Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Use EtherPad Variants to Enhance Classroom Discussion and Group Work

This is a guest post from Tim Handorf. I don't usually do this kind of things, but I saw what he wrote elsewhere and thought I'd give it a try. Please comment on both content and practice please! BTW, I use TitanPad all the time. Mathieu

When I was a student at the university, I was often struck by how out of focus and bored myself and my peers were during lecture classes. It was very rare for most or even a few students to be enraptured throughout any given lecture, and the only time this occurred was when professors encouraged open classroom discussion. Unfortunately these instances were few and far between.

The reasons for lack of discussion were various, but the most common problem was a logistical one. Small classes were conducive to discussion, but larger ones are simply not. In these stadium-sized classes, it simply wasn't possible for everyone to get their voices heard, and it was very easy and tempting for a student to get lost in the crowd and use the time as an excuse to nap.

One class that I took, however, employed a remarkable tool that actually made large classroom discussion possible. In fact it wasn't only just possible, but it was enjoyable and invigorating. Welcome to the wonders of EtherPad. EtherPad was a wonderful online real-time text editor. It was simple in design and utility, such that anyone with even the most basic knowledge of Microsoft Word could learn how to use it.

The way that this one professor used the tool was by setting up a pad on a projector with his lecture notes. He invited everyone in the class to join the pad, and students who brought laptops to class could then add comments, ask questions, and even have instant messenger-type discussions while the professor lectured. Everyone, including the instructor, saw any added questions or information in real-time posted on the projector. In this way, the class could have a full discussion without even speaking, and the professor could answer questions from students who would usually be to shy to speak up in class.

Although the original EtherPad is now defunct, after being bought out by Google, the code was open-sourced, so various EtherPad-like tools do exist, one of which is PiratePad. Although EtherPad may not necessarily work for your personal classroom structure, its capabilities rendering collaborative work and open discussion possible and efficient can definitely be a boon for those professors who want to energize and shakeup lectures that have become a bit tired and old.

This guest post is contributed by Tim Handorf, who writes on the topics of online colleges. He welcomes your comments at his email Id: tim.handorf.20@googlemail.com.


Bruce said...

Yeah, having experimented with more static collaborative wiki projects in my classes, I really, really want the sort of synchronous editing support that EtherPad offers. Why not just use this engine for Sakai 3 content editing?

Mathieu Plourde said...

Integrating the current EtherPad code in Sakai should be fairly easy. In fact, as you already know, Steve Githens has already done it... http://githens.org/blog/?p=83

But your comment makes a lot of sense... What if we could select a paragraph and turn it into a live document? Some sort of option button could appear as one with permissions hovers over a paragraph to make the section editable live by all participants. Neat idea, Bruce!

Bruce said...

Steve's demo is a great proof-of-concept, but I'm just hoping to see more.

One problem with EtherPad, though, is it's currently only designed for very simple, short, documents. So there are no headings, or styles, etc. Hopefully that will change as people work on the code.

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