Published: May 29, 2015

Scott Spanbauer in the Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences Department implemented Groupboard Virtual Whiteboard to connect with long distance students.

My language teaching techniques are based are the communicative process--­­how human beings negotiate interpersonal communication through speaking, listening, reading and writing, and through this negotiation process, become fluent. It’s the way a baby learns language.

Although there are occasional constraints on speaking, listening and reading (such as noise, interruptions, and physical disabilities), my particular classroom configuration­--with half of the students present in the classroom, and the other half connecting from afar using videoconferencing--software­­ puts a serious constraint on writing as an in-­class activity.

In a normal classroom, multiple students can easily and quickly write on a whiteboard or blackboard, the instructor can make written comments on and corrections to this output, and everyone in class can see all of this activity clearly in real time. This allows textbook­-based group writing activities, fast-­paced competitive exercises, or even a game of Pictionary.

In my classroom, half of the students are in a room with a whiteboard, and the other half are connected to the classroom via Zoom­­--a program much like Skype. Although I can show them the whiteboard (which requires some camera work), they can’t write on it. As a stopgap measure, I have asked remote students to write on a piece of paper and hold it up to their webcams. However, the writing is often small and illegible (because it actually is small, and because the video is not high-­resolution), and there is also a delay involved with the video conferencing link.

I needed some sort of shared digital whiteboard that everyone in the class could see and write on in real time, with an input method nearly as fast and easy as writing on a whiteboard. And it needed to be handwriting, not typing. As numerous recent studies and articles point out, handwriting enhances learning in ways that typing does not.

My simple need is that handwriting be an equally privileged mode of communication in classroom activities, together with reading, speaking, and listening. One initial indicator of success would be that handwriting activities take place in the classroom on a regular, even daily, basis or that handwriting constitutes some percentage of activities over the course of the semester. More importantly, how does more in-­class writing affect writing quality? Looking at quizzes, midterms, finals, journals, and other graded assessments that we already use, are students progressing in their adoption and use of grammar and over the course of the semester, or multi­-semester series of classes? How do they compare with other classes or cohorts? In the case of this particular class, we are trying to replicate the normal face-­to-­face, paper­ and chalkboard­ based version of the class, so one would hope that the students’ writing skills would at least be equivalent to that of this control group.

Qualitatively, are students comfortable writing in Spanish day­-to­-day, comfortable enough to go beyond rote responses to prompts? Do they show creativity and humor in their writing? Are they having fun?

After quite a bit of searching, CU’s ASSETT found a web­-based shared whiteboard tool called Groupboard, which I began testing in my classroom late in the Spring 2015 semester. All of my students, whether in the physical classroom or connecting via Zoom, have the Groupboard app installed on their phones (it comes in iOS and Android versions), allowing them to write on the whiteboard using a finger or a stylus. Additionally, I project a larger version of the shared whiteboard to everyone via Zoom using my computer, and I write on the board myself using an iPad.

Our main hurdle was learning how to write on a touchscreen, and write small. In order to write small enough that multiple students’ writing could fit simultaneously on the whiteboard, the students needed to learn how to zoom in on just their area of the whiteboard.

Despite some initial clunkiness, after several days of practice, Groupboard had already met my criterion for acceptance: it is better than holding up pieces of paper to a webcam. A bonus benefit is that I now use Groupboard as my in­class whiteboard for explaining grammar, saving the time it took to change camera positions and move to the whiteboard. And just as I would on a real whiteboard or chalkboard, I can annotate and correct what students have written. But since they can clearly see what other students have just written in real time, they learn from each other, and just correct it themselves.

I think that with time and practice, Groupboard will be something that we use in class every day. I have used it to replicating a game where we divide the class into teams that compete against each other to conjugate verbs or answer questions. Another activity is group story writing, where we collaborate on writing a paragraph. We’ve even tried playing Pictionary. Groupboard lets you upload game board background images, so the only limitation on the activities is the instructor’s imagination.