Tech Tip: Using Etherpad for Student Collaboration

Update as of August 2015: ETHERPAD is no longer available in Canvas.

Emmanuel College’s ECLearn (Canvas learning management system) allows for easy integration with external tools.

One application offered under the “Collaborations” tool menu is Etherpad. As described on etherpad.org, this is “a highly customizable open source online editor providing collaborative editing in really real-time.”

Etherpad is a tool similar to a Google Docs document. It opens as a blank wiki page where multiple users can participate at the same time. Once online, each pad contributor can communicate with others via a chat. Each member can be anonymous or identified by their name associated with the colored text they input. The color is automatically assigned, but users can pick their choice if they wish. Just like a wiki page, students can look at previously saved versions of the document.

etherpad snapshotEthepad can be imported and exported as HTML page, plain text, MS Word doc, PDF, ODF, or DokuWIki. An interesting feature is the timer that is a recording of a real-time version of the page editing process. A saved version can be replayed unlimited times to see who did what and when. The pad can be also embedded and shared as a link. This allows for creating collaborative spaces that are web-based, which allows for different users to edit the same version of a document without having to save separate copies of it; possibly, it also avoids the necessity to attribute ownership of the final result, because it is all self-evident.


This Fall semester, ATIG noticed two faculty who implemented Etherpad in their ECLearn courses. In a Business course, the instructor (Kelly Grant) had students brainstorm ideas using the tool on a course level. (For more on this particular professor’s pedagogy and course design, check out Faculty Spotlight section where the faculty member will be featured in December 2014.)

Another teacher – Prof. Ana Otero – used Etherpad differently. In her Biology course, she grouped the students in pairs and gave them the option to select a topic of interest to develop their case study. Students used the tool to collaborate within their group. Each member was tasked to research and contribute to the story, so the end result would be a mixed input illustrating the work of the two participants whose intertwined thoughts are laid out in writing in pre-determined format. Not everyone used the tool as intended. Some worked individually and their work displayed no evidence of mutual effort. Others collaborated in person and delivered a final result posted by one of the two members. And yet others, used the tool properly to edit each others postings in order to improve the final outcome.

There are more examples of online collaborative work using this particular tool. What are yours? To find out more about other collaborative tools, check out the How-To @ Emmanuel EClearn course where all academic technologies offered to faculty are listed. Have questions? Email us at at@emmanuel.edu.

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