(Pssst. It’s still summer. I still have 5 weeks until school starts again. So it’s not really considered lagging when I go so long between posts; you know, because of summer and whatnot. You really should check out Refugio Beach.)

My regular readers (I think there are a few of you) know that I’m a big fan of wikis. If you’re not a regular reader, or if you need a refresher, check out the Tom Sawyer wiki we had going this year. It allowed the kids to collaborate on chapter summaries, and add related information or extra explanations. Wiki entries grew from a sentence or two from one contributor to hundreds of words written and edited by a dozen kids each. It worked out beautifully, without a lot of management from me. Here’s how it ended up.

However, the downside (especially in a computer lab type setting where 20-30 kids are all doing trying to do the same thing at the same time) is that with a wiki, only one person can be editing the wiki at a time; everyone else is locked out. I wanted to try some real-time peer editing and writing collaboration, but the wiki format wouldn’t work for that sort of thing.

But today I found this service that allows (in the free version) up to 16 people to collaborate in real time on the same document. It’s called EtherPad, and it will allow me to try to do what I couldn’t do with the wikis. Once you start a Pad, which is what they can the collaborative document, each editor’s work is shown with a different colored highlighting. But the best part is that whenever anybody edits the Pad, the changes appear instantaneously on everybody’s screens, even if multiple people are making changes at the same time! And changes are infinitely undoable.

In my limited test-drive, it worked beauty. I opened up a pad in one browser, and started typing. I surfed to the same pad in another browser window, and saw my typing. Then I quickly went back and forth between the windows (it helps to have two monitors) and randomly typed stuff, pretending to be two different people. The changes appeared almost instantly, and I could undo or redo from either end. Each person appeared in his own color, and either one could save or export to (import from)  a Word document, html, rtf, or pdf. Nice. You can even make up your own url for your Pad by tacking /whatever at the end of the etherpad.com url. If you haven’t already started a Pad with that name, it will ask you if you want to. Here’s my Test Pad. Feel free to mess around with it. Actually, you could edit the thing, and add some ideas for using this thing in the classroom.

This is what I first wanted the wiki to do. But I am now realizing that a wiki is for another kind of collaborating. It’s more of an evolution sort of thing. The wiki evolves as people contribute and edit. I will definitely be doing the Tom Sawyer wiki again this year.

But this EtherPad sort of thing is more of an accelerated version, and a different purpose. Changes happen now, and several people can contribute at once. I’m picturing using it for actual live peer editing. Usually if you want to work any peer editing into your writing process, it’s a pain. The kids have to trade papers, have conferences, write comments, and so forth, and THEN go home and rewrite, and try again. Now that whole thing could happen live. I could even drop in, and contribute, showing them live how the editing process works.

FLASH. I was just messing around with the test Pad in the other screen, and I realized that you can put in hyperlinks to outside web pages. Woohoo. Maybe this is a wiki killer, like one of the reviews on the web site says.

Anyway, check out their web site and see what other people are doing with it, check out the Test Pad (or make your own), and let me know if you have any other ideas.

Next Post: The Mailbag – Questions about KBAR, grammar, and vocabulary. Three things near and dear to my heart.