The Sage Has Left the Stage: Encouraging Collaboration with Google

Think of any movie that features scenes of the college classroom.  Hollywood portrayals typically include the archetypal professor, wearing glasses and chalk on their tweed 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.

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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 (if you have no idea what I’m referring to, please watch Dead Poets Society immediately.  Netflix has it.  After you’re done sobbing, you will thank me).

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 (if you stick around long enough, you’ll read quite a bit on this blog about my adoration of Google Apps).

Google Apps provide both students and faculty with a free, simple, and relatively intuitive platform for their individual academic pursuits.  But I believe Google Apps is especially useful in the classroom, allowing students 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.

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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 Drive is ideal for workshopping and peer editing.  Students compose their writing assignments in Google Drive and share it with their classmates and me.  [NOTE: It’s important that the document is a Google Doc rather than an uploaded Microsoft Word document. The commenting function discussed below doesn’t work quite the same unless it’s a Google Doc]

My initial workshopping efforts taught me that simply telling students to “edit each others’ papers” was much too vague.  They become overwhelmed which results in sloppy or superficial feedback.  I now ask students to focus on two or three specific tasks (such as reviewing APA format or critiquing thesis statements).  Each time we workshop, I’ll select a few different elements to examine (or, better yet, ask the students what they’d like their classmates’ help on)

To teach students how to effectively edit, hold them accountable, and assign participation points, I track my students’ comments on their classmates’ documents.  Comments are saved with the student’s name and time stamp which allows me to 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 classmate’s suggestion).  This not only helps students think more critically about the evolution of their writing, but also helps me evaluate their revision skills and better understand their writing process.

Google Docs is also fantastic for collaborating during class on low-stakes writing assignments, which prepare them for more rigorous 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.  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. This is a crowdsourcing tool 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.

Google Moderator ResolutionsSince 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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About pastprof

Recovering academic. Starting a new adventure as a college instructional technologist. Ph.D. in Communication & Information. Reside in the lovely Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
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