Technology Integration

Web Tools Blog Series: Tools to Help Students Collaborate

Eric Brunsell’s ongoing series showcases some innovative tools and examples for student collaboration.

August 22, 2011

In previous blogs, we focused on web tools to collect and organize content and tools to help students create and present ideas. In this module, we focus on how to use web tools to foster collaboration.

Randy Nelson (Pixar University) provides a brilliant definition of collaboration by using two principles of improv. First, accept every offer and second, make your partner look good. When teams collaborate on a project, they accept each others' ideas without judgment and "plus" them -- they ask, what can we do with this. I found this list of "principles" and think we can learn a lot more about collaboration from improv. Read all of the principles -- they are great -- I will just share these three:

Principle 4: Shut up and Listen
Good improvisers are not necessarily more clever, or more quick-witted. They just listen better. Improv is about hearing what others are offering, and building off it. It's hard to do that when your gums are flappin'.

Principle 5: Action beats inaction
Don't talk about doing it, do it. Be specific. In Improv there is a "bias for action." I've also seen the term "bias for action" listed as a common trait of effective leaders. Why? Because active choices move things forward. The more specific the choice the better. Specific choices are committed choices. Specific choices move things forward and allow others to respond to and build off of your offers.

Principle 8: There are no mistakes
Earlier I said that we have to be willing to make mistakes. But moving beyond that, we learn to not see choices as mistakes. In improv, there are no mistakes or bad ideas, there are only interesting choices. We respect all the choices (aka offers) made by others, and find ways to build off of them, no matter how challenging they may be. There are no mistakes because everything can be built upon. Everything that happens is an opportunity.

As a quick example, watch this video (caution, one bad word near the end). Tim Conway takes the scene in an entirely unexpected direction. At the end, Vicki Lawrence delivers perhaps the best improvised line in the history of television.

Imagine what would have happened if the cast would have cut him off. Or if Vicki hadn't listened and took action. (OK, perhaps this wasn't the best example, but I have been waiting for years to use this skit in a class!)

Extending Class and Thinning the Walls

A variety of web tools provide opportunities for students to collaborate with each other (in or out of the classroom) or with others outside of the class. Of course, the web makes it easy to connect your students with experts or other students from around the world, but It is quite possible that the "biggest bang for your buck" may be a much simpler first step. Integrating an online discussion into your "normal" face-to-face class can have a huge impact. I recently did a presentation where I looked at online discussions in five different classrooms (including this published research project) and found the following benefits:

  • Students had more time to think, reflect, and process ideas
  • Students conducted mini-research as they composed discussion posts
  • Students learned from each others' ideas
  • With modeling and support, students used higher level thinking skills as time went on
  • Anxiety decreased during online discussions, which led to higher participation in both online and face-to-face discussions

The synthesis across classrooms also showed that the type of prompt and group size matters. There isn't one right way to do it, but you do need to think strategically. A teacher-centric prompt leads to a much more focused discussion and less student-to-student (ie: replies) discussion. A more student-centric prompt leads to a wider range of ideas discussed and more student-to-student discussions. In large groups (more than 10) students can quickly become overwhelmed and feel lost. In small groups (less than four) there is not a critical mass of posts to move a discussion forward.

Example Projects

Ben Wildeboer (@willyb) created the /We Are Scientists/ project to allow his ninth students to do independent research related to climate change. Student groups were given wide latitude to explore their interests and questions. Students chronicled their learning using group blogs. In addition, students created multiple videos and presentations to express their learning. Create your own video slideshow at

One student used Prezi to tell a story about her work (Her blog post).

Christian Long's The Alice Project is a great example of using collaborative blogs in an English classroom.

TALONSSocials is an excellent example of using a class wiki. Ninth and tenth grade students chronicled their learning in a social studies class throughout the year. They created an excellent supplement to their textbook. The front page for the wiki describes how it was used and created. Additionally, the "example assessments" section shows how blogs were used for individual student reflections. Although this is a social studies example, I think it provides a great model for an extensive use of wikis in the classroom. If this is your first time using a wiki with your students, it may make more sense to start with a smaller project -- perhaps having students (individual or small group) create resource pages for one topic (like the "standard" create-a-poster project).


Many schools use a classroom management system like Blackboard or Moodle. These can be great platforms for starting web-based collaboration in your classroom. Edmodo is a fantastic "Facebook-like" platform for discussion and collaboration. It also provides strong professional networking opportunities. Edmodo has a very small learning curve and provides quick set-up for large and small groups, student accounts, and even parent accounts. It is designed specifically for educators, so it has lots of features like privacy controls, assignment and gradebook functions, and excellent help manuals. However, it does have one big drawback in terms of organizing online discussions -- it does not allow for threaded replies. The Collaborize platform does provide for multiple discussion forums, threaded replies, polls, and a cool "vote up" feature. Ning provides a full-function social networking platform for your class.

If you do begin integrating online discussions, you might want to consider using some of these discussion prompts/protocols and teaching your students these discussion moves. It is important that you work with your students to identify characteristics of good prompts and replies -- perhaps create a class anchor chart or rubric.

Skype is a great way to "bring" guests into your classroom.

Blogs (video intro) are also often a great starting point for classroom collaboration. Posterous has my vote for the easiest to use blogging platform. Posts can be easily generated by sending an e-mail. You can also easily create multi-authored blogs (example) using Posterous. Blogger is also very easy to use. Wordpress (or host it yourself) is another popular blogging platform. Check out the Edublogger's list of excellent examples of classroom blogs.

Wikis provide a different type of collaborative space for students. PBWorks and Wikispaces are both great free wiki platforms. The EditMe platform charges a small fee, but provides you with many additional features and privacy options. Check out this list of classroom wikis.

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