Case study: Student portfolios with collaborative online documents

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Task: Make this go away.
(Note: Not professor Medley’s desk. Photo by PenRX via Flickr/CC.)

As the fall semester was getting started, I received a request from Mike Medley, professor in the Language and Literature department and coordinator of the TESOL minor here at EMU. He was looking for ideas on how to better handle documents in his 400-level “Methods of Language Teaching” course. According to Mike, “This course requires students to generate a wide variety of documents, especially in connection with lesson planning, micro-teaching, journal reading, activity creation, practicum observations, and tutoring experiences.”

Each student generating and submitting a wide variety and high number of documents throughout the semester – with Mike reading and making comments on each – can create quite a confusing mess when working with paper-based, email-based, or even Moodle-based submission and feedback processes.

Mike had used Moodle forums in the recent past to facilitate the student document submission and feedback process, but wanted to avoid the repetitive and time-consuming task of “downloading each document, saving it in my own drive, opening it, typing in my comments, and then uploading back to a place on [Moodle] where students could access it.” Who could blame him? This kind of work is technological drudgery. But good news: It doesn’t have to be that way!

As Mike described the process and the technical problem he was trying to solve, it sounded to me like he was after a student work portfolio system. In tech lingo, a “portfolio” translates into a digital folder or directory into which student work can be placed and accessed by both student and faculty member. And when I think of multiple people needing to access digital folders and documents with great ease, I think of one system: Google Drive and its Docs functionality.[1]

Nuts and bolts

So I helped Mike and his students set up a Google Drive-based shared folder and document system. We set up a folder which he and all the students had access to, where documents relevant to everyone could be placed and would therefore be visible to everyone. This folder did not actually end up getting used, but it still acted as the “parent” folder.”

The parent folder w/ a generic document along with student sub-folders. (Apologies for my grammatical faux pas.)

Next, under the course/parent folder, we created a sub-folder named after each student in the course. Only the respective student and Mike had access to each student’s folder. Mike then established document naming guidelines for the students to follow as they submitted their work, making the job of finding the right file for the corresponding assignment much easier.

A student’s folder w/ a few submitted documents.

Documents in the Google Docs format open for editing directly in the web browser; no more downloading, opening, editing, saving, then re-uploading! And no more “I forgot to hit ‘Save’!” catastrophes since you never leave the browser and you don’t even have to hit a “Save” button – edits are saved with every keystroke. Everything is in the cloud; no more “which version of the document is this?” confusion such as you get when passing documents back and forth as e-mail attachments. There is a commenting system built in, so you don’t have to necessarily add comments directly in the document, in a different color for instance. Revision history (like “Track Changes” in Word) is also available, allowing you to track the evolution of a particular document.

The result

Mike reports that “(u)sing Google Drive has measurably increased my efficiency in the way I handle the collection of student work,” adding, “I will definitely use this method of doing portfolios in future versions of this course.”

And the possibilities extend to his other courses as well. “I also plan to expand the use of Google Docs to a writing course that I teach… For that course…I have experimented with a vocabulary collection activity using a Google spreadsheet.” For this use case, Mike has a single spreadsheet document that is visible and editable by all students. The multi-user authoring functionality – even for synchronous/real-time editing –  is seamless, unlike desktop-based solutions such as MS Office (Word or Excel), and offers great potential for collaborative educational activities.

The end result is compelling. Under a Google Drive/Docs-based system, the teacher-student editorial process for documents is greatly simplified, vastly reducing the amount of time required working with technology, which is as it should be – the less visible the frame of the tool itself, the more productive and useful that tool becomes. And in this era of higher education, where online communication is becoming more and more common, our software tools used for the educational endeavor must also move this online direction. In addition to the efficiency gains, new educational activities are opened up via multi-author collaboration on documents that live in the cloud. And because of the wide availability and reputation of Google’s Gmail, Calendar[2], and Drive – many faculty and students will already be familiar with at least the concepts and perhaps even the user interface itself.

Now here’s how the bits in this particular case study light up on the Ed-Tech Ecosystem [PDF] diagram…

The non-email bits of our productivity and communication systems at EMU have to this point either been non-existent (shared storage and docs) or under-utilized, such as the calendar and contacts which are only used by office staff, program directors or executive leadership but go mostly untouched by faculty and students. But as I’ve shown here, these bits can also be pressed into service for educational purposes, and give faculty considerable time savings in the alleviation of unnecessarily confusing and messy technology hoop-jumping. One of my as-until-now-unstated motives in this post is to highlight these educational uses, so they don’t get lost in the shuffle of our platform assessment process now underway (see caveat #2 below).

Caveats

While this particular experiment turned out to be quite successful for Mike, saving him a lot of time, there are a few caveats that I must point out. The first two relate to the fact that we are not a Google Apps for Ed school[3], which means…

  1. Setup was confusing - EMU e-mail addresses had to be linked to personal Gmail accounts, which was not a simple, straightforward process, and is ultimately not a sustainable practice. This somewhat arcane additional step made it difficult to get the shared folder structure set up and functioning for everyone. If we were a Google Apps for Ed school, this step would not have been necessary. This is where all my time was spent supporting Mike, so once we got the wrinkles ironed out in the first few weeks, I didn’t hear another peep for the rest of the semester.
  2. No support from Information Systems - Yes, I work for I.S. and yes, I supported Mike in this experiment. But it was just that: an experiment. If a Google Drive-based solution is going to be broadly accessible to EMU faculty and students and fully supported by I.S., then we need to be a Google Apps for Ed school, or adopt a similar platform which offers equivalent functionality (such as Microsoft Office 365 for educational institutions). Luckily, we are currently in the discernment process for our next generation productivity and communication platform, which now primarily means e-mail, calendar, and contacts – but the current breed of these platforms also include things like collaborative online documents and sharable storage, which I’ve described here.
  3. No meaningful integration with Moodle - Because we were making use of the common Gmail/Google Drive system, it had no meaningful integration point with Moodle. Links to the course folder could be dropped in the Moodle course, but that’s where the connections ended. For instance, EMU has acquired and encourages faculty to make use of the Turnitin plagiarism-checking platform which is integrated into Moodle. Documents submitted through this Google Drive-based scheme are not in the same “sandbox,” and so can’t get run through the Turnitin system. (Though it does look like there is some Moodle-level support for Google Drive that I haven’t thoroughly researched…)
  4. Limitations of the Docs format for academic papers - For the kinds of documents that are generated for Mike’s language-teaching course, the Google Docs format works great. But for more formally academic papers, such as research papers with precise style guide constraints, this probably isn’t the way to go. MS Word offers far more precision and control here for both formatting and foot-/end-notes. Cite-as-you-write tools such as EndNote, which integrate with Word, obviously wouldn’t work here either.

[Update: Right after posting this, I read this on one of the Inside Higher Ed blogs: The Google Drive App for Mobile Learning? – I didn’t even explore the mobile benefits here, but they’re certainly relevant.]

Notes

  1. Name game: Until recently, the entire platform was called Google Docs, but when they added the sharable file storage and its corresponding desktop sync application – a la Dropbox - they renamed it Drive, but the Docs functionality remained. I use both terms in this post – “Drive” for the whole platform, “Docs” for the…docs.
  2. Potential future topics in a Google Apps for Ed world (see sub. note): 1) Shared calendars for education. 2) Google+ Hangouts with the Google Docs plug-in – video chats w/ simultaneous document collaboration.
  3. I’ll come right out and say here that I’m by no means unbiased: The tone and content of this post should be enough to suggest that I’m campaigning for the Google Apps for Ed route. If we do go another route, though, I’ll still be happier because at least we’ll have far more capacity for productivity and collaboration, and case studies such as this one can be adapted accordingly.

2 Responses to “Case study: Student portfolios with collaborative online documents”

  1. Don Clymer

    I would submit that the same efficiency could be attained by using dropbox without the many annoying features of Google. I for one, do not like the Word document displayed in the web-browser. With a shared file on dropbox, you work on the document directly within Word, and if you save frequently enough you should have no problem losing your work, and the latest version of the document is always available.

    • Brian R. Gumm

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Don! To your comment on not liking the browser-based interface of Google Docs – that’s no problem in Google Drive! Drive, in fact, functions pretty much exactly like Dropbox, so you don’t necessarily have to use Google Docs w/in Drive – you can upload file-based documents (e.g. Word files) to the same shared folders in Drive. And with the desktop sync app (again, just like Dropbox) – you can work with the files from your desktop and they’re automatically synched to the cloud-based shared folder.

      The strong benefit of using Drive vs. Dropbox – if it’s hooked up in a Google Apps for Ed environment – would be that it’s tied to your EMU account (username/pwd) rather than having your own personal Dropbox account that is in no way connected to EMU systems. This is where things really get powerful for on-campus use…