Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Using Google Docs in the classroom

I've been aware of the potential of Google Docs for collaboration for quite a while but I had never really considered the use of Google Docs for classroom activities.  That is, until a few weeks ago...

I run a final-year undergraduate module called Building Adaptation and Conservation, in which students are required to consider the adaptive reuse of historic buildings.  The students are generally well engaged and fairly opinionated, which makes the module enjoyable because the subject lends itself to a lot of discussion.

I wanted to run a class exercise in which students work in groups to discuss the preparation of a conservation plan.  I gave a lecture in which I explained the purpose of conservation plans and identified the key components of such a plan. In previous years when I have run a similar exercise, students formed themselves into groups, discussed the topic, made notes within their group and then fed back to a plenary session. There was no formal capture of the outcomes of these discussions.

It occurred to me that Google Docs could provide a means of addressing this problem. I knew there would be a maximum of fifteen groups in the session, so beforehand I created fifteen documents in Google Docs which were identical apart from the document heading, which simply indicated a group number. I then created a separate link to each Google Doc from within Blackboard (our virtual learning environment) and made these links available to all students on the module. I also made some example conservation plans available to the students via Blackboard. I asked students in advance to bring devices with them to the session from which they could access the internet. 

I presented a case study based on a real Georgian building in central London. I outlined some of the key features of the building and showed the students a series of photographs. Once they had formed their groups I allocated a number to each group by simply giving the group a slip of paper with a number on it. Each group then had to access a specific Google Doc on Blackboard and add information to the document. 
Specifically, I asked each group to consider:
  • How would you go about preparing the conservation plan?
  • What information would go in to the conservation plan?
  • What format would the conservation plan be in?
  • How could you present information in a way which can be understood?

Screenshot from Blackboard showing access to Google Docs


The students appeared to engage quite well with the exercise. They were able to access Google Docs on a variety of devices including laptops, tablets and smart phones. Once the exercise was complete I was able to open individual group documents on the screen at the front and talk through some of the issues identified. 

The advantages of using Google Docs were as follows:
  • Groups had a ready-made template in which to enter the outcomes of their discussion immediately.
  • Individual members of each group could all add information to the document simultaneously as long as they had a suitable device with them.
  • Once the exercise was complete all members of the group had equal access to the document they had prepared.
  • All students had access to the documents produced by other groups, thus enabling them to benefit from the input of the entire class.

I think this worked rather well as a means of capturing the discussions, and was much better than students simply writing their ideas down on a piece of paper and not really sharing that with anyone else. 

I'll be using this approach again.

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