Much has been written about the benefits of collaboration in the classroom as a tool for learning. This week I want to share a tool with you that you may or may not know about, that allows students to contribute, in real time, to a text document. The tool is called Etherpad and has been around for a few years now. Last year, Google purchased the company and released the code to the open source community making it available to anyone with a server and the ability to customize the code.
As students contribute to a “pad”, they can see what anyone else is writing at the same time, and it’s in real time. When someone else is typing into this shared document, you can actually see as they actually compose. Additionally, Etherpad also saves the entire history of the document and, but clicking a button, allows you to “watch” the creation process almost like watching a video. All of that is nice but there are other tools that can do that. What really makes Etherpad special is the ability to do all of this without having to create an account. Once the Etherpad is set up, simply give students a link or post it on the web and when they open up that site they will instantly be able to start writing breaking down many of the barriers to online collaboration.
This can also bring up some concerns in terms of who is contributing what content. Each contributor is given a color and their text is color coded. Additionally, students can enter their name on the document (still without setting up an account) and it will correlate their color with their name.
Etherpad does have some limitations. The biggest challenge is the number of concurrent contributors. It all depends on the site who is hosting the Etherpad you are working with. Personally, I prefer a site called ietherpad but with a basic pad (free and without creating an account) you are limited to 16 contributors. However, if you create an account with them (your students still don’t need to), you can keep track of your pads more easily and the number of people who can write at the same time becomes unlimited. Additionally, Etherpad is a text only service, you can include links, but images and videos are unable to be embedded. Another warning that I have for you is that if you don’t create an account for yourself and you don’t remember the URL of the pad, you can’t find it again.
Etherpad can be a powerful tool for writing instruction but could be used anywhere you want students to pull information together. From group research, keeping track of projects and collecting data, Etherpad could be a solution for bringing students together.
Other free Etherpad sites: