Fun with Google Docs (Part 2B)

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

First Contact: The Google Docs Tutorial

Week Three of Term: Jan 25-29

Part One looked at how Goggle Docs compare to traditional word processors as utilities for creation and submission of student assignments.
Part Two (this one) talks about the collaborative editing exercise I did with my class (2A), as well as the in-class “tutorial” that turned out to be a lot of fun (2B).
Part Three goes into using Google Docs as a tool for writing co-authored papers.

When I asked my students if they had any experience with it I was surprised (and more than a little disappointed) to discover that only about 6 people (out of about 100) had even heard of GD, and only about half of those had ever used it. These are 1st year engineers – they like to think of themselves as pretty savvy. Sigh.

What this meant though, was that I needed to introduce the tool in class to make sure everyone would be able to use it. I came across a cute little video that provided a nice intro and showed that. Then we did this exercise.

The classroom in which I teach has 6 tables, each of which seats up to 6 students and is equipped with one computer. Before the class I set up 6 ‘generic’ gmail accounts so that students could log in without having to use their own accounts. Many of them didn’t have gmail accounts anyways. I also set up 5 copies of a document – one for each of the lecture sections. The class I teach is about technical writing so the document was a grammar exercise.

Here’s what we did:

  1. Using my computer which is projected on the screen in class, I showed them how to log in to GD.
  2. Each table logged in to one of the ‘generic’ accounts I had created.
  3. Because I had shared the documents with each of the generic accounts, they could see them in their folder lists.
  4. They were asked to open the document with their class’s name on it and complete the exercise.
  5. I told them they had 10 minutes.
  6. I stood back and watched.

Here’s what happened:

Initially, they just started working on the document as they normally would.

At some point someone would notice that the document was changing without them doing anything. This is because GD supports synchronous access and editing of documents and someone at another table was editing something.

Shortly after that, someone in one of the groups would decide to put something silly (like a comment or image) into the document – these are engineers, remember?

A little after that someone at another table would respond to it….

….and then the ‘war’ begins. People start changing the formatting, adding and erasing things, and so on. A few of the classes had two table dueling: one would ad something, and the other would take it away, then the first would add something else, …

They are having fun, and they have figured out one of the big advantages of using this sort of tool. In the process, they also experienced some of the limitations which allowed me to tell them a bit about synchronous access to shared resources and the problem of race conditions. It turned out to be a great way to get them to explore the tool.

In case anyone’s interested, here are the remains of two of the documents the way they looked at the end of the class:

At the end, of course, I also showed them how to look at the revision history and how to compare different versions. This is another feature of this tool that is handy – especially when people are working in groups on the same document.
A few things that made this exercise successful:

  1. They were working in small groups rather than individually – there is a kind of ‘pack mentality’ that encourages people in groups to experiment in ways they won’t if they are working individually. It also encourages them to be a bit silly and people tend to do more and remember more when they are having fun (i.e. actively engaged).
  2. The thing they were supposed to do was still related to the class so I got immediate buy-in because the task seemed relevant.
  3. The task itself was not essential so whether or not they completed the exercise was unimportant. It didn’t even matter if they remembered none of the actual exercise. It was the experience of using the tool that was important. (Don’t’ try to kill too many birds with the same stone – they’ll get away and you’ll have nothing).
  4. GD is fairly restrictive w.r.t. formatting so:
    1. it discourages time spent on playing with fonts, etc.
    2. formatting is easy to figure out.
  5. I had the same document showing at the front of the class which helped to unify the exercise. I could also refresh the page frequently so students would be sure to see the changes, AND I could prompt them into action by making one or two dramatic changes to the document myself (which had the effect of getting them to try something similar), such as:
    1. Inserting a comment for a specific table.
    2. Adding an animate gif.
    3. Changing the colours of a large section of the document.

The fun just keeps going….

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