Monthly Archives: July, 2014

Teaching and assessing collaboration skills using Etherpad

I am currently coming to the end of a MOOC offered through called Assessment and Teaching 21st Century Skills. I can recommend it to anyone interested in this field.

The main focus is on teaching and assessing collaborative problem solving as a key 21st century skill.

The ability to collaborate effectively has always been valuable, but in the 21st century it has become vital. The problems we are asked to deal with are frequently multidisciplinary and in an age of specialization it is necessary to bring a number of specialists together to solve most complex problems. For diverse groups to work together in this way high level collaborative skills are required.

When employers are asked what they want in their employees they typically ask for the initiative and the ability to collaborate to solve problems.

The question for teachers and educators is: How do we teach these skills and how do we assess them?

In this post I will propose a style of activity, using an online tool called Etherpad, for educators to use in teaching and assessing these skills.

What is collaborative problem solving?

The materials in the MOOC define collaborative problem solving (CPS) as:

Working together to solve a common challenge, which involves the contribution and exchange of ideas, knowledge or resources to achieve the goal.

The first 2 weeks of the MOOC were devoted to fully developing this concept, so it is not convenient to fully expand on CPS in this short post. Broadly speaking, however, a CPS scenario involves:

  1. A problem with an element of ambiguity in it.
  2. No individual participant has the resources necessary to complete the task and completion of the task is dependent on all participants.
  3. There are a number of possible paths to a solution and often a number of solutions.

In schools most teachers are familiar with group work and often associate this with CPS. Group work differs, however, in that each member of the group typically has access to the same resources, making it possible for each member of the group to work relatively independently on their assigned task(s) in solving the problem. In a true CPS scenario it is not possible for an effective solution without contributions from each participant throughout the process.

Assessing collaborative problem solving

Empirical progressions

Before we can teach CPS we need to know how to measure it.

ATC21S breaks down CPS into cognitive and social skills. These are further broken down into 5 strands, each strand breaking down into a number of skill elements. This results in a extremely granular instrument for evaluating CPS skills. Probably too detailed for teachers to use in a class of 30 students, or even 20, without extensive training and practice. I suggest that teachers get started by using a simple one dimensional empirical progression which ATC21S provide as an overview. This merges all the dimensions and strands into 6 levels of increasing proficiency. Teachers can start with this simpler rubric and progress on to the more complex and accurate tools as they become more familiar with CPS.

Zone of proximal development

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) represents the level in the empirical progression where a student can operate with assistance. It is in the ZPD where effective learning takes place. The teacher needs to evaluate the CPS skills of students and then intervene at their ZPD to help them progress.

For example suppose a group of students have a background in group work, so they are proficient at breaking up a project into sub-tasks and allocating these tasks to group members. The teacher might notice, however, that they tend to get on with their individual tasks and only refer back to the group when they are stuck. This corresponds to level B on the one dimensional progression. This indicates that the ZPD is level C, as they are capable of working together when they need to, but it is not something they do readily without prompting. In this example the teacher should intervene to increase their awareness of their partner and proactively share resources.

Teaching collaborative problem solving

In the MOOC reference is made to a series of tasks developed for this purpose. These tasks involve students solving sample problems collaboratively online. These are powerful tasks, but there is a finite number of them and it would not be easy for a classroom teacher to develop more of them. I wanted to be able to quickly develop my own tasks related to specific curriculum areas. I also wanted to be able to both assess and teach CPS using these tasks. With that in mind I turned to a free package called Etherpad.


Etherpad provides a web interface with a text area that participating students can work in, editing their own and their partner’s work. There is also a chat window which allows for direct communication. The entries by each student are colour coded so that each student’s contribution is clear. Finally there is a time slider which allows movement back and forward through the pad to see how it developed through the activity.

The Etherpad instance I use is at . Registration is free and once registered pads can be created as needed. It is possible to make the pads public (guest access and editing), private or password protected. The user interface looks like this:


Sample CPS activity

The ZPD in this example is level C or D in the one dimensional progression mentioned above. This is typical for high school students who are experienced with group work and are able to effectively assign tasks and complete projects. So in completing the activity students will need to be encouraged to be more aware of their partner(s) and share resources to complete the task.

In this activity a pair of students will collaboratively investigate the issues around abortion. Their task is to work together to develop a joint response to some questions. Each student will have a document briefly covering 5 arguments for and 5 against abortion. The two documents are different, so that each student is seeing 10 different arguments, but they are not told that. The students are separated and can only communicate through the computer system. (Click here to download the documents they are given.) The interface they see and the questions they need to answer are shown above.

On completion of the activity the teacher can study the chat session to assess:

  • What level of awareness do they have for each other?
    • Are they discussing/suggesting before adding to the text area?
    • At what point, if at all, do they realize that they have different documents?
    • Do they seek permission before editing the partner’s contribution?
  • Is there evidence of compromise?
    • Acceptance of the partner’s point of view.
    • Willingness to concede a point.
    • Willingness to allow the partner to edit their contribution.

By looking at the text area the teacher can assess:

  • How equal is the contribution by each?
    • Are the colours of the entries well balanced, or is one colour dominant?

By playing through the time slider the teacher can:

  • Evaluate how efficiently they move towards the conclusion of the task.
  • Identify which student is initiating and which is responding, or are they equal?

These are all indicators that the participants are beginning to show awareness of each other and cooperative planning, which is the ZPD for this group.

Once the teacher has been through the evaluation it can be discussed with the students. They can look through the time slider together to review the activity and discuss how they might have approached things differently at key points in the process. Discussion would focus around the ZPD for the students, making explicit the approaches they could have taken which would be more collaborative. These points can then be taken into the next cycle of activities.


  • Collaborative problem solving is a valuable skill, but as a process it is difficult to assess effectively from the end product. The use of Etherpad allows the teacher to effectively capture the process the students go through for later analysis.
  • These sort of activities are easy to set up and run in a classroom.
  • They represent a realistic CPS scenario, including the three components mentioned above.
  • The scenarios can be as complex or simple as needed, to fit the skills and maturity of the students.
  • Students who don’t normally feel comfortable contributing to class discussion are empowered through these sort of activities.
  • The activity can be subject specific and is not an intrusion into the curriculum.

If you have any suggestions or experiences of your own to bring to this topic feel free to comment.



QR codes in the classroom

For this post I will move away from badges (don’t worry badgers I plan to return to that topic again) and look at an easy application of technology in the classroom.

Most students in secondary schools have an extremely powerful device in their pocket called a smart phone. There are a number of interesting things you can do with these devices in the classroom. Today I will look at the use of QR codes.

About QR codes

Those of you with smart phones will know about QR (quick response) codes. They are the little pixel boxes you can scan with your phone to link you directly to information.

The codes are scanned using the built in camera on the device and a free app. There are numerous apps available from the app stores including:
* For an iPhone an app can be downloaded form the iTunes store at
* For an android device the app is at
* Windows phones can read the codes by tapping the search button, and then the ‘eye’ button. There is a free app at which provides improved funtionality

Using QR codes in class

These codes can be added into assignment sheets etc. to link students directly to resources, or just provide hints. You could perhaps provide sample solutions to questions ‘hidden’ behind the QR code.

As an example take this question from a computer graphics exam:

The design principles of “Balance”, “Emphasis”, “Unity”, “Contrast”, and “Rhythm” are important in communicating a message or feeling to a viewer. Choose two of these and describe how a designer might use them to convey a feeling.

Now scan this code on the screen to get a sample solution (no need to print it out):


In another example this code links to a sample exam paper for students to download:


For each question there is a QR code which either gives a sample solution, or links to a web resource to assist with answering the question. This is much more efficient than printing off sample solutions, and the students enjoy the element of discovery.

Fun idea

Colleagues of mine used QR codes to help new students to become familiar with the school buildings. They set up a mystery tour with QR codes. The codes were posted on walls around the building, and each code provided a hint to the next location. The kids loved it, running around the buildings finding the library, gym, toilets etc.

Creating your own QR codes

This widget will quickly generate QR codes.



Getting Started With Digital Badges

About Digital Badges

I have become a recent convert to digital badges. When I first heard about badges my initial response was interest, but as I have been exploring the potential I have become increasingly excited by the potential of digital badges.

First of all, for the totally unititiated; What are badges?

Those of us who are baby boomers, of even gen X, will remember their years in the boy scouts (or simular) collecting cloth badges which you sewed on your sleeve. To earn a badge you needed to demonstrate a competency (light a fire or pitch a tent etc. ) which was witnessed and authenticated by your scout master, who issued you with the badge. Digital badges are very much the same. A badge is an icon or image which links to criteria or competencies. To claim the badge evidence is sent to the issuer of the badge, who issues it via email. Once you have the badge you can display it on your social media. Anyone clicking on the badge can see what you did to earn it and who gave it to you. As such they are more fun and much more robust than merit certificates.

The best way to understand this is to look at an example. I earned this badge through New Milton High School in the USA. You can click on the image to download the information about the badge.

Students are used to this concept in the context of computer games. Game developers have a range of tricks to encourage progress in the game and engage players. One of them is to issue badges, usually referred to as trophies, which attach to their gaming profile.

As an example here is how my football tipping competition looks at the moment:


As you can see I am ranked about 3480 out of 12471. Hardly anything to bother posting on Facebook, but I have accumulated quite a number of trophies over the weeks for achieving perfect scores on a week etc. In this way the administrators of the competition provide interest, engagement and a sense of achievement for those (like me) that are not going to win anything. Badges can fill a simular function in education, providing motivation and a sense of achievement.

They are more than that though. Badges can also be a valid and robust credential. A collection of badges like the one above could be used as evidence to a future employer of my experience and expertise integrating ICT into education. A skill which is not easy to evidence with formal educational qualifications.

Be aware, though, that badges are only effective if the recipient sees value in them. There needs to be defined criteria for earning the badge, and the recipient needs to feel they have worked for it.

This idea obviously works best if there is some kind of badge standard, and a place where recipients can accumulate badges from different sources. With that in mind Mozilla have established an open badges standard. Anyone can register and establish a backpack where badges from various sources can be stored. (A virtual scout uniform sleeve if you like.) To find out about the standard and establish your own backpack go to

Mozilla have produced support and promotion material for open badges, including this clip which covers the basics of digital badges.


Getting started with Badges

Once I understood badges I wanted to start creating and issuing some. If your institution is committed to a badge project then the task of reading through the documentation and setting up a badge infrastructure can be handed over to your IT support. Lets be honest though, you are probably a teacher with little time and limited resources, wanting to give badges a go in your class. So how can you setup some badges for your class during your lunch break?

This was my dilemma and the solution I found was to use a web service at Credly provides the tools to develop and issue your badges. It is free to register and with the tools provided it only takes minutes begin creating your own badges. You can issue the badges to recipients through email. Recipients can store them in a Credly backpack and uploaded to a Mozilla open badges backpack if they wish.

I have been issuing badges for about 6 months with great success and this is the only infrastructure I have needed.

Digital Badges – A Suggested Taxonomy

I was introduced to open badges via a tweet by Eric Sheninger, principal of New Milton high School and author or Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times. He mentioned the work of Laura Fleming in providing a badge infrastructure to support staff PL. Inspired by that example I began developing and issuing digital badges to staff at Don College to credential their PL. Realizing the usefulness of badges I am now also issuing them to students in my classes.

What are Digital badges? On a simple level digital badges, also called micro-credentials, are icons linked to metadata describing the criteria needed to earn the badge, the issuer of the badge and supportive evidence. Once earned, badges can be stored online and shared via email and social media like Facebook and Linkedin. The dominant standard is now Mozilla Open Badges. This infographic from Mozilla gives an overview.

One of the things I have discovered as I work with badges is that they are not all the same. The badges issued to staff are qualitatively different to those offered to students. Many of the badges incorporated into learning management tools are different again. This is problematic, because if badges representing robust credentials are put beside ‘well done’ badges issued to grade school students, the integrity of the whole system is put into question. To overcome this a standard taxonomy for badges needs to be established to differentiate between types of badges within the open standard. The question is how should this taxonomy be defined?

Badges could be classified according to subject area or content. Cities of Learning have moved towards this with their classification of badges against STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and maths). While this works well in the context of that program it has limitations. Many valid badges could not be categorized in this way, and STEAM is not in my opinion a balanced definition, in the sense that it really comes down to STEM + everything else, implying a bias towards science and technology related content.

A natural progression from that idea is to categorize badges according to context. For example professional learning badges, high school badges, community badges etc. This shows some promise, but in my opinion the contexts themselves are not easy to categorize. With increasing use, badges will be incorporated into an increasing and changing range of contexts. In addition qualitatively different badges might be used in the same context. As such a context based taxonomy would not be stable and well defined.

To establish an effective taxonomy we need to look at the badges themselves. The first distinction I can see is that some badges are based on specific competency and others are not. The open badges standard requires that badges should contain criteria and evidences, which means that the badges are issued in recognition of a level of competency or a skill. The fact is, though, that there are good reasons for issuing badges which don’t recognize a specific measurable competency. Badges can be issued to young students as an encouragement for good work, rather like the ink stamps we used to have in grade school. People also like to issue badges to friends and colleagues for sundry social reasons. (A colleague at a recent PL meeting issued me a badge for “trying my best”.) So within our taxonomy we need to recognize two genera; competency based and non-competency-based badges.

Within the non-competency badges we have two species;

  • Encouragement badges are awarded like good work stamps to encourage (mainly) young learners.
  • Social badges are used like friendship cards, or for fun.

Competency based badges divide into three species:

  • Achievement badges are issued to credential demonstration of a specific skill or achievement. An achievement badge might be issued for running 100m in 10 seconds, for being elected class captain etc. The achievement is defined in the badge and evidences attached.
  • Skill badges are issued to credential expertise in an area. They include a series of criteria that need to be met. For example they might be issued to staff who demonstrate effective integration of an ICT package into their teaching. Skill badges differ from achievement badges in that they have more complex criteria and do not apply to a single achievement or event.
  • Mission badges are used where a person (usually a student) has embarked on a series of activities with the aim of achieving a badge. These missions are often cross curricular and involve the development of a skill followed by a culminating achievement. Mission badges occupy the area between skill and achievement badges. Not surprisingly a mission badge might be issued as the culmination of a group of related skill and achievement badges.

So there we have what I believe is a workable taxonomy, which classifies badges according to their qualities. It avoids confusion about the nature of a badge and quarantines the more robust and meaningful badge credentials from the weaker ones. In this way it preserves the integrity of the badge philosophy.

I welcome your thoughts as I am sure that there is room to refine and further develop a taxonomy for digital badges.