By Eric Eslinger
Program Officer, Educational Technology, Knowles Science Teaching Foundation
Someone once asked me about my favorite Google product. This could be thought of as a strange question, but the context was that he was interviewing me for a position at Google. In a normal job interview scenario, the average person might be tempted to exaggerate a little, but I didn’t. I said, “Google Docs is by far my favorite product, because it fundamentally changed how I work.”
One of the most important questions we should ask about new technology (educational or otherwise) is: does this make my current work easier, or does this create entirely new ways of doing work?
In the early 2000s, as I worked on my PhD dissertation and various papers I was co-authoring, email served as my document store, backup and version system. I’d get a document in an email with a filename like “JRST_draft_10182002_eme_edit1.doc”, and need to figure out which version of the paper this represented, and how to find the tracked-changes and resolve them against the main document I was using. Nightmare only covers part of the description there.
Nowadays, if I am working on a document with a collaborator, we just share a Google Doc with each other. Nothing could be simpler. This made a lot of little things easier (e.g., no more worrying about losing your files when you spill soda on the floppy disk or when your hard drive makes that funny noise), and also created entirely new modes of interaction. Now, colleagues and I can all edit the same document at the same time.
The next step, of course, is to think about how we can use this kind of technology in the classroom. There’s obvious stuff, such as allowing students to share Google Docs with you— instead of turning in papers—which makes in-line commenting and feedback a lot more immediate. Shared documents can also replace traditionally-heavy items, like student journals. An ex-student of mine wrote to say she was using Google Docs for dialogue journals. Instead of taking notebooks home in a milk crate every weekend for grading, she just opened a few a night on a rolling basis, and added comments online.
Even more exciting, you could use a shared Doc or Drawing in the classroom to give your students a place to collaboratively take notes, summarize a video, or brainstorm ideas. If you’ve never unleashed an entire classroom on one shared doc to collect and organize data simultaneously, you should give it a shot—it’s very exciting, fast-paced and surprisingly productive.
Another teacher I met uses Google Drawings as the repository of science fair posters. Instead of making an actual poster, students build a graphical representation of their inquiry projects using a shared Drawing. Because students are working online, they aren’t jostling for access to the physical poster (it’s difficult to have three kids with markers all equally participating on the same posterboard). The sharing and commenting tools allow parents and peers who cannot make it to the actual science fair to instead participate in a virtual gallery walk, leaving questions and encouraging words attached to the virtual posters. Additionally, hyperlinking allows student posters to be attached to video descriptions of the work and live representations of data.
Google Docs really did change my life—it changed authorship from something that was fundamentally a solitary endeavor with some collaboration to something that could be fundamentally collaborative and distributed.
Do you have some cool ways you use shared online documents in your classroom? Talk about them in the comments below, and I’ll be revisiting this theme in later posts to spotlight what everybody else is doing.