Online Tools for Collaborative Content Creation and Annotation

Having students collaborate on creating new course content is an effective learning activity. This can easily be done via online tools such as Google Documents, which allows multiple students to contribute to and edit the same document at different times (asynchronously) or at the same time (synchronously). Platforms such as OneDrive and SharePoint also have this functionality but tend to be used among coworkers rather than between instructors and students. Padlet also facilitates collaboration by helping students brainstorm and share ideas. 

Having students collaborate on annotating existing course content using online tools such as Hypothesis and Perusall is also an effective learning activity. Documents as well as images and video can be annotated with these tools.  

Waterloo instructors might be interested in joining the Collaboration and Teamwork Community of Practice


Collaborative learning activities have several benefits, pertaining to pedagogy, convenience, and skill development. 

  1. Collaborative learning activities leverage an educational theory known as social constructivism, which posits that learning happens best when it takes place in a social context (through interactions with other learners) and when it builds upon the prior knowledge of the learners. 
  2. In terms of convenience, these tools work well for students who are unable to find a time or place to gather outside of class to work on a group project. 
  3. According to a survey conducted in 2013 by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the number one quality that employers want in a university graduate is the ability to work on a team. Collaborative learning activities help develop those teamwork skills. 

Evidence of Efficacy

  1. “Students who used [collaborative document creation] to write the practice report gave higher ratings on engagement with other students and cognitive engagement than the students who wrote the practice report individually.” (Neumann)
  2. “The responses indicate that incorporating an online collaborative tool resulted in extremely engaged students who became self motivated both inside and outside the classroom.” (Dempsey)
  3. “Data analysis showed significant improvement in learning outcomes [for students engaged in a collaborative learning activity], in particular for students with low initial performance.” (Tselios)
  4. “The use of the [collaborative learning tool] was found effective to reinforce the peer learning relationships and consequently to improve their achievements on the subject.” (Rodriguez-Hidalgo)

Best Practices

  1. Make the collaborative activity meaningful to the students by directing it toward an authentic end-product. For example, Waterloo's Nadine Ibrahim (Civil and Environmental Engineering) had her student's collaborate on developing content which was published as an eBook under the title “The Sustainability Contribution Project." The University of Manitoba's Christina Penner (Computer Science) had her third-year students collaborate on writing a textbook for first-year computer-science students. The resulting first-year computer science textbook has been accessed more than 70,000 times.
  2. Consider assigning specific roles to students. For example, some students could be responsible for writing first drafts, other students for revising, other students for organizing, and so on. These roles could change from time to time.
  3. Work with the students to develop a series of deadlines to keep the various stages of the project on track.
  4. Consider using online collaborative tools in the following ways:
    1. In small groups, use an online collaborative tool such as Google Documents to plan and develop their class presentations. 
    2. Students use the tool to develop a glossary of terminology used in the course.
    3. The instructor uses an online collaborative tool to share course content that contain numerous mistakes.  Students then access the content to collaborate on identifying and correcting those mistakes. 
    4. In small groups, students create course notes for each class. Different roles might be assigned to each student: one student types in the notes during class, another student reviews them during class for errors, another student formats the notes, another student finds and inserts links to relevant supplementary material, and so on. 
    5. Students use a wiki to collect and collate data that they are each responsible for acquiring. 
    6. At the beginning of the term, students use a wiki to develop the policies and ground rules of the course.
    7. Students create an FAQ for the course that will be used the next time the course is offered. 



Contact Mark Morton


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