Teaching and assessing collaboration skills using Etherpad

I am currently coming to the end of a MOOC offered through http://www.coursera.org 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 http://etherpad.mozilla.org . 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.




4 responses

  1. Hey, I’m the founder of the Etherpad foundation, we maintain the Etherpad software. Mozilla’s Etherpad is not really ideal for your use case, you may prefer PrimaryPad, it’s designed for teaching & learning 🙂 Enjoy! http://primarypad.com

    1. Thanks John it does look slicker than etherpad.

  2. […] This can be encouraged by “thinking aloud” sequences. Solving problems in a collaborative setting is also a way of encouraging this, particularly if the communication is managed. For example if students are placed in the situation where they are collaborating through a network chat session it encourages them to communicate their thinking explicitly to one another. It also records that communication for later analysis and discussion. ATC21S made use  this strategy in their work. I have also explored this using etherpad. […]

  3. Very nice post. I simply stumbled upon your weblog and
    wished to mention that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your weblog posts.
    After all I’ll be subscribing in your rss feed and I’m hoping you write once more soon!

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