This past week I had my US History students looking at the variety of developments, economic systems, political arrangements, and connections with Native Americans that took place in the North American English colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. To prepare for this, the students read background tertiary source overviews about New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas and Georgia from the University of Houston‘s online textbook, Digital History.
Then, with their readings and annotations in hand, I wanted the students to gain a broad understanding of these different colonies, think about the similarities and differences amongst them, and draw some conclusions about the dominant features of colonial life in these varied geographic and cultural contexts.
While I’d ordinarily have students meet in small groups, condense their findings about these colonies in terms of a few different categories (in this case, social and religious context, relations with Native Americans, economic systems, and political structures), present these elements to one another, and draw synthetic conclusions about these pieces of evidence, I realized my grand ambitions outstripped my 45-minute class period.
So, rather than work to get only part way there, I decided to instead seek out a venue where this collection and synthesis of information could take place simultaneously, which would then allow a bit of time at the end for follow-up, and would also provide the students with a comprehensive condensation of this evidence that they could then use for studying later on. Only one venue really seemed obvious to me: Google Docs!
I booked class time in one of the library’s computer labs, set up a Google Doc (as opposed to a spreadsheet or presentation), populated it with a few different tables — one for the comparison of the colonies, one for significant similarities and differences, and one for synthesis of major trends — and then created a shared link for the document and posted it to Edmodo.
When the students came in, I explained what we’d be doing, what the goals were, and then divided them into four different groups, each of which would work to create a comprehensive profile for one of the different colonies based on the categories I’d provided. Using the link from Edmodo was seamless and my first class got right to work.
The one downside I experienced was that each contributor to the document was labeled “Anonymous User ###” rather than their Google username, which many of them had used to log into Google. Nevertheless, it seemed that accessing the document via the publicly shared link meant that they couldn’t attach their contributions to their Google account. As a result of everyone being an “Anonymous User,” it seemed that we were unable to use the “Restore Previous Version” feature as extensively as one could when one is actually logged into the document and it registers a username. This lack of connection with specific usernames meant that when we experienced a slight hiccup and had an accidental deletion of someone’s entry, we couldn’t quickly restore it as that deletion wasn’t attached to a specific user’s account. While I’m not positive that that’s what was going on, that’s my supposition. If anyone knows the actual explanation, I’d love to have some insight.
Nevertheless, the process went pretty smoothly overall, and I managed to take a screencast of the contributions in action. Here it is:
Since I last experimented with a whole class working on Google Docs, it seems like the stability of the website has improved dramatically. Twelve students were able to simultaneously contribute, revise, and read one another’s work without any document crashes or any other catastrophic failures. While I need to remember to warn classes about the dangers of deleting one another’s work (and in general goofing around by highlighting random sections and clicking cursors around wildly, which can lead to accidental deletions of student work), I was pretty pleased with the amount of compilation and writing that the students accomplished in a short class period.
Certainly, I need to continue reiterating that digital academic spaces are just like physical academic spaces, in that all the same rules of decorum, discourse, and respect for one another’s work applies. However, I like finding ways to get students to process material and generate useful products for themselves and for each other in synchronous digital venues that they couldn’t do in the asynchronous classroom environment. While this approach isn’t a silver bullet for all types of material coverage, I think it worked well here and is something I’ll likely visit again (and encourage the students to construct independently amongst themselves) throughout the course of the year.
What experiences do others have in using Google Docs, or other collaborative digital tools, like this or in other ways?