Faculty Guest Post: Using Google Apps for Collaboration

Our guest blogger is Jessica Smith, Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication.  Jessica attended the Summer 2013 FTI.

Think of any movie that features scenes of the college classroom.  Hollywood portrayals typically include the archetypal professor, wearing glasses and chalk on the sleeve, standing before a theatre-style hall, lecturing from a podium.  When I first began teaching, I had visions of Robin Williams, in Dead Poets Society, serenading his students with lessons about love and life.

These Hollywood fantasies were quickly crushed my first semester teaching.  Students slept, read newspapers, worked on homework, and gazed out the window.  Now, they text their friends and surf the Web on their laptops.  Despite my frustration over their lack of engagement, I was determined to craft lectures that would rouse my students to declare “Captain, my captain” while standing on their desks.

I didn’t realize until after that first semester that my steadfast commitment to becoming a “sage on the stage” was actually preventing me from inspiring and motivating my students.  I have since dedicated myself to learning about innovative methods for engaging students, including the latest education technology tools.  One such tool is Google Apps for Education, a suite of web-based applications.

Since the College has a site license, many students and faculty use this free resource for individual academic pursuits.  But I believe Google Apps was especially designed for use in the classroom, allowing students and faculty to collaborate on projects, activities, and assignments.  This semester, I have made a concerted effort to use Google Apps more frequently and creatively in my classes.

In this post, I’ll address how I use Google Apps for various forms of collaboration, including:

  1. Workshopping and peer editing
  2. Collaborative writing and peer instruction
  3. Brainstorming and crowdsourcing

I teach in the Communication Department, so my students complete numerous writing assignments throughout the semester.  One of the most important phases in the writing process is revising and Google Docs is ideal for workshopping and peer editing.  Students compose their writing assignments in Google Docs (or upload their document to their Drive) and share it with their classmates and me.  I ask students to focus on two or three specific tasks (such as reviewing APA format or critiquing thesis statements).  To teach students how to effectively edit, hold them accountable, and assign participation points, I track my students’ comments on their classmates’ documents.  Kaitlin Woodlief, one of our TLT gurus, taught me how to comment in Google Docs: Students select the text they’d like to comment on then go to Insert > Comment > type their feedback.  The comment will be saved with the student’s name and date/time.  This allows me to keep track of students’ comments so I can ensure they are truly doing their best to help each other improve their writing. 

After workshopping with their classmates, I then have students edit and revise their papers independently.  I have them follow the same commenting procedure and ask them to make notes about their revisions (e.g., explaining why they did or did not accept a classmates’ suggestion).  This not only helps students think more critically about the evolution of their writing, but also helps me evaluate their revision skills.

Google Docs is also fantastic for collaborating during class on low-stakes writing assignments, which prepare them for their larger papers.  For example, I have pairs of students compose “summarize and respond” paragraphs together.  I ask them to bring laptops or tablets to class so they can work simultaneously on the same document (TLT Tutorial: http://youtu.be/xLN7hTlzrtc).  For students who don’t have access to a laptop or forget theirs, I bring my own devices for them to use.  This type of collaboration presents students with a useful challenge—learning to write together.  I’ve also witnessed many instances of “peer instruction” as one student teaches another about a concept or technique.   To read more about collaborative writing, visit: http://wac.colostate.edu/intro/pop2l.cfm.

Finally, Google Moderator provides yet another opportunity for collaborating (TLT Tutorial: http://blogs.cofc.edu/tlttutorials/2013/04/24/google-moderator). This is a crowdsourcing app that allows users to submit questions or ideas, vote on those submissions, and rank them by order of popularity.  When I teach argumentation, students submit resolutions they would like to debate, vote on their favorites, and watch the most popular resolutions rise to the top.  We then choose the resolution that received the most votes as the one we debate in class.  This allows students to brainstorm topics then pick the ones they actually are interested in researching and debating.

Since quashing my delusions of grandeur during my first semester teaching, I realized professors are no longer the center of the higher education universe.  Google allows students to fact-check lectures with just a few keystrokes.  They can crowdsource notes and help each other with projects using social media.  Massive open online courses like Kahn Academy and Coursera allow students to learn from some of the brightest minds in the world.  Therefore, professors must adapt their teaching styles from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.”  One way to accomplish this is to incorporate more collaboration into the classroom and Google Apps provide tools that make it simple and meaningful.

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