GTeaching: A Medievalist Goes Google

[The latest issue of EDUCAUSE Quarterly Magazine features the article “GGrading: Digital Grading Made Free and Easy with Google Apps,” an overview of the ways in which I am using Google Apps to grade student papers. That essay is a relatively limited look at the digitization of my teaching life, however, and I thought I would present here a more complete look at my “GTeaching.”]

 

GTeaching: A Medievalist Goes Google

Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible. — Francis of Assisi

Digital what-not is all the rage these days. Digital natives. Digital literacy. Digital classrooms. Digital futures. Digital humanities. The world, it is safe to say, is changing faster than we can imagine.

I am a medievalist, which perhaps explains why I get the feeling these days that we are all a bit like the kindly owner of the parchment store a couple doors down from the newfangled printing press of Johannes Guttenberg. We have a sense that something important is happening, just around the corner. We don’t know what it is, exactly, and we have no idea what it really means in the bigger scheme of things. We are quite sure it is going to affect us, though, for good or ill, and we are equally certain that we can’t do much to stop it. The fact that Mr. Guttenberg was probably just as ignorant of what it was that he was creating, the revolution that he was unleashing, does not give me much comfort.

Consider:

  • Facebook was founded in 2004. As of January 2011, it had 600 million members, which is 250 million more people than live in North America, 200 million more than are native speakers of English, and 25 million more than existed in Shakespeare’s day (“Facebook’s Ginormous Size”).
  • Measured in FLOPS, a standard test of a computer’s “thinking” power, the Apple iPhone 4 that might be resting in your pocket is the computing equivalent of a full Pentium 5 desktop computer from 1994 — in addition to being a phone, a camera, a GPS, a motion-sensing device, a compass, and, for all I know, a coffee maker (Hendrix and “iPhone 3G”). The pencil-thin iPad 2 is 6 times as powerful, and, at historical rates of advancement (Shimpi et al), a 2019 supercomputer will have 6.2 billion times more computing oomph than that (Thibodeau).
  • Fifteen years ago, as I was in the midst of my first college degree, an estimated 5 billion 3.5” floppy disks were in use, each little plastic square storing 1.44 MB of information (Wallop). Most computers sold today don’t even have a drive for those disks (and you can forget about using any old 5.25” disks you have sitting around). Flashdrives are all the rage these days; I have one (probably antiquated since its purchase 6 months ago) that is the size of the first bone in my middle finger and stores 16 GB of data.
  • Twitter was founded on July 15, 2006. As of June 30, 2011, its users were sending 200 million “Tweets” per day. By the site’s calculations, this is “the equivalent of a 10 million-page book in Tweets or 8,163 copies of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace” (“200 Million Tweets”).
  • The average teen is now sending 1700-some texts each month (“Digital_Nation”) — not counting Tweets and Facebook updates and emails and…

It’s enough to make one’s head spin. After all, I’m still stuck growling at my VCR.

Yet it would do us little good to deny that this particular train has left the station. The genie is out of the bottle, as they say, and there isn’t much chance of putting the inflating fellow back in again.

This ever-advancing march of technology puts tremendous pressure on all levels of the education system, but I think it puts teachers, like myself, into a particularly awkward position. A brave new world is upon us — whether we like it or not, whether we understand it or not — and if we are to reach our students, to make our teaching relevant to them, we have to embrace that world, however stumbling and hesitatingly awkward it might feel. We must find ways to enable our students, as Spencer Dunford puts it, to be “better able to succeed in a world where the presence of technology is ever increasing” (74).

It is one thing to know this — and I think we all do — but it is quite another to know what to do about it. That is, it’s difficult to know how to begin to move from our “traditional” modes of teaching to something more suited to this new “digital” world.

We may have many options, of course. Information Technology departments are often eager to train teachers in some newfangled program or procedure or piece of silicon-based machinery every month: Smartboards, Blackboards, ePortfolios, and software versions coming and going so fast that one despairs of training on anything since it will surely be replaced with something new and better (and even more expensive) by the time next semester (if not next Tuesday) rolls around.

I myself spent a semester a couple of years ago patiently learning the ins and outs of what was then our brand-new (now our former) Blackboard system. I spent copious amounts of time to build quizzes and tests in order to save time (a zero-sum game, I suspect). I designed electronic response systems to give instant feedback, I programmed assignments, I toiled away through screens of confusion, and for one glorious semester I — the department’s medievalist, of all people — led a no-paper, all-digital, check-Blackboard life. There were positives in this: zero printing costs was no doubt a good thing for both my departmental and my student budgets.

There were negatives, too. The next semester, for instance, I learned that the IT department had set schedules for “purging” all this data, though I could run through an arcane procedure of downloading and moving it around elsewhere if I wanted to use it again, except that the whole brand-new system was scheduled for an update to a new-brand-new system in less than a year that would not be backwards compatible with the old materials unless there was funding for a converter, but that probably wasn’t going to happen and …

Suffice it to say that I was quite tempted to get my battle-axe.

The problem, I think, with all this digital advancement is that it would not be a problem if money, training, experience, and time were never an issue. But, of course, these things are always already a problem. So we have a problem.

For these and other reasons, I decided to take the revolution on myself, alone, without all that fancy software and gadgetry, and with only the faintest idea what the heck I was doing. Remarkably (to me at least), I have been somewhat successful in my meager attempts to pull this off, to incorporate technology into the daily life of my classrooms, and I thought I might share a bit about what I am doing, what I have learned, and where I think this is headed.

 

Experiments in Digital Grading

As I said earlier, I am a medievalist by trade. Teaching at a small school, however, I typically do more teaching of core curriculum courses — our English Department has a 4-class sequence of composition and literature surveys — than I do of fancy upper-level medieval literature courses. I talk often about basic writing skills, and I grade stacks upon stacks of essays. So I knew that my new digital teaching life was going to be built around the efficient processing of student papers.

My first foray toward digital grading was to receive electronic copies of student work and then utilize the “Review” group of functions in Microsoft Word to correct and comment upon them before returning the “marked-up” electronic copies to the students, often using Word’s “track changes” feature. This kind of arrangement is certainly not unique — Dunford has recently presented an overview of the practical and pedagogical use of the technology in English Journal — and I certainly found positives to this system, including the fact that students no longer had to decipher my cryptic handwriting. At the same time, the “track changes” method of paper grading had problems. For one thing, it was clunky. If I am going to grade electronically, I need the tool I’m using to get out of my way; I need the program, like the red pen, to “disappear” so that all I have to think about is my grading. That was not happening with Word, in which I spent a lot of my time opening and closing files and functions.

One of my biggest worries going into my “grading-with-Word” experiment was that it might inadvertently make coursework more difficult for my students who came from low-income and/or urban backgrounds and thus might not be as familiar with the technology. Happily, my experience was quite in line with recent studies that have revealed that differences in digital literacy are not strongly tied to socio-economics (Greenhow et al). Unhappily, my experience showed little difference because a surprisingly large number of my students, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, were hardly adept at using this particular technology. All were familiar with the basic uses of Word, but a much smaller number were comfortable with the kind of extended functions of Review; while surprising to me, this discovery is well in-line with what has been shown in several recent investigations into how tech-savvy our college students really are right now (Margaryan et al). I thus ended up having to spend precious time in class to show them how to access my comments, and even then I could not be sure that they all accessed the information: because the feedback was several steps away, I fear that some of the students most in need of it never got it. As it happens, some of these same concerns applied to my use of Blackboard.

In short, it did not take me long to begin searching for an alternative to the “track changes” process that would give me the advantages of an e-grading system without so many problems. And because I was doing this on my own, out on the lam from the IT department, I knew that whatever I came up with needed to be inexpensive. As in cheap. As in free.

Enter Google.

Founded in 1998, Google is a collision point for information and technology. By 2010, its data centers were running over 34,000 searches per second, making it arguably the nexus of this extraordinary historical moment in which we find ourselves (McGee). Since I figure they sort of got me into this mess, they owe it to me to help me out.

One of the great things about Google (and I’m not a stockholder, but I’d sure like to be) is that many of its services are both free and powerful. GMail, for instance, is the best email service I have ever used: searchable, flexible, and accessible from almost anywhere. In addition, it works digit-in-digit with GoogleDocs, an online “Office” suite of applications, and GoogleCalendar, now my one and only time organizer. And all of these services are available via any internet connection: on a desktop at home, the laptop of a family friend on the road, or even the smartphone in your pocket. While I began my experiments somewhat wary of a “cloud” system, my experience has been that the downtime — periods when I could not access the Internet and do my work — is very minimal. Between the many means of Internet access now available, in fact, I’ve never been unable to get access my materials when needed. Across the time of my experimenting, meanwhile, our campus Blackboard servers, for instance, have been inaccessible more than once for maintenance of one kind or another.

There are other GoogleGoodies, of course, but those three are the ones that have now become staples of my teaching life, that have become the foundations of my little personal teaching revolution. Because it is the hub of my little digital universe, I’ll start with…

 

GMail

I admit that I first fell in love with GMail for its message threading — which allows a simple, sensible view of my electronic communications with students — and for the speed and thoroughness of its search functions — which quickly allow me to find whatever information I am seeking. These features, however, are quickly becoming ubiquitous to email programs. What now sets GMail apart for me are the ways in which it has allowed me to treat email not as a simple message exchange system but as an integral part of my classroom experience, especially when it comes to the exchange of assignments. This movement may well be shocking to some of my peers, but it appears to be welcomed among students who recognize the untapped pedagogical resource that email represents. A 2008 survey of college students, for instance, found that 67% thought email could positively impact student learning, compared with a mere 50% of their associated faculty (Weiss and Hanson-Baldauf). Unlike new-fangled software programs, our students know (and generally adore) email. Even better, they genuinely want to use it as part of their education. In making my digital grading system, I knew I wanted to make email an integral part of the process, and, as we will see, GMail gave me the tools to realize my plans.

I will be using the example of an essay here, only because this is the predominant item I tend to grade these days, but the truth is that essentially any writing assignment can be exchanged and assessed in the kind of system I will be describing.

Before class begins on the due date for an assignment, students are expected to email me their work as a .DOC, .DOCX, or .RTF file. When that fateful day arrives, I walk into the classroom, pull out my iPhone, and within seconds I can read right down the list of emails in my inbox to see who has (or has not) turned in the assignment. By glancing at the “paperclip” icon associated with each email, I do not even need to open the emails to see whether or not the students properly attached a file (see Figure 1). “Did you get it?” queries from students are thus cut off before they can even begin.

Figure 1: GMail Inbox on an essay due date. Note that time stamps and attachment icons are readily available.

After class, somewhere, comes the grading. And that somewhere, I must point out, can in fact be anywhere. The papers are all safely on Google’s servers, accessible from just about any place on the planet from which I can access the internet. I might grade at my office desktop, then, or using my iPhone I might grade on a shady bench while my kids play in the park — and I’ll never lumber around with a stack of papers fluttering in the wind.

To be fair, this kind of grading is different. What I give my students is not your traditional line-editing grading, though long before I moved to my digital systems I was abandoning that time-honored method in favor of a more “sparse” grading style in which I pointed out representative errors but otherwise forced the students to find the problems themselves. I also make regular use of a 5-part rubric of my own design in order to help provide the students with pertinent information about the positives and negatives of their work.

So I sit down, and I open the first email from a student.  We’ll call him Bob.  First thing, I click on the link to his attached paper (Figure 2, Step 1).  This will automatically utilize GoogleDocs (more on this application in a moment) to open the document in a new tab or window of my browser, enabling me very quickly to see whether I do, in fact, have a paper to grade or if I have been sent Biology homework instead (Figure 2, Step 2).

Figure 2: Steps to grading an essay in GMail.

Next, I click “Reply” to the student’s email.  If Bob sent me his Biology homework, I send a gentle (or not) email pointing out the problem.  If I have a paper to grade, however, I utilize GMail’s “Canned Responses” system to insert, with one click of the mouse, a standard text into my reply email (Figure 2, Step 3).  This standard text contains my grading rubric (not yet filled out), an explanation of that rubric, hotlinks to some internet sites that I tend to refer to quite a bit (like the Online Writing Lab at Purdue), and a space for me to begin entering my written feedback  (Figure 2, Step 4).

Switching back and forth between my browser tabs or windows, I now read through the paper, filling out my grading rubric and then writing what amounts to a “letter” explaining the issues that I am identifying. And, in a great bonus for both me and the student, I am conveying this information through a medium in which they will not need to read my cryptic handwriting.

I can also quickly manage quite a few little feedback tricks because both texts I am working on are digital. I can copy and paste parts of Bob’s essay into my letter, for example, to highlight a positive (or negative) textual moment. I can grab a paragraph of his, perhaps, and set it directly alongside my heavy revision of it. I can paste in a book reference, even a link to the online catalog of the library. And if I suspect plagiarism, I can also rapidly copy a bit of Bob’s text in order to search for it on the internet (using Google, natch).

 

GoogleDocs

GMail may be the heart of my grading system, but GoogleDocs is the lifeblood. I’ve already mentioned how it allows me to view the documents my students send me, but it is more than just a simple viewer: it is actually a fairly well-featured “Office” suite of applications. I compose documents on it (as I have in drafting this short essay), and I use it to build intricate, professional slideshow presentations that can be called up virtually anywhere at a moment’s notice if I have internet access (or anywhere at all if I click on a button and download them to a thumbdrive or some other portable media).

I also have an online spreadsheet that is as powerful as I could possibly ask for: since 2006 I have thereby stored all of my grades on GoogleDocs, which has enabled me, more than once, to check and confirm a grade for a student or administrator when I was hundreds or thousands of miles away from my office. In one memorable instance, I was high on a remote mountainside in Colorado when my phone inexplicably received a cellular signal from some distant tower and pinged the arrival of a new email. It was from a graduate student who for very good reasons needed to know an exact numerical grade on an assignment and needed to know it as soon as possible. Though I was half a continent away in the middle of nowhere, I was able to tend to it immediately: within a minute I had pulled up my GoogleDocs gradebook, copied the grade, pasted it into a reply, and sent it careening back through the void with my compliments.

When I’m grading any given paper, then, I have three browser tabs or windows running: my reply message to the student (in GMail), the student’s paper (in GoogleDocs), and the gradebook for the class (also in GoogleDocs). As soon as I have filled out my rubric and written my email, I take Bob’s grade and enter it into the grading spreadsheet (which is automatically calculating Bob’s full course grade at any given moment, itself a handy thing for those catch-the-teacher-on-the-run questions). I double-check the grade between email and spreadsheet. I double-check the student’s name between paper and spreadsheet. Then I close Bob’s paper, send the email, and pull up another.

 

System Effectiveness and Future Directions

When it comes to my classroom, the cumulative effect of this interconnected suite of programs has been to get more useful feedback to the students, to get it to them more quickly, and to get it to them in a form that they find familiar and want to use. Papers are never lost, and — perhaps more importantly — the feedback is never lost. As I am grading Bob’s third essay, I can use the threading and searchability of GMail to see, within seconds, exactly what he turned in for his first two papers, and what I told him about them. He, of course, can do the same thing. And unlike the method of using “track changes” and commenting through Word, there’s no need for Bob to download the essay to his hard-drive, hope he has a compatible word processor, open the essay up, turn on the function to view changes, and then scroll through the paper looking for the comments (itself a process that may require him to zoom out, change the viewing setting, or scroll to the side of the screen). Instead, Bob can open up his email (as if he ever closes it) and do a simple search for my name; within seconds he has access to all of my comments on all of his papers. I have the same, of course, and on an expanded scale I am now building a database of student work, a goldmine of material for any self-assessment I might wish to conduct on my methods and courses, or any plans I might make simply to chart student growth.

All of it free, all of it without the IT crowd, and all of it easy to learn and use.

And, best of all, the students appear to love it. In the spring of 2011 I asked the 48 students who took courses from me in the Fall of 2010 to fill out an anonymous survey that allowed them to compare my e-grading methods to other methods they had encountered. The results, while hardly scientific, were to my eye very positive (here given by percentage):

E-Grading Elements Worst Worse Okay Better Best
Doing it all by e-mail 0 0 25% 8.3% 66.7%
Speed of feedback 0 0 8.3% 41.7% 50%
Five-part grade breakdown 0 0 0 33.3% 66.7%
Getting whole-paper feedback 0 0 16.7% 25% 58.3%
Getting detailed grammar corrections 0 0 7.7% 38.5% 53.8%

Table 1. Student Perceptions of E-Grading Compared to Other Grading Methods
 

While I’d love to rest on those laurels — believe me, I would — the digital grading system described here is only a toe dipped into the pool of pedagogical possibilities offered us by these kinds of technologies. As digital literacy grows, so too will our ability to integrate even more digital tools into our arsenal. And so too will it be necessary.

Building on these simple programs alone, if our students also have Google accounts — and even when not standard-issue at the college they are fairly omnipresent, in my experience — then we can leverage the “sharing” function of GoogleDocs, in which the same file, located on the “cloud” (that is, out there on the internet somewhere), can be accessed by more than one user. The “powerpoint” lectures I have developed in the system, for instance, could be shared with my students at the click of a button, giving them ready access to printing the lectures out for review and study. Going even further with this sharing feature, the instructor could create a template for a given writing assignment in GoogleDocs and then share a copy of the document with each of his or her students. From that point forward, the instructor and student would both be able to directly access the same document file (though the instructor, as the “owner” of the file, could “lock out” the student from working on it at any point, a potentially important feature). Changes made by one party to the document, or comments made upon it, would be instantly viewable to the other party, providing a great way of giving feedback. This document sharing could thus be easily utilized in the final assessment process, perhaps replacing the email exchange described above, but that is only the tip of the iceberg here. These same capabilities are even more amplified if the students compose their work from scratch in such a shared GoogleDoc. Because of the way that the application tracks document changes, the instructor would then be able to see the entire process of document creation, from the initial tentative steps of brainstorming through the various stages of drafting and revision. Taken a step further, the instructor could selectively add more students to such a shared document, bringing peer-review or collaborative work into a controlled and analyzable fold. Simply put, this “sharing” capability within GoogleDocs is an enormously powerful pedagogical tool. We just need to harness it.

 

Beyond the Classroom: GoogleCalendar and GoogleForms

Even outside the work of the classroom, these tools are radically changing the way I manage my academic life. I do a lot of student advisement, for instance, which often requires keeping track of a lot of student appointments. GoogleCalendar is thus another central feature in my life. Thankfully, though my school administration runs Microsoft Outlook as a rule, GoogleCalendar has thus far synced up with it with no issues, allowing me to leverage the abilities of the more powerful and flexible Google application. Like GMail, GoogleCalendar is heavily searchable and easy to use. I can quickly see, on any internet-accessing web-browser (instead of just my office desktop), what I am doing, where I am doing it, and when. If a student stops me in the hall to ask if I am available next Friday afternoon, I can whip out my smartphone, and in a matter of seconds set-up or deny the appointment. Likewise, because it works so closely with GMail, using GoogleCalendar means that if a student emails me trying to make a special appointment, a simple click on their request will take me straight into my calendar and fill in the necessary details. No mess, no fuss.

[January 2013 Edit: This next paragraph discusses Google’s wonderful “Appointment Slots” feature, which Google — very foolishly, in my opinion — has decided to terminate. I am thus searching for a replacement technology that provides the same great benefits.]

Though GoogleCalendar is excellent for these kind of case-by-case appointments, it is even more useful if the students have Google accounts. GMail addresses are fast becoming ubiquitous anyway, but at an increasing number of schools they are in fact the standard accounts for students. Such is the case at my college, which allows me to utilize GoogleCalendar’s very effective “Appointment Slots” feature. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, for instance, I might be available to meet with students from 10-11 in the morning, then again from 1-4. Tuesdays and Thursdays might be different, of course, and some individual dates will be irregular because of doctor appointments, vacations, conferences, or the like. Setting up the resulting blocks of availability and dividing them up into time slots (I use 30-minute blocks, myself) could hardly be easier. With just a few quick clicks on my calendar, I’m ready to receive appointments. GoogleCalendar provides me with a link that I can email to students or embed on a website, like my member page on the department’s website. Clicking on that link will allow a student with a Google account to see my available time slots overlaid on her own schedule; clicking on the appointment that she would like to reserve, it is automatically added to her calendar and mine, removed from the pool of my available slots, and submitted to us both via email as both a reminder and confirmation. I can even establish a notification to ping me and the student both (via email) at some time prior to the appointment as an additional reminder (I usually do this for 15 minutes beforehand). This kind of system makes the appointment-making process easier for everyone involved, and it frees me up from sitting in my office hoping that someone will show up. Now, if you make an appointment, I will be there; no appointments and I might be at the beach (doing grading!).

GoogleDocs has also found its way into the student advisement side of my life. When it is student advisement time, I send out an email to my advisees including two links: one to my aforementioned appointment scheduling page and the other to a web-based GoogleForm that asks them for basic student data, along with questions about their post-graduation plans, funding, internship ideas, thoughts about study abroad, and other extracurricular matters. Once a student submits this form, the data automatically populates a spreadsheet in GoogleDocs. When the student comes to see me, I can then pull up a clean and easy-to-read summary report generated from this raw spreadsheet data. I can even add comments on our meeting (“Student is researching study abroad opportunities in UK”) and save them back to the same data set so that they, too, will be pulled up with the student advisement report. In other words, by the time the student gets situated I have pulled up a structured report summarizing his or her current status and future plans, in addition to our previous advisement exchanges. This system has been thoroughly useful in cutting down the clutter (and substantial cost) of keeping all this material in paper records and files, while also allowing the kind of check-it-anywhere access that can be a lifesaver. In addition, I can foresee ways in which digitizing this information will allow me to quickly crunch data. The click of a single button, for instance, produces a series of pie-charts and graphs and percentages wrought from my advisement spreadsheet: I can see which study abroad programs are most popular, what percentage of my students are pre-law, and so forth. I am certain that this information will be useful.

I am not going to say that our future is here. That would be nonsense. But I do think it is true that the future is coming faster than ever, and we need to start worrying about it today.

Though we cannot take this digital world in all at once, we can — like that old quote about how to eat an elephant — take it one small bite (or byte) at a time.

And if a medievalist can start chewing on it, I suspect you can, too.

 

WORKS CITED

“200 Million Tweets Per Day.” Twitter Blog, 30 June 2011. 2 July 2011.

“Digital_Nation.” Frontline Extra, 2 February 2010. 27 June 2011.

Dunford, Spencer. “Reviewing Student Papers Electronically.” English Journal 100.5 (2011), 71-74.

“Facebook’s Ginormous Size Put into Context.” Pingdom Blog, 7 April 2011. 27 June 2011.

Greenhow, Christine, J.D. Walker, and Seongdok Kim. “Millennial Learners and Net-Savvy Teens? Examining Internet Use among Low-Income Students.” Journal of Computing in Teacher Education 26.2 (2009/10), 63-68.

Hendrix, Marcel. “FLOPS Benchmark Code.” Marcel Hendrix. 27 June 2011.

“iPhone 3G, 3GS, and 4 Linpack Benchmark Results.” Xyster.net, 20 June 2010. 27 June 2011.

Margaryan, Anoush, Allison Littlejohn, and Gabrielle Vojt. “Are Digital Natives a Myth or Reality? University Students’ Use of Digital Technologies.” Computers & Education 56.2 (2011), 429-40.

McGee, Matt. “By the Numbers: Twitter Vs. Facebook Vs. Google Buzz.” Searchengineland.com, 23 February 2010. 27 June 2011.

Shimpi, Anand Lal, Brian Klug, and Vivek Gowri. “Apple iPad2 Preview.” Anandtech.com, 12 March 2011. 27 June 2011.

Thibodeau, Patrick. “IBM Breaks Petaflop Barrier.” Infoworld.com, 10 June 2008. 27 June 2011.

Wallop, Harry. “Floppy Disk Finally Killed Off by Sony.” The Telegraph, 26 April 2011. 27 June 2011.

Weiss, Meredith, and Dana Hanson-Baldauf. “E-mail in Academia: Expectations, Use, and Instructional Impact.” Educause Quarterly 1 (2008), 42-50.

2 Comments

  1. Anita Livingston

    Although lacking the more personal red marks and margin comment, this process seems to have more pros than cons. It would be interesting to somehow test the reaction of other educator, perhaps via a conference paper or journal.
    Very impressive process and I like the “thinking out of the box” element.
    Dad

  2. I sure think it’s great. This semester I’m even doing all my course materials — syllabi, lecture slides, handouts, etc. — in GoogleDocs and then sharing them with my students. This way they can see the latest up-to-the-second copy of what I have. Pretty slick.

Comments are closed