Beware Walled Gardens – Part 2


This post is the second in a four two part series, you can read part one here. Having set out a case for social networks in place of VLEs in part one, one of my other criticisms of learning platforms is that many of the tools they come pre-loaded with are simply not up to scratch when compared to the myriad of tools freely available on the World Wide Web.

Collaboration (and a healthy dose of assessment for learning)

Google Docs does collaboration effortlessly and in genuine ‘real time’. This makes it far more powerful than its competitors.  I spent more than two years wrestling with the wiki module in Moodle before I made the move to Google Docs. I have never looked back since. The fact is that real time collaboration is far more meaningful for students. They feel empowered by the fact that they can make instant changes instead of having to wait in turn. This has been my main criticism of Moodle, many of the tools lack the instancy that I and my students have come to expect, particularly when it is available in other tools on the Web. I can’t speak to what Diipo will offer in this area but as an avid Google Docs user I can’t see it making me want to switch.

What’s more, as I have already chronicled on this blog, Google Docs offers excellent opportunities for assessment for learning. I use it on almost a weekly basis to develop my students’ peer and self-asasessment skills. I also try to assess as much work as possible using it at the formative stages. My students really enjoy using it.

Oliver Quinlan has also blogged about his use of Google Docs for collaborative assessment. In his concluding comments he discusses the notion of students developing their own workflows. This is an interesting concept, which I insert here, because I have had similar experiences. The wiki module in Moodle is quite cumbersome and in actuality rather than promoting collaboration, inhibits it. Google Docs offers multiple ways for students to collaborate, discuss and edit their work including a simple back channel. My students have thrived using Google Docs and I have found myself rethinking the way I plan these sorts of activities, trying to allow them to tread their own path.

As for security, there is little to be concerned about here. Documents are private by default and can be shared and unshared at the author’s discretion. One of the first things that I discuss with my students is the benefits and potential hazards of sharing information with others, particularly publicly. The benefits of sharing documents though are clear and I can’t think of one collaborative tool offered within a VLE that could generate or reproduce the level of creativity displayed in this video:

A range of apps with infinite possibilities

There are a whole bunch of other useful Google tools that your students can harness via the World Wide Web that won’t be found inside Diipo or Moodle. Lets start with the cornerstone of the web: Search. While some will argue that as the teacher I should curate resources for my students, which I could link to from within the VLE, I would rather teach them to make better use of Google’s excellent search engine. Rather than me trying to write about it, hop on over to Ian Addison’s blog and let him show you some of the hidden tools that can make Google search a highly valuable experience for learners.

Another tool that Google offers is Maps. For this one I’ll let Tom Barrett’s blog do the talking. He made excellent use of it during all that snow we experienced last year.

Nearly all Google apps (Scholar, Books, Earth, YouTube) offer valuable learning opportunities but none are tied down within a learning platform. They are free and available online. The only thing that will stop you using them is your imagination and possibly your schools internet service provider (you might have to get them unblocked). Every Google app I have used with my students has worked well, I can’t say the same for some of the tools I have tried in Moodle.

If you want to get more out of using Google apps with your students you should definitely check out Richard Byrne’s guides and tutorials on his blog. Or check out the excellent range of teaching ideas for Google Search, Docs, Forms, Maps and Earth from Tom Barrett’s Interesting Ways series.

It’s not all about Google though, there are many other apps out there that are worth using with your students. One I use a lot is Lino it. Lino allows you to add sticky notes to a canvas. It is great for starters, plenaries, homework. I can begin a discussion with it in one lesson and then re-use it for homework the next. The principal of mind-mapping or generating ideas could be done in a forum on Moodle I guess but it can’t be re-ordered afterwards, it can be reused in half as many ways. I have written about Lino in more detail here.

In a recent Moodle training session I delivered I used Lino to get feedback at the end. The 16 teachers who attended were more wowed by Lino than they had been by everything we had covered in Moodle. I wonder if its because it took them less than two minutes to figure it out. Shouldn’t VLEs be that easy?

Another fantastic tool is Voicethread. It allows you and your students to comment on text, audio and video, giving you something that can be referred back to later and, like Google Docs, is fantastic for formative assessment. Check out what David Mitchell and his Year 6 class have been doing with it at Heathfields.

Is a learning platform necessary?

I can already see that one of the responses levied at me will be: “Having a VLE doesn’t mean you can’t make use of these tools, you can link to them or embed them within it.” However, the notion of adding or embedding links within a VLE makes me ask: Is the VLE necessary at all? If I’m going to go outside of the VLE to find tools that I actually want to use and believe that my students will enjoy, can’t I curate those on a well managed website or a blog. Why do I need to invest in VLE to do that?

And in the current climate, with funding in education being the way it is, would I not be better off encouraging staff to take a pick n’ mix approach to IT based tools rather than buying into a heavy duty content management system that needs to be paid for (there are servers that need to be maintained after all) and having to employ someone to look after it? When that person is let go because the school can’t afford to pay them anymore, who is going to help fix broken VLE pages or modules? If Google Docs has a problem there are a whole team at Google who will sort it out and it won’t cost the school a penny.

Natalie Laferty responding to part 1 of this series on Twitter yesterday shared this post with me. Two students, at the University of Pennsylvania, created their own learning platform in response to their dislike of Blackboard, describing it as: “overloaded with features and dreadfully designed, making simple tasks difficult”. Perhaps, that is part of the problem; VLEs are suffering from ‘feature bloat’. If they were stripped back they might have more of a purpose.

In part three: blogging, file sharing and the importance of the hyperlink.

Image by James & Vilija on Flickr.

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?


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.


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.

Lino It – Online Stickies

lino it

A brief post to document a new online tool called ‘Lino It’ which I made use of earlier in the week to complete an “assessment for learning” based lesson with my Year 10 Creative Media Diploma students.

‘Lino It’ is a powerful tool for online collaboration, brainstorming and sharing of information through sticky notes which can include text, hyperlinks, images and video. To some of you this will be sounding very familiar, and you would be right in thinking that it sounds like I am describing Wallwisher; a similar and somewhat better known “sticky notes” tool. However, I feel that ‘Lino It’ is much richer, in part due to the way that it handles video and images, but more to do with what it offers behind the canvas. After signing up (for free) you are taken to your dashboard in which you can create, edit and organise your canvases. You can store favourite canvases, create groups between users and also schedule events (within stickies) that can be linked with your Google calendar.

Most importantly ‘Lino It’ is exceptionally user intuitive. My Creative Media Diploma students’ figured out more about the tool than I had in less than 15 minutes. Letting the students sign up was a great decision as it gave them ownership of their canvas and they were the able to arrange and control the “stickies” that were being added. My most recent discovery (while working on this post) is that you can embed your canvases in to your blog, website or Moodle course. They look fabulous and would make an excellent addition to a blog recording a student’s development of a project or as part of an online portfolio.

Some example canvases:

The canvas I used as a starter activity for the “assessment for learning lesson:

starter canvas

An example student canvas from the same lesson:

student canvas

You can try ‘Lino It’ for free or sign up to get started straight away.