When I was in high school and college in the 1980s, I couldn't count the number of group projects that I had to take part in. In those days, to get anything done the members of the group met -- usually in a library -- to come up with strategies and divide the work. Then, we'd go off and take care of our portions of the project. If we needed to contact each other, there were nighttime phone calls. Then, just before the project was due, we'd dump our notes on someone and they'd type everything out.
That way of doing things wasn't very efficient, and it was definitely low tech. But in the days before the Internet, when even desktop computers were a bit of a rarity, that's how we got things done. Luckily, the situation has changed. There are a number of great Web-based tools that can help students efficiently manage and collaborate on group projects.
Time tracking and project management tools seem to have become something
of a cottage industry. But for school projects, it's best to keep things simple. That means using a really basic tool: a to-do list.
A good choice in this area is Ta-da List. It's a free, basic to-do list. You enter your items, and set them as done when you've completed a task. It really is that easy. You can share the to-do list via email with the other people in your project group, or set up an RSS feed that you can read with any feed reader.
The main drawback of Ta-Da List is that you can't set deadlines, and use them to nag any members of your team who may be slacking off. That's where Remember the Milk comes in handy. Remember the Milk not only lets you set deadlines, but can also send reminders to the folks you're working with to keep them on track. And, like Ta-Da List, you can set up an RSS feed to automatically keep track of who's doing and done what.
Writing drafts and more
So, you've got your tasks laid out and everyone has done their basic research. What next? Start writing, obviously. One way to do that is for everyone to work on a separate word processor file, exchange them by email for review, and then combine them all in a final draft. But that can cause problems with conflicting versions of the files, as well as lost and corrupted ones. An online word processor is the
way to go.
While Writeboard is more of a text entry tool than a word processor, it's specifically designed for collaborating online. With a Writeboard,
you can enter text, apply some basic formatting (lists, bold, italics, and the like), and share your document with others. Writeboard tracks any changes that are made, who made them, and lets you go back to a previous version of a document if necessary. The interface isn't fancy, but it gets the job done. The only negative is that you can't save a Writeboard as a word processor document -- it only exports files to HTML or plain text. Still, it's a great little environment for drafting, reviewing, and revising your work.
If you need something with a few more features, then check out Google Docs. It's a powerful, easy-to-use, and capable Web-based word processor. It gives you most of the basic features that you'd expect from a word processor: text formatting, lists, tables, graphics, spelling checker, as well as the ability to add comments (essential when reviewing a document). Google Docs also tracks revisions, and lets you compare multiple versions of a document. On top of that, you can share the document with the people you're working with and their revisions will be tracked, too.
Unfortunately, Google Docs doesn't understand the concept of a page so you can't add headers, footers, or footnotes. There's no feature for adding a table of contents, either. But you can save your finished documents as a Word or OpenOffice.org Writer file. From there, you can apply a template to the document, add notes, a bibliography, and a title page.
Like Google Docs, Zoho Writer is a fully-fledged online word processor. It has many of the same features as Google Docs (the most important being the collaboration and change tracking features) and a few more to boot. Most of those features revolve around formatting -- Zoho Writer's formatting options are far wider than those of Google Docs. And Zoho Writer also enables you to put a table of contents into your documents.
Also like Google Docs, Zoho Writer doesn't seem to support headers, footers, or footnotes. And there isn't a page break feature. But, again, you can export your finished documents as a Word, StarOffice, or OpenOffice.org file and add all of the unsupported formatting yourself.
Keeping in touch
Working on a project with others doesn't just involve typing away all by your lonesome. It also means meeting every so often to thrash out ideas or to keep the group updated. There are a lot of ways to do this. Email and instant messenger are probably the most popular. Most instant messaging clients enable you to chat with more than one person, but you need to make sure that everyone is using the same service -- whether it's MSN, Yahoo!, GoogleTalk, AIM, Jabber, or Trillian. If you don't want to install the required software on your computer, check out Meebo.com. It's a Web site where you can log into several popular instant messaging services simultaneously.
If, on the other hand, you need to let your voice and not your fingers do the talking, check out Skype or WengoPhone. Both enable you to hold multi-way conversations, and they're free. On top of that, there are two pieces of software for Skype -- called Pamela and PowerGramo -- which let you record your conversations as well.
All the Web's your tool
This TechTip really only touched on the range of Web-based tools that you can use to collaborate on a school project. There are other task management applications, word processors, communications tools, and Web applications like wikis that can help you effectively collaborate on a project. If you don't believe me, check out this site for proof.
With all of these free, web-based tools at your disposal, there's really no need for you to work on your projects old school, like I did all those years ago. You can do your work at any time, from anywhere as long as you have a reliable Internet connection. And isn't that what working on the Web is all about?