In the year since education abruptly switched to remote learning, teachers have employed a variety of technological tools to continue to engage in collaboration within their professional learning communities. In Washington state, as in many parts of the country some students and teachers returned to in person learning while others continued remotely. Because members of the same professional learning communities were in buildings while others continued to teach remotely education professionals continued to rely on technology to facilitate collaboration.
The unique stressors and situations educators faced this year resulted in a rapid culling of digital collaboration tools, leaving only the best tools in use among each collaborative group. In an Edutopia post, Jonathan Eckert explains the benefits of culling process, saying:
“This school year’s desperation has driven us to explore a wide range of tools, and we can be better because of the firehose learning we have done this year. We just need a few tools to create some space for us to breathe.”(Eckert, 2021)
Unfortunately, there is a dearth of information regarding which tools saw the most use among educators, or even which tools were used the most within different age bands and subjects. Therefore, the answer to which collaborative tools teachers in schools/districts in which staff and students working and learning both remote and in person (or hybrid) found most effective remains elusive. Nonetheless, one can glean a generalized view of collaborative tools and practices from identifying patterns within the advice and suggestions provided by education experts. For example, if a specific tools appears frequently, it is possible to infer that it may be more useful than others. Alternatively, if a specific tool appears frequently on articles early in the pandemic and rarely in articles later in the pandemic, it is possible to infer that the tool proved less useful for most educators.
Comparing Digital Recommendations
A review of lists of collaboration tools from before the pandemic move to remote learning and during the early stages revealed little difference in the recommended tools. However, comparing the tools recommended before and during the 2019 school year to those recommended during the 2020 school year revealed significant differences that may be attributable to the natural culling of tools that occurs after educators had been teaching and collaborating remotely for several months.
Before and early in the pandemic, sources showed forty-seven technology tools whose recommendations for teachers included variances in the term “collaboration” in their description. Conversely, by the 2020 school year, there were only 24 technology tools in the articles that were identified with a descriptor indicating their usefulness in collaboration. The word clouds below illustrate the decrease in the number of recommended tools during pandemic remote learning. They represent an equal sampling of posts suggesting collaboration tools to teachers. On the left, are technology tool recommendations from before the pandemic through the end of the 2019-2020 school year. The word cloud on the right shows the diminished list from the 2020-2021 school year.
Throughout this review of articles and posts advising teachers to use specific tools, some digital tools stood out. Of the three most commonly appearing digital tools, only one was recommended with equal frequency in the beginning of the pandemic and in the second school year of the pandemic: google education suite. The other most frequently recommended tools were Microsoft Teams and Zoom, which both increased their frequency of appearance from appearing in 25% of the articles and posts to 100%. Remind and Screencastify did not appear in any recommendations for collaborative tools early and before the pandemic remote learning, but appeared in half of the articles with teacher technology tools later in the pandemic. Alternatively, Flipgrid, Padlet, Skype and several other technology tools appeared less frequently in recommendations for teachers during the second school year of the pandemic. These changes indicate the way in which some technology tools may have gained in perceived value from educators and education experts, while others lost in perceived usefulness.
Digital Collaboration Tools
Google Education Tools
These tools include Google Classroom, Google Drive, Jamboard, Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Google Slides, which combine to create a robust suite of tools that sync with the Google learning management system. The elements that make these tools work well for instruction also improve their effectiveness as collaboration tools. Google “drive’s cloud-based system lets users work on written documents, spreadsheets and more from any internet-connected device,” for example (Collins).
The Microsoft Teams suite of tools includes a long list of attributes that make in person teaching and collaboration work smoothly. The New York City Department of Education provides 12 attributes to Microsoft teams that are essential for educators, including aspects that are specifically useful for collaboration among professionals. For example, “dial into the conference. . .password protect a virtual meeting space, share screens,. . . create discussion threads, and share files” (2021). Tech and Learning Newsletter lauds the seamless way in which the tools that make up the Microsoft Teams suite work together, saying “Microsoft Teams integrates layers to make sure the experience is as seamless as possible” (2021).
The video conferencing company became an essential part of professional learning communities as well as classrooms for students in a manner that surprised even the company itself, which “had no idea it would suddenly become the most popular video conferencing tool not only for adults working from home, but also for schools to hold online classes” (Achieve Virtual).
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Eckart, J. (2021, February 5). 10 teacher picks for best tech stools. Edutopia. Retrieved from: https://www.edutopia.org/article/10-teacher-picks-best-tech-tools
EdSmart (2016, July). Online collaboration tools for educators. Ed Smart. Retrieved from: https://www.edsmart.org/50-free-online-collaboration-tools-for-educators/
Ferriter, B. (2016). Quick guide to tools for collaboration. Solution Tree. Retrieved from https://www.dropbox.com/s/3woi3itduw5ron6/Handout_QuickGuidetoToolsforCollaboration.docx?dl=0
Herrman, Z. (2020, April 17). 4 guiding questions for remote collaboration. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/4-guiding-questions-effective-remote-collaboration
Honigsfeld, A., Nordmeyer, J. (2020). Teacher collaboration during a global pandemic. ASCD: An Educational leadership special report: A new reality: getting remote learning right. (Vol 77) (pgs 47-50). Retrieved from: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/summer20/vol77/num10/Teacher-Collaboration-During-a-Global-Pandemic.aspx
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NCDI (2021, February 3). Online pedagogy: considerations for digital instruction. NCDI Remote Learning Resources. Retrieved from: https://sites.google.com/dpi.nc.gov/remote-learning-resources/home/online-pedagogy
New York City Department of Education (2021). Teach from home technology. NYC Department of Education. Retrieved from: https://infohub.nyced.org/working-with-the-doe/covid-19-resources/teach-from-home-technology
Symonds Research (2021, January 22). 21 Tools for online teaching for teachers, and freelance corporate trainers. [blog]. Retrieved from https://symondsresearch.com/best-online-teaching-tools/
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