Monday, July 27, 2009

Writing Collaboratively: Wiki's or Google Docs?

There has been much discussion lately about the use of collaborative tools in education, especially to solve problems and create joint artifacts. In the "old" days, you might just use email to share comments or send a document back and forth. Today, there are much better options. Google Docs lets multiple users work simultaneously on a document and Wikis let multiple users update the same workspace.

I am currently in the process of writing a book with some colleagues who reside in different states and we have used both Google docs and Wiki's as part of our process. As features do vary by Wiki platform, I'll be discussing Wikispaces unless otherwise noted. There are several advantages and disadvantages to each which I will outline here:

1. Font Styles & Colors
Google Docs has a much easier interface and friendly formatting than Wikispaces. For example, in Wikispaces, changing the color of the font for a bulleted list and its heading only changes the list items. The heading remains its original color. Wikispaces also generates a popup window to make these formatting changes whereas Google Docs works the same way as Microsoft Word (inline).

2. Organization
Wikispaces wins for organization. It is very easy to set up sub-pages and link them on the sidebar. It's also easy to create links to the sub-pages from higher level pages. Because Wiki's allow you to view and edit the the underlying code, it is much like HTML. Linking to pages and anchors is a fairly common task. Google Docs uses something called bookmarking to create tags within the document, but all of your editing is still in one long document which can get unwieldy - Fast! If you want to have "sub-pages" you have to create separate Docs and open each one-at-a-time. It's not easy to move among pages at a whim. For this reason, we quickly decided to use Google Docs to maintain our main outline (to become our Table of Contents) and use Wikispaces for the actual editing of sections and chapters.

Both Google Docs and Wikispaces have their pros and cons. Google Docs is by far the easiest tool to use to make inline comments about a given piece of text. Two different methods are offered.
  • Comments - These are placed right next to the text in a shaded box with an automatic date/time stamp.
  • Footnotes - These are placed in a right-hand sidebar that resembles a comic strip bubble. When you click on the bubble, a pound symbol next to the word or phrase is highlighted.
Both of these mechanisms are useful for providing feedback or editing suggestions, or notes about something needed to be added later. Wikispaces offers no easy way to add inline comments about specific textual items on a page. We have taken to using red or bold text in [brackets] to indicate notes to each other. However, Wikispaces offers a different feature called Discussion. In the case of Wikispaces, this is a discussion board that lets users make overall comments about a specific page and tracks the comments in threads. Other Wiki platforms like Wikipedia and Wikibooks offer Discussion in the form of blank page with running commentary. PBWiki doesn't seem to offer a place for discussion.

Since comments are a major component of collaborative spaces, it will be important for you to evaluate which of these features works best for you, taking into account the other factors mentioned in this blog.

4. Notifications
Another important component for collaboration is notification of changes. Google Docs offers a way to send a message to collaborators (under the Share drop-down) where you can tell your fellow collaborators of changes you made. Other than this forced method, it doesn't seem to send notifications automatically. Wikipages is somewhat opposite. While there is no way to send a message to collaborators, each member can request notifications of either a given page or the entire Wiki site. Notifications can be sent either in email form or via an RSS feed to your favorite reader. Ideally, I'd like to see both options offered: push and pull notifications with both tools. PBWiki has this option - the creator decides if updates made by members automatically sends a notification by email (push) and the creator also decides if members can access the RSS feed (pull).

5. Changes
Regardless of the notification method, both tools let you view recent changes that have been made. Google Docs calls it revision history which is really what it is. The nice part is that you can revert back to previous versions, but discovering the changes in the most recent version is difficult. The first few words of the changes are listed but formatting changes simply say "no text added". The only real way to see the changes is to select revisions to compare and search through the long document for highlighted text by color (a different color is assigned to each user). Wikispaces works similarly in that you have to choose two versions to compare but instead of highlighting changes by user, it highlights changes by "inserted text" and "deleted text" which I find easier to manage. Another nice feature is that it lets the user add a comment about the changes made which show up in the history list.

5. Other Features
There are an assortment of other features that each tool offers but these are not standard across the board so I'll just list a few here.
  • Google Docs - Import/Export with MS Word (allows you to interchange with .doc format) & Publish to Web (converts document to HTML and makes it public).
  • Wikispaces - Wiki Statistics & Space Usage (tells you about the traffic and usage of the Space). The biggest selling point for me with Wikispaces is that they offer a free Plus plan if the site is being used for education.
  • PBWiki - Folders (lets you create folders containing sub-pages rather than having to manage the organization of sub-pages yourself) & Tags (another way to organize the page).

Hopefully this will help you decide which tool to use depending on the goals of the collaborative project.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Google Gadget "Motion Chart" as a Mindtool

In my most recent class: Computers, Problem Solving and Cooperative Learning we are studying about how Mindtools can be used in the classroom to promote critical thinking and problem solving skills. These technology tools provide the opportunity for students to analyze, organize, inquiry and hypothesize in ways that are difficult to do without such tools. Mindtools include such technologies as concept maps, spreadsheets, expert systems, databases, presentation software, and modeling/simulations.

In the case of spreadsheets, gathering data and representing the information visually in the form of graphs and charts allows students to see new relationships among the data that they might not originally detect from the raw numbers. It ideally will also prompt them to ask questions about patterns and trends that become visible.


Google Docs spreadsheet was used to create this representation showing Immigration Trends in the U.S. since 1850. The Google Gadget Motion Chart culls data from several columns including "entity" and "time" to present an entirely new view of the data. Very cool! I think students will definitely appreciate and embrace this tool as a way to enhance their own learning.

View the full set of data and change axes and variables for different results.