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Let’s Collaborate! Apps and Websites that Foster Co-Engagement

The research on pedagogical strategies for effective teaching clearly finds that children construct knowledge and grow cognitively through social interactions. In literacy learning educators promote co-reading and co-engagement strategies where students read with peers, read with parents or read with a teacher to help them make sense of what they comprehend. Recent research by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (2015) has found that co-engagement   is also vital when using technology tools and devices in order for students to better construct knowledge and stay on task. Despite the clear research on good pedagogical practices, most technology apps and websites are created with the idea that knowledge is isolated and students should work alone with their device. The good news is that about 20% of applications are developed with co-engagement and collaboration in mind, where students are working with others through the technology tool in order to construct and build knowledge with others. Research has shown that mindful co-use of technology can lead to gains in content learning. Thus, how do teachers select tools that help students collaborate and co-construct knowledge? Below are the key elements to look for:


While apps and websites may have a collaborative feature, often it is asynchronous such as a static discussion board. Educators should search for software that allows for live audio, video, text or drawing interactions so that there is an iterative process to   the learning as well as potential for dialogue in the moment of knowledge construction.


The best tools for learning help students focus on the learning goals and not on the reward or game at the end of the program. Students should not easily be able to just swipe or click-through the content. The software should force students to thoughtfully consider and defend their choices and to co-construct new ideas with others.


While many resources track student work with data analytics, often these tools focus on a “drill and practice” approach with quizzes and multiple-choice questions. Research has been clear that this approach does not usually show any correlation to better learning outcomes, and can sometimes be harmful to student learning. Educators should look for software that allows students to create and construct ideas with others rather than drill and practice in isolation.


Every student doing the same activity on one tool will not reach all learners. Thus finding technology resources that has options for differentiation of instruction and choice for the learners to show their process of meaning making is essential.


Ideally the technology tool should add-value to the learning by connecting student classroom learning with their everyday lives. The students should be able to see how technology can be used to gather information, co-construct ideas and evaluate experiences in the real world.

Most software made for education is isolated with a drill and practice approach, thus that it can be difficult to find these co-engagement gems. However, there are some tools that have been constructed with child development learning strategies in mind to promote creativity, synchronous collaboration, differentiation, time-on-task and authenticity. Below are a few examples of tools that have these features.


Popplet, http://popplet.com, is a mind mapping tool that allows students to synchronously work together on a presentation or concept map. This can be used in any content area! There is a “time warp” feature to show how each student pieced the mind map together.

Annotate, http://annotate.net, is an interactive whiteboard on a tablet, allowing students to collaborate on creating images and drawings. In addition, students can synchronously collaborate on building stories (via text or drawing) as well as collaborate on prompts that are scaffolded to different learning levels.

Google Documents, Spreadsheets and Slides, http://docs.google.com, is a popular tool for real time collaboration. Additionally, these tools can allow for differentiation and scaffolds since the teacher can weigh in with real time comments or chat as the students are working on their documents.

Google Tour Builder, https://tourbuilder.withgoogle.com, lets students synchronously collaborate with others to create their own maps. In groups they can create routes and use pins to mark points of interest or routes taken. At each pin they can add media and text to describe the purpose of the pin. Students can share their maps and add multiple contributors.

Padlet, http://padlet.com, is an easy to use organizer for constructing and sharing ideas. Some teachers also use it as a student portfolio tool. Padlet permits quick collaboration and brainstorming with a variety of choices of contribution (text, drawing, video, audio, links to resources…etc).

Formative, http://goformative.com, and ClassKick, http://classkick.com, are both created for interactive assessment of individual students. Their co-engagement feature lets teachers synchronously watch, chat and annotate student’s work as they are working     in the software. In addition, the software allows teachers to differentiate by synchronously sharing activities that range in reading and writing levels of content. Thus helping students work in their own Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).


Storyjumper, www.storyjumper.com, creates collaboration around the writing process, where students work together to build a storybook. They can co-engage in the writing with authentic published results! The storybook can be digital (free) or created into a published book (cost).

WeCollabrify is an app that creates synchronous collaboration among students. It has a built in mind mapping tool, sketching tool, and KWL charts. While mostly used with science classrooms, this can be used with any subject area.

Sock Puppets is an app where students can work together to create a puppet show. They can select puppets, backgrounds and record their own voice. While popular in Elementary school, this tool works with all levels of learners.


Kaizena, https://kaizena.com, is designed for the iterative process of writing and giving synchronous feedback on student work as students are working on their writing. Kaizena allows for text, video and voice commenting that immediately show up as the students are working on their documents.

Scrible, www.scrible.com, allows students to collaboratively annotate webpages and documents. They are able to creatively share thoughts and co-construct resources for projects and papers.

WriteAbout, http://writeabout.com, is a writing and blogging tool where students collaborate with each other as well as teachers, parents and other experts on their writing. This tool focuses on the iterative process of writing, rather than the finished product.

Article originally published in the Fall 2016 MACUL Journal.


(@lkolb): Clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan in Education Technology and MACUL Board Member.