Teacher Lee Briggs on technology in today's classroom. Brought to you by Weekly Reader.

For the last two weeks, our students have been working hard on a great project. They have just ended a unit on mechanical advantage and simple machines. Specifically, the students were to document the engineering and math that goes into moving really heavy things.

Rather than give the students a test, my colleague Mr. Schiller had the students create a business plan. The mission statement of this business? Simply put: no job is too big.

Each group of students picked an object that is normally too big to move. Good examples were icebergs (for instant lakes), whales, monster-trucks, redwoods, and dinosaurs.

As the tech teacher, my job was to see that students produced a brochure. Inevitably, these sorts of projects always devolve into one student in the group doing all the work. I don’t like this, and so I split the project up into parts and assigned each student a portion of the assignment to work on. Later on, all of the portions get pieced together. Cooperation is a skill often reinforced in other parts of the school, but often left out of computers, which are often seen as single-user tools.

Sure, computers are great tools of publishing. More can be done with a desktop computer now than a print company or professional advertising firm 10 years ago.  But more importantly, in this day and age of cloud computing and collaboration spanning the globe, it’s also important to teach our students how to work together online—to cooperate, as they do on the playground, to produce a product.

There are lots of great ways for students to work together online. A few of my favorites are:

wikispaces– A great site for creating a public page where students can collaborate and make their very own wiki. It’s a fantastic place for highlighting a science fair project, history reports, and literature circles.

sync.in– Another fantastic site; with a single click a word processor opens up, complete with a link. Share that link with as many people as you want for instant, real-time group writing. Great for reports, newsletters, and anything else where you want many students working on the same document.

Google Documents– By far my favorite and the most versatile of the bunch. Google Documents lets students work on the same spreadsheet, presentation, or text document. There are multiple ways to share, save, and publish these documents and multiple levels of control. The applications are limitless and it works with everything. If something should happen to it, I don’t know what I would do.

A great primer for collaborating in Google Docs, created by Weekly Reader, can be found here: http://www.google.com/educators/weeklyreader.html


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