Heeding the Call: Experimenting with Google Drive and Twitter in the Classroom
I'm taking the plunge! I am experimenting (and having success!) with new tools in the classroom thanks to Amanda Starling Gould's encouragement (see her HASTAC blog on "The Power of We: Collaboration in the Classroom. Or, How I Live-Tweeted My Class With My Class"). With an infectious enthusiasm for imagining the classroom as a laboratory for collaboration, Amanda nudged the greater HASTAC community to take a leap of faith:
“I challenge you to challenge your students AND yourself to create innovative learning environments that mobilize the affordances of our contemporary networked condition. Ending again where we began, I return here again to [Ernesto] Priego: collective intelligence and collaboration are quickly becoming the default mode of 21st century research. And teaching and learning can indeed benefit from the modes and methods of the collective – and collectively connected – We.”
I am answering her call with equal enthusiasm by experimenting in the classroom! I am currently a TA for an American business history course at Duke University. I lead a 75-minute discussion section every Friday with 16 students. Over the past few weeks, I have conducted two experiments in my class: 1) collective note taking via Google Drive 2) live-tweeting. Google Drive was a HUGE success! Twitter was also successful, but students, in general, were less comfortable with this medium of exchange.
I have to admit, I did have some reservations about experimenting with these digital tools in the classroom. In the moments leading up to my in-class experiments, I wondered if I was being too “out-there” for a typical history course (after all, I took all of my notes by hand as an undergrad!) Was the discussion of historical monographs and primary source documents conducive to Google Drive and Twitter? Are there disciplinary differences that render the history classroom less “fit” for digital experiments than a course on media or technology in the digital age?
Unlike Amanda’s course in 21st Century Media, my students were not in the habit of bringing laptops to our Friday section (although many students were used to taking notes on laptops during Monday and Wednesday lectures). In fact, at the beginning of the year, I explicitly discouraged them from bringing laptops to our Friday section because I wanted to remove all digital temptations (email, Facebook, Twitter etc.) I understood that I was sacrificing the many benefits associated with Internet access by placing a ban on laptops, but I wanted to prioritize student face-to-face engagement.
Zipping Rainbow Colored Cursors: Google Drive and Collective Note Taking
In anticipation of some necessary adjustments, I gave my students a few weeks’ notice prior to our Google Drive experiment. Why choose Google Drive as my first experiment? I wanted to start with a digital tool that many of my students were already familiar with so that the transition (back) to computers did not seem so abrupt. Also, Google Drive has a great feature of tracking all edits made to a shared document (this enabled me to keep tabs on my students’ contributions).
A week prior to our experiment, I asked students to send me their gmail addresses (if they had one), so that I could invite them to contribute to the Google document via their Google account. Non-Google users can also contribute to the document, but the account associated with the gmail address is preferable because the student’s name will show up in the track changes (rather than “user 1” or “user 2”).
On Friday, November 16, 2012, I invited my students to our shared Google document at the beginning or our discussion section. Similar to Amanda, I encouraged my students to leap into this experiment without reservations and really enjoy the spontaneity of collective note taking (dare I admit that my heart was racing a bit as we started class?) I asked them to contribute to the document 5 times either by taking notes on our class discussion, or by inserting a comment into the Google document (via the comments feature) that furthered discussion/raised new questions etc.
As we began our discussion, there was a brief moment of hesitation, but I soon saw my students’ rainbow colored cursors zipping across the screen. It was mesmerizing to watch my students’ thoughts pour onto the page—their cursors (flagged by their names) marched across the page like banner men from Game of Thrones. I eagerly watched as my students created a document saturated with intellectual engagement and collaboration. They automatically coordinated their organizational techniques (section headers, bullet points, highlighted key words etc.) and formatted each other’s notes so that the document was relatively cohesive. They were attentive to which students were taking notes on which topics; they were automatically playing traffic cop to make sure that redundancy was limited and collaboration was fluid.
I am amazed at how my students were able to multi-task, contributing to our regular class discussion, while also navigating the digital conversation that was occurring simultaneously. The Google document became increasingly rich as students began using the comments feature to address pressing questions that corresponded to the points other students were raising in class. It was wonderful to see more introverted students contributing to these digital side conversations with enthusiasm.
At the end of our section, we produced 9 pages of collective notes and 60 questions/comments/critiques posted using the comments feature. After the class, I ask the students to reflect on the experiment. Some of my students admitted that the collective note taking was overwhelming at first, especially as they were figuring out how to navigate a document that had over a dozen contributors. However, these same students were pleasantly surprised at how effective the experiment was; they also agreed that with a little practice, this could be quite an effective tool.
I am not sure if I would use collective note taking every week because it requires such a high level of multi-tasking, but I do think this is something worth trying in a small (5-15 students) classroom setting.
#ABHLabor: Live-Tweeting Our Discussion of Richard Cowie’s Capital Moves
Prepping my students to use Twitter was a bit more of a challenge because many of my students didn’t have Twitter accounts. Anticipating this adjustment, I gave my students 3 weeks notice about the live-tweeting experiment, encouraging them to set up Twitter accounts and to watch a short YouTube tutorial on Twitter basics. Once they set up their Twitter accounts, I requested that they email me their twitter handle (we compiled all the Twitter handles in our collective Google document from November 16). From the onset, my students were a bit more wary of Twitter than the shared Google document, but they were all willing to participate.
On Friday, November 30, 2012, I gave a 5-minute overview of how to compose a tweet, how to direct a tweet at a fellow student using the @ symbol, and how to use our class’ hash tag #ABHLabor to group our discussion. I impressed upon them the importance of having #ABHLabor in every tweet so we could storify our class discussion on RCA labor relations in the 20th century at the end of class. My hope was that they could use the storified account of our Twitter discussion as a study tool for the second exam.
Once again, I stressed that this was a collective experiment. I also asked students to contribute at least 3 tweets that raised interesting questions/reiterated key points from our general class discussion.
As students strove to find their sea legs on Twitter, some found it difficult to keep tabs on our oral conversation. I think the students also found Twitter replies a bit more difficult to navigate than the Google documents comments feature. That being said, my students did raise some interesting questions and produced pithy summaries of major points articulated during discussion. However, I noted that the “transcript” of our class discussion was less cohesive than the one capture in the collective note taking exercise two weeks prior. On another note, some students and I used our smart phones to take photos of the diagrams we mapped out on the board during class discussion; we then uploaded these to our Twitter feeds. I think it will be useful for my students to have easy access to these diagrams as they begin to study for the second exam.
Overall, I think there are some kinks to work through with the live-tweeting experiment. I suspect many of these will resolve themselves as students become more familiar with the process/idea of live-tweeting. However, I would argue that Google Drive, initially at least, is a more effective way of capturing and preserving class discussion.