What Using Google Docs in the Classroom Tells Me: We Need to Change Everything

I have been experimenting with Google Docs – I realize loads of teachers use this resource, and I am definitely not writing a how-to guide here. I am not even extolling the virtues of Googles Docs. Yes, it allows for online collaboration, and it’s relatively easy to use for those who have a fear of “digital anything.” What I am writing about here is the relief that students clearly felt at being able to collaborate without a central figure telling them how to learn. .

Students want to control their learning path – they need guidance but not a gatekeeper. While Don Tapscott and I don’t always meet eye to eye, I am on board with the concept of actual student-centred learning, which is very hard to achieve. The very structure of the university is not set up for student-centred learning. The current model of the classroom still privileges a factory, industrial model. The desks are aligned in exact rows; students sit as units of production, and the factory supervisor or professor supplies knowledge to the units. Just to prove my point further, it might make you more than a little queasy to know that students are regularly referred to as Basic Units of Funding (BIU). Each student reported to the Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities (MTCU) in Ontario (and I am sure this is true at ministries of education nationwide) is worth a certain amount of money. Clearly, post-secondary education requires funding, but from the way the MTCU configures its relationship to students to the actual architecture of the classroom, students are to be processed rather than actively engaged with. Ken Robinson, in his talks for the Royal Society and TED , has been telling us about this problem for years, but what have we done about it?  What I have discovered in using cloud computing tools (like Google Docs) in an industrial classroom is that these tools show us just how outmoded the university system really is. The good news is that these tools can transcend the industrial classroom.

I have been reading up about how others use Google Docs, and there are ideas bandied about like “stump the instructor” – in this particular assignment, students ask the teacher questions that they think might stump the teacher. This is an exercise in positioning the teacher as gatekeeper – the “holder-of-the-knowledge.” In other words, the digital tool is put into service of a certain type of learning. I mean, students could just write a question on a piece of paper and hand it to the teacher, so what’s the use of the digital tool, in this case? When Google Docs is used for actual collaboration, something incredible happens: students take control of the classroom and they love it. Unlike having students give a presentation where they mimic the professor (in essence), Google Docs allows them to take on an active role in constructing the class.

It can seem chaotic at first, because as the students log in and take on their Google ID (or if they do not have a Google Plus account – and most don’t – they are given animal identities like “anonymous liger”), they all seem to be randomly roaming the document as a bunch of cursors…..

All Together Now

but then something wonderful happens – they start to work together on one (digital) page that is a hybrid of the word processing application they use AND the social networking sites they interact on. Guess what? They collaborated brilliantly and productively. So much so that I could not keep up. Next time, I will use “time outs” where we stop and look at what everyone has done and then go back to the document. I should add that the Doc was up on the big screen so everyone could see on their screens and for those without the ability to connect (only 2 people out of 30), they could see as well and also share with classmates. The screen actually create a hub for us as we collaborated.

Students were answering the questions I asked on the Doc enthusiastically and passionately – and they also answered each other’s question on the doc!  The conversation on this digital page was electric, and when I asked students why they were so enthusiastic about this particular tool, they said that they felt at ease communicating in this format. They felt empowered by being able to add their thoughts without feeling pressure to answer (and, therefore, be judged) me directly. Instead of me being “the boss” they must answer to – I was just another roaming cursor adding to the document. Interesting – no? I think the impulse by some teachers will be to condemn “this generation,” who need to learn social skills and so forth. I have not seen a decline in social skills (there are as many rude middle aged folks as young folks, I’ll wager). No, the point here is that the need to communicate collaboratively is as strong as ever but the venue has changed, and post-secondary pedagogy is way behind. Native digital users communicate through online collaboration (e.g. social platforms) and teachers need to get on board or lose student interest and vitality. You can dig your heels in a wish for a better time or join in and have a blast.

Here is a snippet of what we produced in real time (note – students used bolding, color, and italics but all was erased in  the cutting and pasting of that document to this document):

Google Docs Transcript

Question One (I know, this is really a series of questions, but they are linked!)

In both Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, the lead characters leave reality, enter fantasy, and, in the end, return to reality. Are Alice and Dorothy changed by their experience? Does the fantasy world challenge the norms of reality? Does the fantasy world support certain norms? Does the return from the fantasy world negate the social criticism found in the fantasy world? For that matter, what social criticism did you detect in either story?

So?  Any answers?

Alice and Dorothy return from the fantasy world with new perspectives of their own world/reality.  (SM, MB, GM)

In Dorothy’s world, the fantasy does challenge the norm of reality when she first sees the colourful and abundant flowers, which she wishes were in Kansas. (GM)  The colours and “aliveness” of Oz really influence Dorothy’s worldview in that she is so taken aback by the brightness

I don’t think Alice and Dorothy are changed by the experiences but they bring the changes with them when they return. (Ed)

That’s an interesting point. What did Alice “bring back” with her?

Answer to purple text: Alice brings back a different view for her sister and a brief lapse back into her childhood, (as read to us by Sara). (Ed)

Alice brings back the value of imagination and wonder which children were taught to grow out of in order to have a successful adulthood. Alice introduces the idea that fantasy cannot/should not be defined by age. This is a positive spin on the story, which is important – most often, it is seen as defining girls as“civilizers.”

The fantasy world definitely changes the norms of reality but only in the Western sense of norms. (Ed) That’s true

The criticism of reality dissipates at the end of the story, as Alice and Dorothy discard their adventures at the end of the story, but the reader may change his/her perception of reality based on the fantasy world. (Ed)

Good point-why would dorothy want to return to such a grey place (kansas) when she could remain in the colourful world of Oz?

Dorothy wants to return to Kansas in order to be with her family; her auntie and uncle. Maybe to her the beauty and fantasy of the Oz is worthless in the light of her loved ones. (GM) Interesting point – and Em certainly changes

In terms of social criticism-in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy remarks that her land is civilized-there are no witches or wizards there…perhaps alluding to the isolation that different people face? The witch then explains that while there are bad witches, there are also good witches maybe challenging people not to judge those who are strange to society? (BK) I think this is a really good point. There is a lot of diversity in Oz and Dorothy also frees a lot of oppressed peoples

Is there any significance in Alice growing and shrinking? Also, is there any significance with the rabbits white glove that he drops, Alice picks it up, and then puts it on? (BK)    Yes.

I believe that the size changes represent the power of adults in society. Adults hold the power in society and when Alice grows in size she is able to exert more power over the other characters.    YES!

the size changes can be seen as Alices perspective changing … in the end alice turns into a giant and she is able to speak up against the nonsensical trial. YES!
the size change can represent the changes the body goes through in adolescence?

Perhaps- as much as a female wants to grow(for lack of a better word) they are constantly brought back down? (BK) Any advancements that were made for women in society were shortly lived before they were brought back down to size?

Children were previously viewed as passive in their own intellectual and moral development.  Alice has to learn how to take an active role in her own development (whether she’s making herself smaller or bigger).  Perhaps this is the author’s way of endorsing the agency of children.

Since Alice always has problems when she grows bigger, maybe since children are smaller they are able to do and see things that adults cannot? (GM)

The growing and shrinking could represent her lack of experience, or in this case her feeling inferior to something she doesn’t understand, and she grows as she begins to understand and get some measure of control over a new experience.  For instance, she shrinks when she realizes she can’t get the key but stops when she calms herself down enough to think.  In regards to the Rabbits house she is completely thrown by the change of (attitudes? behaviours?) in this strange world but begins to grow when she believes she can exert a manner of control or understanding. (Ed)

(MH, MM)Their experiences do change them in the sense that the characters are no longer jaded, they have a newfound understanding of the world around them in the sense of understanding people and how not all people are who they appear. It does challenge the norms of reality in the sense that it makes a kind of makes a mockery of real culture, like when Alice is falling through the rabbit hole and consumerism follows her as she looks at the different items surrounding her. The fantasy world supports the norm of childhood curiosity and actually encourages it, by way of providing many things intended to encourage the child to question, study and judge the world around them (example being the curiosity of Dorothy in whilst in Oz of her surroundings and the strange people she meets, or Alice and the vivid and somewhat terrifying world that surrounds her).

I think Alice comes back more mature than before her journey because she’s experienced life on her own. But how do we know that? We only have her sister’s view of things…but an interesting idea. Because it’s HER story, does she have power?

Alice brings back to the world a willingness to fantasize that adapts to fit the world it is now a part of, which she passes on to others in the world, such as her sister.  It’s not the full, intense fantasy of Wonderland, as it does not seem to directly alter the physical world, but it is a mental fantasy that transforms the world through perception–a fantasy about Alice’s still somewhat mystical future and a romanticization of the “real world”. (Carly)

In Alice in Wonderland the criticisms are rampant.  At the end of her adventures there’s a massive ‘dis’ of Western courts.  The croquet game is a parody of how lucid rules and regulations are.  The tea party was discussed in class.  With the baby the duchess was caring for the critique was how much value we put on children, in this case a baby is represented as a pig. (Ed)

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