Online Collaboration Tools, selecting the right tools

by Silvia Vazquez Paramio, MiraCosta and Saddleback Colleges (Spanish)

On the process of devising your online class, online collaboration tools are one of the corner stones, since they are the vehicle to reach the pedagogy goals for your class and have profound effect on the learning outcomes of the student (Katz, 2008).

Recently, collaborative activities have become increasingly popular in the classrooms as multi-disciplinary researches have shown that the benefits and learning gains are significantly greater than working independently, Johnson, Johnson, and Smith (1998). Nevertheless, Hershock and LaVaque-Manty (2012) point out that “Although research clearly suggests the virtues of collaborative learning, it is worth noting that these impacts depend upon how instructors implement and manage collaborative activities. Key considerations include, but are not limited to, task design, group formation, team management, and the establishment of both individual and group accountability” (Finelli, Bergom, & Mesa, 2011; Michaelson, Fink, & Knight, 1997; Oakley, Felder, Brent, & Elhajj, 2004).

Keeping these ideas in mind, online instructor should carefully design online collaborative activities to create the appropriate interaction that promotes content learning and engages student interaction. In my experience as an online instructor I consider this task quite important yet difficult. While the use of instructional technology can also considerably improve student collaboration and learning (Zhu & Kaplan, 2011), introducing and keeping up with new instructional technologies and integrating them productively into your online course, “can be challenging” (Sorcinelli, Austin, Eddy, & Beach, 2006; Zhu, Kaplan, & Dershimer, 2011, Hershock & LaVaque-Manty, 2012).

Through the years I have been improving and refining the collaborative activities and tools I use in my online classes. With the appearance of new tools and technologies, new opportunities for improvement are always coming. The variety of collaborative learning tools in the Web 2.0 is vast and varied but the decision about which collaboration tools to use should be driven by your course learning objectives more than the tool. Another aspect that you should consider is that the less variety of tools you adopt in your class the better. Introducing many different technologies can be counter productive and time consuming for your students. The research conducted by Hershock & LaVaque-Manty (2012: 7-10) narrowed some of the main factors you should consider when electing a tool to the following aspects:

  1. Start-up costs. Instructors should consider how difficult it is for them (as well as their students) to set up and learn any given tool.
  2. IT support. What technical support is available to students and instructors?
  3. Tool overload. Students can be overwhelmed by the diversity of instructional technologies in several ways. First, they may become frustrated if they have to learn how to use many different tools to complete similar tasks across courses.
  4. Is the technology accessible to students with disabilities? For example, Google Docs are accessible to some users with disabilities, primarily via keyboard shortcuts, but are not accessible to visually or dexterity impaired users who depend on screen reader or speech input technologies.
  5. Protect students and their privacy. Instructors should think about how widely information from a course or a tool will be shared.
  6. Resist the myth of “the tech-savvy student”. It is a mistake to assume that all of our students are extremely sophisticated users of contemporary technologies
  7. Develop guidelines for equitable and inclusive participation. As with all group work, instructors should consider using strategies to foster equitable participation and accountability as well as to develop guidelines for appropriate etiquette just as they do for in-class discussions.
  8. Actively foster and sustain desired student engagement. Getting students to use a tool and then keeping up with what gets produced can be a challenge. Simply making a tool available for students doesn’t mean that it will get used; students may need some incentive to use it.
  9. Have realistic expectations. Technology can fail mechanically. Therefore, it is always a good idea to have a contingency plan in place, especially if your learning activity depends heavily on a particular technology.

Keeping these premises in mind. I would like to share some of the collaborative tools that I am using on my online classes. I am a Spanish language instructor but these particular tools can be used in different disciplines.

Wikis and blogs– I use the wiki and blogs tools that come in Blackboard, which is the system management that my institution uses. Nevertheless, there are many sites to create wikis here is a list of free software platforms.  Right now, I am having great success using them for compositions, peer reviewing and editing to improve the students writing skills. By providing critical feedback to other students, they learn about vocabulary, different written styles, spelling and grammar while increasing the student motivation.

ThingLink- It is a tool that enables students and teachers to collaborate creating interactive images that can be embedded in websites, add files and/or media. There are multiple uses for ThingLink in education, here is an article that will give you an idea of the things you can do. Part of the curriculum in a language class is to learn culture while practicing the student’s language skills. With this purpose, I used ThingLink in my classes partnering 2-3 students to create an image with information about a Spanish speaking country. They have to write about the country and its culture and include videos, images and text. This is a very easy and fun tool to use. Recently, ThingLink has partner with Qzzr to combine quizzes and video. I haven’t used this feature yet, but I find it quite interesting since I could use it to create quizzes about videos in Spanish allowing me to assess the student’s language comprehension. Here is a link to a video on how to use it for quizzes.

Voicethread– It is a group audio blog for asynchronous digital conversations. It allows users to record text and audio comments about uploaded images. In the past, I have used Voicethread for my language classes but it doesn’t allow you to provide personalized and private feedback to each of your students. Most teachers use Voicethread providing a general feedback, but recently I found a video that teach you how to create different identities on voicethread allowing you to record more than one feedback message. If you are interested in using this tool I recommend you watch this video. is definitely, one of my favorite tools for my online language classes. I use it for videoconferencing between students. While there are a wide range of tools for this purpose, like Skype or Google hangouts and even Blackboard Illuminate, but this is a particularly useful tool because it is free, it is very easy to use and most importantly because the conversation can be recorded. Right now, I pair my students to interview each other in Spanish using this tool. I ask them to record their conversation and to e-mail me the video file once they end their conversation. I am finding that this tool is increasing the speaking interaction between my students and allows me to review and assess their conversations.

Lastly, I want to share with you a video in which I compiled the tools I mentioned above.

These are the main tools that I have used with great productivity to create project-based collaborative learning. All of these tools are currently available and are free in the basic service. I hope this post helps you to successfully integrate instructional technologies in your online classes.

Silvia Vazquez Paramio- Online Spanish Instructor


Finelli, C., Bergom, I., & Mesa, V. (2011). Student teams in the engineering classroom and beyond: Setting up students for success. CRLT Occasional Paper, No. 29. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan.

Hershock, C., & LaVaque-Manty, M. (2012). Teaching in the cloud: Leveraging online collaboration tools to enhance student engagement. CRLT Occasional Paper, No. 31. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan.

Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T., & Smith, K. A. (1998). Cooperative learning returns to college: What evidence is there that it works? Change, 30(4), 26-35.

Katz, R. N. (Ed.). (2008). The tower and the cloud: Higher education in the age of cloud computing. Washington, DC: EDUCAUSE

Michaelson, L. K., Fink, L. D., & Knight, A. (1997). Designing effective group activities: Lessons for classroom teaching and faculty development. In D. Dezure (Ed.), To Improve the Academy, Vol. 16 (pp. 373-398). Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Nelson, M. M., & Schunn, C. D. (2009). The nature of feedback: How different types of peer feedback affect writing performance. Instructional Science, 37, 375–401.

Oakley, B., Felder, R. M, Brent, R., & Elhajj, E. (2004). Turning student groups into effective teams. Journal of Student Centered Learning, 2(1), 9-34.

Sorcinelli, M. D., Austin, A. E., Eddy, P. L., & Beach, A. L. (2006). Creating the future of faculty development: Learning from the past, understanding the present. Bolton, MA: Anker.

Zhu, E., & Kaplan, M. (2011). Technology and teaching. In M. Svinicki & W. J. McKeachie (Eds.), Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (13th ed., pp. 229- 252). New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Cool Tools: VoiceThread

by Bethanie Perry, MiraCosta College (History)

My goal as an online instructor is to create an engaging and dynamic classroom for my dynamic and diverse students—I assume this is the same for most instructors. Part of my desire stems from discussions with students and friends who have tried online classes and determine that the online learning environment is not for them. I should probably say, “fine, online learning is not for everyone”, but instead I usually ask why. In fact, I had this discussion just this past weekend. My friend said she preferred face-to-face classrooms because she was not so great at expressing herself in the written form, such as discussion forums. This also reminds me of a conversation I had with another student who said that most online instructors spend most of their time corresponding with students via email and therefore, written form. Therefore, as an instructor looking for ways to improve upon this seemingly one-dimensional teaching style, I am looking for ways to provide students with a more diverse experience.

There seem to be a million tools out there to use to meet this goal, but today I will focus on one, VoiceThread. What I like about this tool is it offers an alternative to the text heavy engagement with material. VoiceThread in fact offers students the ability to use voice or text to interact with material.

Voice thread is especially dynamic as users are able to create presentations using media, voice, and text. Responders can leave comments in a variety of ways as well, including their phone. While, the free version is limited in the amount of threads you can create, a Higher Ed subscription is $99 a year and the program can be integrated into an LMS; something to consider anyway. 

VoiceThread is also very easy to use. Create an account and then begin. You can upload documents—including images—from your computer, record videos, or upload from media sources integrated with VoiceThread.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 11.06.08 AM

So creating the thread is dynamic. Once a VoiceThread is created, the class can comment on content using a variety of means. Not only could this be used to make discussions more interactive, but students could produce presentations using VoiceThread and receive a variety of feedback.

And of course VoiceThread is also available for your mobile device, so you can create and comment on material from your phone!IMG_0351


Encouraging Community Online

Rachèle DeMéo, MiraCosta College (French)

As an online student, it can be challenging to feel part of the “classroom”. I can identify as a student–one of my two Master degrees was completely online. But I can also identify as an instructor. So what are some ways to keep our students feeling a part of a community in our online classes?

Here are some ways I believe we can help our students to create a community online.

As a student

Something I make my students do the first week of our semester together is to pair up with another student to practice weeklyCapture d’écran 2015-04-08 à 15.50.24 I teach French (I’m originally from the South of France) and practicing a language is essential in learning it. So based on their usual weekly schedule, students pick a time/day that usually works for them and they can either meet in person or via Skype to practice.  Weekly, I provide them with a prompt so they can know what they need to practice (which correlates to our lesson).

Capture d’écran 2015-04-08 à 15.54.36

They also have to jot down the time/day they practiced and provide me with other details.

Capture d’écran 2015-04-08 à 16.04.07

The Discussion Board on Blackboard is a great way to keep our students feeling involved in our online community. I’ve seen instructors use the Discussion Board in a variety of ways to keep students plugged in (pun intended) to their classrooms. Here are some of the ways I personally use Blackboard.

At the beginning of the semester, I ask students to introduce themselves and include a picture or avatar. I ask a few more things based on their level, modeling it by introducing myself first.

Capture d’écran 2015-04-08 à 16.00.25Capture d’écran 2015-04-08 à 16.00.10

Throughout the semester I’ll create different posts (not an overload, but a few) such as asking them what their hobbies are. By seeing their classmates’ hobbies, they can connect outside the classroom (and hopefully speak/text/email in French together!).

Capture d’écran 2015-04-08 à 16.02.03

Mid-Terms are another way to get the entire classroom to get to know one another. I assign them with a Group project and then they have to comment on one another’s presentations.

Capture d’écran 2015-04-08 à 16.03.52

Throughout the semester I encourage them to do activities with their classmates, outside of the classroom setting. I inform them about upcoming local events (relating to the French language) they might want to attend.

I also recommend they form study groups (based on their location) so they can study together.


Capture d’écran 2015-04-08 à 16.08.20

As an instructor

Something I saw demonstrated so well by my (absolutely amazing) grad Professor (Dr. Beth Ackerman) was to personally reach out to students. I believe it’s important we show we genuinely care about their success but also about them as a person. Writing a short email asking how they are doing, can help create that community we are looking for.  I will also email them if they are missing assignments or have been “absent” online for a while (they might have something going on at home that I should be aware of). Since we can’t always sense the “tone” (or see any facial expressions) in an email I always try my best to sound understanding, professional and personal. I make it a point to respond to emails as soon as I can (usually 2-3 business days). It helps me create a relationship with each individual student.

I encourage them to sign-up for my office hours. I use SignUpGenius to schedule my office hours. I give them the option to meet in person (on campus) or via Skype. I tell my online students that I’d love to meet them in person.

Half-way through the semester, I have them take an oral exam with me (instead of with a classmate). This gives me an opportunity to “meet” them (online or in person). It also makes it less intimidating for them when we have our final oral exam together.

Capture d’écran 2015-04-08 à 16.13.07

Weekly, I create short videos to give them announcements and introduce the new week ahead.

Capture d’écran 2015-04-08 à 16.13.39

I send out announcements (sent directly to their email inbox) several times a week. I’ll keep them updated on what I have graded (I try to grade any submitted work within 1-2 weeks), let them know of any important assignments coming up and give them additional resources, tools, etc.

To me those are small ways to keep students in our online class feeling part of the community of our classroom.


Finally, I’d like to take a moment to thank two wonderful Professors who have helped me in my journey in online teaching: Pilar Hernandez and David Detwiler.

I hope this post was useful to you. Thank you for reading.

Rachele-Web4-Rachèle DeMéo


Developing Presence as an Online Instructor

by Todd Conaway, Yavapai College, Arizona (Educational Technology)

I suppose there is “presence” as in time and space and there is also the type of presence you have in the online environment. The former is more like, “Are you easily available to your students,” and are you present in course discussions and active member of the class. The latter might be more like what does the internet say about you? How does your personality come across in the digital spaces? I am not sure if you can have one without the other. Just as when you are talking to someone in a hallway, you are obviously there in time and space, but you also can’t help but to share your personality with the person you are speaking to. PRESENCE IN TIME AND SPACE I have a colleague who just completed a master’s level course that was delivered online. After lengthy discussions about the absence of his instructor in class activities he finally emailed the faculty in charge and was told that the class followed a constructivist model and that the learning was created by the students. Therefore, the instructor was the barley visible guide on the side. My questions were like these:

  • Did the faculty have any synchronous office hours? Like a phone number? A Skype contact? If so, was it encouraged that students use it?
  • Were there any synchronous times and tools for students to meet? With or without the faculty? How was that encouraged by the faculty?
  • Were there any kind of office hours in real buildings or coffee shops in the off chance that someone taking the class actually lived near the institution the course was being delivered from?
  • How active was the instructor in the course discussions in the LMS? On blog postings or in Facebook groups?
  • Does the course use Twitter as a means to communicate trouble? Happiness?

We all have a syllabus that says we are located at this email address. If we are an adjunct, maybe we give our students our cell phone numbers? Sure, there are ways to communicate online in what in many cases has become a completely asynchronous environment. Email dominates the communication in most online college courses. But email is terrible and time. And time is important. I do not have any answers for the best way for instructors to travel in time, but I do think a good question to ask is, “How can I best relate information to my students?” In many cases, email will not be at the top of the list. So what are the options in this digital age where we wear all the world as our skin? PRESENCE AS IN “WHO ARE YOU?” In 2008 I delivered a conference session titled, “Your Digital Personality: The Real You in Your Online Class.” At that time I also bought my first domain and used it for the handout for the conference session. I handed out business cards with the conference logo, the URL of the digital personality site and a Pink Floyd shirt.

While at that time I felt like I was becoming more comfortable in the online space, it was still a big learning curve and I spent much time trying to figure out how to control the web and how to make it reflect just who I am what I want to share. The Digital Personality site has an RSS feed on the right side from a Diigo list I created. It has some good articles on digital presence. Do you ever Google your name? Does the real you show up? If nothing shows up, what does that say about your comfort on the web? Your digital footprint, large or small, should reflect who you are out there in the real world. Just like the real you in a classroom reflects who you are outside of the classroom. You can’t escape that and it is becoming harder and harder to escape it online.

As we push for a better and deeper digital literacy for our students, we should expect the same or more from our faculty.

The World Wide Web is meant to connect things. In many ways, classrooms are meant to contain things. That is particularly true of the Learning Management System. How do we use the web to share the great things we do as educators? As people with unique and wonderful gifts? Taking advantage of the web and using it to share our work is one way to build a larger and fuller image of you on the web. Just recently our institution allowed faculty to create their “probationary portfolios” online. They had all been required to turn them in in three-ring binders up to that point. How to you share the digital work you create? Do you use YouTube to record lectures? Do you use Jing or some screencasting tool to create demonstrations or micro-lectures? Do you curate relevant course content for students using Diigo or some other tool? How do you see the opportunities the web/the computer provides? As possibilities or as detrimental deterrents to learning in the classrooms that exist today? Most likely, a little of both. To me, it is being able to send my mother who lives in another state a video of her granddaughter singing a Leonard Cohen tune my mom loved so much.

I don’t care what you say, that is invaluable. One thing I have learned from working with teachers is that they are usually a humble lot and don’t see what they do as “really amazing.” I know that they do amazing things every day. And I know that sharing those things they do outside the classrooms they work in and the Leaning Management Systems they teach from is hugely important to the progress we will make in education in the coming years. The internet provides a great medium to do just that.

Strategies for assessment

Jill Malone, MiraCosta College (Media Arts and Technologies)

In some ways project assessment for my online students is nearly identical to that of my on-site classes. Maintaining very high standards (I keep raising that bar and they keep meeting it, it’s awesome) and providing my students with a clear, detailed assessment rubric (evaluation guide, check list, whatever you choose to call it that might look like this: Rubric for PS Project 2-online) that defines exactly what I’m going to assess and how I’m going to assess it are key to both my online and on-site courses. “I was supposed to do that???” is not something I should ever hear, and if I do it’s because (1) the student didn’t bother to read the rubric, or (2) my rubric is a mess and I need to fix it.

I’ve also learned that if I want to assess excellent work from my students, it helps to show them what “excellent work” actually looks like. This, of course, is more easily done in an on-site class where I have printed examples to share. For my online students, however, this entails generating yet another instructional video. Okay, I can hear some of you protesting that you’ve already created a hundred online videos and You Are Over It, thank you very much. Great, this will be video #101. It’s worth it. I’ve found that providing examples of outstanding work from former students stimulates creativity and demonstrates by example that exceptional craftsmanship really is achievable in my class. Here’s a for-instance: For their second project my students need to create a digitally painted piece that visually expresses the emotions and imagery a particular song evokes for them. Sound like fun? It is! Easy to do? Absolutely not! So to get them started I provide a video with examples of what other students have done. In addition, I created a video with a  “before & after” example by a former student that illustrates some artistic hurdles she experienced with Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” and how she handled them. I’ve found that the more time and effort I invest up front providing good examples for my students to ponder, the better the results are at the end (and the less work and frustration I have) when it comes time to assess their creations.

Even so, I found the artistic quality of the work in my online class wasn’t as good as that of my on-site students, and the reason was pretty obvious. In my on-site classes everyone learns from the immediate, real-time feedback I give each student during our rough draft critique sessions, which in turn, makes for dramatically improved final projects. But how to accomplish this in an online course where everything is asynchronous? The answer: By making this part of the course not asynchronous. So now, as a required part of their project grade every student must attend a real-time, synchronous rough draft lab session where, using Collaborate, I capture their computer screen and share it with the other students in attendance. At that point I can see what they’ve done and how they’ve done it, and I can offer suggestions for improvement. To accommodate the various schedules of my students I offer these synchronous sessions at different times during the week – in the evening, in the morning, and in the afternoon – so every student can attend at least one session. I also post the dates and times of these synchronous lab sessions prominently in the course syllabus so each student can plan ahead for them. This has improved immensely the quality of the work submitted by my online students, which in turn has made my assessment of these projects much easier.

And finally, there’s that business of assigning a numeric grade to each student and providing the rationale behind that grade. For years I wrote paragraphs explaining this-is-why-you-got-the-grade-you-did to each student, trying so hard to explain what was done well and what wasn’t and how to improve. Except I’m never sure they even read my carefully crafted comments. Plus, the tone I was trying to convey never seemed to make it across in my writing (and probably still doesn’t, are you all bored to tears??). So I stopped doing it. Instead, I now create and attach an MP3 file with my verbal comments (fictitious MP3). Because my students have heard that familiar voice week in and week out from all my posted videos, there’s no question who’s talking to them. This simple switch from text to audio has been a godsend: It’s been well received by my students, and posting their grades is faster and easier for me to do.

Oh good lord, I just blathered on for four full paragraphs! Is anyone still reading this?? I swore I was going to keep this discourse to a hundred words or less. Not even close. Sorry! That’ll teach you, Lisa, to ask me to contribute to a blog!

Presence as an online instructor

Bethanie Perry, MiraCosta College (History)

Link to transcript

Materials in an online class

Lisa M Lane, MiraCosta College (History)

When designing an online class (I’m doing one now on the History of Technology) I try to keep in mind that I have the whole web to play with.

Starting from a position of control, of knowing that I have choices of what to offer my students, is important. To me, the materials make the class, not just by providing “content”, but by creating pathways for learning.

Many years ago, I was teaching at San Elijo campus and it was the first day of a new semester. After going over the syllabus, a student asked, “What are you going to do to get me interested in history?” I responded that the materials I’ve assigned should do that, the letters and documents and readings. I explained that they had all been carefully chosen to provide a real sense of the past, and would draw him in if he’d let them. At the end of the semester, he told me he thought that was bullshit on the first day, but it turned out I was absolutely right.

Continue reading Materials in an online class

Back to the Beginning

by Joanne Carrubba, MiraCosta College (Art History)

If I think waaaayyyy back (5 years, but it seems so long) to when I started teaching online, I remember being completely intimidated with the idea of teaching Art History to students through a computer rather than in a classroom. I could not conceive of how I would show images, encourage discussion of those images, give feedback, and do assessments. I suppose it didn’t help that I was given a canned, pre-done Moodle classroom, and no training or assistance.

I wish I had known what was out there for online instructors. I didn’t think about doing video lectures, or being sure that my syllabi, classroom, and feedback were not too text heavy. It was by far the most intimidating, confusing, and scary start of a semester in the 10+ years I have been teaching. Also, it was the LEAST successful, for me and the students.

I wish I had known about the numerous pedagogy and online teaching blogs that exist on this wonderful internet. I also wish I had known about teachers who post examples of interesting, clickable syllabi. Knowing about cool tools for myself and my students, and the idea of video lectures, intros, and voice thread for feedback would also have been amazing for all involved in that first, disastrous online class. I also wish I had gotten involved in the POT community right then, as this is a wonderful place to share ideas and tools, as well as give feedback.

Ah, but now….how far I’ve come! (I hope)

Snippets, tweets and other desserts

Lisa M Lane

I promise this post will be short.

Perhaps my discontent began with a perfectly innocent study, claiming student satisfaction with short video lectures. Or perhaps it was when I was cruising through Netvibes reading bits of things. Or maybe it was the student in the corner before class, starting the videos of a guy playing guitar, but only listening to the first 30 seconds of each song.

We live in a world of snippets, soundbytes and little pieces. To me, these are dessert, or spice. I like tweets and status updates sprinkled on my daily knowledge. But, to raise the 1980s cliche, where’s the beef?

I had a student last semester get angry at me because she was failing the class, and didn’t seem to know about it until week 12 of 16. I had been giving everyone feedback every week on every little thing. For her, she had failed almost every quiz, I think because she didn’t understand what she was reading. She only answered a question correctly when it was derived from a short snippet of text.

Yes, we know people don’t read full-length articles as much, that movies are getting shorter, that society is either engendering or catering to what they used to call a “short attention span”. We have studies showing multitasking doesn’t work, but those aren’t the ones that worry me. The ones that worry me show that students love snippets, and that the conclusion is we should provide more snippets.

I think it’s bad for anyone’s diet to have all dessert.

More importantly, we are losing the idea of how to put the snippets together into something with meaning. This makes some practice in digital storytelling an essential skill – we must learn to create narrative if nothing else.

But I digress. Or perhaps I’m just done.

The POT Network