But before that, a brief interlude. I had long been looking for a sort of collaborative whiteboard that allows students to annotate and comment on a single document such that each comment would be immediately visible to all participants. I’m aware of shared documents in eg Google docs or Dropbox, but I wanted something a little freer where students could circle around stuff, add notes etc. I think I first came across Twiddla in this post on emergingedtech. As the post says, these kinds of tools tend to come and go, and it’s one of the frustrations in this business that any online tool that works well this year might not be around next year.
Anyhow, Twiddla is pretty uncomplicated and allows you to upload documents, pictures or webpages as background to a whiteboard that can then be annotated by everyone who is sent the URL for that particular “meeting”. Everyone can highlight stuff, draw lines and boxes around text or images, and add notes. In this case the learning objective was to understand the conventions of writing a lab report. A colleague had written a very nice “bad example” lab report which I had turned (crudely) from a pdf document via screenshots into images. It is possible to upload a regular pdf as background but I didn’t have the “proper” Acrobat software to trim the pages I didn’t want off the original document.
Having inserted text and images as background, I sent the link to the 8 students with minimal instructions and invited them to annotate “everything that was wrong” with the “bad example”. One issue I had to explain is that the “erase” function needs to be used judiciously- comments, highlights and background are erased together, so all would be lost. However, anything in the “comment layer” can be selected and moved or deleted individually, and Ctrl+z for “undo” works in the whiteboard.
As the figure shows, the students had no trouble finding their way around the whiteboard and annotated heavily but in a very orderly way. They also used individual colours for underlining and freehand highlighting (I think- don’t know who did what), but it’s a pity that text boxes can’t be colour-coded. Instead I suggested using the initials. One student got in very early and added loads of comments, which made it less rewarding for the rest of the group. But I suppose there’s no straightforward way of encouraging a more synchronised collaboration unless it’s really essential for the task.
I think this worked well as a preparation for a face-to-face discussion, but it was a bit tricky in the tutorial session to work from what had turned into a very complex annotated document. Calling on the individual students to explain their comments did not seem a particularly intelligent way to go about it. Maybe I’ll invite the group, or smaller groups of students, to summarize the take home messages instead of trawling through the whole whiteboard myself with everyone watching. I think there is plenty of potential for other kinds of collaborative tasks with this tool.