Guide and Recommendations for Using Digital Whiteboards

Unsplash image of whiteboard markers and a table.

Introduction to Digital Whiteboards 

Digital whiteboards, such as Microsoft whiteboards and Zoom whiteboards, provide a virtual space for both instructors and students to communicate and collaborate simultaneously about course concepts on a shared digital canvas. Digital whiteboards, alternatively called virtual whiteboards, have been a recent addition to the modern interactive, online classroom. With physical whiteboards, instructors can write out important concepts and illustrate examples to the class quickly and with ease. For students, the whiteboard presents the information in a way for them to visualize and collect key points from the lesson. Virtual whiteboards take the concepts of a traditional whiteboard and make them available online for instructors to use without changing their lesson dramatically and are easy to incorporate into a Teams or Zoom class meeting. 

In this blog post, we will explore two types of virtual whiteboards instructors can use in their teaching as well as the support available for instructors looking to incorporate virtual whiteboards in the classroom. While there are several different online whiteboards, UW-Green Bay instructors have supported access to Microsoft Whiteboards and Zoom Whiteboards. We encourage you to stick with these two whiteboard options, as students already have access to Microsoft whiteboards and Zoom whiteboards through their UWGB accounts. We will begin by reviewing these two whiteboard applications and the features available to use within each whiteboard. To broaden the discussion, we have provided instructors with a list of potential use cases, benefits, and limitations to consider when incorporating a digital whiteboard in your class.  

The Case for Microsoft Teams Whiteboards or Zoom Whiteboards 

Microsoft Whiteboards with Microsoft Teams 

Microsoft Whiteboard Cause and Effect Diagram
Microsoft Whiteboard modeling the “Cause and Effect Diagram” template

The Microsoft Whiteboard application allows instructors and students to collaborate in a hybrid or remote classroom both inside and outside of Microsoft Teams meetings. With Microsoft Whiteboards, instructors and students can brainstorm, plan, and share with others on a digital canvas asynchronously and synchronously. You can access your whiteboards through your desktop browsers, in Microsoft Teams meetings, breakout rooms, chat, and channels. You can also download the application to use on your smartphone or tablet.  

Zoom Whiteboards

Zoom whiteboard basic flow chart template
Zoom whiteboard modeling the “Basic Flow Chart” template.

Zoom whiteboards can be created and shared using the desktop application and the Zoom web portal. Instructors can share whiteboards with students before, during, and after a Zoom classroom meeting. Zoom whiteboards can be viewed and edited on a computer using the Zoom app or web browser and on a tablet or iPad with the Zoom app. If you use the Zoom mobile app on a smaller device, such as a phone, you will only be able to view Zoom whiteboards. In-app collaboration does not allow attendees to edit the same whiteboard simultaneously across multiple breakout rooms, so breakout room attendees will have to navigate between two windows (one with the whiteboard and one with their breakout group) to participate in the activity.  

Resources and Support

Considerations and Use Cases for Using Whiteboards for Instruction

Like most teaching and learning tools, there is no singular perfect way to use digital whiteboards in the classroom. One class might find it easier to incorporate whiteboards than another classroom might. If you are interested in using whiteboards, think about how you can use the whiteboard to facilitate the desired learning outcomes of the course content, activity, or assessment.  Below is a list of some possible use cases for digital whiteboards and how instructors and students can benefit from the interactive application.  

  • Annotating and visual explanations: Digital whiteboards can offer space for annotation on images, documents, text, and visualizations. Whiteboard editors and collaborators can add images and documents to the whiteboard and can write, draw, and mark up images, insert sticky notes, and connect ideas using lines and shapes.  
  • Building community: Incorporate digital whiteboards for quick icebreakers, mid-semester check-ins, or even for first-day introductions. For remote learners and instructors, digital whiteboards can be a great tool to engage with one another in the virtual classroom and outside of the class session. Students can gain and create a sense of class community as they interact with each other’s ideas and course information in a shared whiteboard canvas.  
  • Brainstorming, practice, and review: Digital whiteboards allow multiple students to contribute to a whiteboard and the whiteboard is saved for students to return to in the future. Instructors and students can share examples and study notes with the whole class or in small groups. Students can use whiteboards as a study tool to practice for assessments, track projects, and review materials from previous whiteboard sessions. This may also allow students to navigate coursework and material with more autonomy by supporting their ability to set goals, organize their learning, and problem-solve individually or in a group.  
  • Student engagement and collaboration: Students and instructors can engage in real-time collaborative editing, annotating, formatting, and more. Students can participate in the lesson or learning activity by visually seeing the instructors’ connections and explanations. Additionally, instructors and students can use multiple different annotation and drawing tools during a collaborative learning activity. Ask students to solve problems, connect points, and unpack more abstract topics by using the whiteboard’s interactive tools. Consider even making a whiteboard activity a non-graded or low-stakes assessment to gauge the progress of your students’ understanding and connection to the course content.  
  • Group projects or activities: Create structured whiteboards or guide students in creating their own for group projects.  Instructors can share whiteboards outside of class meetings with specific groups of students to structure group projects and provide students with the whiteboard space prior to class. Students can use whiteboards to track project goals, brainstorm ideas, and serve as a shared project workspace. 
  • Breaking up class lectures: If you are looking to break up a class lecture or content that might require a great deal of student concentration, consider pausing the lecture and using a quick whiteboard for a recap or lecture review. For example, you could share a whiteboard you have already created as a part of the lecture and allow students to annotate it. This allows students to interact with the lecture material in different ways, giving students the space to make deeper connections or understand difficult concepts.  
  • Use templates for structured activities: To reduce set-up time during a class session, consider using the various Microsoft or Zoom whiteboard templates available to help structure collaborative activities ranging from concept maps, project planning and timelines, to icebreakers and games. 
  • Provide students with guidance and instruction: Be intentional with your use of digital whiteboards. Students will need to learn how to gain access to and use the digital application. They will also require guidance on how you would like them to interact with it. What tools would you like them to use (sticky notes, pen, text, etc.)? Where should they add their contributions? 
  • Use “view only” for large classes: To eliminate overwhelming the whiteboard with student collaborations in a large virtual class, consider presenting the whiteboard in a view state only. This allows you to present the whiteboard and its content in a focused and structured way. 
  • Remember that whiteboards will not be recorded: If you are recording your virtual meeting using Microsoft Teams or Zoom, the recording will not capture the whiteboard collaboration. While the whiteboard session will not be in the recording, Zoom and Teams will save the whiteboards for students and instructors to view after the session is over. Alternatively, you can use external software to record your screen during the session, like Kaltura Capture.  
  • Avoid reliance on drawing tools for annotations: Drawing on a computer or phone can be difficult for students and instructors. Consider limiting the need for drawing tools and ask students to use shapes, sticky notes, or text tools instead. If the whiteboard activity requires detailed sketches or handwritten notes, consider asking students to upload a file to the whiteboard instead. 
  • Keep in mind access and accessibility: A stable internet connection is required for both students and instructors to create and collaborate on a digital whiteboard. This may exclude students who have limited or inconsistent internet access from participating in the activity. Additionally, whiteboards are not compatible with screen readers, though you can still add alt text to images, shapes, and lines to explain the visual elements. 

Questions?

CATL is here to help! If you would like to discuss Microsoft or Zoom whiteboard features and functions or learn more about how to use whiteboards in your class, fill out our consultation request form to schedule a meeting with a member of the CATL team.  

Hands of students completing a cloud-shaped puzzle which reads "Online Collaboration"

Up and Running with Remote Group Work

A Case for Group Work

Group work can elicit negative reactions from instructors and students alike. Often enough, students groan about doing it and instructors dread grading it. The process is ripe for communication breakdowns resulting in stress from both perspectives. On top of this, the digital learning environment tends to compound these issues. Why then is group work so prevalent?

The answer is that, when done well, group activities help foster engagement and build relationships. Collaborative work helps students develop important skills like effectively articulating ideas, active listening, and cooperation with peers. Collaborative assignments correlate strongly with student success positioning them as one of eight high-impact practices identified by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Making group work a worthwhile experience for students requires extra consideration and planning, but the positive gains are worth the effort.

Designing Group Work for Student Success

How can we design collaborative activities that are a quality learning experience for students? Scaffolding makes sure students are confident in their understanding of and ability to execute the activity. UW-Extension has created a helpful guide on facilitating group work that outlines three key suggestions to get you started. First, be sure students understand the purpose of the activity, in terms of what they are supposed to learn from it and why it is a group activity. Second, provide support so students have the necessary tools and training to collaborate. You are clear how and when students are to collaborate or provide suggestions. You ensure students understand how to use the needed technologies. Finally, providing opportunities for peer- and self-evaluation can alleviate frustrations of unequal workload by having students evaluate their own and their peers’ contributions. As challenges arise, guide groups toward solutions that are flexible but fair to all members. When embarking on group projects, be prepared to provide students with guidance about what to do when someone on the team is not meeting the group’s expectations.

One example of this as you design your group projects is to ask yourself whether it’s important students meet synchronously. If so, how might you design the project for students with caregiving responsibilities or with full-time or “off hours” work schedules? These students may not be able to meet as regularly or at the same time as other students. See below for how this might play into assessing the group project. You might also consider whether all students need to hold the same role within the group, or if their collective project be split up based on group roles.

Consider how the group dynamics can impact student experiences. Helping students come up with a plan for group work and methods of holding one another accountable promotes an inclusive and equitable learning environment. Consider any of these tools to help your students coordinate these efforts:

Assessing Group Work

Equitable, specific, and transparent grading are crucial to group-work success. The Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence of Carnegie Mellon University has a great resource on how to assess group work, including samples. This resource breaks grading group work down into three areas. First, assess group work based on both individual and group learning and performance. Include an individual assessment component to motivate all students to contribute and help them to feel their individual efforts are recognized. Also assess the process along with the product. What skills are you hoping students develop by working in groups? Your choice of assessment should point to these skills. One way to meet this need is to have students complete reflective team, peer, or individual evaluations as described above. Finally, outline your assessment criteria and grading scheme upfront. Students should have clear expectations of how you will assess them. Include percentages for team vs. individual components and product vs. process components as they relate to the total project grade.

Tools for Working Collaboratively

Picking the right tool among a plethora of what is available is an important step. First, consider how you would like students to collaborate for the activity. Is it important that students talk or chat synchronously, asynchronously, or both? Will students share files?

The following suggestions include the main collaboration tools supported at UWGB. Click to expand the sections for the various tools below.

If you are interested in learning more about any of these tools, consider scheduling a consultation with a CATL member.

Canvas discussions are one option for student collaboration. Operating much like an online forum, discussions are best suited for asynchronous communication, meaning students can post and reply to messages at any time, in any order. If you have groups set up in Canvas, you can create group discussions in which group members can only see one another’s posts. You can also adjust your course settings so that students can create their own discussion threads as well.

If you’ve never seen VoiceThread, imagine a PowerPoint presentation in which students can leave audio, video, and text comments on every slide. It is a great tool for virtual presentations, as students can pre-record narration for slides and then embed their projects in Canvas pages, discussions, etc. to share with the rest of the class. Keep in mind however that it may take students longer to grow comfortable with VoiceThread than a tool like Canvas discussions or Office 365, which they may already be familiar with using.

Office 365 refers to the online Microsoft Office Suite, including Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. Students can work collaboratively and asynchronously on projects using online document versions of any of these software, which updates changes in nearly real time. Microsoft Office 365 has partial integration with Canvas, allowing students to set up and share Office documents from within Canvas using the Collaborations feature. Students will have to log in to Office 365 through their Canvas course before they can use most features of Canvas and Office 365 integration.

Collaborate Ultra is one of two web conferencing tools supported by the university, the other being Teams. Collaborate Ultra has full integration with Canvas, meaning students can access meetings and recordings from within a Canvas course. As such, it is generally easy to for students to access and use. One downside to Collaborate Ultra is that it is a purely synchronous meeting tool, so students will have to coordinate their schedules or find other ways of including members that may not be able to attend a live meeting.

Microsoft Teams is a collaboration tool that combines web conferencing, synchronous and asynchronous text communications (in the form of chat and posts), and shared, collaborative file space. Students can create a new team in MS Teams for their group project or operate in a channel of an existing class team. Microsoft Teams also has partial integration with Canvas, meaning students and instructors can create and share Teams meeting links within the New Rich Content Editor of Canvas (in pages, announcements, discussions, etc.).

Putting It into Practice

When we ask students to work collaboratively, it’s important we reveal the “hidden curriculum” by building in the steps they should take to be a successful team. As a starting point, asking students to answer these questions helps clarify the work of the group:

  • “Who’s on the team?”
  • “What are your tasks as a group?”
  • “How will you communicate?” (Asynchronously? Synchronously?)
  • “How will you ensure everyone can meet the deadlines you set?”
  • “If or When someone misses a meeting, how will you ensure that everyone has access to the information they’ll need to help you all complete the project on time?”
  • “When will you give each other feedback before you turn in the final assignment?”

For a ‘bare bones’ group assignment, take the above considerations on designing and assessing groupwork into account and create a worksheet for the student groups to fill out together. Create a Canvas group assignment to collect those agreements, assign it some points that will be a part of the whole project grade, and set the deadline for turning it in early so that students establish their plan early enough for it to benefit their group. Scaffolded activities that give students enough structure and agency is a delicate balance, but these kinds of guided worksheets and steps can help students focus their energy on the project, assignment, or task once everyone is on the same page.

Let’s keep the conversation going!

Do you have some tried and tested strategies for helping students coordinate and complete group work online? Send them our way by emailing: CATL@uwgb.edu or comment below!