Google Drive in the Classroom

For the last year, I've been using Google Drive in my writing classes as part of a larger flipped classroom strategy. Overall, its been a great success, but there have had some setbacks and surprises along the way. I'm sharing my initial observations for instructors who might be considering this technology for their classes.

First thing to consider: the digital divide. If your students don't have the technology, then requiring its use will exclude a lot of people. I usually teach in a computer lab, but even when I don't I can rely on almost all of my students having laptops. Because I ask them to work in groups, if a few people forget, they can pair up with others. Maybe your school allows you to reserve computer rooms or check out laptops if students don't have them.

Secondly, you'll want to make sure that you're comfortable with the technology but know you'll never be fully prepared. That's OK because your students and google can usually help you in these moments. The following guides are a good place to get started. Viewing them all isn't necessary--I've provided redundant options because people access text differently:

Example Exercise

For example, in our first lesson, students identify ethos, pathos, and logos. On a google doc, I list all the text selections, then students use the comment feature to highlight text and mark which appeal(s) it represents. They work in groups to limit the number of people on the doc, and I stagger their starting points (e.g. one group starts at #1, another at #3, etc). So, each group gets to start with at least one clean slate, and they don't get overwhelmed with 10 cursors showing up in the same spot on the screen. They begin to populate the document with their answers, and I ask that when they move to a selection that others have worked on, they don't repeat answers, but rather find new ideas. Here’s what our document looks like at at the end of the first day: Ethos, Pathos, Logos Exercise

Benefits of Google Drive

  1. Students build on one another’s ideas to create knowledge. I ask them not to repeat what others have said in the document because I want each idea to be unique and try to go deeper. This creates friendly competition between the groups. They see each other’s analysis and often try to outdo one another. Groups also constructively disagree in the documents, sharing more than they might if they had to speak out loud directly to one another.
  2. Shy students contribute more. I get a fuller view of all students’ contributions, and during discussion, if people are silent, I can point to a comment and ask the student to describe their observation. 
  3. Students have an archive of class work. They can return to lessons when they are writing papers or if they miss class. 
  4. Teachers can track many groups at once. I can pretty quickly tell if an assignment has fallen flat or is confusing—nobody will be typing.
  5. There is a flurry of activity. It just feels more exciting. This isn’t exactly a research-backed claim, but when the document is projected on the board, it looks really dynamic to watch students adding ideas. 

Challenges of Google Drive

  1. Technology can shut down verbal discussion. Students stay busy working and communicating digitally, but sometimes they bury themselves in the computer screen and the room goes silent. I have to coax them into discussing with their group members.
  2. Technology can be time-consuming. For example, peer Review is streamlined, but you have to dedicate the first 10 minutes of the class period to setting up the tech. This was true even in our second peer review.
  3. Technology can throw curve balls. Getting started with GDrive just requires a google account, but sometimes randomly a student will lose access and you have to re-add them. For the most part, the tech works great, but there can be little glitches. You have to be prepared to troubleshoot on the fly. If there’s a problem, first I make sure I’ve implemented the tech correctly. Then I troubleshoot problems by having students look them up.

Common Troubleshooting Issues

  • Students can't comment. Check shared settings. Once you're inside any doc, click the blue shared button in the top right. It will likely show that anyone can "view" the document, but you'll need to change that to "edit" for students to comment.
  • Students open a document on a black background that doesn't allow comments. Non-google versions of files open that way. So, you likely shared a Word doc instead of a google doc. To fix it, once you're in the doc (with the black background), click the top blue button that says Open. Now you can select "Google Docs" and it will appear as a new file in that same folder. X out of the doc you're in and I usually go delete the word version. After that, check the sharing privileges for the new google doc.
  • Students can't get to the folder. To set students up with access to our class folder I create a document with a list of student names and make it open to anyone to edit. I give them that link and they input their email address next to their name. Then I use those email addresses to grant access to the class folder (again by altering the sharing privileges).
  • I can't tell who is commenting. If you want to keep track of who says what, you'll need to use students' google accounts to share files and folders with them, not another email address. If a doc is open to anyone to edit, then google allows anonymous users to work on it.

Best of luck if you decide to use google docs in your classroom! I'd love to hear about your experiences.

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