I always loathed giving group projects. There were just too many moving parts too keep track of: how to assess individual performance, ensure everyone was on task, assign group vs. individual grades, keep track of checkpoints to scaffold projects, motivate everyone in the group. Enrolling in the COETAIL program gave me an idea of how to do this, though – and in doing so, I implemented Google Docs in my classes for the first time.
Google Docs was used in the context of a current events group presentation project (download the handout and associated rubrics). In groups of 2-4, students chose one of several questions to research:
- China: What will China’s global role be in the next 20 years?
- America: What will America’s global role be in the next 20 years?
- Russia: Russia has been called a “mafiacracy.” Will it continue as such?
- Middle East: What will the Arab world look like in 20 years? ii. International geopolitical issues:
- Are multinational alliances or unions appropriate in the modern day? (GCC, EU, Arab League, UN, NATO)
- Is it impossible for some countries to become democratic?
- Should certain forms of government be disallowed?
- Who are the winners and losers in a global economy?
- Should humanity be striving to develop a global culture?
- Is technology making the world more equal or unequal?
- Does the world have enough time to solve the problem of global warming?
Grappling with such broad, open-ended topics required a methodical research process and organized group workflow. Students would be required to:
- Create a question web (students made this collaboratively in Prezi) composed of sub-questions that students felt would help them answer their essential question.
- Find and summarize sources that helped answer these sub-questions.
- Refine their question web with additional or modified questions.
- Find and summarize additional sources to fill in gaps in their knowledge.
- Write a list of works cited or a bibliography.
- Draft a visual aid and topic summary handout to aid their presentation.
- Present their findings to the class.
Google Docs was instrumental in helping students and the teacher to manage this process.
To begin the project, I had students set up Google and Prezi accounts. I had created a Project Checkpoints Google spreadsheet,which each group would use to track individual members’ responsibilities, as well as those of the group. One member of each group was responsible for making a copy of this spreadsheet and then sharing it with their group members so that all could edit it.
The spreadsheet was divided into two tabs. The “Project Info” tab was used to track individual progress:
- Students recorded their contact information so they could collaborate outside of class. I’m depressed at how many groups often fail to keep track of each other.
- Each student was responsible for reading and summarizing three relevant articles for their topic. They wrote this summary up into a Google Doc and pasted the public link here.
- I gave feedback on each student’s article and summary relating to the quality of their source and whether their summary would be useful in making a final product.
The “Checkpoints” tab was used to track group progress:
- It included deadlines of each group checkpoint. This served to scaffold the group’s efforts.
- Students collaboratively completed a question web using Prezi that guided their research process. They also completed collaborative drafts of their presentation using Google Docs or Prezi and posted the public URL so that I could give them feedback on their work.
This application was sound from an organizational and pedagogical standpoint. Organizationally, students were able to keep better track of their completed and remaining work. Working in the cloud eliminates the oft-heard problem of “so-and-so has our project, and he is at home.” This enabled students to better work independently and make efficient use of class time.
Pedagogically, making students’ work visible to others took advantage of the phenomenon of expectancy to motivate them. Students’ effort – or lack thereof – was continually available to both their group members and the teacher. It was also much easier to give feedback – I could review their notes and draft presentations online at my leisure and then put written feedback into the appropriate cell of the spreadsheet. The presence of written feedback also helped make my expectations clear. Consequently, the quality of students’ work improved.
I really liked how using cloud-based collaborative tools streamlined the group project workflow. The biggest problem I faced was that most students weren’t familiar with how Google Docs worked, and I didn’t have written instructions and tutorials on hand, so there was confusion about the difference between sharing a file with specific users and publishing it to the web to create a public link. I also need to revamp the spreadsheet layout, as some students had trouble finding where they needed to paste links. However, neither of these would have been difficulties at a school that already used a Google Docs implementation, and the success of my students in this use case has encouraged me to adopt the model more widely – perhaps even use it to keep track of individual students’ progress over the course of the semester.