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Using iPads To Support Synchronous Collaboration: Examples from 1st Grade

In the 'Teacher Tips for Mobile Technology Series'

  • Can first-graders — first-graders, short, 6-7 year olds — create concept maps with labeled nodes and arcs? Yes.
  • Can first-graders create concepts maps collaboratively — working with two to three other first-graders? Yes!

In today’s blog, we will recount our amazing experiences in classrooms in the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools (PCCS), MI, where three first grade teachers in two different elementary schools used WeMap, a collabrified concept mapping app that runs on iPads (and Android, and soon, Windows Phone 8) with their first grade students.

Background: We — CN, ES, and the undergraduates of the University of Michigan CSE Department — have created a suite of educational productivity tools that are collabrified — that support two or more students, co-located or not, with each student on his or her own mobile device (e.g., iPads), working together simultaneously inside a collabrified app, e.g., WeMap, our collabrified concept mapping app, all the while talking, talking, talking — verbally, not text-chat.

You’ve all used the Google Docs Editor to write, collaboratively, at the same time.  Quite an experience!! Talking to others and writing with others — all at the same time!

So, instead of writing text, our apps support collaboratively creating a concept map (WeMap), collaboratively creating a KWL chart (WeKWL), collaboratively creating a drawing and/or an animation, (WeSketch — iPad version available August 1, 2014). WeWrite — a collabrified text editor like the Google Docs Editor but geared to K-8, and WeRead — a collabrified ebook reader — are both under development.

Workman Elementary and Bentley Elementary, PCCS, MI: Before two to four kids can work together in WeMap, they need to create a collaboration session which is hosted on Google’s AppEngine — Google’s cloud storage system. To help the first-graders do this preliminary, but vital step, Ms. Ronda Duran created a “student card” for each child in her class (Figure 1). One child in the group — the so-called lead child — created the empty file and created the collaboration session; then the other children joined the collaboration session and, each child used the color designated on the card for the nodes they created and added to the concept map. A very clever scaffold!!

Ms. Kimberly Lee, at Bentley Elementary, broke her first-graders into groups, again issuing each a “student card” and asked each group to build a concept map for a different type of animals, birds, fish, amphibians, etc. While the students brought their personal experiences to this activity, e.g., the boys in the fish group immediately entered “hammerhead shark” to their group’s concept map, to scaffold the students, Ms. Lee gave each member of each group a palm-sized booklet that described their group’s animal, e.g., each member of the fish group had a booklet about fish, each member of the bird group had a booklet about birds. See Figure 2 for an example concept map. And, using Apple TV hooked to a projector, Ms. Lee asked each group to present their concept map to the class — and asked each child to explain his/her contribution to the group’s concept map.  

Ms. Cheryl Zuzo, at Bentley, had the groups in her class create concept maps based on word endings, e.g., what words end in “ip”? Lip, Tip. Ms. Zuzo’s “student card” had ALL the information that was needed to create a collaboration session. Unfortunately, in its current version, WeMap is rather demanding — too demanding, in fact. And, Ms. Zuzo scaffolded her children by providing sheets with lots of words. See Figure 3 for a representative concept map from Ms. Zuzo’s class.

The first-graders worked for 45 minutes straight! They had a good time and didn’t want to stop. Even though this was their first crack at using WeMap collaboratively, there was plenty of productive, collaborative, talk in each group — about animals, about words.

Indeed, we have seen sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders develop excellent collaboration skills when they have the opportunity to use the WeCollabrify suite of apps (see below for free downloading) for an extended period of time!  That’s a blog for another time.

While it has been estimated that 80 percent of the educational apps are drill-and-practice oriented, there definitely are apps that support Bloom’s higher-levels! Today’s blog — based on the work at Plymouth-Canton Community Schools — demonstrates that teachers and students can use such higher-level apps successfully.

Thank you, Ms. Duran, Ms. Lee, and Ms. Zuzo. These teachers stepped up and tried something new. And thank you to the administrative staff and the IT staff at PCCS for their critically important support. And thank you, Dr. Michael Meissen, PCCS Superintendent, for welcoming us into your schools.

Additional Reading:

App Support for Synchronous Collaboration:

  • iOS WeMap: creating/modifying a concept map
  • iOS WeKWL: creating/modifying a KWL chart
  • Android WeCollabrify: suite of collabrified apps (WeMap, WeKWL, WeSketch, WeChart)
  • Android YesWeKhan VERYbeta: watch, takes notes, talk together while reviewing Khan videos

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at