Collaboration in the Modern Educational Techno-Scape

During the past two weeks, I have had the opportunity to take advantage of various modern structures as I endeavored to create and deploy a population growth modeling activity in my AP Biology class.  The process used a series of modern computing tools, and enabled me to collaborate with folks across the country from the comfort of my computer.  So, I thought it might be worthwhile discussing the process, which could be easily adapted for anyone interested in creating pretty much anything educational, ever.

I suppose the whole thing began when Brad Williamson wrote a series of blog posts for NABT wherein he discussed how he uses spreadsheet models when teaching pre-service teachers, and cited the specific example of the “sparrow” model from the BSCS textbook series.  I have been aware of these posts for a while now (Brad is one of my favorite e-colleagues.  We have collaborated on a few AP Biology initiatives over the last few years—someday, we might even meet each other in person), and I have thought about taking the process that he describes and making something a bit more guided for AP Biology students for a year or so.  Being that I’m a busy little monkey, I didn’t really have the time to focus on it until these last two weeks, as my own class approaches our ecology unit for the year.  Once I did focus on it, I found that it was not particularly time consuming to construct the document that I envisioned.  A few periods on the Google Docs, and I was pretty much all set.  

Up to this point, I haven’t really described anything particularly novel for my process.  Most of the work that I do is based on the work that other people do.  And Google Docs is pretty much my default word-processor at this point in time.  But after I finished this activity, I wanted to get some feedback on it, so I enabled “anyone can comment”, and stuck the link to the document up on the AP Biology Teacher Community, where any interested teacher could take a look and leave a note or two about what they liked, and (more importantly) what they might change.  I haven’t used the “anyone can comment” feature prior to this activity, but I totally get the utility of it.  People leave their comments, and then I can make the modifications to the document that I want to make, and ignore any comments that I might want to ignore.  It’s a perfect system for getting peer feedback.

After the comments were made, and revisions incorporated, I was ready to use the activity with my students, which took place during the past three days of class.  The structure of the activity moves students through creating a series of spreadsheets for increasingly complex population models.  Here is my own, test-run, data:

Following this progression, students take the models and make a modification of their own design to model a new aspect of the population or the environment.  Students then post their modified models on the course blog, which you can check out here.  Some of the stuff they did is pretty darn cool, if you ask me.  

Anyway, that’s the process and the result.  I think there’s a lot of promise in the notion of making an activity and then opening it up for peer feedback.  I’ve used the “anyone can edit” feature of google docs quite a bit to make documents from scratch with a bunch of folks, but the “anyone can comment” feature is pretty awesome for circumstances where you just want to know what folks think about the work that you are doing.