I had a pretty neat experience with a tech enhancement to a workbook exercise in our Computer Literacy handbook today, which I’d asked my class to prepare as homework. As the class began I checked that they had done it. In the past I’ve been unsure of what to do at that point. Many students copy from one another so it’s not really worth taking the time to check off whether they’ve done it or not, and if I project the book at the front of the room and call on students to answer questions, this consumes 20 or 30 minutes with only one student engaged during each turn. This can often become an exercise of little value.
However for this lesson I had planned to have them answer the questions in class in a single collaborative Google Doc. Before class I had copied the text from the checkpoint to a new Doc and deleted the lines, leaving space for the students to write at their keyboards. But when I went on to the doc to show them, it challenged me for a Google password, which I realized, this early in the semester, the students didn’t have.
Instead of slapping palm to forehead, I shifted to the other foot. My colleagues and I had tested Google Docs in the lab together and decided we couldn’t use it in a big class because it was too slow with multiple users. However I was trying it out today because Google had bought a company called Etherpad which had corrected that problem in a product that they developed as open source code, which they then released into the wild. Google now incorporates the code into a much faster Google Docs, but the open source code was snapped up and hosted (with Google and Etherpad’s blessings) on a number of servers where the app is still available for free. Google “etherpad clone” and you’ll find there are many such sites; e.g.:
So I quickly found an Etherpad clone, which I opened on the fly with no sign-in. This created a document into which I pasted what was in the Google Doc I had intended to use, and then I copied the URL for the room and pasted that into TinyURL.com to create http://tinyurl.com/pichkpt1
As soon as I gave this to the students, they appeared in the room, quickly one after another, wrote in their names, and started typing answers to the questions. It turned out the room had a capacity of 8 so I told them if they couldn’t get in to pair with someone else. They quickly regrouped around 8 computers, and as the text got thrown onto the whiteboard, the class took on a dynamic feel. Whatever they typed appeared instantaneously on each student’s screen, as well as on the whiteboard at the front of the room. They finished the checkpoint collaboratively in just 5 or 10 minutes. They seemed to enjoy the exercise, and the discovery of such a useful tool.
This certainly made the exercise come alive today. If you have a clever idea for using Etherpad tools in your class, leave us a comment, thanks …
Here’s the URL the tinyurl points to: http://sync.in/EowldOz13W