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Collaborative writing with Google Docs… AKA, Students producing something worthwhile with their English

19 Jul

Google DocsI feel quite proud that I’ve cracked this one.  For a while I’ve been trying to figure out how to use the fact that my students, all teenagers, seem to spend most of their free time on the computer.  I’m not putting them down for it, I’m the same way (though I can’t wait for an iPhone that will allow to get out of the house with the Internet – is that a sign of addiction?)

Google Docs has provided a fantastic resource that some of my students have embraced with gusto and the best thing about it is that it is getting them reading, thinking, writing and reflecting in English – a bunch of things that teenagers are not known for liking.

So what did I do?

As with all projects, we need a deadline to work to.

First of all, I made all this work voluntary.  I told the students that if they wanted to work on this that was their choice but that it wasn’t compulsory.

Basically I identified a couple of big translation challenges that the students could get their teeth sunk into.  This included a Wikipedia page as well as a tourism brochure for the local cathedral.  In the first case, the Spanish Wikipedia article (I’m down in Argentina) was 10 times the size of the English one.  As for the brochure, there was no English translation for non-Spanish speaking tourists.

The “carrot” in both cases is certificates that will be signed by me, the director of my school and a 3rd person, likely a local official, acknowledging this work as helping to improve the town’s international profile for tourism (an industry they are trying to build here).

I took the files, the text from Wikipedia (both Spanish and English) and the brochure and uploaded them to Google Docs (two separate files for two separate projects).  Then I shared the file with all of my students and let them get on with it.  I set rules for them and a deadline – in this case they have until the end of August to work on this.

If the students don’t have a Google account, that’s not a problem…

So what problems/challenges have I encountered?

Hotmail.  Nearly none of the 60 or so students I’ve invited to work on these

projects have Google accounts; they all have Hotmail account and the reason for that is that they don’t even use email, it is all for MSN Instant Messenger and that’s it.  I suppose that email is irrelevant to them at this stage in their lives.  Either that or I am, in my late 20s, already a relic of a generation that still holds on to email as something useful (but that’s another thought for another post for another blog).

The students can use their existing email accounts to get a free Google account.

I had to spend time with each class going through how they could set up a Google account with their Hotmail accounts.  Not a difficult process but we did hit some bumps on the way – all part of the learning process.

So how has it gone so far?

Strangely enough, and I think there is a lot to be learned from this, the first group that I tried Google Docs with has been, without a doubt, the most enthusiastic.  I think the reason for this is that I took things slowly with them as I was unsure of what I was doing and was learning with them.  With subsequent classes I obviously skipped over steps that I, as a learner, no longer needed but they obviously did – bad Gordon, bad!  I’m not talking about a lack of technical understanding but more a lack of handholding at the beginning and baby steps towards familiarity and confidence in the process.

Bearing in mind that this project was given a week before winter vacations and classes don’t start back until next week I’m quite pleased with the results so far.  Both projects have about 60-70 students invited to work on it; one project has at least 6 contributors at the moment, the other has 16.  For teenagers on vacation doing a voluntary translation project, I count that as a win!

So why is Google Docs so brilliant?

I’m going to just list this part.  For more information, check out the video below from Commoncraft.

  1. It gets rid of multiple copies of the same document.  The document exists online and everyone edits the same document online.
  2. It auto-saves every 20 seconds.
  3. It saves every iteration of the document so if someone deletes the whole thing by mistake (or intentionally) then nothing is lost.
  4. It shows who has edited what.

So why is Google Docs so brilliant pedagogically?

I’m going to list this part as well as give you a small look at one of the examples that my students worked on last month.

  1. It encourages peer-assessment.  The students have to read through what their classmates have written and consider whether it is good, needs to be corrected or can be improved.
  2. It encourages peer-reading and peer-correction.  It is the students’ job to not only contribute their own material but fix or improve their peers’ contributions.  This has the added benefit of improving confidence among the students who might not feel comfortable physically crossing out peers’ work.
  3. It encourages reflection.  If a student sees their work has been changed by another student, then it provokes the first student to ask themselves, “Is that a valid correction?  Should I change it back?  Is there an even better way I can write it?”
  4. It encourages learner autonomy and ownership.  While a collaborative effort, this method can produce pages and pages of learner-generated content.  It blows me away, it really does.
  5. It encourages repetition.  Since students should be adding and correcting a document throughout the whole week, other students must keep going back to check on their own work and to see where they can improve other peers’ work.
  6. It allows the teacher to be less intrusive in observing the collaborative writing and re-drafting process, while at the same time being able to clearly see who is working in what area and what problems they might be having.
  7. If a mistake is missed by a whole class after they’ve had a week to review it, it becomes glaringly obvious to the teacher that there is a combined gap in the group knowledge that should be worked on in class.

Here’s a screencap video using Jing which I hope will demonstrate a lot of what I’m talking about.  Many apologies about the feedback with the audio – hope it doesn’t put you off!

Setting up and sharing a Google Doc

So how will I improve this exercise in the future?

I’ll let you know once these projects are finished. 😉

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