Using Online Office Applications: Collaboration Tools for Learning

By Kieser, Ann L.; Golden, Fay Ortiz | Distance Learning, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Using Online Office Applications: Collaboration Tools for Learning


Kieser, Ann L., Golden, Fay Ortiz, Distance Learning


Introduction

At one time, completing a team assignment in the traditional college setting meant holding a meeting at the library or someone's dorm room. The assignment was usually sectioned off and assigned to each team member who would then take his or her respective assignments home to research and complete. The finished product would consist of several sections of information synthesized into one report. The final document was usually generated with the help of a word processor as the writer of each section would deliver their contribution on a storage device, such as a floppy disk, to the editor of the team. The editor would then assemble the final document.

Later, with the arrival of the Internet, the process to complete group assignments was facilitated through the use of e-mail accounts. Each contributor of the assignment could deliver his or her document electronically. Copies of the documents could be e-mailed back and forth in order for the team members to make comments and forward changes.

In the secondary school environment, teachers and students are also confronted with challenges when a group project is assigned. Documents (which for this article include word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation software) are often created by individual students at their own computer. Sharing the documents with each other can be cumbersome on a school network when certain rights prohibit students and teachers from accessing the document from another student's folder. The final copy is often produced with a lot of copying and pasting between individually created documents.

Unable to access the saved network document from home, students are forced to e-mail the document home or save it to a portable storage device. Multiple roadabound once the document leaves the school network. It is not uncommon for the teacher to hear that the student "forgot" to return e-mail the document, that the e-mail attachment document did not go through, that the portable storage device was lost, that a team member with the needed document is absent, and so on.

The examples listed above describe methods of student communication that were originally intended to serve as an exercise in teamwork and collaboration. Until now, the tools available for learners to collaborate did not always provide a realistic collaboration experience. This article will showcase the technologies that facilitate collaboration using Web-based office applications. We will first provide some background information on the role of collaboration and learning. This will be followed by a section on the development of communities for an online class. The next section will highlight the emerging online office applications. We will conclude with our personal experience both teaching with and using one of the online office applications, Google docs.

THE NEED FOR COLLABORATION

Alluri and Balasubramanian (2006) define collaboration as "a coordinated, synchronous activity that is the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem" (para. 1). Collaboration has been recognized as a necessary and fundamental success factor in many organizations (Sonnenwald, Iivonen, Alpi, & Kokkinen, 1999). To compete in a global environment, government, non-government, and academia use teams to find solutions to complex problems. Collaboration has also been designated as a necessary component for active learning.

Given the research on the benefits of collaboration, students are often encouraged to collaborate in both online and traditional classrooms. Benefits of collaboration include developing critical thinking skills, discussion and consideration of ideas, and social skill development. Collaborative learning environments can be designed to account for different learning styles, increase relationships between the student and the teacher, and reduce classroom anxiety.

Many current pedagogies incorporate collaboration. …

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