Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Backchannel with Etherpad Experiences

Today for week 3 of my “Technology 4 Teachers” class, I introduced students to a backchannel using Etherpad. This was my first time to use Etherpad with students, previously I’ve used Chatzy as well as the chat feature within Google Presentations. The first big surprise was there is a 16 simultaneous user limit for Etherpad currently. Google bought AppJet (creators of Etherpad) back in December of 2009, and new paid accounts are currently not available. Free pads can still be created and used until the end of March 2010. The fact that students did not have to create accounts and could IMMEDIATELY start collaborating on Etherpad was WONDERFUL.

EtherPad from today

I really liked how Etherpad provides a shared document space, with everyone having their own text color automatically, as well as the chat area. The design and functionality reminds me of the Mac-only software SubEthaEdit, which I used a few times with collaborative teams in 2003-2005. The chat window on the right side is ok, but it’s great the focus of the collaborative space is a shared document. I used this to better effect in my second class than in the first today.

The most amazing thing about Etherpad, however, is the “time slider” view which allows anyone to re-create the document collaboration as it happened. You can move a slider at the top of the Etherpad and dynamically show the change over time in the document as edits were made. This is AMAZING!

Etherpad Time Slider View

I am glad Google opted to release Etherpad as an open source project, but I certainly don’t have the geek-quotient to take that code and put it on my own hosted server. I’d love to have my own installation of Etherpad to use with students in my classes as well as in presentations / workshops. I’m wondering if this is something I could affordably outsource using a site like RentACoder?

Has anyone setup Etherpad for educational use on your own server, or do you know of someone who has? What’s the best way to go about getting Etherpad setup privately on a hosted server account? (Like Siteground or Bluehost)

Learn more about backchannels in Scott H. Snyder’s 2008 K-12 Online Conference presentation, “Back-channels in the Classroom.”

Have you had experiences, good or bad, using backchannels with students in 1:1 settings? Do you have other backchannel recommendations in addition to Chatzy and Etherpad? Scott referenced Backnoise, Chatterous, and TodaysMeet in his presentation, but I haven’t used any of those or seen them in action yet to form opinions.

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8 responses to “Backchannel with Etherpad Experiences”

  1. Tony Vincent Avatar

    I love EtherPad as well! It’s too bad they are shutting it down. What’s the harm in leaving it up?

    I now direct people to It’s an alternative installation of EtherPad that won’t be taken down in March. There are other EtherPad clones like

    A couple weeks ago I hired a friend of mine to install EtherPad to a virtual/cloud server (from Rackspace) for me. He knows his stuff pretty well, but he’s had a really hard time getting it to work. Apparently the code has typos and issues that need to be fixed. So the TonyPad project is on hold. That’s ok, though. I’m using iEtherPad and it’s working out just fine.

  2. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Awesome, thanks for the tip on, Tony! I will give that a try as well.

    If you get your homegrown install going, please let me know and if your friend wants to replicate that feat for others. I might be willing to pay for that service as well! 🙂

  3. Todd Williamson Avatar

    Hi Wes,
    Not sure if you have seen yet, but the guys over at Edmodo are currently beta testing Etherpad functionality with Edmodo. They are calling the project Edmodo Chalk. I’m in on the beta testing and will be putting a couple of “Chalk”s through their paces today with about 13 students.
    I showed my kids the concept yesterday and they were blown away. We’ll see how things go with a bit more of a challenging test today. The kids on our Battle of the Books team will be creating a document with Character, Plot, and Details from a couple of the books they have been reading for the competition. We’ll see how it goes!

  4. Richard Byrne Avatar

    I have had a great experience over the last couple of months using TodaysMeet with my US History students (we’re 1:1 with netbooks). What I love about it backchanneling is that conversations can and have extended beyond the classroom. I also feel like I can give more attention to more student’s questions.

    I wrote about my experiences most recently in this post


  5. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    @Todd: I hadn’t seen the Edmodo / Etherpad integration project. That is very exciting! Thanks for the heads up.

    @Richard: Thanks for sharing your endorsement and experiences with TodaysMeet. I’ll check out your link!

  6. Kris Hagel Avatar


    I was able to put this together and get it up and running locally fairly easily, and will add it to our district’s arsenal Monday after this test was so successful.

    My question is this:

    For someone like myself who has the ability to put these things together and get them running fairly easily, what would be a good way to share these? I have heard virtual machines could be a good option for sharing with others, but that takes some technical skill and infrastructure in place to get it running as well. I have also written a couple of instruction documents on my blog for getting some things like this running and will probably do that as well on this one. Does anyone have any ideas on what would have the greatest impact for me as someone with the technical skill and would like to donate this to benefit the community?

  7. Paul Left Avatar

    I’ve used etherpad as a backchannel and found it very useful, and (as you point out) very fast and easy for students to get into.

    Great that it has been released as open source – it looked likely to disappear after the Google acquisition. This should ensure it continues to develop.

    Thanks for the links to alternative sites!

  8. […] Backchannel with Etherpad Experiences In this blog post, teacher Wesley Fryer describes how he used Etherpad to set up a backchannel — […]