Google Docs and Group Work

Mark Sample recently had a great post about reading aloud in the classroom, in the course of which he also briefly revealed how he uses Google Docs as a sort of digital whiteboard for collecting responses from students. I’ve also sometimes used Google Docs in the classroom for similar purposes. The advantage of doing this, of course, is that the Google Doc created during class can later be shared with students online. And because Google Docs can be edited collaboratively by several users at once, it also makes it possible to reproduce the old pedagogical technique of having students "go to the board" to write down responses without ever requiring that they leave their seats.

Here’s a quick example of a lesson that I’ve done twice now, with pretty good results. In my course on the American Civil War Era (current and past), I devote several of my classes to discussing the consequences of emancipation for freedpeople. One of my major goals is to help students appreciate the range of different circumstances in which freedpeople found themselves. In one class, I do this by distributing a packet of four primary sources, all of which are available online, and then break students into groups to discuss the four sources.

So long as at least four students in the class have a laptop with them, I can also do this next step: I direct students to this Google spreadsheet, whose settings are usually such that anyone with the link can edit the sheet. I ask each group to answer a series of questions about the document–when and where the episode described took place, the circumstances under which laborers are working, and so on. Each group edits the document simultaneously, and I have it displayed on a screen in the classroom so that everyone can see everyone else’s edits as they happen.

At the end of the exercise, we "rank" how well each case met the expectations and desires of freedpeople (which have been discussed in previous classes). And by having the spreadsheet before us, we are then able to have a discussion about which variables seem to correlate most strongly to situations that benefited freedpeople’s interests. In this case, what I want them to see is that the date (during the war, or after), the state, and the presence of the military helped determine the nature of the post-emancipation labor contracts that developed.

That’s one way I use Google Docs in the classroom. Please share other tips if you have them!

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