Thursday, July 7, 2011

A New Education Tool

This sounds great. I found this on Robert X. Cringely's I, Cringely blog:
Democrasoft’s Collaborize product began as a way for communities to discuss issues online with the idea that the core groups would be cities or local governments. But the Santa Rosa, CA-based company found some of its earliest adopters were teachers — a group the company had never even considered. More than 6600 teachers are presently using Collaborize, which is still a very small percentage of American classrooms. But the adoption growth rate is a very viral 30+ percent per month, according to Democrasoft CEO Richard Lang, so this application is going to be significant.

A lot has changed about Collaborize since I last wrote about it. The business model for education is now free, for example, and there is a custom version, Collaborize Classroom, just for schools — the company’s largest present market.

The idea behind Collaborize is simple. It is a structured conversation. Any participant can pose a question for discussion, eliciting responses from the group or taking a poll. You can look at it as a quiz or a test but grading doesn’t have to be a part of what’s essentially an online Socratic dialog.

Yes, you can do this with a wiki, Mr. Smartypants, but the significant point here is that people generally don’t do this with wikis. Collaborize is more structured than a wiki and requires little customization.

One of the most important aspects of this tool, according to the teachers who like it, is that it has a social leveling function that brings students into the online conversation who might say little or nothing in the classroom. This is good.

What’s changed most recently with the product, though, is the addition of some social networking functions and especially the development of a library of discussions available to anyone.

Here’s the deal with the library. Some teachers are better than others at designing discussions. These can include video and audio clips to spur discussion and each becomes a little lesson in its own right, providing information, eliciting responses, and even measuring comprehension all at the same time. That’s powerful. But if you are a teacher who is intimidated by the whole question design process, why not use some other teacher’s discussions, either in their entirety or as the basis for your own derivative work?

The library already contains thousands of discussions in nearly every subject area.

Social networking provides both the door to this library and something even more important — peer review. Maybe a discussion could be improved or maybe it is just plain misguided: responses from other teachers will provide that context. If a discussion from the library gets a lot of positive responses from teachers whose opinions you respect that makes the discussion more valuable.
I've worked with wikis on projects many years ago. On projects where we had multiple companies collaborating along with government labs and university research teams, the wiki was a successful way to collaborate. Of course we had our resident wiki expert on staff. My limited knowledge of setting up a wiki convinces me that only the most tech saavy teacher would successfully manage the equivalent of what this tool does using a wiki. And this tool is free. Sounds like a great deal for teachers.

I keep hoping we hear about new innovations in the classroom that help teachers and students take a big leap forward using technology to improve the learning environment. This may be one of those tools.

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