You are on page 1of 11

Web 2.

0 in the Classroom:
Collaborative Learning Tools
for Science

NSTA 2009 Annual Conference

Presented by:
Stephen Best, University of Michigan

More information at:

Overview of this Session:

Several Web 2.0 tools can support inquiry and problem solving for
learners. See how these new tools are providing new learning
opportunities specifically for science.

In this session, we are going to look at the wide variety of collaborative learning tools that are available on
the Web, and will see look at some of the specific functions of these tools to see how they can ease or
enhance our students’ learning of science. We’ll look at some of the different functionality of these tools
and see how they work to allow you to enhance the learning
experience for students by allowing them to engage with others.

Along with all of this come a variety of issues and concerns that
teachers may need to consider in selecting and using some of
these tools in the classroom. We’ll show you how you can review
these tools and plan for instruction using them to ensure the best
possible outcomes for you and your students.

About the Presenters and Resources:

These resources are generated from the Michigan Mathematics and Science Teacher Leadership Collaborative
(MMSTLC), a statewide effort to support instructional leadership at many levels in local schools, regional
support agencies, and higher education. These resources are a part of the broader set of resources being
provided to project participants to help them support other teachers in their schools and region.

For more information about the project or any of these tools, visit the MMSTLC Web site:

Stephen Best is one of the project directors of the MMSTLC, and has been directing professional
development, outreach, research, and teacher education efforts in the University of Michigan School of
Education for the past 15 years. He is a former middle and high school science and mathematics teacher,
and provides support and leadership in these areas, as well as educational technology and comprehensive
school reform.

MMSTLC Science: Collaborative Online Tools for Science Education Page 2 of 11

Thinking About Student Learning
Too often, when we hear about an interesting web site or resource, we decide we are going to use it before
we know much about it, just because of some unique quality about the site itself. But, before we start
thinking about what tools we can use or should use, we should first think about what we actually do (or
should do!) in our classrooms to help students develop an understanding and appreciation for science
concepts. Ideally, once we do
this, and subsequently think
about what we want our
students to understand, we
can then start thinking about
how the functions of the
online tools we are going to
look at will help our students
understand science.

The slide at right shows some

of the possible activities we
might have our students do in
our science classes. This is
not a definitive list by any
means - it just gives some of
the common examples of
activities that we often have
our students engage in with
the hope of building their
knowledge and understanding
of content.

Needless to say, we don’t

want to try finding tools to
address each and every one of
these. Rather, we could look
at this list and start to
categorize these items by the
general “type” of activity that
we often have students do to
learn about or “do” science.
The next slide identifies these
major categories. We will
look at some of the online
tools that might address each
of these.

MMSTLC Science: Collaborative Online Tools for Science Education Page 3 of 11

“Collaborative” Online Tools

When you look at the list of tasks that we have students do in our classes from the slide on the previous
page, there is one interesting thing that stands out with respect to this presentation: none of the “tasks”
that are listed are necessarily “collaborative” tasks. These are almost all things that students can actually
do on their own. This is not to say that they are not good things to do... it is just that they don’t necessarily
incorporate the notion of collaboration. However, if you view all of these items as tasks that groups of
students could do, rather than each individual student, it can change the way you look at the task. We
might ask a group of students to combine several tasks, or perform variations of these tasks, which we know
can further enhance their understanding. For instance, rather than having all individual students do an
investigation where they collect data, make a table and graph from the data, and write an explanation of
what they might have observed in an investigation, we might have students take on different roles, and ask
them to decide as a group to design the table on their own, to decide what type of graph is going to be most
appropriate to explain the data that was collected, and to compare their explanation with others on the
same topic. We might also ask them to evaluate the work of others and think about what additional data
would either help support their explanation or could supplant the explanation that was given.

All of this points toward the idea of “collaborative” learning that we mention with the tools we are going to
look at. The beauty of these tools is the ways in which you can share your work or task with others with a
few clicks of buttons on the sites, and how this can open up the learning opportunities for students. This
concept is based on the learning theories of Lev Vygotsky, who proposed a view on learning called “social
constructivism”. He was a psychologist in the early-mid 20th century who generally followed the concepts of
developmental learning proposed by Jean Piaget and others - however, Vygotsky also suggested that our
learning is heavily influenced by the social interactions we have with others. It is this notion that pervades
the tools we are going to explore in this session; that students don’t just learn on their own, and that they
don’t just learn from a teacher alone. Rather, students learn by discussing ideas with others, especially
those others who might have a different understanding than we do. Vygotsky suggests that children’s
interaction with knowledgeable others (i.e. teachers, parents, other students) helps to challenge and expand
their learning and understanding of concepts. More recent research suggests that students are often far
more “open” to having this dialogue with other students, rather than the teacher alone.

How does this translate to the web sites we are going to look at, and this idea of Web 2.0? It has to do with
the functions of these sites. All of them have some form of “collaboration” feature or element which allows
them to share content at the base level, or, in many cases, allows the users to collaborate in creating the
content on the tools. A tool like the word processor in Google Docs is a simple example of this. On one
hand, it is like a simplified version of Microsoft Word or other word processors that sit on our computer’s
hard drive - they let us craft and edit text documents and do some level of formatting. However, in Word, if
you want to share a document for others to work on, you need to save it, email it to others, have them work
on it (preferably one at a time, so they don’t mess up each others’ edits), and email it around to others to
review and edit. In Google Docs, you simply click the “Share” button, which sends a link to the other
writers, and they can go and edit it at the same time, and their edits are noted in different colors if you are
all working at the same time. Just think of the potential!

MMSTLC Science: Collaborative Online Tools for Science Education Page 4 of 11

Where Do We Start?
Once you have a sense of the type of tool you want to use (i.e. a video sharing tool, text-creation, etc.),
then one of the first sites you should check out is the site below, which is a “catalog” of Web 2.0 sites on the
Internet. You will see you can identify a site, what it focuses on, etc. from the descriptions given. Since
there are SO MANY such sites, you should use the “tags” to identify common terms that might apply to the
type of site you want (i.e. photos, maps, spreadsheet, etc.)

Some Considerations:
When reviewing sites that you might use in your classroom (either on your own or with students using the
tools), here are some points to consider:

• What is the focus of the site? Who uses it, and for what purpose?
• Do you need to log in to the site with your own ID?
This is common for most such sites, but can be an issue if you need to create logins for all of your
• What is the cost for using the site?
Some may have a cost structure to fund the site (remember, they are not there out of the goodness of
their hearts), or others have a “free” set of tools and a “pay” set of tools. See what the difference is,
and make sure that the free set is not just on a trial basis that is going to ask your students to pay
something after they have used the site for a while.
• What is the business model of the site?
Not that you need to deal specifically with this, but you can get a sense from this what future the site
has and whether it might be a long term tool you can use with students. Some sites have advertising
to support the site (consider what they advertise!), while others sell contact information to marketing
companies. Others are hoping to be bought out by companies based on the number of users of the
site. Just remember, many of these free sites that don’t have lots of users might not be able to
sustain themselves, and could disappear overnight.
• What are the technical requirements for the site?
Because of the programming that goes into some of these sites, they may not be able to be used by
older (4+ year old) computers that use older browsers (i.e. Internet Explorer 6 or earlier, Netscape,
etc.). Make sure they would work on your school machines, and for kids to possibly use at home.
• Does your school block the site?
This is a huge issue for some. See if you can access the site at school, and then see if your students
can (sometimes, they have different access than you). If a site is really useful but not available, there
are ways your technology support staff can “open” access to specific sites.

MMSTLC Science: Collaborative Online Tools for Science Education Page 5 of 11

Some Suggestions for Use:
Once you find a site you want to use, here are some strategies you may want to use to effectively use the
site with your students.

• Limit the number of tools you use.

Don’t just skip from tool to tool - create a set of tools that you use often and stick with them, so that
you don’t overload yourself or your students.
• Set up accounts for students in advance.
This can take a little time, but allows you to set access so that if a student loses a password, you might
have access to it. Similarly, this can ensure that students don’t lock you out of the work they are
• Set up a naming structure or organization for files they create.
If left to their own devices to name every file they create and share with you or others, you are going
to go crazy trying to find what you are looking for and keep track of it. If you have a particular task
they are to do and collaborate on for your class any given day, give them the name of the task as it
should be named so that you can easily identify it.
• Ideally, use sites that allow multiple tools with one login.
Google is great for this, but there are others too. This means less management headaches for you.

Google Docs -

Evernote -

Zoho -

MMSTLC Science: Collaborative Online Tools for Science Education Page 6 of 11

MMSTLC Science: Collaborative Online Tools for Science Education Page 7 of 11
MMSTLC Science: Collaborative Online Tools for Science Education Page 8 of 11
MMSTLC Science: Collaborative Online Tools for Science Education Page 9 of 11
Commonly Referenced “Web 2.0” Sites and Tools

Blogging Tools
Blogger ( - a simple online blogging tools that uses simple steps and templates
to create and publish a blog. All content is stored on the Blogger servers, rather than a local
computer. Owned by Google. There are LOTS of similar sites and tools, but this is likely the most
Wordpress and others ( - online blogging tools that are more customizable than
Blogger, and allow users to set up the underlying blogging software on their own server (unlike
Blogger). Similar ones are TypePad and Moveable Type.
Class Blogmeister ( - A site created by classroom blogging pioneer David
Warlick specifically for educators who want control over the blogs created by, read by, and used by
students. Teachers can give feedback and publish student blogs in a controlled environment.
Edublogs ( - Blog creation for educators at varying levels with templates to support
educational use. Links to Chalkface
Twitter ( - “Microblogging” tool that allows simple blog creation that can be
updated with and published on a cell phone. Good for allowing observations of events in the
classroom. This, and other similar tools (Jaiku, Pownce, Folkstr) also allow rich media, such as
pictures, email, or mp3 files to be uploaded. There are over 100 similar types of sites internationally.
Technorati ( - a blog search engine that does real-time search using tags or
keywords posted in blogs to help index. Other similar tools are IceRocket (,
Blog-Search (, and Google Blog Search ( These
work better than regular search engines, which are less timely in scanning blog sites.

MMSTLC Science: Collaborative Online Tools for Science Education Page 10 of 11

Wiki Tools
Wikispaces ( - a customizable wiki site dedicated to educators which
provides varying levels of access, links to common blog tools, and provides free access for
educators to create classroom wikis.
PBWiki ( - designed to make easy free wikis, educators can use this site to create
multi-user web pages or have students develop collaborative documents or PowerPoint
Wikipedia ( - The ubiquitous online encyclopedia that often gets criticized for
incorrect information. This tool uses the wiki concept to allow any members to create and update
content on any given topic. Unless searching controversial topics, there is usually more information
here than in many commercial encyclopedias.

Media Viewing/Sharing Tools

YouTube ( - the premier online video sharing site, it has become also as
synonymous as Google (it’s owner) as an online activity. Great search functionality with keywords
lets you find almost anything. Can be good in finding demonstrations or presentations of
educational content.
Flickr ( - the leading online photo sharing site, which allows sharing of photos with
friends and the world at large, as well as searching of available photos to find specific images.
Owned by Yahoo (you need a Yahoo account to post and share images) There are also MANY
copycats out there.

Education Specific Collaboration Tools (for students)

Backpack ( - an all around organizer for managing tasks, calendars, notes,
file storage and more. Could be an online management tool for students who have ongoing web
access. ( - a combination student organizer and social notetaking tool where
students can create and manage their schedule, track grades, store files, and write public notes.
Integrates with Facebook.

Education Specific Collaboration Tools (for teachers)

Chalksite ( - an online organizer to allow teachers to communicate with
students and parents through posting of grades, assignments, discussions and messaging. This is
kind of an online version of the instructional management tools like PowerSchool.
Haiku ( - a “learning management system” similar to Chalksite, this and other
similar tools allow easy management of classroom data and information. Similar sites include
Engrade and Schoopy.
TeacherTube ( - a version of YouTube that contains teachable content
generated by classes or teachers. This can often be useful to find snippets of instruction on content
that a teacher may not be as familiar with, or to have students present work to a broader
educational community via video.

MMSTLC Science: Collaborative Online Tools for Science Education Page 11 of 11