As an online student, making connections and working with your classmates on school projects has an added layer of complexity due to the delivery format of your courses. You may all be in the same class, but logging in from different geographic areas and at different times. So, how can you complete those group assignments, form study groups, and ask each other questions? While your school's Learning Management System (e.g. eCollege, Moodle, Blackboard) may provide some assistance with these tasks, you will also find a wide variety of tools available to help you work together online. Let's take a closer look at some of the free options you may want to consider and explore how they can be used to support your coursework.
Conference call applications allow you to communicate in real-time with multiple people. Most are quick to initiate, although some do require users to register for an account. Use these tools to meet with your fellow students on team assignments and for study group sessions.
1. Skype: You may already be familiar with this online application, which features text, audio, and video capabilities. A new related application called GroupMe extends group chats to cell phones and adds a group messaging feature. Skype also does much more, but is a helpful tool for conference calls.
2. TinyChat: This application allows you to set up instant chat rooms online with video, audio, and text capabilities.
3. OoVoo: A free video chat system, OoVoo currently requires you to download the application to your computer, but a new web-based version is coming soon.
4. Google+ Hangouts: The Google+ networking system recently opened to the public and the Hangouts feature includes shared video and audio, as well as integration with Google Docs for additional collaboration options.
You can go beyond a conference call format by using a virtual office or web conferencing system. These tools include the call features described above and additional real-time interaction functions, such as whiteboards and file uploads (i.e. PowerPoint presentations). Work with your team in this space to coordinate projects and think about how this kind of application might also be useful for giving class presentations. While many of these tools were developed with business needs in mind, they can be equally effective for educational use.
5. AnyMeeting: Invite your classmates to join you in an online meeting space where you can share your computer screen and much more.
6. Zoho Meeting: The free version of Zoho Meeting provides space for one-on-one conferences and can be set up quickly. Zoho Meeting also integrates the Zoho suite of applications, such as Zoho Chat for instant messaging.
Collaborative writing can be difficult to organize. Who has the latest version? What were the last changes made? Using web-based documents can ease some of the frustration and keep the group's efforts moving forward with clear edits and timelines of changes.
7. Cacoo: If you are in a field that uses wireframes, flowcharts, mind maps, site maps, or other types of diagrams, this allows multiple users to work on the same diagram in real-time.
8. Conceptboard: Work on documents and virtual whiteboards with members of your team or groups, leave comments and assign tasks. Sketching is possible, as well as typed text.
9. GoogleDocs: This is perhaps one of the most widely known document collaboration tools. Part of the Google Apps collection of resources, this system has multiple functions related to uploading, sharing, and co-editing documents in real-time and at different times.
10. ShowDocument: This application provides a variety of services and functions, including sharing documents online and allowing for collaborative editing.
Project Management Tools
Online project management systems are often full suites of tools that allow groups to work on large projects over time. Consider these systems for research groups, student clubs, service organizations, and large projects (e.g. thesis, dissertation) that will take place over multiple semesters or terms. The features they provide assist with overall organization, productivity issues, tracking time and tasks, and document storage.
11. BigTent: Designed to help organizations with membership rosters stay organized, this system includes communication tools, file sharing, and calendar functions, as well as many more services.
12. Freedcamp: This system provides virtual space for teams to get organized. A central hub of activity for work on projects, the tools available include communication, collaborative editing, and project templates.
Comparing the Options
The tools listed above are just a small sample of what is now available. And more tools are on the way as developers work to improve these systems and create new ones. Here are a few things to look for as you review your options and make comparisons.
- Number of users. How many people need to be able to access the resources or system at once? Many of these systems have a maximum number of participants, especially with the free versions.
- Recording. Do you need to be able to record your meetings for your instructor or for group members that are not able to attend? Several of the call and meeting options allow you to record your session for playback at a later time.
- Storage. Working collaboratively on documents over time means that you need to store the files somewhere while they are in progress. Does the system include file storage? If so, is there a limit on the size of individual files or a total amount of storage available?
- Access. How will members of your group access the calls, meetings, workspace, and/or documents? Different systems allow for different types of access including multiple platforms (i.e. PC, Mac), browsers (i.e. Firefox, Chrome), and devices (i.e. desktop, tablet, smartphone).
- Reliability and security. How long has the system been around and is there any evidence of how it's been used in the past? How secure is your information, both your account and working documents? Backing up your work periodically is never a bad idea. Review the Terms of Service of any system you want to use. This information can be tedious to sort through but provides the specifics you need to know about what will be provided and how your information may be used.
- Features and functions. What do you need the system to do? How do you want to communicate with your group? You may find one tool, or system of tools, that has everything you need. If not, you can create your own mash-up of multiple tools to provide the support you need for your projects.
- Check with your instructor. Your course instructor may have input and suggestions from his or her own use of online collaborative tools, and there may be a preferred system for use in your course.
Keep in mind that the goal of using collaborative online tools is to simplify the work process, not make it more difficult. Many of these tools have online demos. Try them out and see which ones work best for you and your group. Have you worked as part of an online team or student group? If so, consider sharing your favorite tools with us here.