Tuesday, April 14, 2009

SMART Sync Reflections

As I begin my report on my experiences with the SMART Sync collaborative tool, it’s interesting to note that in the March 26, 2009 issue of eSchool News, collaborative environments are named as one of the top six emerging technologies to affect education within the next year. The report goes on to name Voicethreads and Nings as examples of tools used to create these environments. The benefit of using these tools, the report states, is to foster teamwork and critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, the author omitted SMART Sync as another valuable tool that teachers can use to create collaborative environments. Sync is easier to use in my classroom than either Voicethread or Ning.
The part I liked best about SMART Sync collaborative functionality was its ease of use. The software was very intuitive. With just a few clicks, my first collaborative project was ready to go. Having the install set up folders in My Documents to house projects, student, and group work created instant organization in my already cluttered documents folder. I appreciated that feature. After a brief overview of the project, my students were ready to get started with the individual assignment. We all learned together the first time as the collaborative part began. Students were excited to experience positive interdependence and reach common goals. They just didn’t know that’s what made them so thrilled with the assignment. They thought it was because they could chat with each other about what each team member thought the answer should be. All four groups turned in their assignment, but three documents didn’t have answers marked. The first time it happened, I thought the recorder forgot his job. However, it has continued to happen during other projects. It happens both in Word and in Notebook. The individual’s work arrives, but not the group work.
The main benefit derived from using Sync Collaboration includes polishing the skill set needed for 21st century collaborative learning: interpersonal skills, critical thinking skills, interaction with a small group, and group processing. My students love working in a group, whether it’s digitally with Sync, at a desk editing their writing, or conducting a science experiment in lab.
When I first began this trial, I watched the video explaining SMART Sync. It was helpful in that it explained the collaboration feature. I had been using SynchronEyes in my classroom for two years prior to this time so I was well acquainted with most of the other features already. But I have faced a few challenges using the collaboration feature.
The first technical challenge is to learn how to assign groups instead of allowing the teacher computer to randomly make groups. The first project I allowed randomization and it made one group of three, two groups of two and one group of one using eight workstations. That was most likely user error. That part was not very intuitive for me. Perhaps that feature could be improved in the next update and the process of letting the teacher assign groups made easier with a selection area.

There were several other technical challenges. The teacher computer froze the first time group work was turned in. Since then, I’ve added 512 mb memory to the laptop and have not had it happen again. I might mention our district is buying Vista on new laptops and therefore I am running Sync from an older XP laptop. I wish Sync was compatible with Vista, but I understand from visiting with SMART people at TCEA that probably is not likely to happen. Also, the first time students turned in their individual work, not all the documents made it into my folder. I’m chalking this up to user error because it hasn’t happened again. The first few collaborative projects were in Word, but then I got brave and decided to try sending both Notebook and Ideas files one at a time. Oops. Most computers received the files, but I find it ironic that the student computer which would receive a SynchronEyes file did not receive it in Sync, and vice versa. Now to figure out what settings need to be changed. Also, the chat windows in group 2 locked up when collaborating in Notebook. Only by closing the chat window could the Notebook file be used. Today I used Word again for our problem solving/critical thinking challenge of the day. (Note: Everything worked well except for group work arriving in its folders.)
The main pedagogical challenge I faced was coming up with suitable collaborative assignments for third graders. All of the ones I found on the web for primary students were for written for classroom to classroom collaboration. Designing a collaborative assignment that could be completed both as an individual and a group project in a class period encourages me to think outside the worksheet as I redesign, rethink, revise, revisit, and revamp a lesson into a new assignment. That’s a good thing as I continue to learn how to think outside the worksheet.

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