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Suggestive Data From a Pilot of a Computer-Supported, Collaborative Text Editor for Kids

Educators have long had technology to support asynchronous collaboration — from Twitter to Dropbox, from SMS to Facebook. As we argued in a previous blog post, Web 2.0 was all about technological support for asynchronous collaboration: post, comment on the post, comment on the comment on the post, etc.

But Social 3.0, the next turn of the technological wheel, will be about support for synchronous collaboration: two or more individuals working together in real-time on a project. The individuals can be co-located (e.g., in a classroom sitting together at a table) or — here it comes, get ready — more interestingly and more likely given our caffeinated pace of life, the individuals can NOT co-located, e.g., one is in Ann Arbor, MI, and one is in Dallas, TX, to take a “random” example. <smilely face goes here>

Social 3.0 technology is more than just Skype (a phone) or Google Hangouts (a video phone). The key to Social 3.0 technology’s support for synchronous collaboration is that the artifact that underlies the collaboration can be operated upon by all parties to the collaboration in real time.

That’s techie talk. The real question, of course, is this: Does computer-supported synchronous collaboration lead to increased student achievement? And we are here to tell you about some results — albeit from a pilot study with all manner of caveats — that answer that question in the affirmative! YAY!

EDC, a highly-reputable educational technology research organization, recently conducted a study with funding from the National Science Foundation. Researchers compared one class of students who wrote a nonfiction report in collaborative groups of three or four using a standard text editor to another class of students who collaborated on a nonfiction report using a "collabrified" text editor (think Google Docs Editor but simplified for kids). By "collabrified" we mean that the text editor supports two or more students, each on his/her own computer, simultaneously writing into the same document, talking together verbally.

Both groups were charged with the same task; the essay produced by each of the groups was graded against a rubric; blah, blah, blah. In order to keep this blog post within a reasonable length, we are going to leave out zillions of interesting details. Our goal is to give you, our blog readers, a sense of a few of the key issues of the study.

Here we focus on two of the schools with distinctly different social-economic status (SES) levels: a fourth-grade suburban school where 2 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch and 93 percent of the students in the school are at reading proficiency, and a fifth-grade urban school where 100 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced lunch and 19 percent of the students in the school are at reading proficiency.

Comparing these two schools on a student achievement test is somewhat like comparing an apple with a chair, but check out table below:

 

Fourth-grade suburban school

Fifth-grade urban school

 

Not computer- supported

Computer-supported

Not computer- supported

Computer-supported

Class Avg:

9.67

8.43

6.00

6.56

The fourth-graders, already proficient in reading and in writing with their existing technology, were skilled and confident in their own capabilities; working with others was new and, while some fourth-graders voiced positive comments about working collaboratively, in the end, the fourth-graders may not have felt really compelled or particularly comfortable working collaboratively.

In contrast, the fifth-graders, whose score on the essay averaged almost 1/3 lower overall than the age-fourth-graders, perhaps were less confident in their existing skills and thus were open to trying something new. Here's a telling quote from a fifth-grader:

  • “I learned that if I put my mind to something I can do anything, and asking for help won’t hurt me at all.”

On the other hand, the newness of collaborating had its challenges, according to another fifth-grader:

  • “I was feeling so mad. It was hard working with people who want to do their own thing. But then we got it together.”

Bottom line: While collaboration posed its challenges, the low SES students still benefited more from the collabrified text editor than the high SES students. Great news for educational technology advocates; even better news for low SES children! But, as we said at the outset, this is a pilot study and the data can only be taken as interestingly suggestive... okay, okay… VERY interestingly suggestive!!

So where did this collabrified writer come from? Through an NSF SBIR grant, StarWalk KidsMedia built it on top of their StarWalk Reader, an award-winning e-book reader that enables students to access a large book catalog of fiction and nonfiction.

The collabrified StarWalk Writer is not available yet. But, if you want to use a free, collabrified text editor now, download WeWrite+ on the Apple App Store; an Android version will be available by 1/15/15 on the Google Play Store. WeWrite+ is quite vanilla when compared to the adult-oriented Google Docs Editor — but that’s not a bug. Simplicity, we feel, is a feature for K-6.

And, in the name of shameless self-promotion: Download our other collabrified and free productivity tools for iPads: WeSketch+ (drawing/animating),  WeMap (concept mapping), WeKWL (KWL charting).  For Android, download WeMap, WeKWL. WeSketch+ is coming for Android… shortly!

The Android and iOS versions play nicely together: In your BYOD classroom, a student could be using WeMap on an iPad, while another could be using WeMap on an Android tablet — and both students are working together on the same concept map! And the apps can be used to support synchronous collaboration when the children are not co-located, i.e., when each child is at his or her home, working alone. Indeed, with our tools, students never need to learn alone again!  

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