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On Google Docs

posted: 12.21.12 by archived

It’s not an exaggeration to say that google docs has had a transformative effect on my teaching and that this free application has now become one of the key engines driving The Paperless Writing Class. A quick review of the docs in my fall 2012 ENGL 231: Writing for Multimedia and Digital Settings course reveals that this fall, for this class alone, I created 34 new docs. The types I create vary a good deal and I seem to keep finding new ways to use docs to collaborate with students. For example, this term, for the first time, I experimented with google’s “form” doc, creating a survey with a group of students in ENGL 232 to collect data on attitudes towards writing on our campus (and to date, we have 102 responses!).

I use google docs in a several different ways to accomplish different kinds of work. First, I use docs to do things I was already doing using pre-cloud applications like MS Word or Excel. Second, I use docs to do something I was already do in MS Word or Excel but in a new or different way. Third, I use docs to do something entirely new, something I’ve never done before. Let’s take these one at a time.

It’s not so revolutionary to shift what you were doing in the pre-cloud era into the cloud, via google docs. I used to use MS Word to write letters to students, providing them feedback on their written work; this term, I provided feedback to small groups of students who were collaborating on a single document by writing a letter to them in a google doc. This wasn’t a particularly new or innovative practice. I just shifted applications to complete a fairly routine task  Another example along the same lines: in past semesters, I kept attendance using an Excel spreadsheet. I now use a google spreadsheet to do so. There’s nothing too earth-shattering in these uses (though I have found that once you start down the road of using google docs, it has a kind of gravitational pull–perhaps because you begin to envision and accept their Drive interface as your new composing environment).

The second way in which I use google docs is more experimental. More and more, I find myself opening docs to accomplish some task I was already accomplishing via pre-cloud apps like Word or Excel and accomplishing the task in some new, innovative, problem-solving way. Here’s an example: Many faculty still write key course documents–syllabi, schedules, assignments–in MS Word and then post these documents in the course LMS. The problem with using static, pre-cloud applications for documents like the course schedule or assignment sheets is that the information contained in these documents is fluid and often changes–or, it does in writing classes…or, it does in my writing classes. Take the course schedule.

I find that even in courses I have taught multiple times, my course schedule is a work-in-progress. Because my syllabus is not organized around a series of lectures on topics (the standard method of organizing a syllabus) but, instead, around units of study and activity, it changes throughout the semester–sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

I can remember a time when students would annotate the hard-copies of the course schedule that I would hand out on the first day of class, constantly making little notes and amendments to a four-month plan that I had attempted to articulate before the journey had even begun, at a moment when I could never have anticipated the inevitable pitfalls and alternate routes that arise during a typical academic semester. Once the LMS came along, I would email the students changes to the schedule and hope that a) they would actually read the email and b) they would make a note of the changes. I would also edit the schedule and repost it to the LMS each time I had made changes (tedious!). Neither of these methods was very efficient.

Today, I write my course schedule as a google spreadsheet, link directly to it in the navigation bar of the LMS, and review and update it in real-time at the commencement and closure of each class session. Here’s a screen shot of how this looks in my LMS:

And here’s a link that will take to you to one of my course schedules from spring 2012.

This idea of using docs to write and disseminate key course documents is an example of how docs allows me to transform a teaching practice and improve upon it. I think of it in this way: the process of constructing a semester course schedule for a writing class is a highly fluid and dynamic one, requiring flexibility and the capacity for adjustment and re-routing. A static document, like an Excel spreadsheet or a PDF posted in the LMS does not meet the needs of such a dynamic process. Since what we will be doing in class at any given point in the semester is never carved in stone, the vehicle for conveying such information cannot be carved in stone, either. Google docs, in this instance, allows me to do something–admittedly, something rather mundane–in a new and more interactive way which better aligns with the epistemology of the practice itself.

In my next post, I’ll take up the third and, to me, most interesting use of google docs and that is the ways in which I am able to use docs to accomplish work that I could not previously have accomplished and, in some cases, did not even know I wanted to accomplish in the first place.

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Categories: Michael Michaud
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