The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Playing with Google Docs for student writing

I don’t get into the classroom as much as I’d like to nowadays, so whenever I get a chance to do some teaching or teacher training, I like to try out new ideas. Last year, I used a week of teacher training workshops in Oxford (as part of the ELT Summer Seminar) to try out using screencast software to give feedback on writing; see my post about it here. This year, I used two lovely groups of teachers on the same course as guinea pigs for using Google Docs for student writing.

I’ve used Google Docs myself as part of writing projects and I’ve heard various people talk about how it can be used with students, especially for collaborative writing. There’s a very good blog post about using Google Docs with EAP students by David Reid, for example.

Context and task: As the workshops I was leading were on the theme of teaching writing skills, giving the participants a writing task to complete themselves, and for me to give feedback on, was an ideal way to demonstrate some of the practical issues I wanted to discuss. Having learnt from my experience last year of trying to give screencast feedback to 27 individual trainees within the space of a couple of days (!!), this year I chose a group writing task. On the first day, we did an activity which involved a group discussion and as a follow-up I asked each group (of 4 to 5 people) to write a very brief summary (max 60 words) of the most interesting point to come out of the discussion. The summary was to be written using Google Docs.

Set-up: I did a quick demo in class just to show what Google Docs looks like and how it works. I had four groups altogether, across two classes, so I set up four documents and gave each one a heading plus a simple rubric. This meant that when the participants reached the document, they knew they were in the right place. 

I then collected their emails and set about sharing the document for each group with its members. As a newbie to setting up Google Docs, I wasn’t sure how simple this process was going to be, but actually it turned out fine. For those with Gmail accounts, it was super simple; I just added their email addresses to the document using the ‘share’ button and hey presto, everything connected up beautifully. For those without Gmail accounts, the process wasn’t quite as smooth, but still wasn’t problematic. In these cases, I sent them a link to the document which they could click on to access it. Apparently, they didn’t get an icon with their name and profile picture, but they still had no problem editing and commenting along with everyone else.

Giving feedback: One of the benefits of Google Docs, beyond students being able to work collaboratively, is that as the teacher you can go in and offer feedback at any point. For this task, I checked in to see how things were going before the deadline I’d set for completing the task. The first thing I noticed was that all the groups had got carried away and written way too much, so I was able to leave a comment just reminding them of the word limit and nudging them back on track. This seemed like a really nice way of working together with students to help them achieve the best result, rather than just waiting for them to get it wrong then failing them.

Once the deadline had passed, I went in again and gave more detailed feedback. On this occasion, I didn’t ask the participants to act on my feedback, but with a “real” group of students, it could have been the start of a series of interactive revisions. Again, it’s an opportunity for the teacher to act more like an editor that an examiner, helping students towards the best possible final piece of work. (See more of my thoughts on this relationship here.)

Shifting comments
Drawbacks: My initial concerns about whether everybody would get on okay with the technology and be able to access the documents turned out to be unfounded. One feature that we found a little bit frustrating though was the fact that the comments, which appear in the margin, don’t seem to link up quite so clearly and obviously with the sections of text they refer to, like they would in, say, a Word document. The comments seem to jump about, sometimes switching order when you click on them and just generally being a little bit confusing.

Participant reaction: The reaction to the technology was generally pretty positive and I think it opened up lots of potential ideas for teaching. What was more interesting, perhaps, was the teachers’ reactions to doing a group writing task. To be asked to work together with a group of people you’ve only just met is no easy task! All the groups reported feeling a bit unsure about how to organize themselves, how to get started and what the etiquette was for commenting on or editing others’ writing. I think it was a useful exercise for the teachers in putting themselves in their students’ shoes.  Some of the points that came up in the post-task discussion:
- Would it be easier for students who know each other better (so later in a course)?
- In terms of group dynamics, is it better to let students choose their groups or for the teacher to ‘engineer’ the groups?
- Would the interaction/dynamics vary depending on the cultural background of the students?
- Would it be better to give students more guidelines for carrying out the task; allocating roles and procedures maybe?
- Or alternatively, would setting too many ‘rules’ stifle students’ own critical thinking and creativity? Is working out how to work together part of the learning process?

Overall, the whole thing was a really interesting exercise and I think Google Docs will now definitely be added to my teaching toolbox.

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