toward the facilitation and management of effective communication among team members. Depending on your grade level the following collaborative technology tools can facilitate various communication functions: Email, IM, blogs, discussion forums, virtual meetings, web conferencing and social media. Two of the communication tools that I have used the most in the classroom are blogs and discussion forums.
A blog is an easily created and updateable website that allows an author(s) to publish instantly to the Internet. A blog is different than a website that relies on consistent information and content. Blogs are comprised of reflections and conversations. In his book Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, Will Richardson states, “Blogs engage readers with ideas and questions and links. They ask readers to think and to respond. They demand interaction.” Because blogs can be posted daily (or multiple times a day) they are often short and posted in reverse chronological order.
Educators who blog do so for many reasons. Some reflect on their daily work while others share resources and links to educational sites on the Web. Some post lesson plans or engage in responses to other educational bloggers. Readers can leave comments to individual posts and other visitors to the site can view those comments and respond with their own comments or questions. The blog posts can include images, videos, podcasts, and links to other posts and citations.
When educators give students the opportunity to blog about their learning a new type of interactive experience deepens and enhances the learning process. Students learn to read more critically, think about that reading more analytically, and write more clearly. They are building relationships with peers, teachers, mentors and professionals who interact with them through their blog. Classroom blogs can be created by individual students or authored by the entire class. They can showcase student work, be a collaborative space, ePortfolio, class portal or even an online filing cabinet of shared images, resources or knowledge content. Blogs are the ultimate collaborative learning tool because the real benefit of blogging comes when there is an authentic audience that reads and responds to the blog posts and then the student bloggers respond back. Comments4Kids is a way for students and teachers to find blogs to comment on and to get their own posts commented on. Comments4Kids is a great way to teach your students appropriate digital citizenship skills in an authentic learning environment. Think blogging is just for older kids? Check out this list of primary age blogs organized by blogging platform.
Some student-friendly blogging platforms are: EduBlogs, KidBlog, Class Blogmeister, ePals, and Blogger (not part of Google Apps for Education core suite and must be activated by admin). Teachers who want to blog might also consider these platforms: WordPress, Posterous, TypePad, LiveJournal orTumblr.
An online discussion board provides asynchronous written conversation about a topic or theme. One of benefits of using a discussion board is that it levels the playing field and gives every student an opportunity to share and have their opinions read. This is especially helpful for the introvert who needs time to compose their thoughts without being interrupted during a face-to-face classroom discussion. It can also extend the conversation beyond the classroom, provide a platform to demonstrate understanding of the content being learned and build connectiveness among classmates. The limitations of not seeing facial expressions, body language and vocal inflections can sometimes cause confusion with written text as opposed to web conferencing, but the convenience of composing offline, posting when ready, and ease of use makes written discussion forums a popular choice with older elementary through high school students. Caitlin Tucker has some great advice: Dos and Don’ts of Online Student Communication. Edutopia has put together the Mastering Online Discussion Forum Resource Guide at: http://www.edutopia.org/pdfs/stw/edutopia-onlinelearning-mastering-online-discussion-board-facilitation.pdf
Some popular platforms for discussion forums are:
- Learning Management Systems: Schoology, Haiku (both have Google Apps integration), Blackboard, and Moodle (Open Source). These are much more involved and will require IT department to set up the system for a school.
- Online learning platforms: Schoology (Individual teacher), Edmodo and Collaborize Classroom - These are more of a social learning network but also include discussion forums. They can easily be set up by an individual teacher.