Teaching with new media, or how I went paperless and learned to love Google

It’s official: I’ve taken my courses fully paperless. It is a new experience for me, and even though I had used blogs in the past, this new experiment adds important changes to the mix. The first relates to the platform, which is no longer wordpress. The second change is about classroom privacy, as I have restricted access to the course blog to the students registered in the course. The third adopts a different model of group blogging, by assigning students to a critical reading community. The final change incorporates google docs to facilitate management and assessment of exams and traditional term papers.

Google sites: Our new home.

When I first incorporated blogs into my teaching, I searched for a platform that was easy to use, albeit versatile. WordPress fit that bill. It was highly customizable, and after some trial and error, I was able to communicate my expectations and set standards that student posts had to meet. Indeed, I remember introducing the assignment to my first group, and sensing their bewilderment upon being told that they could not just post whatever they wanted. “Do you mean we can’t just talk about Kanye?”

Not exactly. What I meant is that they could talk about Kanye as long as doing so illustrated at least one of the issues that were being addressed through the course readings and/or lecture. “The whole point of this assignment — I said — is for y’all to use the tools you’re learning about in class to analyze popular culture.” I shared my own work as an example of how to do this, but I never required students to actually comment on anything I wrote. I now have mixed feelings about this decision. Part of me wishes I had asked for student comments. That would have given me feedback, and it would have been another way of assessing mastery of the material.

Hindsight… sigh…

My experience with WordPress was very positive, but I have moved away. I’m now trying out google sites for the first time.

Why? part of it has to do with on-site support. The institution where I teach has subscribed to Google apps for education, and we are currently in the process of rolling out different applications. Two of these are Google sites and Google docs. Since I also wanted to keep traditional term papers and exams, integrating Google docs into the course design seemed like a logical solution. I could keep the course almost paperless, but to keep it simple, I had to abandon my home on WordPress. Why have students use two different platforms when they could manage everything from their student account?

It just made sense to move.

The Media Audiences Site

(click the image to enlarge)

I created two sites. This screen shot shows the basic setup of the one for Media Audiences. The site has evolved into its present form, as I keep adding features. The latest addition is the “featured responses” section, which is basically a collection of what I consider to be the best work produced by students in the class. Think of it as the Media Audiences wall of fame.

Wall of fame

Each week, students write a response to the course readings. This is due at the beginning of the week, and it is meant to help them prepare for discussion. Granted, it doesn’t always work because being prepared for discussion does not necessarily make people more likely to participate in the actual discussion. Shyness is still an issue in the class, but people have other ways of participating and contributing. They can comment on each other’s work, for example, and have those comments be part of the participation grade. To make this easier, and to give everyone a chance to receive feedback from their peers, we formed self-selected reading groups of four. Each student only reads the people in their groups.

Naturally, there is a disadvantage in this arrangement. Self-selection has been an issue, and the “featured responses” section is meant to correct that. Unfortunately, at this point in the semester, reading good responses is entirely voluntary. It was never part of the original grading scheme, and I can’t include it now.

Sigh… one of the issues I’ll correct in the next version of Media Audiences.

The other addition to Media Audiences is google docs. I use it as a course management service, as it allows students to share their work with me, and I can, in turn, provide feedback right on their document by adding comments.

For me, this has been one of the best features of google docs. However, the functionality is limited compared to word. In word, you can actually track changes to documents, and the markings will show up right on the screen automatically. In google docs, if I want to delete or alter anything, I have to highlight it, or strike it out manually so the student will see it.

Another way in which I use google docs is to provide feedback to the weekly responses, and to manage grades. In terms of feedback, I realized early on that I could not just post my assessments directly on the student’s website. Indeed, critiques of student work are, and should always be confidential, whether you grade on paper, or electronically. My solution was to create a separate “feedback document” like the one below. I only add to the feedback document when there is a substantial point to be made. I mean, I’m not going to write an extensive entry to correct typos, but I will write one to encourage clear writing and argumentation:

In terms of grading, I have created individual spreadsheets for each student in the class. I post the grades there, along with brief comments, if warranted.

Students can view, but cannot edit the feedback document or the grading sheet, and I only share these documents with the individual student to ensure confidentiality. The only drawback of this system is that I have to keep a separate master grade sheet, and I have to update it by hand because separate google spreadsheets will not link to each other (or at least I haven’t figured out how to link them). Google docs is not like excel, and I can’t plug in a function that will compile all my grades into a single spreadsheet, like I would on excel linking my grade master sheet with the individual grade sheets is extremely tedious and time consuming. Google provides instructions, in wonderful googlese. You can read them here. The bottom line is that you have to manually input the formula into every individual sheet. Furthermore, you have to define the linking parameters for individual cells within a sheet. If you have 70+ students, it’s just not worth the trouble.  Hence, I rather keep entering the grades manually.  It’s worked fine so far, and people can keep track of their grades. That’s all I want.

So far, the experience has been good. In terms of resources, I now only print out my attendance sheet. I share presentations (done on Prezi because I can’t stand powerpoint anymore), notes, research examples, comments and materials with the class, and I have even begun experimenting with Evernote, pdf annotation, and audio files. I’m rolling Evernote feature out tomorrow, so we’ll have to see how people react to it. More on that later.


2 thoughts on “Teaching with new media, or how I went paperless and learned to love Google

  1. Pingback: Tech reviews: A few of my favorite things « "Media" is plural (boldly going somewhere).

  2. Pingback: The Paperless Professor | College Hack

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