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3 Tools for Facilitating Discussion Outside of Class: Piazza, Basecamp, and Slack

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Written By: Emily Crawford

Getting students to participate in class discussions can be difficult. Encouraging discussion outside of the classroom can be even more challenging. Luckily, there are an increasing number of applications out there that can conveniently facilitate discussion outside of the classroom in a streamlined, easy to use way. Here are our three top picks and how they compare!

Piazza

Piazza is a “free online gathering place” offers excellent tools for both basic discussion and more complex collaboration, including  trackable edits from both students and instructors. It uses a wiki-style framework, which means that students and instructors can edit one another’s posts. This feature may or may not be relevant  for basic discussions, but it can be great for collaboration and providing group feedback on a specific project or document.

Students and instructors can post a “Note,” a “Question,” or a “Poll/In-Class Response,” all of which can be edited by classmates and instructors. A “note” is a simple post, like a comment on a forum. A “question” prompts a response, or “answer” post, which can come from any student or instructor. Anyone can post a “follow-up discussion” to any note, question, or poll. piazza

The former two tend to be used most frequently. For basic discussion, the edit function is not really necessary, but it’s good to keep in mind that it exists.

Overall, Piazza is easy to set-up – it lives in your browser, and doesn’t require a download. There are some extraneous features which add clutter to the interface, but overall if you’re looking for a forum-style discussion platform with additional editing features for collaboration, Piazza is generally a great option.

Overall grade: B+

Basecamp

Basecamp was originally created with professional teams in mind for managing project workflows, but teachers have found it incredibly helpful as well, and are eligible for free accounts (unlike for-profit users).  If you’re visually-minded, Basecamp has a lot of features that make for a pleasant and streamlined experience, like a timeline on the course homepage that tracks all activity since you created your “Basecamp,” or course homepage.basecamp

This web app is themed around a the metaphor of a mountain expedition, with the main discussion forum for a class labeled as the “campfire.” It also offers a  message board, which has the potential for multiple comment threads, unlike the main “Campfire” forum. Users can create a “To-Do List,” which lets you set goals and assign tasks, a schedule, “Automatic Check-ins,” and a “Docs and Files” section where people can upload documents or create new ones directly in Basecamp.

It’s aesthetically pleasing, but the cutesy icons and expedition-themed names for functions may not be for all tastes. Because of its diverse features, Basecamp can function as a substitute for Blackboard, but students may miss the ability to easily track grades.
Overall, Basecamp has a lot of great functionality and is ideal for a class with a more project- centric structure, and is great for group work because of  its orientation towards teams.

Overall grade: A-

Slack

Slack is a great all-purpose platform for discussion, collaboration, and general communication with students outside the of classroom.  While the app  has the framework and look of a instant messenger app, it has the potential to do so much more. With diverse features, this free application accessible from your computer, tablet, or phone gives users  the ability to easily attach all types of media to any message.slack

Slack has all of the functionality of any messenger app (like Gchat), plus the ability to attach images, files, links, long-form content that you type into Slack itself, or even snippets of web code, should that be your area. It offers a  great alternative to email between class members and professors alike, as you can easily set up mobile alerts to your phone, should you want respond to students on the go. Students can also message each other or create private group chats for team work. For discussions, you can create “Channels,” or content threads, to which multiple students and instructors can contribute. These comments can easily be tracked, if you require participation outside of class.

Slack is ideal for any class with a class participation component, especially for subject matter that may require sharing content like screenshots, other images, or even web code.

Overall grade: A

All three options are completely free for educators, but offer paid deluxe versions for large class sizes. Unfortunately, none of these applications can synchronize their functions with official grades. Slack, like Basecamp, can substitute for Blackboard in that it facilitates assignment submissions, discussion, and collaboration. Piazza offers much of the same functionality, but is less mobile-convenient and less team-oriented.

Slack is our current favorite, but all three of these applications are great options for facilitating discussion and collaboration outside of your classroom.

 

Emily Crawford in an Advanced Learning Technologies Consultant in CTRL.

Working on a computer

Education Web Tools to Use in Your Classroom

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Web tools can be a vibrant supplement to lectures or assignments and can take student learning to a new level. Whether you want to try flipping your class or are wanting to move your discussions online, these tools will be a welcomed addition to your modern classroom.

Synchronous Communication
  • Google HangoutsGoogle Hangouts is Google’s free video chat tool that enables one-on-one chats and group chats with up to ten people at a time. Anyone with a Google Plus account can create a Hangout (information on getting started with Google Plus can be found here).
  • Skype: Skype has led the videoconferencing scene for so long that its name has morphed into a verb. Whether you’re hosting a video chat or want to share your screen, Skype is a popular alternative to Google Hangouts.
Sharing Files
  • Google DriveGoogle Drive offers a comprehensive suite of collaborative, online tools including word documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and forms. After signing up, you’ll have 15 GB of free Google online storage to keep photos, designs, recordings, videos, and more. Others can be invited to view, download, and collaborate on your files in Drive, and everything is accessible from a smartphone, tablet, or computer.
  • DropboxDropbox is another great resource for sharing files with students. Upon signup, you’ll get 2 GB of space to share documents, PDFs, videos, and images with students’ own Dropbox accounts.
Content Management
  • WordPressWordPress is a versatile Content Management System that can host class blogs, group projects, and ePortfolios. Customize your website further with the vast collection of free WordPress themes and plugins available.
Curation
  • PinterestPinterest is a visual collection of online resources where you can use online “pinboards” to save articles, photos, blog posts and other resources in one place. Create multiple boards to collect and organize ideas for class projects.
  • PocketPocket is a program that allows for saving content to read it later. Pocket can keep articles organized by tags and is a powerful tool for gathering and analyzing information. Saved content is available to view offline and can easily be shared.
  • Evernote: Evernote is a multi-function app that lets you create content with notebooks, or collect content by clipping articles or taking photos and  allows for endless organization. Use Evernote to capture feedback from students, collect snapshots of the whiteboard after class, and share notebooks with your students.
 Social Network & Discussions
  • Twitter: Twitter can be used both synchronously and asynchronously to engage learners and others outside the classroom. Encourage your students to use assigned hashtags to exchange ideas, articles, project resources, and have a conversation.
  • Facebook: Facebook is another platform that can accommodate classroom discussions. Easily create a Facebook Page or Group that can be effectively used to share information, and facilitate discussions within a page.
 Audio/Video Recording
  • Audacity: Audacity is a sound editing/recording tool that can be used for creating Podcasts, recording speeches, and recording sound for Powerpoint presentations.
  • YouTubeMake your class visually stimulating by creating YouTube videos for your students. Videos can supplement lessons, or ask students to make their own videos to present information or respond to a discussion.
  • VimeoVimeo is a video-hosting application that has the same uploading, comment moderation, and sharing options as YouTube. In addition, with Vimeo you can organize content into albums and channels and customize the look of the the video player.

Call For Mobile Learning Projects

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Experiment with mobile devices in your teaching

Do you want to explore ways to incorporate your own or students’ mobile devices (e.g., smartphones, tablets, or laptops) into your teaching? This is your opportunity, you can now submit a Mobile Learning Project proposal for the AY 2014-2015.

Mobile Learning Projects

Your project can take any shape or form, and you can request reimbursement for app or software license purchases or other related expenses. CTRL will provide instructional design and help develop a strategy to incorporate and assess your Mobile Learning Project. Past projects included screen-sharing mobile accessories, crafting mobile-friendly survey tools, restructuring course syllabi to include mobile technologies, or use of social media to extend coursework beyond the classroom experience.

How to apply

Apply HereWhen you plan your project, please consider some of the Mobile Learning Principles developed by the Mobile Learning Task Force: e.g. to facilitate engagement, interactivity, collaboration, and other learning opportunities in and out of scheduled courses and develop opportunities to use mobile learning tools, regardless of course format. (See all the principles here).

You are encouraged to consult with Lucas Regner, Coordinator of Faculty Technology Initiatives at CTRL, before submitting your application. The Mobile Learning Task Force will review proposals submitted before September 30th, 2014. (Click the “Apply Here” button to the right).

You need the following to complete the application:

  • Name(s) of participating Faculty Member(s)
  • Project Description (200-300 words)
  • Project Budget
  • Name of course(s) and approximate number of students

The Mobile Learning Initiative is coordinated by CTRL, Office of Information Technology, the University Library, and University Communications and Marketing.

Blackboard Collaborate

Mobile Tool Review: Blackboard Collaborate

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This Mobile Tool Review was written by John David Clark, Learning Technologies Trainer and Consultant.

Blackboard Collaborate Mobile App

Blackboard Collaborate is an AU-supported tool that facilitates online participation and coursework.

Cost

Free

Platform

The iOS/iPhone and Android apps are mobile counterparts to the full desktop version.

What does it do?

Collaborate users can participate in 
online web-conferences, complete with the ability to talk, listen,
 chat, see a virtual whiteboard, “raise a hand,” participate in polls, and
 more. Unlike the desktop version, however, there is no ability for users to share video from a webcam, PowerPoints, or other outside programs.

Which class can you use it in?

Any AU Blackboard class.

Advantages

The Collaborate mobile app can launch any Collaborate 
link. It provides mobile functionality for iOS and Android users since it does 
not need Java or Flash.

Disadvantages

Users cannot share or present, and there is no webcam functionality.

Overall Grade

B

Additional Information

Mobile Tool Review: Facebook Groups

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This Mobile Tool Review was written by Courtney Greenley, CTRL Trainer and Consultant.

Facebook Groups

Facebook groups allow instructors to facilitate a collaborative forum on a site that’s already familiar to many students.

Cost

Free

Platform

Online through all modern Internet browsers as well as free Facebook for iPhone and Facebook for Android apps.

What does it do?

Facebook groups provide a way for instructors and students to interact through the social network without having to “friend” each other. Professors and their students can use Facebook to share thoughts, news articles, YouTube videos, and other media with each other.

Which class can you use it in?

Facebook groups provide a collaborative forum that can be used in any class interested in engagement or even specific groups within a course. One professor even utilized Facebook chat to hold class online when class was cancelled due to weather. Each student had the opportunity able to contribute to discussion.

Advantages

  • Most students already have a Facebook and are familiar with using the site
  • Sharing information through Facebook groups allow students to streamline their information
  • Links, videos, and images are easily shared and discussed
  • Page administrators can see who has viewed posts
  • Students may already be using Facebook for group work or study groups within your course

Disadvantages

  • Not everyone already has a Facebook account, and some students are hesitant about creating a new social media presence
  • Some students view Facebook as a personal space

Overall Grade

A-

Additional Information

Twitter Bird Logo

Mobile Tool Review: Twitter

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This Mobile Tool Review was written by Courtney Greenley, CTRL Trainer and Consultant.

Twitter

New Twitter users will be pleasantly surprised by how the tool can be seamlessly integrated into classroom lectures and other coursework.

Cost

Free

Platform

Online through all modern Internet browsers as well as a free Twitter for iPhone app and Twitter for Android app.

What does it do?

Twitter allows students to contribute and collaborate in real-time discussions inside and outside of the classroom. Unlike face-to-face discussions, Twitter allows conversation to flow through specific classroom hashtags anytime, anywhere, and with no limits to the number or kind of contributors. For more information on hashtags and using them correctly, visit Using Hastags on Twitter.

Which class can you use it in?

Instructors can use a projection screen at the front of the class to keep a running stream of questions and thoughts organized via hashtags during lectures (also called a “backchannel”). Students can also follow information that is associated with a specific course (or with specific Twitter accounts) outside of class.

Advantages

  • Students can collaborate on projects and keep track of changes by using a specific hashtag
  • Twitter can make engagement and discussion easier for students in large lecture classes
  • Introverts or quiet students may be more likely to contribute to text-based conversations
  • Twitter is a concise medium that operates in real-time

Disadvantages

  • Not everyone already has a Twitter account, and some students are hesitant about creating a new social media presence

Overall Grade

A-

Additional Information

 

Mobile Tool Review: Google Drive

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This Mobile Tool Review was written by Kate Burns, CTRL Trainer and Consultant.

Google Drive

Google Drive is flexible, easy to use, and excellent for collaboration.

Cost

Free, although upgraded storage space can be purchased.

Platform

Online through all modern Internet browsers as well as free iPhone and Android apps.

What does it do?

Google Drive is a cloud storage system and document-editing tool that provides 15 gigabytes of free space for over 30 different file types. With Google Drive, you can create text documents, surveys, spreadsheets, presentations, and drawings—and then share and/or collaborate on these documents with colleagues or classmates. This means that students can work on one document simultaneously. Additionally, users can view, comment-upon, and/or update a file depending upon the document’s settings. Instructors can collect and respond to homework electronically and without the need to attach files through email (and worry about opening attachments).

Which class can you use it in?

I use Google Drive during lectures and in writing intensive courses. I use it as a tool to take notes, share drafts of essays with peers, and give/receive comments on written work. I find Google Drive to be an excellent tool for peer review.

Advantages

Google Drive offers 15 gigabytes of free storage space, compared to Dropbox’s 2 gigabytes. If you need more space, Google Drive also has the advantage, as its about half the price for 100GB extra space. Unlike Dropbox, Google Drive offers multiple-user editing—meaning that more than one person can view and edit a document synchronously. In addition, Google Drive is integrated into students’ American University Webmail, which is hosted by Google. Unlike Blackboard, Google Drive can sync with your desktop files so that they are always accessible and documents are always saved automatically by Drive. Also, with Google Drive, you do not need to upload and/or use email or share files.

Disadvantages

AU Gmail and Google Drive is currently only available to AU students, so staff and instructors will need to set up a (free) private account. In addition, functions like grade book and email are already available through Blackboard and are integrated with each other.

Overall Grade

A-

Additional Information

Prezi Example

Mobile Tool Review: Prezi

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This Mobile Tool Review was written by Deni Koenhemsi, CTRL Trainer and Consultant.

Prezi

Prezi is a virtual whiteboard that turns linear presentations into interactive, collaborative, and multi-linear narratives.

Cost

Free

Platform

Online through Internet browsers as well as a free iPhone app. Prezi has not released an official Android app yet.

What does it do?

The tool offers a three-dimensional canvas to convey ideas through text and multimedia. Users have the ability to zoom-in for details and pan-out to view broader themes.

Which class can you use it in?

Prezi can be used in any class where students or instructors professors craft presentations. It offers more options that traditional slides and can be very visually stimulating.

Advantages

  • Non-linear – content is not limited to a “flat box”
  • Ability to add and showcase content through zooming in and out
  • Entire presentations can be created, edited, and saved entirely online
  • PowerPoint presentations can be imported
  • Direct multimedia embedding capability (e.g. images, YouTube videos, and audio)
  • Presentations can be saved as PDF documents for printing
  • Presentations can be downloaded to computer for offline use

Disadvantages

  • Internet connection needed for embedded online material
  • Audio voice-over needs to be recorded in advance for each frame
  • Some uses experience motion sickness

Overall Grade

A-

Additional Information

 

Piazza logo

Mobile Tool Review: Piazza

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This Mobile Tool Review was written by Courtney Greenley, CTRL Trainer and Consultant.

Piazza

Piazza is more engaging, consistent, and provides more options to facilitate learning (both inside and outside the classroom) than the default Blackboard discussion board.

Cost

Free

Platform

Compatible with all modern Internet browsers as well as free iPhone and Android apps.

What does it do?

Piazza engages students through a wiki-style Q&A with anonymity options. It eliminates redundant student e-mails and is accessible through AU’s Blackboard course pages.

Which class can you use it in?

Piazza encourages questions, discussion and student collaboration in large courses through easy-to-navigate comment threads. Anonymity options may make students more confortable sharing personal thoughts or asking questions.

Advantages

  • Handouts and homework can be posted to Course Page
  • Participation statistics give instructors the ability to track student participation
  • Mathematical and scientific equations/formulas can be posted correctly through LaTeX editor
  • Diagrams, images, videos, and other multimedia can be directly embedded within forums (as opposed to linking out to another site)
  • Instructors can allow students to post anonymously to their peers. (Instructors can view identities even when peer anonymization is selected)

Disadvantages

Piazza does not have direct access to AU Library Course Reserves.

Overall Grade

A

Additional Information

WordPress Blue Logo

Mobile Tool Review: WordPress.com

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This Mobile Tool Review was written by Cathryn Panganiban, CTRL Trainer and Consultant.

WordPress.com

With a wide array of features and capabilities, WordPress is a great platform to use whether you are interested in starting a course blog or promoting your research (or both). Those who have limited experience in blogging platforms or website management may find the platform confusing at first, but the tool is easy to learn. With these advantages and more, it is no wonder WordPress is used by many popular websites today.

Cost

$0-$30 (depending upon upgrades)

Platform

Compatible with any Internet browser as well as iPhone and Android smartphones through the (free) WordPress app.

What does it do?

WordPress allows you to create your own website within minutes. Users can manage and update content with a single click. Furthermore, its accessible features enable the user to customize the look and feel of their site—HTML/CSS/web-design experience NOT necessary. Building your online presence has never been this easy!

Which class can you use it in?

While Blackboard allows instructors to facilitate online discussions through its own blogging feature, accessibility to this content is strictly limited to those with AU Blackboard access. WordPress offers the ability to create a public website, one that can garner an audience from around the world and extend a course outside the confines of the physical classroom. With that said, I could imagine a WordPress-operated blog to be a useful tool for students to learn how to participate in online discourse through commenting and tagged posts. The added ability to share multimedia posts may also be helpful for courses interested in ePortfolios, especially ones that focus on the arts, current events, and/or social issues.

Advantages

One of the many strengths of WordPress, when compared to other blogging platforms, is the myriad of features offered to users. Each individual user can craft a website that satisfies a particular goal (e.g. communal discourse, ePortfolio). I personally like WordPress for its many themes (templates)—many of which are completely free. Themes can be changed to update the overall look of a website. Its clean interface and the ease of creating new posts are major pluses as well. It’s also worth noting that AU marketing and communication blogs run exclusively on WordPress.org. BONUS: The mobile app is handy for those who are always on the go.

Disadvantages

The “myriad of features” also come at a cost—the seemingly endless number of options can get overwhelming and confusing for those who are new to any blogging or website design platform. In addition, editing capabilities for existing templates through the free version WordPress.com is limited. Users can change the color or background image of the template, but that’s about it. Purchasing CSS editing packages or templates costs money.

Overall Grade

A

Additional Information