Google Docs In The Classroom – Part 2: Collaboration

This is the second in a series of four posts about my experiences of using Google docs in the classroom. You can read part 1 here.

Part 2: Collaboration (or a lesson in human nature)

As I mentioned in part 1, I decided that the best way to engage my students with Google docs was to embrace the multiple editors / real time editing capabilities of the package. And so decided to have the students co-produce a presentation in groups of 3 or 4.

The task: “Create a presentation exploring the relationship between two TV institutions and their target audiences.”

As a class we decided to break the research into a series of smaller questions. They came up with the questions and I recorded them in a document that I subsequently placed on the VLE, so they could refer to them as the project progressed. Happy that the class understood what they had to do, I put them in to groups, asked them to log in to Google docs and spent a few moments refreshing them on where things were etc. I then reminded them that simply copying and pasting from Wikipedia did not count as research. And off they went.

What happened over the course of the week: was a lesson in human nature and a powerful reminder that technology does not automatically result in a better final outcome!

The students were quick to get to grips with Google docs. Such is the universal nature of the application that they easily navigated the menus editing the theme, adding additional slides, selecting fonts etc. What was more interesting at this early stage was the way that they organised themselves. Within their groups, the students seemed to react in two specific ways to this new collaborative technology I had forced upon them. Some of the groups decided that they would break up the research into individual tasks and that they would then each have seperate slides to work in to. Thus, making what they were doing not so much a group activity but an individual one. Other groups similarly broke the research up but decideed to work in pairs co-editing slides which was closer to my original vision (at least that is what was in my head).

Sometimes you can be so focussed on the technology that you forget about (or ignore) other factors that may impact on the learning. Regardless of the ability to have multiple editors, edit in real time and ease of use, it did not mean that the students would collaborate in groups more effectively.  My Media Studies class is a mixed ability class, two thirds female, with many of the students being quite academically successful. There is a natural sense of competition and many of my students want to achieve (expect to achieve) highly. While I had gone through my usual routine in grouping the students, ballancing ability and practical skills against each other I had not considered the “levelling effect” that Google docs would have on the production of the presentations. The less academic students who perhaps would have taken on roles as scribes or talkers in your more traditional classroom group dynamic were now elevated to the same status as the more academic students, in that each and everyone of them had access to and were capable of editing the document. The problem however, was that those less academic students did not have the same research skills, quality of written expression and (most importantly) same level of motivation that the majority of the students had. This then resulted in problems amonst some of the groups.

For some the technology broke down the group dynamic causing a seperation. For others it brought them together but not as one whole. Those groups who separated out the slides seemed to have more arguments about how much work each member of the group had put in. The groups who had shared tasks and co-edited slides produced better presentations and had less arguments. As well as reminding me about human nature, it has caused me to ask quite a number of questions: Is the idea of editing someone eles’s work too alien for them? Are they afraid of offending each other? Should I have started with something more independent and built up to this? Is the inclusiveness of the technology more devisive in a secondary classroom?

Even though creating a presentation in Google docs threw up all these issues and questions, the project was a success in that all of the groups did submit completed presentations. Some of the presentation were well produced with most of the students offering more than copied passages from Wikipedia. Many of the students did their homework and some entered in to new ways of working: chatting online, sharing and discussing their learning as they edited the document. All of the groups added me as an editor as well and this was great as I could track each groups progress and also offer support and guidance in real time. However, the results were varied and truly depended upon how well the groups embraced the collaborative nature of Google docs.

Two examples:

The first is from a group where I feel the technology caused a seperation of the group dynamic. While it provides me with enough material to be able to assess each student’s contribution it also displays some of the issues thrown up by the project. You can see how the students have seperated out the slides with their names. You can also see the difference in quality of the work resulting in a presentation that is disjointed – this I feel demonstrates that the technology does not automatically result in better collaboration and in turn a better final outcome.

The second example is from a group that took a more collaborative approach co-authoring slides. I think the results are stronger for it and they have offered a fuller response to the task. From investigating the previous versions it is clear how different members of the group supported each other in creating the presentaytion. Talking to them afterwards they said they enjoyed the experience. They had set up a specific time to be online together so that they could IM each other as they were working. On further reflection they were the group with most level playing field on terms of academic ability so perhaps they were also more confident of each others abilities? This human factor, their relationships with each other I think is very important and can make or break this type of collaboration. The “Wow” factor of the technology is rendewred obsilete if the members of the group do not trust each other to pull their weight and offer an equal contribution.

What were the wins and what were the fails?

#Win:

All of the groups managed to edit a document in real time and could see how this speeded up the process.

Most of the students worked from home (some utilising the back channel chat function to work together, others using their own methods – Facebook or MSN). I felt that this was an important development.

All of the students quickly familiarised themselves with the Google docs interface and I heard almost no complaints about it. In fact, some students said that they preferred it to PowerPoint.

I was able to view their work as it progressed and offer support and guidance.

#Fail:

Some of the groups failed to work together effectively (I need to evaluate the way I put groups together when using Google docs).

The nature of editing one document for submission threw up a variety of issues including concerns over trust, ownership and effort.

Resizing images (at the time this activity was taking place) was not always very easy. (This has been significantly improved recently.)
still did not eleviate human factors – who puts the groups together? what happens when someone does not pull their weight

The finished presentations starkly highlighted differences in the abilities of the students, putting the less academic students in an uncomfortable position.

The final word!

The potential for improved collaboration is huge but perhaps shorter activities are needed to develop a mode of practice. What’s more, as the teacher I need to open the students up to co-editing / altering each others work. This is a discussion that I believe needs to be a lesson(s) in itself, as even with peer assessment and critical reflection becoming more common practice in schools, turning round to a classmate (friend even) and changing their work is a big step that some students are not mature enough to handle. As I said this was a lesson in human nature. I can think of quite a few adults who wouldn’t like their work being altered. My advice to you, if you are thinking abour using Google docs foster collaboration between your students then:

  1. Spend some time with them discussing what it means to edit another student’s work.
  2. Model collaborative editing with them – show them that it is okay to edit, delete, change, improve each others work.
  3. Have them complete some shorter, smaller tasks to get used to the idea of changing one another’s work.
  4. Group your students by similar ability so as not to draw attention so noticably to differences in ability.
  5. Definitely have your students add you as a collaborator. (This was the biggest win for me) as it allows you to effectively support your students through the writing process – a great way to differentiate.
  6. Don’t underestimate human nature! 😉

Next time: Assessment.

Google Docs In The Classroom – Part 1: Signing Up

This is the first in a series of four posts about my experiences of using Google docs with my Year 10 Media Studies students, over the course of the last academic year. Each post will cover a specific topic:

  1. Signing Up
  2. Collaboration
  3. Assessment
  4. What’s Next?

Part 1: Signing Up (or a lesson in the drawbacks of being impulsive)

Signing up should have been easy, right? Wrong? At least, that is if you’re a bit impulsive like me and don’t always think things through or test things first.

Let’s begin with a short history lesson: When I joined my school over seven years ago, all students were issued with a school email account. Each year the accounts of one or more year groups would be shut down due to misuse. Rather than teaching the students about email etiquette and online responsibility the powers that be chose to go for the classic “punish them all rather than just the few” approach. For a time the accounts were shut down altogether. Now, fast forward to January 2010. What many students at my school don’t realise is that each they have a working school email account. The relevance of this little history lesson will become clear a few paragraphs later.

So, why Google docs?

I’ll let Google answer that one for me! See pic:

google docs

Every point used by Google to promote their cloud based editing suite is valuable but it has always been points 2 and 4 that have enticed me the most as an educator. Before I decided to use docs with my students I had made use of it sharing and editing documents with literally a handful of colleagues to hammer out ideas and plan projects. I could see quite clearly, the value that it would offer a class of students. Student’s could submit their homework online, they could work collaboratively together in real time, I could mark and edit their work as they went along – great for differentiation and there is no need to be carrying a pocketful of memory sticks around that can be easily lost. Awesome!

With all of this is mind however, when I took my class off to the computer room with the intention of getting them started with Google docs I had not fully thought it through. I can be quite impulsive at times and a little reactionary. I had read the weekend before about some great work produced by students collaboratively on Google docs and was feeling inspired. I had just started a new unit with my class, beginning with a research project. I felt that utilising the collaborative nature and real time editing features of Google docs would be the perfect way for my students to write up and present their research. So, I decided to go for it without considering one very important aspect of the whole process: signing up and email account verification!

create account

The students were typically enthusiastic about using the computers and were logged on before I could finish issuing instructions. I shared the URL they need and demonstrated how to sign up for a Google account. When my students asked: “what email address should we use, sir?” I simply replied “your own” without thinking. This was a huge mistake because web-based email (Hotmail, Yahoo, Google etc) is blocked in my school. Why was this a problem? Well, it’s not at first. Google docs signs you in automatically when you first sign up and you can start editing documents straight away. “Good times!” However, should you log out or wish to share your newly created document with anyone then you must verify your account. How is this achieved? By sending you an email, which includes a link that you must click on. The first activity I had planned was a collaborative one. My intention being to wow them with the possibilities that Google Docs offers but we were literally blocked at the first hurdle as the students I had selected to create and share documents with their peers were asked to verify their accounts. Could they access their email? No!

This is where the history lesson from earlier becomes relevant. There is considerable debate within educational communities about the value of knowledge. But I am here to advocate that “knowledge is power”. It is the knowledge rooted in the back of my mind that 1. The students’ school email accounts work and 2. Google allows you to re-associate an account to another email that saved the day for me and my students. A teacher without this knowledge, in a school that does not give its students personal email accounts would have had to give up at this point. So the next bit of this post explains how to re-associate a Google account to a different email address.

edit email

I showed each student how to access their Google account. As you can see in the image above underneath their “Email address” there is an edit option. This allows you to change the email address that is associated with the account. By getting each of my students to work through this process, associating their Google accounts with their school email addresses I was able to get the lesson back on track. They each received an email in their school email accounts asking them to verify their Google accounts. As soon as this was done they could log back into Google docs, share documents with each other and begin collaborating.

There was not as much time to work through the activity (a simple editing task) that I had set for them but many of the students could see how useful Google docs could be. I was able to get a member of each research team to create a document (presentation) to work into. The following lesson the students began to collaborate, adding to their presentation. But on this I will say no more as this is the topic of the next post in the series.

Suffice to say, while the lesson did not go as planned I learned a lot and knew exactly how I would go about this process with other classes.

So what follows is a best practice guide to signing your students up to use Google docs:

  1. Create a set of instructions that can be shared / displayed. (Could even be put onto VLE if you have one.)
  2. Have your students use an email address that can be accessed in school. (If you are a school that uses Google apps then this shouldn’t be an issue.)
  3. Have them all log out immediately, log into their email accounts and verify their account at the same time.
  4. Have them all create a document and share it with you so they all learn how this function works.
  5. Give them a short task to do with one partner to get them used to the idea of documents updating at the same time. (I use a short writing/editing task – each student writes their own paragraph then edits their partners in real time.)

To conclude this first post about my experiences of using Google docs with my students, I would also recommend that you find a colleague to use Google docs with before you use it with your students. This was a great help to me as it allowed me to have a full understanding of how to create and share documents so that I could get my students creating and collaborating immediately. It is also useful to get one student to sign up on a student machine so that you can investigate any potential pitfalls. If your school is like mine, the student machines are set up differently to staff laptops.  Had the process of signing up been more smooth my students would have walked away from the lesson with a collaborative document that they had both edited. In the end this was only partially achieved with this class but worked successfully with subsequent classes.

Next time: Collaboration.

I Have Moved!

I will keep this short and sweet. I have moved from jamesmichie.blogspot.com to jamesmichie.com/blog.

My blogging platform of choice is WordPress. I have a bit of minor tweaking left to do but the bulk of the work is done and I am pretty happy with the results.

I believe that I have migrated my Feedburner feed correctly so there should be no need for anyone to update. However, I will publicise the move as much as possible over the next couple of weeks just in case.

One thing that does not seem to have worked as well is Disqus. My comments are here in the Disqus WordPress Plugin page but they are not appearing below the relevant posts. It may simply take some time for the migration to take place, so I am not going to worry about it too much until tomorrow.

I would be very interested to know what people think about the redesign. Please comment below!

[UPDATE] I am slowly editing some of my older posts as the import from Blogger into WordPress has done some funny things with some of the paragraphing. I am also updating some of the links. I have also installed the Blogger to WordPress redirect plugin and now if anyone visits jamesmichie.blogspot.com or any individual post they will be redirected here to the matching post or page. I am waiting to hear from Disqus about sorting the permalinks of about 20 comments or so that are not displaying below the relevant posts. Overall, though, I am very happy with the way my new home is looking! 🙂

Moving!

This blog [jamesmichie.blogspot.com] will be moving to a new home very soon.

I spent several hours yesterday afternoon/evening tinkering with both WordPress and Posterous and have concluded that WordPress will be my platform of choice. I am going to use Posterous for a future #365 project and with my students due to its ease of use. As @stevegillott put it, Posterous is more of a “fire and forget thing”. Which is great for newbie bloggers but does not suit my needs.

I have already set up the WP blog and it is under construction. My new home is “jamesmichie.com/blog” and you can follow its progress over the next few days as I set it up. I have already transferred two of my static pages from this blog. I have added follow buttons, a CC license, search box, TweetMeme button and I have teaked the CSS chnging the font to Helvetica and the colour of hyperlinks.

When will the move be finished? It is my hope to have the move complete by the end of the weekend. My next full blog post will hopefully reach you from my new home. 🙂