tech, simplified.

Writeboard: Class projects reinvented

Communication and teamwork are crucial for the success of any projects.  Whether in building something for a contest, organizing a sports team, or writing a class paper together, education is filled with ways that group coordination is crucial.  And it ought to be that way, as students must learn these skills to be successful in the workplace.  What better way to do that than to use real-life professional collaboration tools, right?

Last spring semester, I was assigned team project in my TeleCampus class from the University of Texas.  Excited to put technology to the test, I quickly set my team up with a wiki from PBworks.  It seemed simple enough to use.  But it turned out to not be so easy.  Classmates felt overwhelmed and resorted to emails and merging Word documents, and even I had trouble figuring out some of the system.  Eventually, our wiki was abandoned, and the class project hobbled along as every other end-of-20th-century class project had.

In the fall semester, I once again had a group class project at my new college, Florida Tech.  This time, I had heard of Writeboard.  Writeboard is an amazing product from the people at 37signals, and best of, it’s free!  It is an incredibly simple online text editor.  That’s it.  What, you say?  Does it have feature x?  Probably not.  But that was the problem with PBworks.  It had every feature and then some, but everyone was confused by it.  Do I click here or there, or both?  With Writeboard, we simply were able to focus on writing.

Writeboard does support simple text formatting, e.g. asterisk around a word make it bold (*example*).  I actually discovered the formatting by accident, because it is just natural to give emphasis to text like that. It also saves every version of our file, so we could easily see what we’d done before or what someone else changed.  We all signed in with a simple password; no new accounts for every student to setup.  Everyone in my class found it equally easy to use, and we had a vibrant community helping each other with class notes and the group project.  Altogether we had over 4,000 words in one Writeboard; not necessarily recommended, but it shows the power of Writeboard!  The tech is so easy to use, everyone enjoyed it.  And the important thing is that it actually helped us achieve our goals in ways no other tool had ever done.  Even though we techies love new features and tools, the truth is that when something needs to be done, just getting it done is sometimes better!

One other tool that helped our team out was my Backpack account.  This great tool, which I hope to write about more in the near future, lets you store lists, notes, links (including Writeboards), and more on easy-to-edit pages. For our class, I made a public page where I put a link to our team’s Writeboard, notes with important deadlines and information about the project, and lists of assignments and participants. It just tied everything in the class together easily and quickly.  No starting a new website, designing HTML/CSS, or anything, just getting the job done.

I can’t wait to try this out in my next class group project again.  If technology can make group projects both fun and productive, that’s really something!  So next time you’re in a group project, give Writeboard and Backpack a try; your team might get more done (and a better grade) too!

Thoughts? @reply me on Twitter.