Sunday, September 30, 2007

Skrbl - An online, collaborative whiteboard

A few days ago I blogged about an activity I'd run a couple weeks back and my desire to reduce some of the lectures I've given to increase student involvement and to make the whole affair a bit more meaningful to the kids. We, of course, know that when students DO, they are more likely to retain what they've done. One of my hopes was to make the activity even more asynchronous, active, and collaborative: make the kids less passive, make me even less of a gatekeeper and let the information develop and disseminate as the students located it using the resources available to them.

Immediately after that activity, I started looking for different options that would allow the students to record their findings as they came across them. I wanted something that was "live" and evolving. I wanted something that would allow posting, immediate display, and might encourage the kids to go look up something they had seen posted. I wanted something that would be easy to use for the kids. My CFF coach Laurie V happened by my room that same day, and I asked her for some ideas. We bantered around some initial ideas.

A wikispace was dismissed fairly quickly because of issues my co-workers had with multiple edits happening at the same time. Google Docs came up, but did I really want to take the time to get user names and passwords set up or have the students do so? For some reason I can no longer remember, SubEthaEdit was also ruled out. Free was definitely a concern as well as was the ability of up to 25 students (and perhaps as many as 30 in the future) to access at the same time.

A week passed, and I was coming up on my next novel introduction. It was time to get serious about this new approach I wanted to try. Enter SKRBL. (Get it yet?)

I don't know whether Laurie V mentioned this first (Laurie definitely mentioned something, but I inadvertently deleted that email) or I came across it over at, but SKRBL definitely fit the bill. SKRBL (still thinking?) is an on-line interactive whiteboard that allows users to do all kinds of free hand and typed scribbling. (Ah, finally got it! Don't worry, it took 30 minutes before it dawned on me.) Free with no limit on simultaneous users, I thought I'd found my solution. As a bonus, boards can be either open to the public or password protected and saved as a static web-page for future reference when an activity is over. This was perfect!

So, last Wednesday night I set off to give it a field test. I created an account (very fast!) and set up both a public and password protected board. I drafted several fellow Twitterers (Thanks Chris C., Elisha, Kirk, and hmm, who else was it?) to give it a run. Up to three of us were on the public board at once, and I got a feel for how the password protected pages worked too. Granted three users was a far cry from 25, so I was just going to have to try it under real world conditions to see what would happen.

Friday morning, 8:00 a.m. was zero hour, and for some stupid reason, I invited some administrators by to see it in action. (What was I thinking? I'd never done this before!) Anyhow, I got laptops in the kids hands, explained the task, discussed the approach, and the kids were off and running. The activity ran pretty smoothly, except some of the kids couldn't initially post to the board. I thought we'd reached the limit of the site's capabilities at about ten users, but note this: Skrbl must be run using either IE 6 or 7 or Firefox 1.5 or 2.0; Safari on a go. I projected the board from my laptop, and it was just incredible to watch the kids and the content start popping up on the board. Check out what 19 kids did in about 30 minutes here (a saved, static record of our work).

What would I do differently? The kids got in to playing with different text colors after awhile to make their notes stand out. When, in the middle of the activity, it struck me that I wanted different kinds of information color coded, I was pretty much screwed. In the future, perhaps I'll start have the kids start with black text and have the color coding happen later, or I'll just start with some color-coded categories from the get go. Still have to work on my direction giving for the paper support notes: I thought I made it clear I wanted facts recorded with citations as evidence of individual work. I'm going to have to work on a visual example for this I guess. Otherwise, I'm very pleased with how this activity ran (we'll see about the admin. on Monday), and Skrbl has a major fan in me!


Anonymous said...

You should also check out Groupboard which works on all web browsers and has been around for 10 years so it's bug free.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip. I note, however, that there is significant cost involved, especially for a classroom application with 20 or more students. I encourage anyone to investigate for themselves and make their own decision.

Prithwis Mukerjee said...

thanks a ton. this is just the kind of thing i was looking for ...