Collaboration Tools Help Students Work Smarter, Not Harder – Kelli Etheredge, USA

When Kelli Etheredge made her first appearance in Daily Edventures three years ago, she had plenty to say about what makes for engaging learning. But given how fast teaching with technology is changing, we wanted to check back in with this inspiring educator to see how her own teaching practice has evolved.  

Not surprisingly, Etheredge has directed her enthusiasm for teaching to applying new technology in creative ways. “I don’t want to use technology just because it is there,” she says. “I want to use it in meaningful ways that truly transform the learning environment, and, for me, the collaborative tools are the most transformative piece.”

Tools like OneNote and OneDrive play a prominent role in her classroom, providing a platform for her students to collaborate on group projects like the creation of a media campaign to drive community awareness about environmental issues. (This presentation describes how her school implements 1:1 learning – including collaboration tools – to meet learning objectives.)

Etheredge brings her full experience into the classroom, including her previous career as an attorney. Using a mock trial as a device to explore The Count of Monte Christo, students did all of their work in OneNote. “Without OneNote,” she says, “students would have never accomplished the level of organization, planning, preparation, and critical thinking that they did.”   

Today, this Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert is one of the most active OneNote experts in the US, and she shares what she’s learned with other educators through her own blog, and through the Microsoft Educator Network Hot Topics platform. Etheredge was one of five nominees for the 2013 Bammy Awards in the Secondary Teacher of the Year category, and she and her team took first place in the most recent Global Forum Learn-a-thon.

Her advice to other teachers? “Overcoming our fear of failure and criticism, moving beyond our comfort zones, breaking the modes of the past, are the keys to a quality education for everyone.” Well said. Enjoy today’s Daily Edventure with Kelly Etheredge.

What inspired you to become an educator?
Education is not my first career.  Before I began teaching, I practiced law for five years.  When I found my legal career dissatisfying, I thought long and hard about what I felt would be a fulfilling career where I was able to find my purpose. I chose law initially to help people, to make a difference. 

When I thought about the people in my life who made a difference, it wasn’t the lawyers in my life; it was my teachers and coaches who came to mind.  Coach Joseph Brown, Mr. and Mrs. Bailey, Coach and Mrs. Spriggs – all teachers and coaches who not only made a difference, but transformed my life.  Additionally, when I was in law school, I taught a writing course as well as a street law program at a juvenile detention center.  I loved it.  With all of these thoughts, I started pursuing a teaching career. 

I don’t know if I had a single moment as much as I had a series of moments that finally hit me as the “a-ha” moment when you know you are on the right track.  Early moments in my career that helped me know education was the right field for me included seeing my students excited about starting class; having the “time fly” so that when the bell rings no one is ready to leave; having a student stay after class to ask my advice; being open and honest with my students and having them reciprocate; sharing laughter and tears with my students. Really, it may sound hokey, and believe me not every moment has been perfect, but every moment in some way or another has helped solidifymy realization that my life’s purpose is to be in education.

What was a defining moment in your career when you felt proudest to be an educator?

Every time a student demonstrates their deep understanding of a concept or expresses their love of learning, I am proud to be an educator. Most of the time that happens in pockets – students reach realizations at different times in different ways – rather than as a whole class.

Two years ago, however, my 10th grade worked on a media campaign project that demonstrated collective engagement. Everyone was motivated and industrious. Every grade at St. Paul’s has a philanthropy focus, and 10th grade’s focus is the environment. I asked the students to conduct research projects about an environmental topic of their choice.  My only requirement was that the topic had a local tie. After the students researched the environmental issues, we published their reports in an online magazine.

Although they thought they were finished, I then stood in front of the class and asked, “Now that you know what our community’s environmental concerns are, what are you going to do about them?” Their initial response was, “We’re just fifteen; there isn’t anything we can do.” I disagreed and told them they were going to create media campaigns to help their community. I asked students to choose a focus for their media campaign, and then the work really began.

One class decided to help clean up Dog River – the local river that feeds into Mobile Bay and that after every rain is full of trash because people litter. We invited in media experts, brainstormed ideas, formed committees – in short, created our own mini-advertising firm.  By the end of the project, students had negotiated ad space in a local magazine, worked with the local coffee house to create and sell a special coffee blend, organized a clean-up day on Dog River, and donated money to the BayKeeper – a local environmental agency. 

Most of the students’ efforts were done after school, on the weekends, and even after the school year ended – all without a grade! The students had pride in their work, and the community greatly appreciated their efforts. I couldn’t be prouder of their teamwork and their passion for the project. Before the year ended, I asked them, “So, what can 15 year olds do for the community?” Their response this time was, “A lot!”

Why do you feel passionate about innovation and technology in the classroom? What I love about technology in the classroom is its ability to allow my students to work in ways that we can’t in the absence of the technology.  I think back to when I was in school, or even when I started teaching 15 years ago.  If we wanted to work on a collaborative project, all the work had to be completed in class or we had to meet at someone’s house.  When you can’t drive or you have activities or jobs after school, finding time to collaborate is difficult.

Today, collaborative tools allow students to connect with each other anytime and anywhere. Using technology in these ways, the possibilities are endless. The first time I realized how technology could help my students work smarter, not harder was when I decided to use OneNote for a mock trial.

We were reading The Count of Monte Cristo, and I decided that at the end of the novel we were going to put the Count on trial for his crimes. I needed a place for the prosecution and defense teams to work together and so I chose OneNote.  I was able to see all of the work that the students were doing in and out of class as well provide feedback. Quick, one-day collaborative lessons and larger projects all lived in our class OneNote notebook. When we moved to the media campaign project I mentioned previously, we not only used OneNote to organize the committees’ work, but we also used a shared folder in Office 365 to store all of our campaign posters, ads, videos, and other content that the students created. 

Whether it’s a day-to-day challenge or larger problem, what’s the biggest obstacle you or your country or region has had to overcome, or will have to overcome, to ensure a quality education for students?

I think the biggest day-to-day challenge is finding ways to embrace change and to break out of the modes of the past in order to build a new learning environment for our students. We all remember the way we were taught, and we all have our own comfort levels. The problem is that the classrooms many of us experienced (and the ones we are teaching in now) were based on the industrialized model of learning – cookie-cutter; everyone progresses at the same time and in the same way.

The research shows, however, that the industrialized model is not the best practice for deep learning.  We must break the mold.  We must find ways to de-compartmentalize learning – change schedules, combine classes, stop teaching in “boxes” of math, science, English, etc.  It is hard, however, to break out from the norm and move beyond the comfort of what we know. If we want to ensure a quality education for our students, however, we are going to have to find ways to move outside of our comfort zones and take risks. Encouraging and allowing educators to take risks is, in turn, risky for administrators.  Not everything will work perfectly, and some will complain about, or balk, at the “failure.”  That is scary. 

The old model met the needs of one type of learner – one that memorizes well. We need new methods, new practices that allow every child to explore concepts, to think critically about those concepts, and to demonstrate their understanding in the way that suits him best. 

In terms of education innovation, what are you most excited about for the future?

I am most excited about the endless possibilities. It seems every week I am discovering another way to use technology to make our learning environments richer. As technology advances, those possibilities grow exponentially. 

My biggest hope for today’s students is that they know their worth in the world, that they know that each one of them has unique abilities and qualities that this world needs, and that they never lose their love for learning.

About Kelli Etheredge, Director of Teaching and Learning Resources, Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert  

St. Paul’s Episcopal School

Mobile, Alabama, USA


  • Birthplace:  Chattanooga, Tennessee
  • Educational background:  Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice and Spanish from Auburn University; Juris Doctorate from Cumberland School of Law
  • Website I check every day: Twitter, Facebook, school website
  • Favorite childhood memory:  I have lots of great memories from childhood, but when I think of my childhood what I think of most fondly are my summers – being on the swim team and spending days at the horse barn riding my horse, throwing hay bales, and even cleaning stalls – as well as my times running track in middle and high school.
  • Favorite book: Too many to list, but some of my favorites include A Tale of Two Cities; the Harry Potter series; The Count of Monte Cristo; Life and Death in Shanghai; A More Beautiful Question
  • Favorite Microsoft product, tool, technology:  OneNote with a digitized device.
  • What is the best advice you have ever received?  Focus on the positive. 
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One Response to Collaboration Tools Help Students Work Smarter, Not Harder – Kelli Etheredge, USA

  1. Collaboration is a challenge both for the teachers and for the students.Kelli Etheredge is one of those educators who has deep insight on teaching with technology. I followed her in Twitter and connected with her in linkedin. Congratulation for the 2nd interview. Thank you Anthony Salcito for such a helpful interview

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