Leveraging blogs, wikis and other collaborative tools in the classroom

In preparation for the upcoming semester at CUNY, we’re putting together a guide to popular web collaboration tools and identifying ways they might be used in the classroom.

In house, we’ll offer blogs for student and classroom use from a WordPress 3.0 multisite instance. On the main website, we’ll have a customized version of BuddyPress with groups, profiles, status updates, and activity streams to start, and courses, assignments, etc. later on. We also have a pretty extensive PBwiki site, and might possibly offer a hosted version of Etherpad.

The guide will offer a concise introduction to these tools, as there’s no use in reinventing the wheel. What I think is more important, though, is offering ideas of how the tools might be used and examples of related experiments at other universities.

For instance, students might use Etherpad to collaboratively take notes and share links during a class, and then publish those notes to the class blog at the end so that everyone has access to them for studying. Once published, those notes could be automatically pulled into the wiki page acting as the living course syllabus.

Other ideas that came to mind this morning:

  • Students can write an introductory post at the beginning of the course detailing their background and what they hoped to learn in the coming semester. The class could use all of these to collaboratively develop the syllabus while also identifying the strengths and weaknesses of each human asset.
  • Professor could post requirements for upcoming assignments and students can ask questions about it. The questions get answered once publicly, instead of a dozen times by email, and are stored in association with the assignment.
  • Professors can use the blog to pull in learning materials from other sources and spark conversation on top of the content. Instead of duplicating efforts, they should focus on what they do best.
  • Students can use the blog as an open research notebook, or for updates on a story in progress, and people both within the school and outside of the school can give feedback or offer suggestions.

Being able to point to examples, however, will be the secret sauce.

Howard Rheingold has a wiki for his Comm 182/183 classes that includes learning expectations, information on assignments, pages for each class session, and group project pages (behind an authentication wall).

Suzi Steffen’s J361 class uses a WordPress.com blog for posting assignment requirements, posting story ideas, posting updates on stories in progress (especially valuable: things learned along the way), posting completed assignments, and media analysis. They also use Twitter as a light-weight backchannel for the class:

Related to this, Clay Shirky held a public brainstorming session at the beginning of the year on designing college from scratch that generated several useful suggestions and is worth reading through for inspiration.

What ideas and examples are we missing?


DJ Strouse August 2, 2010 Reply

The best tools are going to vary widely by the type of course. It seems the tools you describe here are best for journalism & humanities courses for which the main objects shared are articles and links.

Students in the sciences might be more likely to want to collaborate around data sets (for lab courses) or share short videos (to explain calculations to one another). Notetorious-style shared textbook annotation is still a very useful yet non-existent technology as well.

Lauren Rabaino August 2, 2010 Reply

Of everything you outlined above, my favorite is definitely the idea of collaborative note-taking, followed by collaborative note-publishing. This is what we used to do in college anyway, but via email, which was inefficient and unstructured (kind of like co-op creation prior to Publish2 News Exchange).

One thing that’s missing here is a collaborative way of asking/answering questions. You seem to have a solid gameplan for documenting info students already have, but what about info the students are seeking? I’m not convinced that a wiki is the best home to question/answers. Perhaps you could include some kind of forum on the buddypress install for more in-depth brainstorming which pulls resolved “questions” into the wiki? (Or someone could manually input resolved questions into the wiki upon their resolution).

I don’t have any examples of any professors already doing this. In fact, you’re going to have a hard time finding examples for most of these concepts since the concept is so revolutionary. People are going to be pointing to *CUNY* as the example f you can pull it off.

Daniel Bachhuber August 3, 2010 Reply

Ah, the question asking and answering has been sitting in my mind as well but I’m not yet sure of the best software for it. There are two ways I can think about doing it.

First, a dedicated application (or something like WordPress custom post types) for generating questions. These questions could be associated with courses and topics, and then students could indicate (a bit like voting but more specific) that they have the question too. This would be sweet but also more work. Well, maybe I take that back. This could be a useful way of doing it.

The second thought would be to allocate development time towards Comment Mixer, a WordPress plugin idea I had based on News Mixer, that allows you to define types for comments. A professor could then open a given post to “questions” and “answers” in the form of structured comments. Topics for each would be derived from the post itself.

I’m not sure which is the best answer but it’s certainly worth exploring more.

DJ Strouse August 3, 2010 Reply

Just as StackOverflow has been cloned by mathematicians and biologists, could you not create a clone for CUNY students? I’m not sure how difficult it would be to implement, but a “CourseOverflow” would be a super useful tool for proposing questions, voting on which questions are most important, answering questions, and voting on which answers are most helpful.

Daniel Bachhuber August 3, 2010 Reply

Exactly, although I’d like to do that within the framework of WordPress instead of using an external tool if at all possible.

Lauren Rabaino August 3, 2010 Reply

Although I like the CourseOverflow idea, I don’t think it’s a good idea to force students to manage tons of different tools… WordPress, Stack Overflow, PB Wiki, Etherpad. IMHO, the ideal solution would be an all-in-one platform– a way to integrate different tools fluidly so students aren’t having to switch back and forth amongst all these different sites.

That said, I vote for a Comment Mixer solution built into WordPress.

DJ Strouse August 3, 2010 Reply

Seamless integration is key. Though I have no problem signing up for a dozen different tools, I’m well aware that most people are appalled at the prospect of even one sign-up form, let alone a dozen.

Frédéric Sidler January 6, 2011 Reply

I was wondering if the guide your were talking about last
year is public?

Daniel Bachhuber January 6, 2011 Reply

The guide actually ended up being a PDF we sent out. We’re working on a strategy to get more documentation on our tech website and I’ve been blogging and will blog more about initiates we’re taking. If they’re anything specific you want to know, let me know and I’ll try to help out!

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