Using Google Docs and other online tools to create new modes of classroom interactions

(Note: This is post is part of something I wrote a few years back that never got published due to a flaky publisher. It might still be useful to some folks out there though.)

In recent years, I’ve been thinking about how to use Google Docs and other online tools that allow for synchronous editing to create totally novel ways of interacting in the classroom. This technology requires students to have laptop computers with them in class with reliable wifi, but this is pretty common these days.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

1) Birthday problem activity

There is a lovely, surprising result in probability called the “birthday problem” ( the chance that 23 people share the same birthday (not year, just the month and day) is about 50%. That seems like an incredibly low number when there are 365 days in the year. But, an instructor can easily demonstrate this idea by having her students go to a Google spreadsheet like this during class:

Not only is it a fun, interactive way of showing that this result is actually true, it also gives the instructor a visual way of motivating the proof of the result. It’s also much faster than having everyone shout out birthdays and marking them one by one on a calendar.

2) Video commentary live mini-blogs

I teach a course for prospective high school math teachers in which we watch videos of other math teachers’ classrooms.  I have my students watch these videos using various “lenses” (for example, looking just at the kinds of questions the teacher asks and how that affects student learning, or looking for evidence of things that students understand or don’t understand).  I use a Google doc for everyone to comment on the video while we are watching it together.  I set up the document in such a way that each person has his/her own cell in a table and with a small enough font you can see lots of other’s comments in real time too.  Instead of having one large chain of responses, each person has his/her own space to keep track of observations, and we can look through this later.  I’ve also done this same thing but using Google hangouts instead so that everyone is watching videos remotely.

3) Simultaneous wordsmithing in class

Some of us at Harvey Mudd College are finding interesting uses for Google docs in our undergraduate writing class (Writ 1).  I’ve used Google docs as a space for students to post pieces of their writing and to “crowdsource” improvements.  For example, I have students pick out the sentence that they are most unhappy with in their essay and paste it into a Google doc.  Once all the sentences are there, we turn ourselves loose to create better versions of each sentence and we discuss our ideas.  The author of the original sentence gets to vote on the version that she/he likes the best, or to come up with a new version based on pieces of others’ work.

In all of these situations, the technology adds an interesting “layer” of interaction to classroom.  For example, the video commentary example above has three “layers” of human interaction: the video we are watching is one layer, the comments that we make to each other verbally in the room is a second layer, and the live-commenting that we do on Google docs is a third layer.  (You could also turn in the chat feature in Google docs for yet another layer.)  I’m fascinated by how my students can participate in multiple layers simultaneously and seemlessly shift focus from one layer to another.  I love that these technologies give teachers new possible ways for people to interact.

And, I believe it’s not just doing something for the sake of technology.  In each of these example, the interaction is far richer and quicker compared to having talking as the main form of interaction in class because only one (or a few) voices can be heard at a time in a room whereas the technology allows every person the chance to express her/himself at the same time. Most people can also type faster than they can talk, and there is the chance to edit what you’re typing.  I’ve noticed that students who are shy and not as likely to speak up in class find a new voice through this kind of technology.

I’ve used these technologies in other ways, but for the sake of brevity I’ll just stop here.  There are clearly lots of other ways for synchronous editing tools to enable these kinds of multilayered interactions in classrooms, and I’m interested in hearing other’s ideas on how to improve the technologies and how to make better use of them.