Tuesday, 3 May 2011

My Favouite Teaching Tool: Google Docs

I absolutely LOVE all things Google.  I use one account to organize my personal life and one for my professional files.  Google Docs is compatible with Microsoft Office files, among other file types, so I have begun to upload existing files to my account.

Privacy settings can be changed, depending on the type of document.  My personal budget is for my eyes only.  A list of student e-mail addresses can be shared with specific colleagues through their accounts.  Guidelines for an assignment can be published publicly and posted on my website.  Files can also be e-mailed as an attachment, so that the recipient can't see any further changes.

Three years ago, I began using Google Docs with students.  It took three classes with direct instruction and time to explore before most were able to work independently.  As the popularity of this program increases, and other teachers begin to use it, I now spend far less time teaching students how to use the program.  This year, I reviewed the features of Google Docs for 5-10 minutes with each class, then the students were off and running.  A few were unfamiliar with the program, so I worked with them individually and their classmates provided support.

I can't imagine teaching without a Google Docs account and wish that this feature was around when I was in university.  I used to e-mail files to myself over and over.  There was nothing more frustrating than e-mailing a file to myself so that I could work on it at school, only to find that it was not compatible with the university computer I was using.

If you are unfamiliar with Google Docs, this brief overview is a great place to start:






A few of my favourite Google Docs features:

1) Online Storage
I can access my lessons, student assignments, and other files at work or at home.  If something happens to one computer, I can still access my files from another machine.  If I change jobs, I won't have to transfer files from my work laptop.

2) Google Forms
There is no need for me to enter data into spreadsheets.  Google Forms involve participants entering information, and you receive the results in an organized spreadsheet.  I've used this feature for course evaluations, short online assignments, and e-mail communication.

The most useful thing I have done with Google Forms is collect information.  We have a Google Form on the school website, so that parents can submit e-mail addresses for school newsletters.  This information is for the school office staff.

As well, I have been doing grad communication for the past couple of years.  My fabulous colleague Michelle introduced me to Google Forms for this task.  Through Grad Transitions 12, all students are required to submit an e-mail address for themselves and their parents.  This is what the form looks like.  As you can see, we have the student's first name and last name submitted separately.  Each piece of data is entered into a spreadsheet column.  This way, the Grad Transitions teachers can "sort by last name" to have everybody listed alphabetically and figure out who still needs to submit an e-mail.  As well, I can sort the "Parent/Student" column alphabetically.  Then, "parents only," "students only," or all e-mail addresses can be BCC'd into a grad e-mail update from the school.  The spreadsheet can also be "shared" privately with staff members who need to contact grads and parents regarding academics, grad events, attendance, work experience, etc.

I can't say enough about the benefit of having student e-mail addresses for communication purposes.  Last year, I needed a group of volunteers.  I sent out an e-mail after 10pm.  By the time I got to school the next morning, I had 10 responses.

3) Collaborative Learning In Class and At Home
I don't like assigning homework, but some students need/want to work on a project at home, particularly if they are absent for an extended period of time.  When students are working on a shared Google Doc, teachers will never hear, "Bubba has the poster and he's not here today."  The students who are present can work at school, and students at home can catch up later.  If both are online at the same time, they can chat in a side window.  If a student is ill for an extended period, and has friends in the class, this can be a great way to maintain a classroom connection.

4) Teacher Collaboration
If students "share" the document with me as they begin, I can keep tabs on their progress, as well.  Occasionally, I will enter a message for them as they work.

Likewise, I can "share" my documents with other staff members if we are working collaboratively on a project.  Colleagues can easily work together on agendas and minutes for meetings, proposals for  projects, course outlines, Powerpoint-style slideshows, newsletters, and assignment criteria.  Everybody with permission to view the file can see the most recent version; there is no need to e-mail a file back and forth.

5) Compatibility on Every Computer
When I first started teaching, I thought that it was great when students wanted to use Powerpoint to present a project in class.  Many times, however, their file could not open on my school computer.  Likewise, if a student was absent, I would accept an assignment via e-mail.  This seemed like a great idea until I realized that I couldn't open about 25% of the files e-mailed to me.  The beauty of "sharing" a Google Docs file is that it is compatible with any computer.  Plus, if an attachment from a word processing program won't open on my computer, it is very likely to open in Google Docs.  I use a Macbook at home and a PC laptop at school.  Google Docs keeps me from having to worry about converting files from one format to the other.  If a file is on Google Docs, I know that it will open.

6) Quick PDF Attachments
With a variety of computers used by students, parents, and teachers, PDF files are the most likely to be accessible to all.  In the "Pre-Docs" days, I had to open a MS Word file and "save as PDF," creating a second file.  Then, I would upload it to an e-mail as an attachment to send off.  Now, under the "share" feature, I can "e-mail as attachment" and convert the file to any format with a couple of clicks.

7) Automatic Updating On My Website
When I started using a class website, I would upload my Microsoft Word handouts to the site.  Yearbook notices, course outlines, and assignments would need to be updated and uploaded each year so that I could change due dates or make adjustments.  As well, if I noticed a typo or needed to make a change to a document, I would have to upload the file and install a link again.  Now, with Google Docs, any spreadsheet, word processing document, or slideshow can be "published" to the web for all to see.   If I need to make changes, it will "update automatically" if I check that option off.  I love it!  Yearbook forms simply need a date change.  Typos are fixed in an instant.  It's brilliant!

8) Slideshows
I don't use Powerpoint at all; Google Docs slideshows serve the same purpose and function on every computer.  The slideshows can be uploaded to my website or e-mailed to absent students, if needed.  As well, many students choose to present their information on slideshows.

One of my favourite activities with students is a "jigsaw" project.  Each group creates a "Doc" slideshow, then shares it with me.  I place the links on my website, and students learn from one another.  They present their information without standing in front of the class.  They learn from one another by reading, looking at pictures, and watching selected video clips, rather than listening to presentations.  It's a nice way to add variety to "jigsaw-style" information sharing and quieter students are able to share their thoughts in a format that doesn't involve public speaking.  As well, there's something about "being published" that helps to motivate students.  Everybody needs to be finished in advance of the due date so that the entire class can benefit from as much information as possible.

An added bonus of publishing student work on my website is the interaction that happens between classes.  I teach three blocks of Family Studies 11/12, so students have a lot of information to explore when all three classes submit projects at the same time.

9) Collecting Grad Ceremony and Yearbook Write-ups
I use a Google Form to collect student "write-ups" for the yearbook and the graduation ceremony.  The students enter their first and last names in separate boxes.  This allows me to "sort" the spreadsheet by first and last name, making it easy to see who needs to be entered.  It also saves time, as I don't need to type and alphabetize the responses, nor do I need to sort through 200 e-mails.  I can't imagine doing these tasks without Google Docs.

10) Posting Class Notes
If the students brainstorm in class, or we develop criteria together, I record this on a Google Doc on the projector so that the class can see it.  A couple of clicks later, it's on my website for all to access.

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