The Power of Online Collaborative Tools

Written by Abi Kognity

25th April 2017

You, I, and all other dedicated teachers have been there. We pour blood, sweat, and tears into an engaging project for our students. It has all of the trappings of any dynamic assignment: challenging them to research, collaborate, and think critically about their topic. But when the due date comes around, we get more excuses than finished products. Students tell us that they forgot the assignment at home, couldn’t get their group together to finish it, or that one member of the group failed to pull his or her weight. They may even claim that they struggled to understand part of the assignment, which prevented them from completing it. Whatever their reasons, we are faced with an incomplete roster of projects, while whatever we were planning next has gone out the window.

Some of us have probably considered avoiding group projects altogether. After all, we’ve done everything we can think of to hold students accountable and make sure their work gets done on time. When they come back to you with the same old litany of excuses, constantly setting milestones and spot-checking progress is fruitless as it is exhausting. Thankfully, we live in the age of technology and teach in a 21st century classroom. In other words, we no longer have to settle for the old way of doing things.

Online collaborative tools (OCTs) can breathe new life into the management of group assignments. Whether simply swapping essays or working on an extensive Project Based Learning unit, students can benefit from user-friendly interfaces, collaborative documents and more effective communication. Importantly, teachers benefit from constant and unfettered access to students’ work, making child’s play out of spot-checking progress and conducting formative assessments. You’ll be surprised at how easily OCT platforms can turn a frustrating experience into a dream come true.

Online collaborative what?

Before we dive into the many benefits that these tools offer, let’s take a moment to clarify what an OCT means in the realm of education. First of all, we are not talking social media. While such platforms do allow students to communicate easily, they are weighted toward communication, not education. An OCT allows students to both communicate and actually complete work in an online workspace. Platforms like Google Docs,, and Wikispaces Classroom (to name only a few) provide tools that enhance the educational experience for your students.

Google Docs, as you probably know, allows students to create and share Word, Excel, or PowerPoint files. Students in a group can all work on the same document online, leaving comments and chatting as they do so. This platform is excellent for essay swaps and presentations. is similar to Google Docs, but also allows students to create dynamic flow charts, making it ideal for brainstorming and timeline development.

In Wikispaces Classroom teachers can create an online classroom space with tasks for individuals or groups. Your students can use the online chat features and shared assignment documents to communicate and collaborate on anything from homework to elaborate Project Based Learning units, for which the platform provides a comprehensive template.

Now let’s examine some of these excuses and see how a little technology can go a long way toward keeping students productive and accountable.

“I forgot it at home!”

Of course, this classic excuse may not be an “excuse” at all. Your well-intentioned student might actually have left the project on the kitchen table. In either case, it doesn’t matter. OCTs keep the work online. Not only is it impossible for your student to “forget it at home”, you’ll also have access to the work throughout the project, making it easy for you to tell who is actually getting the work done and who is lagging behind. Additionally, Google Docs and Wikispaces Classroom provide you with the ability to view tracked changes. This allows you to observe the current status of a project, alongside its evolution over time.

“My group had trouble meeting up outside of school”

Trying to match schedules is a legitimate challenge for students. Luckily for them, and by extension, you, OCTs offer a means of communicating seamlessly online. Apart from contributing to the same document, Google Docs and allow students to live-chat with one another. As long as they are able to go online around the same time, collaborating on projects should become a quick and painless process. Wikispaces Classroom also provides what it calls “safe social networking,” allowing students to chat in forums or even over video.

Curious to learn what your students are chatting about? If you have been added as an editor to documents in Google Docs and, than you are officially a member of the team. This means you can view correspondences between students and notes made, as well as leave your own comments behind. Alternatively, Wikispaces Classroom provides you with a teacher newsfeed that keeps you up to date on correspondences and progress for all of your students and their various assignments.

“So and so didn’t do his/her part”

This classic excuse presents teachers with the dilemma of whether or not to hold all of the members of a group accountable for missing work. After all, it can be extremely difficult to navigate a “he said she said” situation and find out who is really responsible for an incomplete project. Of course you want to be fair and, thankfully, Google Docs and Wikispaces Classroom make that possible. Apart from observing progress over time, they can help you see who makes changes to documents. What’s more, being able to assess this situation on the spot – instead of addressing it when the assignment is due – will help you nip any potential issues in the bud, before they blossom into late work and bad grades.

“I didn’t understand the assignment”

Your immediate response is probably “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” Unfortunately, students are still learning accountability and communication. As a result, teachers often don’t hear that there’s a problem until the last minute. Some teachers try to mitigate this issue by setting milestones for their projects and spot-checking work either in the class or at home. However, doing so either eats into class time or requires you to lug gigantic stacks of papers home for the weekend.

Through OCTs, you have the ability to perform on-the-spot formative assessments. Additionally, you neither need to use classroom time to do it nor bring anything home but your laptop. Just log in, take a peek and leave some feedback. Wikispaces Classroom even has unique tracking tools that help you perform real time formative assessments for each of your students.

“You’ve convinced me, but I’m not made of money”

You don’t have to be in control of the school budget to enjoy the benefits of these platforms. Both Google Docs and Wikispaces Classroom are free of charge. is free to an extent. Your students can set up accounts that allow them to create and share up to three documents for free. For access to an unlimited number of documents, something your students may not need but you might consider, you need only pay $6 a month. It all depends on your requirements.

OCTs are free, easy, and effective. Take advantage of them today and forever revolutionize the way you handle projects and perform formative assessments. Not only will this make projects easier for students to manage, but the entire process will become more transparent, with increased accountability helping all of the age-old excuses to melt away. After all, whatever is good for the students is good for the teacher.

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