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Creative commons photo by Mark Knol on Flickr.

I’ve worked a lot with Google Docs in the past.  I’ve used it to collaborate with colleagues, formally taught educators how to use it, researched ways to incorporate it into teaching, and I’ve used it on a small scale with students.  This was my first term regularly using Google Docs on a large scale with all of my classes.  It was an interesting experience and I thought I would share some of the things that I’ve learned along the way.

I want to note that my university uses Google Apps, and all students have a Google account.

Purposes for incorporating Google Docs into my courses:

  • Help new freshman develop technology skills needed in future classes.
  • Provide students with effective collaboration tools.
  • Increase the quantity and quality of feedback I am able to give students.
  • Enhance my own organization and efficiency as I move between working in the classroom, my office, and my home.

As I went into this venture, I realized there were some other handy benefits.

  • Students who use the computer labs on campus have useful file storage right on hand.
  • Revision histories are very helpful for a variety of reasons.
  • Easily archive student examples.
  • I’ve become more efficient at grading, taking less time to provide a greater amount of feedback (I type WAY faster than I can write!).
  • My desk is cleaner, with less physical paper to shuffle.
  • My backpack is lighter, since I wasn’t carrying as many stacks of paper between school and home.

Whenever you try something new, there are some roadblocks.  Here are some of the issues I ran into:

  • Formatting problems both with GDocs itself and when uploading MS Word documents or PPT files.
  • Student complaints of “imploding” email in-boxes when I began giving feedback.  GDocs sends a separate email for each individual comment added to a paper.
  • My own email in-box imploding with GDocs notifications for every student assignment turned in.
  • Students constantly asking if I received their assignments either because they didn’t trust GDocs or their own skills with the technology.
  • Issues with students forgetting to share their assignments (one place where the revision history came in handy).
  • Not enough class time spent in the computer lab for initial instruction on how to use this and other important technology.

Here are some of the ways I approached the use of Google Docs.

Sharing – Instead of using the big blue Share button, each student created a course collection (or folder) of their class assignments that they shared with me.  I chose to use the collection route to help students better see the development of their work throughout the term.  One of my classes also includes a portfolio, and I hoped this would help make that process easier.  Using collection sharing was a problem at times, since the big Share button is so tempting to push.  When students would use the Share button instead of sharing documents into their collection, it caused organization issues.  Most of these were ironed out by the end of the term.  A handy tip for using student collections: Color code the collections for each class with a different color. Then you can quickly look through the GDocs home page to see the documents for each class.

Naming Conventions – To help both students and myself with organization, I instituted a system for naming files.  The search box in GDocs makes it very easy to type in part of the file name and get the list of student assignments that need feedback.  When students used their own file names, don’t use spaces, or abbreviate file names, it caused organization headaches for me.  Instead of quickly and easily using the search box to get assignments, I had to go through student collections or the long list of GDoc files and search for individual student assignments that were named incorrectly.  I hate being picky about such little things, but I think I need to really stress using correct file names for my own sanity.  I spent a LOT of time just searching for individual assignments at the beginning of the term.  Originally, I had students add their last name and first initial to the end of a file name.  I realized this was an unnecessary extra step since each document is already tagged with the owner’s name, so I stopped requiring students to do this.

Templates – I found in the previous term that students had issues including everything they needed in the handwritten reflections for class.  To help with this, I created a template for each reflection with a small grading/feedback chart.  The chart serves as a checklist for students, as well as a way for me to quickly organize and give more detailed feedback.  I use templates for other assignments in class as well.  I make these files so they can only be edited by me.  Students make a copy of the document and type their assignment into it.  This would sometimes cause me to receive panicked emails from students who told me GDocs wouldn’t let them type their assignments.  I just had to remind them to make a copy of the template and all was well.

To-Do List – I realized pretty quickly that I needed an easy way to handle incoming assignments.  The approach that I came up with worked pretty well for me.  I left documents “unviewed” on my Home page until I was able to provide feedback.  Once a document received feedback, I used the “Don’t Show in Home” option to move it off of my to-do list.  I could always click on “All Items” to see all of the documents I had access to.

GMail Filters – When I first started using GDocs on a large scale, I knew the deluge of email notifications had to go.  I set up a GMail filter to keep any GDoc notifications from ever hitting my inbox.  However, I chose not to set the filter up to delete them so I have a time-stamped record of submissions (I’ve been told students can tamper with submission times that show up on GDocs itself).

Some things I would like to work on in the future with Google Docs:

  • When I have an assignment that needs a more specific length requirement, I will be switching to a word count range rather than page numbers.  This will help with the formatting issues that students and I encountered this past term.
  • One of the main topics of my courses is time management.  I see potential in using the time stamps in the revision history.  Students could use this tool to be more reflective about how they use their time and they could also use it to evaluate their own writing process.
  • Use the comment feature to encourage more two-way dialogue with students.  Right now I get an occasional comment back from a student, and I see the potential of this feature as a two-way communication and revision tool.
  • I would like to use the computer lab more during class to help students learn the ins and outs of this technology.
What questions do you have about using Google Docs with students?  Do you already use GDocs and have some suggestions or thoughts you’d like to share?  Thank you!

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Awhile ago, I had the opportunity to read Marc Valentine’s blog post, Top 5 Cheap Videos for AP World on APWorldGuru@blogspot.  While I use iTunes regularly at home, for some reason I hadn’t thought to look there for films to use in the classroom.  So after playing around a little bit, I thought I would post a U.S. History version of Marc’s blog.  I tend to show clips from films rather than the whole thing, but it’s always nice to own your own copy even if you’re just using part of the film.  I would recommend reading Marc’s post on his ideas on using film effectively in the classroom.

Criteria for the list:
1. Inexpensive (so that if you don’t like the video, you only pay less than 5 dollars)
2. Entertaining (so that your students do not fight with the sandman during your class)
3. Educational (because if you are going to use valuable classroom time, it better be worth it!)

1. American Experience (PBS)
I’ve gotten good student responses from this series.  You have the choice of a free streaming version or prices that range from $1.99 – $3.99 on iTunes.  You can stream many of the full episodes or clips for free at the American Experience website.  If you want to purchase the videos to avoid issues that can arise with streaming, iTunes has many episodes available.  Certain episodes are also available on Netflix Instant Streaming.  The episode that my students have repeatedly found riveting is Surviving the Dust Bowl.  (Note: there is at least one potentially disturbing animal scene.)  Another bonus of this series that all of the specific episodes I have looked up on the PBS website provide lesson plans.
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2. The West Wing (NBC)
I have shown clips and full episodes from this series on the White House in my classroom.  In particular, I show an episode from season 3 called Isaac and Ishmael when studying 9/11 or the War on Terror.  Written and filmed within 2 weeks as a response to 9/11, you can read more about this specific episode here.  Episodes of this series are $1.99 on iTunes.
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3. Iconoclasts (The Sundance Channel)
This is a show where famous individuals interview each other.  I have used the episode Dave Chapelle + Maya Angelou when teaching the Civil Rights movement.  While I do not show the episode in its entirety (there is some content that I feel is inappropriate for my students), there is a segment I like to show where they discuss Malcolm X.  Chapelle also asks Maya about the multiple assassinations of the ’60s, which is something my students often ask about.  Dr. Angelou gives an interesting answer that can lead to some great discussion.  The segment I use is found at 16:07 – 20:48.  I am currently watching the available episodes on Netflix instant streaming for more possibilities. If you teach about Hurricain Katrina, there is an episode with Cameron Diaz + Cameron Sinclair that discusses rebuilding in the aftermath years later.  If you teach World History, Archbishop Desmond Tutu + Sir Richard Branson has some good things on South Africa. Episodes of this series are $1.99 on iTunes.  You can also currently find Iconoclasts: Season 4 on Netflix Instant Streaming.  This includes Diaz + Sinclair and Tutu + Branson.
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4. Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations (Travel Channel)
I would love to teach a history through food class.  If you’re looking for a little bit of a different take on things, No Reservations is a way to incorporate this revealing part of American daily life into your class.  There are episodes on Cleveland, Puerto Rico, the Mexico-U.S. Boarder, the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, Los Angeles,  New York, Disappearing ManhattanInto the Fire NY, Husdon Vally, NYSouth Carolina, New Orleans, Hawaii, Washington D.C., Chicago, Maine, the Heartland, the Rustbelt, San FranciscoMontana, and more.  You can find the North American episodes listed on the No Reservations website.  Bourdain mixes food, history and culture to create unconventional portraits of the area he’s visiting.  You need to be aware that his topics of conversation may not always be appropriate for your students, so preview carefully.  Two colleagues of mine suggested Vietnam: The Central Highlands when studying the Vietnam conflict.  Episodes of this series are $1.99 on iTunes and you can also find many episodes on Netflix Instant Streaming.
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5. Frontline (PBS)
The news series is good for understanding current events.  There are a myriad of topics including Hurricane Katrina, U.S. – Iran relations, health care, the economic crisis, presidents and their decisions, current wars, and much more.  There are also some great options for World  History.  Episodes of this series are $1.99 on iTunes and you can also view many of them on Netflix Instant Streaming or for free at the Frontline website.  Some of the episodes will also have teacher guides.

Please feel free to share your video discoveries in the comments section.  Thanks to Marc for the great World History list and for the inspiration for this post.

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