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Friday, January 7, 2011

Facebook = the air we breathe? / Etherpad

Teaching a colleague's English class as a substitute, so I'm using Etherpad as a collaborative writing tool (details later in this post). When they go to read and comment on each other's work, they need to send the URL for the pad where their work is stored. To do this, they simply send the URL via Facebook. One pupil is not logged on to Facebook, so the others tell him to do so and then they wait for him. They also ask why he isn't logged on, since this seems strange to them. He points out that he is at school, in class and actually working, but this doesn't cut it with his fellow 17 year-olds. The conclusion seems to be that he's a bit odd or that he's trying hard to project a certain image.

Now, my school has an LMS with a perfectly adequate message system and they are likely all logged on here, but it doesn't even occur to them to use such a tool for a practical purpose. Waiting for their classmate to log on to Facebook rather than just send him a message via the LMS is particularly telling. Facebook is the air we breathe; anything to do with school is by definition not relevant for actually doing something.

For anyone interested, here is how I was working with Etherpad:

Since I was a substitute, I didn't have access to the class pages in our LMS, so I needed some easy, free-access web resource. Etherpad seems to have closed, but lots of people are hosting pads that are freely accessible. I like to use PiratePad, mostly 'cause I adore the frog with the eyepatch on the opening page. Maybe it gives me some cred, using a site with the word 'pirate' in it, but I don't know. (Skinny, balding, forty-something white guys probably shouldn't even try to be cool.)

Pupils pair up and write text, preferably tightly defined. (On this day, we had been examining globally available English-language cable channels and had spent some time on Al-Jazeera English. The pupils were to write a letter to the editor addressing some of Al-Jazeera's more controversial practices.) Once a text has been written, the pair send their text to another pair and read the text of a third pair. They can make corrections, suggestions and comments in the text and in the separate chat that goes with each text. A certain amount of F2F also occurs - as a teacher I find this fine to encourage, but having to write comments down also makes them more serious and structured and improves the oral discussion. Having the authors nearby helps keep the written comments polite.

I then get them to send their text to a new pair for a new evaluation, so that each pair evaluates two other texts and gets two evaluations on the text that they produced. One can just stop there, or revise the texts based on the feedback. They can then be submitted to the teacher or used in some other way. I'm using a longer-term version of this in French class for texts that will eventually be used on a web-site.

If you're a teacher and haven't used Etherpad, I do recommend you try it. Easy to use and quite powerful.