Google Docs in the Classroom

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!

Video Games & Sound Educational Practice: What Gaming Reminds Us About the Classroom

The following is a link to an interesting talk by David Perry, a video game developer.  In it, he discusses several very interesting ideas about video games and how they are developed.  If gaming is a topic that interests you or you want to understand its massive appeal and hold on some of our students, this talk is a worthy 21 minutes of your time.  Note: This presentation was given in 2006, so the statistics are much more dramatic now.  For example, World of Warcraft no longer has 5.5 million players.  As of October 2008, it had 11 million!

David Perry’s TED Talk:  Will Video Games Become Better Than Life?

I find the idea intriguing that video game developers are focusing on emotion, purpose, meaning, understanding, and feeling.  The emphasis is not on the graphics and technology, but rather how you get players emotionally involved and connected to the content.  Video games can be challenging, long, complex, and require a great deal of new learning to reach accomplishments.  And people pay for this.  Game developers are focused on how to get players to want more.  Isn’t this how we want students to view our content?  So what educational notions have game developers been using to engage their “learners” in new content?  What can we take away from this as educators and re-emphasize in the classroom?

I’ve been researching this topic for a little over a year.  Almost all of what I’ve found comes directly from or is influenced by James Paul Gee, University of Wisconsin – Madison.  If you have any other resources, I would greatly appreciate it if you would send them my way.  After reading several papers and parts of his book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, these are some of the ideas I’d love to discuss more with people and be sure I’m including in my own teaching:

Fact Fetish vs. Ways of Thinking – Games deeply immerse players in their world so they think like the character/profession they are playing.  Educators can immerse students in their content fields so they can begin to think like scientists, historians, mathematicians, chefs, writers, etc.  The focus is not on a list of facts, but rather the context in which decisions are made.

Set a Purpose – Games have very specific goals.  Players know exactly what they need to accomplish to be successful and when that happens.  We should tell our students exactly what they need to accomplish to be successful in our school.  This doesn’t mean we have to give them a formula on how to be successful (this can dampen creative thinking) but we do need to tell them what direction the bulls eye is in and what it looks like.  They will much closer to the target that way.

“Real World” Relevance –  Players take on an identity, immersing themselves in the attitudes, values and actions of that identity (Worried about blood gushing violence? Remember that 83% of games have NO mature content – see Ted Talk above).  Each skill taught in a video game has a specific purpose and application.  Learning out of context is difficult and has poor retention.  Instruction manuals, while still included, are not the main way to learn your way around a new game.  Directions are built directly into the game and appear as they are needed.  They are learned in context.  As teachers, we should “maximize the context” so students can better retain what we want them to learn.

Problem Solving – Playing video games means you are problem solving.  We should value the problem solving mind-set gaming develops in our students and use it to our advantage in the classroom.

Performance BEFORE Competence -Schools sometimes stress competence before performance.  An example of this would be a student reading a textbook and then maybe being allowed to DO the chemistry.  In the gaming world, this concept is often is reversed on its head.  Players get to be immersed in the new learning, freely making mistakes (aka learning!) until they get things to work.  Inquiry Science is the school example that comes to mind when I consider this idea.

Cycles of Expertise – This involves a student learning a skill, practicing it until it becomes automatic, and then circumstances shifting so the student has to adapt the skill to succeed in the new situation.  This is a very important real world ability that games constantly employ.

Fishtanks & Sandboxes – Gee uses the terms “Fishtanks” and “Sandboxes” to describe safe and effective learning situations.  In gaming, these two tools are often used as tutorials or in the first few levels of a game, allowing the players to grasp new ideas in a non-overwhelming environment.   A “Fishtank” is a simplified version of a complex system, such as studying the ecosystem of a real life fish tank before progressing on to an actual pond, lake, or ocean.  The major variables are contained in this learning experience, but in a simplified way so students (or players) don’t become overwhelmed.

A “Sandbox” is an experience that is much like the real part of the game, only the risks are mitigated.  This allowed the players to learn in an environment where the consequences of mistakes don’t prevent them from wanting to continue with the game.  Gee says “You can’t expect newcomers to learn if they feel too much pressure, understand too little, and feel like failures.” (Learning by Design).

In gaming, players can save at certain points to avoid having to start all over from the beginning.  Our larger educational system is often lacking these safeguards to motivation.  If a student fails a math class, they have to retake the entire class, rather then specifically focusing on their skill deficiencies.  As I’m sure we’ve all seen, this can kill motivation and desire to learn in our students.  This is one reason Mastery Learning can be such an effective and powerful method.  The question for me is, how to best implement Mastery Learning on a classroom scale?

One of Gee’s most thought provoking quoes for me is “They [players/students] need always to see failure as informative and part of the game, not as a final judgement or as a device to forstall creativity, risk taking, and hypothesizing.” (Learning By Design)

Choice & Differentiation – Video games used to be very rigid in the choices they gave to players.  The levels in old games consisted of the same screen and the game just got harder and faster.  Later you could progress through the levels going in a straight line, wherever the game led (think original Super Mario Brothers).  Today, we have “non-linear” games in which players can choose when, where, and how to accomplish their goals in worlds that can take literally hours to walk your character across.  There are even Google Map pages dedicated to the terrain of games such as World of Warcraft.  I could write a great deal just on the topic of choices presented to players, but for now I will merely present you with the thought that games are now being developed and played that no longer have an “end.”  Choice is a large part of the massive success of these games.  I’m not saying that teachers need to give students infinite choices, but how much choice we are offering is something to ponder.

Pleasantly Frustrating – Known to educators by the jargonish phrase, “Zone of Proximal Development.”  This is the idea that what is being learned is not so challenging it cannot be accomplished, but is not so easy that it is boring.  Some call it “learning on the edge.”  Video games use this concept very well, manipulating the feelings of players so they just can’t turn off the game.  They are ALMOST to the next level, boss, goal, etc. and they want to keep going.  The player gets immediate feedback and can see how they are progressing towards their goal, especially when they fail.  They learn what they did wrong and try a different approach or work on perfecting their new skill until they get it right.  I think teachers can make interesting gains with their students when this idea is consciously incorporated into lessons.

Group Work – Games have come a long way from 2-player pong.  MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games such as World of Warcraft) can have upwards of 25 people (sometimes hundreds) working on the same objective, in the same place, at the same time.  Coordination and teamwork, anyone?  In these types of games, students are building skills that include organization, time management, teamwork, and more.  Many teachers try to emphasize these things in the classroom.

The traditional view of gaming is far from the active society of the classroom.  We picture a teenage boy sitting alone in the basement, not talking to anyone.  The reality of gaming is that it has been extensively developed through product testing, marketing, etc. into a community experience that uses some of the best aspects of effective educational practice.  Video games can be useful to us beyond the games themselves.  The ideas and theories behind them re-emphasize what we know to be good teaching.  We want to hook our students into our content and keep them wanting more.  Video games are a good example of how to accomplish this.

Works Consulted:

I am currently developing an optional presentation on this topic for my staff.  I decided to blog about the various points to help solidify my thoughts (that’s why this is so long! 🙂 The presentation, at only about 15 minutes, won’t be).  If you have any comments or questions on the relevence of gaming in the classroom, please feel free to comment.  I’d love feedback on how to make sure the information in this presentation is relevent to the classroom.  I previously did another presentation on Modern Gaming Culture, which focused on how students interact with the now very social world of video games.  Thank you!!

Adventures in Twitterland: Twitter in the Classroom Update

An update on my exploration of Twitter. Includes PLNs, Twitter clients, #hashtags, synchronous events, privacy issues, & more teacher resources.

I have been playing around with Twitter a lot lately.  Mostly, I have been using it to help develop my PLN, or Personal Learning Network.  I’ve enjoyed delving into my professional interests in a new and different way.  My experience has ranged from “Huh, what’s the point of this?” to “How will I ever process all this great, but overwhelming amount of information?”  In an attempt to congeal my experience thus far into something more comprehensible for myself and my friends, here are the highlights:

Not long ago, I attended a live Classroom 2.0 session on Twitter for educators by Rodd Lucier, The Clever Sheep.  You can listen to the archive of the session here and see the Sharetabs page here.

Twitter Clients – I think that once you hit a certain threshold of people you follow, trying to make sense out of everything on Twitter is a bit like herding cats.  This is where applications such as TweetDeck and Twirl come in.  These are two different Twitter clients that you can download onto your computer and use to sort the furballs from the choice morsels.  I am currently using TweetDeck, though either client seems to work fairly well.  I have my incoming tweets sorted into several columns, making it easier to peruse though the information.  This organization changes whenever I get whatever seems to be a more efficient idea.  Here are some resources for TweetDeck:

HashTags – I am still playing around with the possibilities of this idea.  Without throwing a lot of net jargon at you, hashtags (or #hashtags) are keywords included directly in your posts to make searching easier.  I have seen this used mostly for conferences (#TED), synchronous events (#educhat), and keeping track of topics (#edreform).

Synchronous Events – This is when people use #hashtags to have a discussion on Twitter at a specified date and time.  I participated in the 2nd #Educhat last night and I rather enjoyed it.  Since the amount of tweets can be overwhelming, I tracked them using TweetGrid and its Twitter Party function.  I will play with Monitter next time around (April 6th) to decide which I like better.  Please feel free to check out #Educhat and consider joining the conversation.

Privacy Concerns – Since Twitter is a public venue, there are student privacy concerns. The easiest way to address this is to have your students make their Twitter accounts private using the settings.  Another option is to use Edmodo instead of Twitter.  Edmodo is an education version of Twitter which strives to protect student privacy.  Also, remember that anything you type is a part of your digital footprint.  This means it is public and searchable.

Overall, I am enjoying the resources and community I am finding on Twitter.  I get good ideas and thoughts from people everyday.

More Resources:

Tweet Tweet! Twitter in the Classroom

“Twitter may either be the greatest prank ever played on the internet community or it may be the best thing since sliced bread.” -Phil Bauman, 140 Health Care Uses for Twitter

In the past day or so, I’ve been researching and experimenting on Twitter with a specific focus on its potential use in the classroom.  What exactly is Twitter, you ask?  It’s a social networking and micro-blogging site.  Ok, so what does that mean?  Basically, people continually post small snippets of information in 140 characters or less.  I’ve found that many of these “mini-blogs” are mostly either like Facebook Status updates (a statement of what the person is currently doing) or a link to another piece of information (like a news or journal article, online resource, picture, etc.).  Twitter “feeds” are posted by individual people, corporations, clubs, universities, NASA, presidential campaigns (Obama & Nadar), celebrities, and even governments.

Twitter has been put to some interesting uses including NASA updates on space shuttle missions and to break the news of the discovery of water on Mars, coordination of political campaign workers, live sporting event updates, public updates from the office of the British Prime Minister, a part of university emergency alert and other institutional systems, updates on evacuations, meeting points and other needed information during the 2007 California wildfires, and many used it during the Mumbai siege of November 2008 to gather information on the safety of friends and coordinate responses.  With the ability to update and read Twitter feeds from mobile phones, the uses can be even more intriguing.

How can it be useful to me as a teacher?  I’m still figuring this one out and I would love to have your input.  Since I work in a “high access” school (every student has a laptop) I realize I’ve been thinking about applications mostly in this context.  But what else can we do with it?  Here is a list of possible applications that I have considered so far:

  • Assignment Log for homework and make-up work
  • Entrance and/or Exit Slips
  • Class Polls
  • Reading Discussion – This has different possibilities.  Students can ask the teacher questions about reading hang-ups they have at home.  They could engage is a Cris Tovani style of reading dialog with their teacher and peers, teachers could have students respond to open-ended questions and to classmate’s responses.  Students could write summaries of reading in which Twitter would force them to be concise (140 character limit) and put it into their own words (students could divide up sections/jigsaw, have their own feed, etc..)
  • Resource Sharing – Teaching APUSH makes me think of this.  I always want students to share the resources they’ve found online to facilitate awareness of historical scholarship, broaden research skills, learn about individual interests, find study resources, and more.
  • Current Events – Many teachers do different activities with current events.  This could be used creatively in that area.
  • Homework Help “Hotline” that everyone in the class can benefit from.  Teachers can respond to students.  Students can respond to their peers’ questions and help each other out.
  • Clubs/Activities – Keep your members in touch with events and share ideas with students who are unable to make it to meetings.
  • Coordinate collaborative group work outside of the classroom
  • Post web resources for students to use
  • Develop a class’s sense of community and connection
  • Creative feedback (from teachers and students)
  • Writing – There seems to be a plethora of writing applications for teaching grammar, rules of writing, helping students to be concise (important in history), “continue the story” activities, etc.

I don’t have all of these worked out of course, but it is just a brainstorm list of ideas.  Just remember that purpose and content always come before choosing a technology to integrate into your classroom.

Twitter Resources

Web 2.0 Primer for Newbies

The Wired Campus


Tame the Web

Twitter Fan Wiki

5 Things to Get Your Twitter Network Off the Ground

I’ve started my own Twitter feed so I can learn the ins and outs in order to see what can be done with it.  If you are interested, you can find the feed here.  I invite you to create your own feed and experiment with me on what can be done with this technology.  If you already have a feed, please feel free to follow mine.  I’ve already learned some rather interesting things.

Possible Questions for Comment:

  • What do you want to know about Twitter?
  • Do you use Twitter?  Do you have any advice?
  • What are your concerns about Twitter?
  • How have you used or seen Twitter used in the classroom?  What ideas for possible applications do you have?
  • General comments?