4 Collaboration Tools

Matt Rhoads, Hugo Sierra, and Janice T. Mercado Toro

Collaboration is a crucial skill for all educators to be successful with their colleagues, as well as with their students. Through collaboration with colleagues at your school-site, you can partake in problem-solving in the classroom and school-site as well as extend your learning professionally as an educator by learning from your peers. Hooper and Bernhardt (2016) identify that interaction and active engagement with teachers is the core of effective instructional leadership and that transformational leadership is a mutual influence relationship based on collaborative actions taken by individuals.

It is important to make creative use of another’s range of expertise so everyone can learn as well as be willing to change. Through constant practice, teachers will benefit from working with others to build commitment to an innovative collaborative culture. These collaborations will be “a continuous process with evidence of new quality thinking and intentional changes in practice is embedded” (Fullan & Quinn, 2016, p. 70). With the implementation of meaningful collaboration, teachers can problem solve more effectively as well as grow professionally as educators through the extended learning they will receive from their peers.

From an educational perspective, collaboration is key to maintaining a quality learning system. A quality learning system can be ensured when instructional leaders (e.g. principals) are hands-on in working with teachers directly on curriculum – that there is a collaborative effort in understanding the standards, content, engagement, assessment, and other factors (Hooper & Bernhardt, 2016). Leaders must be able to identify the strengths and gaps in the capacity of the faculty so they can utilize everyone’s capabilities appropriately and give intentional feedback to inform and adjust instructional practices. It is the leaders and the faculty enjoying a shared purpose for enabling students to perform at high levels that contribute to a quality learning system and faculty. Well known educational researcher, John Hattie, also indicates that teachers, principals, and classrooms who work collaboratively have the biggest impact (TEDx Talks, 2013). Thus, in order for the highest levels of collaboration to take place, having the right tools at one’s disposal is critical in making this happen.

Online Collaboration Tools

Many people today are already familiar with online collaboration tools whether or not they are aware of it. For example, Apple iPhone users have had “FaceTime” (a proprietary video chat technology) in their hands since 2010 (FaceTime, n.d.). Even several years prior to the release of the iPhone, Internet users were already familiar with video chatting through Skype software — which already enjoyed over 600 million subscribers by 2010 (Skype, n.d.). Businesses today utilize various sorts of technology in order for their employees to work together online, including synchronous and asynchronous resources.

Teachers can use digital resources like these to bounce around ideas with colleagues or leaders by sharing their experiences with individuals using online tools. Audiences from miles away can potentially be served, bringing their diverse experiences and perspectives to a virtual platform. With the right tools, teachers can connect to one another despite being on opposite sides of the globe. This creates the opportunity to learn not only the content of the courses being taught but also about one another. As a result, spaces are created for social collaboration that may not be possible on a school site.

This social collaboration is ideal for access to knowledge and information, and feelings of trust will build the social capital necessary for cultivating a collaborative culture (Fullan & Quinn, 2016). As with many aspects of modern day life, the ways in which people collaborate have shifted from face-to-face experiences to digital experiences. Teachers and workers of all professions have for many years been utilizing relatively simple technologies such as Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) or email. However, there are some particular technologies that are new or have evolved over the years are important to teachers specifically, and it is essential that teachers learn how to use these tools in order to be successful in the workplace.

This chapter provides an overview of five types of collaboration tools that teachers can use in their fields, highlighting each of their purposes, as well as giving some practical advice. Other unique education tools are also noted, as well as a personal narrative by an educator using the collaboration tool, Microsoft 365.

Types of Collaboration Tools

As we seek to prepare our learners for 21st-century workplaces, developing their collaboration skills is essential (Stephens & Roberts, 2017). There is an abundance of digital tools that are available to facilitate this kind of work. In this section, we will explore the use of video conferencing, collaborative writing applications, digital whiteboards and cork boards, wikis, and social bookmarking tools.

Video Conferencing

Our ability to take our students on field trips used to be restricted to where we could travel geographically. Today, we can “take” our students to visit places around the world or have them collaborate with each other when not in the classroom. We can also welcome guest speakers into our classrooms, or hear from learners in a place very different from our communities.

Google Hangouts

As many may already be familiar with given the pervasive nature of Google, the first collaboration tool is the easy-to-use Google Hangouts (or, colloquially, Hangouts). Hangouts actually include (or rather, included) a variety of tools, including instant messaging (IM), video chat, SMS (AKA text messaging), and VOIP. As Google seems to be shifting its focus to organizational users (Google for Business or Google for Education) rather than consumer users, some of these features have now been divided into separate applications (e.g. Google Allo, Google Duo, etc.).

Google recently launched Google Hangouts Meet (sometimes known as Google Meet or just Meet), which is basically an enterprise version of Hangouts. Both Hangouts and Meet provide video conferencing for up to 25 participants. Videoconferencing is a vital tool for professional development and professional practice (Forsyth, 2016).

Google Hangouts is, of course, supported by the use of email — specifically, a Google account — and an internet connection. In a video conference, users can see all participants simultaneously and synchronously, with a text chat feature also available. As one might imagine, the effectiveness of communication is enhanced when visual cues are available (Forsyth, 2016), so since video conferencing enables participants to see each other, it can be a better option that audio-only (e.g. telephone) or text-only (e.g. email) experiences. Not only is communication enhanced, but since the meeting is virtual, there is no travel time and no impact on travel budgets (Forsyth, 2016), making Hangouts or Meet a preferred solution when dealing with non-collocated groups.

Forsyth (2016) suggests that it is important that users can access or share presentations whether they attend the online meetings or not. Unfortunately, unlike other collaboration tools such as Blackboard Collaborate or Adobe Connect, there is no option to natively record a session (though third-party apps can do so), so it is unlikely that content could be made public after the presentation or meeting. Preparing for a Google Hangouts or Meet meeting is as simple as checking your Internet connection and speakers. Participants are invited to a meeting and can simply click the provided meeting link or answer the meeting call. Google Hangouts delivers effective outcomes for meetings (Farooq & Matteson, 2016).

Skype

The second collaboration tool is the ubiquitous Skype. Originating in 2003, the Skype software provides Internet-based phone service (VoIP) between computers, phones, and other devices (Skype, n.d.). Most of the service is free to use and can be accessed anywhere with an Internet connection, but additional features are available through a paid subscription (Charron & Rashke, 2014). If you have a webcam, Skype also features video chat and provides video conferencing. In addition, users can exchange documents such as text and video. Since being acquired by Microsoft in 2011, Skype functionality has been integrated into many Microsoft applications, making it easily accessible for people who already use Microsoft Office products. However, because of this integration, the Skype application has changed many times on Windows (Skype, n.d.).

From an educational perspective, Skype has unique features for teachers to utilize. “Skype in the Classroom” is an online community (or social network) that enables teachers around the globe to use Skype for things like virtual field trips, lessons, guest speakers, and collaboration with other teachers around the world (Skype in the Classroom, n.d.). For example, you could practice a foreign language by connecting with classrooms in other countries, you could make note of weather patterns from various regions, or even practice music with musicians from other schools. Aside from uses in the classroom, Skype can be used for parent-teacher conferences or tutoring opportunities. Teachers can also use Skype in the Classroom for professional development by staying in collaboration with other educators.

There are many other video conferencing tools available for use. As indicated in prior chapters, we recommend you use the tool that your school or district has adopted. Your information technology department will have explored factors such as security and safety, reliability, and ease of use.

Collaborative Writing Applications

The experience of writing collaboratively can be a powerful experience, for teachers and learners alike. Collaborative writing applications take the powerful features of word processors and then allow for teams of people to create a document together. Individual contributions are tracked and a revision history is kept. But, as new ideas enter into a new document, they are reflected to anyone who visits the document in real-time.

Google Docs

Word processing in the Google ecosphere takes place on Google Docs. Documents can be created and shared among students, which can be accessed on whatever device they are using. These files can also be exported into other word processors and file formats, such as Microsoft Word and PDF.

A study conducted Google Docs utilized a writing exercise that took place outside the classroom revealed students had a positive association with the use of the word processor (Zhou, Simpson, & Domizi, 2012). Students were found to have used Facebook and text messaging less of the time in their attempts to collaborate, while further leveraging the opportunities to collaborate within Google Docs.

Other Collaborative Writing Applications

While Google Docs is the most widely used cloud-based word processor in education, there are plenty of other services that provide similar functions. Office 365 has enhanced the collaboration functionality of Microsoft’s familiar word processor, Word.  Dropbox Paper and Write About are also worth considering when evaluating various collaborative writing applications.

Digital Whiteboards and Cork Boards

Before learners ever get to the writing process, it is essential to brainstorm and capture ideas. Digital whiteboards and cork boards offer a space for multiple learners to contribute in that shared space. Using them is similar to if you handed each of your students in the class a whiteboard marker and had them write something on the board. Or, in the case of digital cork boards, it is as if you gave each student some push pins and had them post their masterpieces up on the bulletin board for others to see.

Padlet

Padlet is a cloud-based, multi-media design wall that can be used to develop individual or collaborative digital cork boards. One of Padlets main features is that it allows real-time and whole class participation (e.g., digital sticky notes for brainstorming). There are several instructional strategies that can be utilized in Padlet. Strategies like think-pair-share, graphic organizers, self-assessment, and paraphrasing research are a number of strategies teachers can utilize while using Padlet. Overall, Padlet can be used within collaborative classroom activities and instruction. With proper know-how and ability to model Padlet to students, it has the ability to encourage participation and involvement from all students in the classroom (Fuchs, 2014).

Whiteboard Fox

An example of a digital whiteboard tool is Whiteboard Fox. Whiteboard Fox a free online and real-time whiteboard that takes users straight to a blank canvas to begin drawing. There is no setup required, which makes it easy for users to quickly enter Whiteboardfox.com within their internet browsers URL to access the online whiteboard. Within Whiteboard Fox, users are able to draw, erase, and undo previous actions as well as add text and pictures from elsewhere by using a feature called “copy all” that places everything you have copied from another resource onto your clipboard and then provides the option to copy that content onto the digital whiteboard.

Whiteboard Fox can be used collaborative by allowing users to invite new members to collaborate on the whiteboard or to observe what’s being drawn on the whiteboard. All users must do is to generate a unique link and send it to guests via email or text message to access the whiteboard being worked on. In addition, Whiteboard Fox allows users to utilize social media like Facebook to save and share their whiteboards to their social network. Also, Whiteboard Fox is accessible through tablets and mobile phones since it is web-based digital whiteboard that is accessible with a direct link.

Overall, working collaboratively on digital sketches have demonstrated that they can help individuals working together receive constructive feedback as well as help in the area of idea generation and task motivation  (Karakaya and Demirkan,  2015). Moreover, within collaborative digital environments like digital whiteboards, as more designs were drawn collaboratively and critiqued by members of the group, it helped enhance the creativity of the work product (Karakaya and Demirkan, 2015).

Wikis

Wiki’s are a collaborative website where users write, collect, organize, and revise information on a specific topic. Wikipedia is the hallmark of Wiki’s because it allows users to create content as well as revise content on almost any topic imaginable. Collaboration takes place on Wikis by helping groups of individuals solve problems, create new content, revise content, conduct preliminary research, and develop databases on relevant topics. One major advantage of Wiki’s is that users within a group can develop content independently from another while working on the Wiki article because Wiki’s contain a history page that outlines the original contributors of the online article as well as who has made edits and revisions to the article over time. Due to this feature, contributors of an article may feel a sense of community and ownership of the article because they have contributed to it and have seen how its developed over time.

Overall, research conducted by Williams et al. (2014) concluded that Wiki’s are a valuable resource for groups of students within a face to face or online classroom setting to develop a shared resource Wiki pertaining to the topic they are studying. In addition, students’ using Wiki’s have noted its ease of use as well as it’s usefulness for group collaboration projects (Williams et al., 2014).

Tools for Building Wikis

One major application of Wiki’s is utilizing them in the classroom for collaborative projects. Teachers have the option of using Wiki platforms such as Wikispaces.com, Wikidot.com, or Pbworks.com to develop wiki’s pertaining to information regarding a project, assessment, or for classroom notes. In each of these cases, teachers can have students work together as an entire class to create content regarding a topic they are studying in class. Students’ are able to write content as well as add digital media such as pictures and links to videos on their Wiki page. A number of activities teachers can do using Wiki’s is to assign students to write a collaborative story, conduct research together as a class, write a biography on a historical figure or a current celebrity, participate in a book or film review, or even take group assessments. Therefore, there are a number of uses for Wikis in the classroom; think outside the box and the uses of this tool are many.

Social Bookmarking

Decades ago, the practice used to be to tear articles out of magazines and place them in filing cabinets for later reference. Today, information that we come across can be stored and sorted, in order to synthesize the knowledge. We can bookmark digital resources and assign tags to them. These tags categorize what we are storing, making it easier to find what we are looking for in the future. This section explores two popular social bookmarking tools: Diigo and Pinterest.

Diigo

Diigo provides users the options to tag, highlight, and bookmark web-pages that can be viewed from a computer or tablet from anywhere and at any time. It’s based on the idea that users can annotate through social means, which means users can work together collaboratively to scan through information as well as add notes to stimulate conversation on the information at hand.

Within Diigo’s “My Group” feature, it provides the option for users to collaboratively research by allowing others within a group to share sticky notes, bookmarks, and forum discussions. In addition, users can message each other through Diigo’s messaging system, which allows users to see if friends are online as well as provides users the ability to share bookmarks.

Diigo is an online social bookmarking tool that allows users to collaboratively research through capturing snapshots, tags, and digital highlights. It is a tool that can be used in information management and in classrooms for teaching and learning.

Pinterest

Pinterest is an online social bookmarking website that allows people to go and find ideas for any new project or interest. Users have the ability to create their own “boards” by pinning photos, infographics, and graphics regarding a specific topic. Then, users have the ability to organize the different boards based on the topics they are interested in.

On Pinterest, users can create “Group Projects,” which involve a group of users creating their own Pinterest board collaboratively on the topic they choose. Users can send notifications for users already assigned a Pinterest account in addition to sending someone outside Pinterest an email to allow them to join you in pinning on your shared board. Through this feature, users are able to build a board on a shared topic, which allows each user to continuously add content on an ongoing basis to build a knowledge base on the topic collaboratively.

Collaboration has been shown to not only increase students’ likelihood of one day becoming more employable. It also can improve learners’ social/emotional development (Dominic, 2016). Educational technology, such as video conferencing, digital writing applications, wikis, and social bookmarking tools can help to fuel students’ ability to grow their collaborative skills. Next, Hugo Sierra describes how his district enhances opportunities for collaborative work using Office 365 and Skype for Business.

My Experience Using Office 365 and Skype for Business

Hugo Sierra

My school district supports and coordinates the online collaboration tools, Office 365 and Skype for Business, with all first and second-year teachers. In 2017-2018, I had the opportunity to work as a Part-Time Supporting Teacher in the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) for my school district. BTSA is an induction program that provides a smooth transition for first and second-year teachers. This program is mentorship support via trained support provider and job-embedded professional learning. With inquiry as its focus, educators have the ability to become a highly qualified and effective practitioner. During the two-year program, all participating teachers were created a OneNote using the district’s Office 365 account.

OneNote is used district-wide with all BTSA participating teachers. OneNote allows the teachers to collect and share lessons with others. OneNote enables a teacher to create pages organized in sections within notebooks. This allows the teachers to organize lesson plans from their content areas and share with another colleague within their school site and district. Each month professional development is held for all BTSA participating teachers to help them collaborate with same content teachers in the school district. With the assistance of the support provider, BTSA teachers upload and share documents on a weekly basis using OneNote.

The majority of the BTSA participating teachers like to collaborate with other first and second year teachers at other school sites. The school district allows all staff to use Business Skype to collaborate since we are restricted from accessing Google. Teachers can log into their Business Skype using their Microsoft username and password. At the end of the academic year 2016-2017, one first-year teacher was pleased with the incorporation of OneNote, as she commented:

“Overall this was a great learning experience. I grew as a teacher, and I am so thankful I had support and guidance from other colleagues in the district. My biggest support was OneNote because I didn’t have the help from my grade level site, but I had other school sites to collaboration through this technology platform.”

The teachers play an important role in being the drivers of establishing a collaboration tool in my school district. Teachers must maintain the desire and team determination to succeed in such culture. They are to focus on implementing the innovative strategies, maintaining the collaborative culture mindset in all content areas, and advocating for additional support when necessary. When necessary, we ask for additional support from administration either in professional development or just time.

Conclusion

The ability to work in teams is a skill we constantly need to be developing in our students. Northouse (2016) states, “effective organizational teams lead to greater innovation and creativity” (p. 364). Different ideas, methods, and creativity come from varied backgrounds, experiences, and cultures. By growing collaborative skills among our students, they discover how to best leverage the strengths of diverse teams. Addressing the need for 21st-century skills requires a set of robust tools to facilitate that work. This chapter introduced digital methods for developing collaborative skills, while overcoming any geographic barriers.

License

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Collaboration Tools by Matt Rhoads, Hugo Sierra, and Janice T. Mercado Toro is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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