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.

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