Collaborative writing – Etherpad back from the flames

This post follows my musings on IATEFL last month, and is also perhaps inspired by the flurry of posts looking at technology in education:

Here I want to take an approach, show how I’ve used it and see what ideas people have got to improve it. As this post incorporates content from a number of IATEFL sessions, it’s probably my first chance to see what impact conference-going can have in the classroom. I learnt about the tools presented here because they were presented both in Nik Peachey’s and Amanda Wilson & Susan Dempsey’s sessions at IATEFL. Collaborative writing. James McGoldrick had also spoken about using collaborative writing approaches with beginner reader and writer ESOL students at the ESOL SIG PCE. I suppose this is an attempt to tie together some of the ideas that were floating around my head after taking in so much information

sync.inThe idea of collaborative writing tools is simple – you have one ‘page’ and a number of learners can all write on the same page – it shows each contributor’s work on the screen at once, in real time. I started thinking about this after having investigated using wikis and wanting a more ‘live’ alternative. Google docs provides this functionality, however I remember using a really simple tool called Etherpad. Etherpad then got swallowed by Google and disappeared. That is until the released the source code, which got picked up and became typewithme, and PiratePad. These tools are virtually identical and all seem to be reincarnations of Etherpad.

Each page created has its own unique URL, which can be shared with learners; as work is automatically saved as it is typed, learners can return to their work by following the same URL. I posted the URLs to moodle, but this could also be done via a blog page, or email. Content is automatically saved as it is added to the page, this means that the teacher can add content prior to the lesson on order to give learners a framework to follow. There is also a chat window at the side of the screen which allows learners to co-ordinate group projects. The final trick is the time slider, which allows you to replay how the text was constructed. It’s a bit like a slicker version of a wiki page’s ‘view history’ function.

I think the idea of collaborative writing is great – it allows for communication both in the task and in negotiating how to carry out the task. Also, while very simple, the ability to revise and revisit that already written allows opportunities to reflect on the task as well as peer support. This is one example where technology allows for new constructivist learning opportunities.

So far, I’ve tried two different ways of using this in class, which you can see in this plan: Collaborative Writing

Collaborative research

I give learners a set of headings on the topic that I want them to write about: in the lesson I tried I wanted the learners to look at CV writing, so I gave them the following headings:

a) What to include on a CV

b) Length and Layout

c) What NOT to do

d) What should you do if you have not had many jobs?

e) Any other useful points

Learners first had to add their own ideas to the page sharing them under the headings. I then gave them a set of links, asking them to see if they could add any further information under these headings. This allowed learners to share their own knowledge and also to share the task of researching a topic.

Learning check/Formative assessment

Prior to the lesson I wrote a number of mostly untrue sentences about CV writing. At the end of the lesson I directed the learners towards these texts and asked them to work together to correct those which were false. This meant that learners had to work together to consider each sentence to consolidate the content studied in class and construct their own knowledge.

I’m sure that there are loads more ways that this tool can be used, these are just suggestions, please add any suggestions in the comments below – I’d love to know if you have used tools like this, or plan to do in the future.


As these files are so easy to setup, I usually set up a couple of spares, across the different sites – that can save you from the classic cloud computing problem, where the site that you need goes down inexplicably just when you have a class. For some reason our college’s content filters were blocking typewithme, so I tend to use and PiratePad. I need to have a look at how Google docs could be used for this as I suspect that it is a much more substantial tool. The Etherpad derivatives do have the advantage of being very simple.

The sites also sometimes lose connection with browsers, however it seems that a quick tap on F5 refreshes the screen and solves the problem.

Another issue is that most learners will not have used a tool like this before, and may not know what is appropriate…if you are working with teenagers, it is probably worth giving them a chance to get the silliness out of their system.


This resource is just a means to allow communication, this is what makes it so flexible. It can be used both inside or outside the classroom, on face to face and distance learning courses. The key is to consider how it is to be used and what support should be offered to learners. Being quick and simple the technology should not get in the way of the learning process. I have found that learners are able to construct texts by combining their knowledge and skills and so far they seem to enjoy this approach.

Technically, the only issue that I’ve had so far has been that the connection times out, however this can easily be fixed by refreshing the page (pressing F5). Some learners responded to the freedom offered by the resource to add silly comments or delete bits of each other’s work, however this stopped as they became more engaged with the tasks. I would definitely consider this to be a way of engaging learners that would appear to have benefits for their learning.

Further Reading


8 thoughts on “Collaborative writing – Etherpad back from the flames

  1. Thanks for reminding me of this great tool. There was much excitement when I first discovered ether pad followed by frowny faced disappointment when it disappeared. When it reappeared in all these guises celebration had to be postponed as I got the sites unblocked within the college!

    I have used them as a collaborative tool within both the CELTA and th DTELLS sessions but I haven’t yet thought if how to use them in my ESOL class. But after reading your post you’ve inspired me, and I’m going to think about how I can get my L1 group to do some collaborative writing around the class reader we are doing (no 1 ladies detective agency, an book idea stolen from the fabulous James McGoldrick)

    1. Yes – I always thought that it was too good a concept to just disappear. I don’t know how long these other sites have been around – I’ve only just learnt of their existence, but maybe I’m just slow! I had the same site-blocking problem last week for the class that I teach in a centre owned by the local authority, who are a bit less clued-up on the IT requirements of colleges; I used Google docs as an alternative, which seems to be a bit more sluggish and less immediate. Having said that, it is probably better for documents that have a longer shelf-life as it has a lot more features (and is much less likely to vanish from the cloud).

      I’d also recommend looking at this post

    3. which gives another perspective on these tools and some good background reading links.

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