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Collaboration | Feature

Tools for Teamwork

As project-based learning picks up steam, faculty members are turning to innovative software tools to foster better collaboration among students.

Tools for Teamwork
Screen-sharing software enables cross-disciplinary student projects at Winona State University. (Photo courtesy of Winona State University, Teaching, Learning & Technology Services)

This is the fourth installment in a six-part series on collaborative learning. Previous articles in the series can be found via the links below:

Collaborative, project-based learning is to higher education what Downton Abbey is to TV--all the rage. More than ever, faculty and students are working jointly on documents, sharing screens in class, swapping course materials, and taking their collective pulse through polls. Nevertheless, many faculty members complain that technical support for group projects is lagging on campus, leaving them searching for solutions elsewhere. While some faculty have found free tools such as Google Docs and Dropbox sufficient, others are adopting more specialized software. Here are four examples of how faculty are facilitating collaboration in their classes:

This story appeared in the February 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology.

1) Document Sharing
Last year, when the University of Michigan launched a pilot project with commercial data-storage solution Box, Melissa Gross was eager to participate. A professor in the School of Kinesiology, she was searching for a viable way to share large video files with her students. While Box solved her initial problem, the service has gone one step further: It's helping her students learn how to do collaborative work.

For many of Gross' classroom assignments, students must create videos of 3D animation and motion-capture technologies. Unfortunately, the resulting files are too large to fit in other campus file-sharing tools. "Students would upload them to YouTube or Vimeo, but then they wouldn't set the permissions right or wouldn't name things correctly," recalls Gross. "So, when I put them in my download folder, I wouldn't know who they were from. I was taking too much time finding their work."

M+Box, UM's branded version of Box, offers users 50 GB of storage, which more than meets her students' needs. While Gross no longer expends effort locating student work, she has found that she does spend time helping students manage their virtual environments. "It's not something I thought I would be teaching," she notes, "but learning how to organize in the cloud is important."

She also discovered that M+Box tools allow her to comment on student work. "I can preview their individual assignments in Box without having to download any files and can attach comments by typing in a comment box," she explains. "For team projects, I can just hit the 'e-mail all' button to send a message to the whole group, which is not something I can do easily any other way."

In a survey of her students after the class last year, 19 out of 20 found M+Box valuable, while all 20 said it facilitated valuable interactions among students. They were also unanimous in saying that they would recommend its use in other courses.

Gross enjoys watching her students become more sophisticated about their virtual self-representation and learn how to do collaborative work that is technology-enabled. "I am seeing them stretch beyond just doing their part of group projects," she explains. "They have to see how it fits in with the work of others. There is no excuse not to, because the resources are all available asynchronously. They are thinking ahead to their digital lives in the workplace, and figuring out what works and what doesn't in collaborating with other people."

2) Screen Sharing
As part of an effort to flip its classrooms, Winona State University (MN) has been experimenting with screen-sharing software called ClassSpot PBL (the PBL stands for project-based learning) from Tidebreak. For about $6,000, the school redesigned a 25-student classroom as a Visual Media Studio. Five custom-designed tables, each with a large display, are connected to a host computer underneath that's running ClassSpot software.

Students load the ClassSpot client onto their laptops, which takes about two minutes. "Now the students can share at the table, taking turns showing the screens of their laptops on the monitor at their table," says Ken Graetz, the school's director of teaching, learning, and technology services. The instructor also has a ClassSpot host and an 80-inch interactive whiteboard with a touchscreen.

"Students in photojournalism can be choosing and annotating photos in groups, and then sharing them with the whole class on the larger screen," explains Graetz. "Then the instructor can comment on and annotate those." The technology facilitates the transition between working in groups of five or six and working in a larger group of 25 or so, with students able to take control of the big screen in front of the whole class. In addition, everything that happens in class--including web searches--is automatically archived on each laptop.

At Winona, the ClassSpot technology is being used to foster cross-disciplinary work. Students in computer science, mass communications, and art classes come together in the Visual Media Studio to do group projects involving graphic design, advertising, and mobile app development. "They meet sometimes during a class session and sometimes outside it," Graetz says, "but this blurs the lines between disciplines."

The studio is so popular that Graetz's team now leaves it open for students because they want to come back on weekends and evenings to work in groups. "That is the sign of a great technology," he notes, adding that Winona will likely add more ClassSpot sites to new buildings and other campus spaces such as the student union.

3) Social Bookmarking
The Rochester Institute of Technology (NY) is taking social bookmarking a step further by giving students and faculty access to RIT BookBag, an RIT-created tool that allows a wide array of digital research materials to be easily integrated into a course curriculum and shared for class use.

The impetus for the RIT BookBag came from RIT President Bill Destler, who wanted to create a centralized tool for students to access course materials. A cross-disciplinary team set up shop in the campus's Open Publishing Lab, where it developed a web-based tool to enable faculty and students to share any web-accessible resources, including many of the university's library resources, with their classes.

Since it became available campuswide 18 months ago, the tool has been gradually gaining enthusiasts among the faculty. Faculty can search for new print or digital material on the web as they normally do, and use RIT BookBag to populate their syllabus content, include required or supplemental material, and link to blogs, articles, and other resources. Course assignments can ask students to locate and share relevant material, too. Sharing links with classmates is easy, since the RIT BookBag is automatically linked to course enrollment.

"I have students do web research and bring back material in RIT BookBag," says Michael Riordan, one of the tool's developers and a lecturer in RIT's School of Media Sciences. "What they find helps them, can help their classmates, and it can help me understand their learning styles. Some are much more visual learners, but in a class of 50 it is difficult to address divergent learning styles."

Many students who are quiet in class are happy to make contributions in RIT BookBag. "It gets their voices out there," explains Riordan. "They can find a way to participate in a way they are comfortable with, and they appreciate that their contribution to the class is valued."

When they first adopt the tool, some faculty are fearful that they will lose control of the resources. How will they vet all the content that students bring in? Riordan advises them not to vet it all. "Teach the students how to vet content and let them decide on its usefulness," he recommends. "Each item contributed can lead to a threaded discussion, and, in those discussions, the better ones float to the top as they are commented on more."

The school is now beta testing RIT BookBag for another use: enabling teams of researchers on campus to share resources. "We have nearly 18,000 students, and it's hard to connect to one another," notes Riordan, "yet we may be working on similar things." The hope is that RIT BookBag will enable people to easily find others on campus studying the same topics and form their own groups to collaborate around specific research topics.

4) Polling Software
Universities have been experimenting with student-response systems, commonly called clickers, for years. Many professors have used them to increase student participation in large classes and to get groups of students working together. Recent technology enhancements now make it possible for instructors to ditch the clicker hardware altogether, relying instead on response software that works with the portable devices that students bring to class.

Poll Everywhere is one of the more popular tools currently in use, with adopters at schools ranging from Notre Dame (IN) to the University of Southern California to Rutgers (NJ). It allows students to talk with each other in small groups--via Twitter, text, or the web--and then share responses with other groups.

Math instructor Jim Rolf has used Poll Everywhere, but more recently he tested what he considers a more sophisticated tool called Learning Catalytics in classes at the US Air Force Academy (CO) and Yale University (CT). "I am interested in using it for peer instruction, to encourage and foment conversation," he says. "I usually set it up to ask two or three questions per class period. I try to make the questions conceptual rather than just testing their knowledge."

Sometimes Rolf asks students to sketch responses on a graph, and then displays all the answers layered on top of each other. "We can then have a discussion about the disparity in answers, and get students to talk about their own answers," he says.

Learning Catalytics tools allow the instructor to see how each individual responded and then group students to work together based on their first-round responses. "You can have them talk to neighbors or group them by the same or different answers, and have them talk about it," says Rolf. "After we pair them, almost always the percentage correct goes up."

Rolf is currently teaching two sections at Yale of 25 to 30 students each. He is using active learning concepts in both, but he has deployed Learning Catalytics in only one section to see if he notices any difference in learning outcomes. "My impression of it is very positive," he says. "It does take time to do it, but I think it is well worth it."

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