Overview of Etherpad
Etherpad is a digital document creator, created and supported by AppJet Inc, a Californian company, which allows up to eight users at any one time to create, edit and delete the text on a document in real time. Think of a group activity where you ask children to brainstorm on one sheet of paper, and then consider the enormous advantages that this has when eight children (or 16 if pairs share) have access to creating this same document.
Although billed as real-time, there is just a small delay, but given this is a new, and beta, service, that isn’t something to grumble over. Users can show their identity, select their colour, and save edits (although this doesn’t allow tracking of the comments they made). There is also the facility to create an etherpad document using your own name; etherpad.com/bestpancakerecipe, for example. Although this is clearly susceptible to vandalism, the ability to save and restore relieves this pressure.
Etherpad as a flexible communicator
I introduced Etherpad to a Year Six class, and encouraged them to use it to create some collaborative writing. Although not enormously successful (due to an unfamiliarity with collaborative typing, a whole new species of skill!), what happened afterwards was fascinating.
A week later, I was teaching the same class when I overheard two pupils talking about the page they had made. Unknown to me, the children had collaborated to create a new Etherpad page, and were using it like a form of kitchen chalkboard, leaving messages to each other, such as times to meet up and chat on the page. They showed me the page, and then one pupil, who was off school ill, suddenly appeared online! The class were delighted, and we spoke ‘through’ the document.
A future communicator
Etherpad has become, or has the great potential to be, a wonderful communication sandbox – free of the commitment that a locked message offers, yet flexible enough to be saved and restored. It is through using these new communicative social tools that we allow children to become part of the technological narrative of the digital age, as well as adjusting the task-response nature of a set task or text. Communication as evolution is a very powerful and tangible quality that will be exploited by children in their own privacy long before educators catch up with the possibilities that are held by its promise.