Teaching with Google: The results

Well, the winter term is over next week, and my students have just finished their group projects. (For details about the project, check out my two previous posts on the topic: This one describes the source text and this one discusses my initial plan for incorporating Google Docs into my course). As part of the project, I asked my students to fill out a short survey on what they thought about working with Google Documents, and I’ve just finished going through the results.

Between my two classes, I have a total of 35 students, although not all of them handed in the survey. Of the 29 students who filled it out, 20 said they didn’t find the application difficult to use at all, while the other nine listed a few minor problems: two found uploading files complicated, another three complained about the application being finicky (copied and pasted text took a long time to appear on the screen, and then it took a long time for fonts to harmonize; the spreadsheet application didn’t allow the student who created a document to modify it), one thought that keeping track of the various edits was confusing, three said they didn’t find the interface intuitive and one found that Google Docs just wasn’t easy to use at all but didn’t give any details.

The vast majority of the students spent less than half an hour learning to use the program: only 2 of the 29 reported spending an hour, while one said she spent a week and still didn’t feel sure about everything. The fact that most students spent just a few minutes figuring out the application is encouraging, as one of the reasons I opted for Google Docs over a wiki was that I thought most students would find Google easier to use. I had actually expected that more of them would have already used the application for other classes, at work or even for personal projects, but only five of them indicated that they had worked with Google Docs before. So the fact that nearly all the students could go from having never seen or (in some cases) heard of an application to feeling comfortable with it in under half an hour is a big advantage. Most students who found it easy to use said it had the same look and feel as MS Word, which is probably the most significant reason why the learning curve was generally low.

However, not all the students were convinced that using Google Documents had helped the group collaborate. Although most of the students enjoyed not having to email documents back and forth and keep track of which version was the most recent, a few noted that the application posed some problems to effective teamwork: one wondered whether the project had taken longer to complete than necessary because group members were able to all look at and constantly revise the document from home instead of having to physically meet once or twice to agree on a final version. This point was raised by another student, who noted that:

We worked much more effectively as a group when we met in person, where we spent over 2 hours revising each other’s work, doing research, making decisions and discussing the text. If we had done all that online, the amount of back-and-forth required would have been far too tedious, and would have spanned at least a day, if not longer (i.e. slow servers, people being offline and not seeing comments until later, etc.)

I found this view interesting, because I had been expecting that students would not be interested in physically meeting for these projects; I know that schedules usually differ greatly from one student to the next, what with part-time/full-time jobs, other courses, and family commitments, so I had thought students would work entirely online and not feel the need to meet in person. The main drawback to Google Docs in this respect was that it didn’t include a built-in chat module so that students could talk to each other and translate at the same time. Many students reported talking over the phone or email while working on the document, or working in person on various laptops so that everyone could edit the document while discussing the changes. I’m going to take another look at Google Wave as a possible alternative to Google Docs, as it does allow students to chat and revise documents at the same time, which might solve some of the inconveniences the students reported.

Over the next week weeks, as I correct the group projects, I’ll post more details about the translations themselves and what I’ll likely change next year. As always, I’m interested in feedback from anyone else who has done similar projects or is thinking of introducing something like this into a future course.

2 thoughts on “Teaching with Google: The results

  1. You`ve mentioned that there is no chat module in Google Docs. Google Mail does, however, have a built-in chat function on the left side of the screen, and it allows Gmail users to chat with other Gmail users in the same browser window. I can`t remember if everyone was required to use Gmail in order to gain access to Google Docs (I already had an account) but this chat function might be something to bring to students` attention in future courses. Our group members did make some use of it.

  2. Thanks for pointing that out, Nico. I did notice the chat function while I was marking the assignments (which was after I wrote this post). It’s definitely something I will point out to future students, as the apparent lack of a chat feature was the most frequent complaint from the students who submitted the questionnaires.

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