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Tips and Tools

(In the spirit of the K-12 Online Conference, you are invited to add your comments, ideas, news, and reflections in the discussion tab of this page)

Below you will find tips, strategies and tools that will help teachers as they collaborate with other classes from a distance.

Project Management Tips


Communication, communication, communication!
Staying in relatively frequent contact with your partner(s) is so important. Emailing often back and forth (several times a week perhaps) is a good way to keep in contact and let each other know what is happening with your students and your project goals.

As well, I highly recommend weekly (synchronous) audio conferences to set goals and check progress. In the last two years, I have used Talking Communities and Skype to do this with my partners when possible. This is, admittedly, tough to do with some of my partners who are separated by many time zones or who have to pay prohibitive amounts of money to do so.

It is important to set weekly and monthly goals and to try to stick to them. The weekly audio conference should include a progress report on the weekly goals and to establish new goals for the next week.

Be clear at the outset of what products you are creating and be reasonable in your expectations – adjust as necessary throughout the project.

Make a presence known as moderator in whatever online learning environment you choose to use
Check OLE often for interaction and immediately address inappropriate communication between students (it happens in various forms – sometimes just misunderstandings).
Use Google Earth to show where in the world your partners are… very powerful!
Other really cool mapping tools are becoming available as well. I am impressed with the social tagging that is now possible with some of these tools! I hope to get my students involved in the CommunityWalk soon!

Server Space


Before I go on to share some tools, I want to recommend something that has greatly helped out my projects. Last year, I decided to purchase server space from a third-party host so that I could host my own blog, webpages and moodle. My school has graciously agreed to pick up the cost for it which I think represents a great deal of trust on their part. On my server, I can host my student projects and use the databases for a learning management system (moodle). It is a modest cost per month and I don't have to go through my system administrator at school whenever I want to upload content or manage the moodle.

Tools


There are literally hundreds of social computing tools - and more being created every day. I have chosen to highlight the tried and true that I use almost daily (okay, maybe hourly) that I think are valuable for international collaborative projects.

SKYPE!

I think Skype rocks! It is free to download and use. When I tried it out for the first time almost three years ago, it was still a little iffy in audio quality. Now it is really great and I use it mostly for instant messaging. Even if a person is offline, one can send a chat msg which the other person will receive when they go online. Skype also permits conferencing for up to 10 people. And now, one can use skype to create webcasts ("skypecasts") which will host many users at once. Skypecasts are open and free for anyone to join - so be aware of that openness if you choose to use it.

Skype users in North America can dial "real" telephone numbers for absolutely free until the end of this year. This service saved my life when I was in San Diego at the NECC conference in July and my cell phone wasn't working. I was able to stay in touch with my family quite easily and cheaply!

Google Docs

I am just discovering this collaborative writing tool and seeing its benefits for collaborative partners. It used to be Writely for those who know about that, and now Google has acquired it as one of its (many) social computing tools. My husband and I used it recently to design our upcoming vacation.

Google now offers a treasure trove of web-based tools and is really worth checking out.

Moodle


This is my second year using moodle as an online learning environment for international collaborative student exchanges. Last year, my moodle hosted four such exchanges. Each exchange had its own course area where the partnering students could go in and communicate and collaborate with each other. It offers a "walled garden" and is password-protected. The students really seem to like it and are quite facile at navigating their way around. Some of my students who claimed that "computers hated them" changed their attitudes about computers as they participated in such exchanges. The computer became a communication tool which could facilitate dialogue with interesting people around the world.

Moodle is an open-source software and can be downloaded for free. It requires a mysql database for installation. I have found moodle incredibly easy to administrate (I hate coding!) and is very intuitive to use.

Wikis


I am just discovering the power of wikis. It is amazing! I used to have to create my own webpages and templates for class webpages and presentations. Forget that! Now I can use a wiki and really focus on my content and not so much on my design and layout. And the content is so easy to change. As well, a history is kept of all changes so one can revert back if one wishes. But most importantly, wikis can be used collaboratively to create and present content. For more on wikis, do not miss Vicki Davis' presentation (she is queen of the wiki!).

Nicenet


I have been using Nicenet since 2002, which probably makes me an old-timer there. It is a free, stable, education-based content management system/online learning environment which is password-protected for students. It lacks the bells and whistles of moodle and other learning management systems, but it is fast-loading and stable. If you are considering a partner in a less-developed country, you may want to consider Nicenet. I actually used it for the data collection for my master's thesis, and am now using it again this year as the environment for our collaboration for the Global Virtual Web Design Contest.