Even though I am “techy,” I always espouse that it’s never technology all the time. In fact, my classroom is always a hybrid environment. As such, my students write traditional, robust research essays every year. This assignment requires that they engage in sophisticated academic research, build a thesis, and then structure an academic argument. For many of my students (I currently teach 10th grade US History), this is the first research and argumentative essay that they have written. It’s a challenging project. In conjunction with our new roll out of Google Apps for Education, I decided to make this year’s research essay a paperless endeavor. This met several academic and school-wide objectives – building Digital Fluency and digital literacy across curriculum as well as promoting Ransom Everglades’s Greening initiative.
All Work Must be Written Within Google Drive
One of the benefits of drive is that it allows you to import documents from other platforms (such as Microsoft Word) either by converting them to a Google Doc or
using Drive as Cloud storage. However, this would defeat my intention of better watching how my students’ essays developed. As such, I required that all work be created within Google Drive itself. Students were not permitted to import content from another tool or copy and paste from a word processed document.
I did this because I wanted to watch how my students’ writing evolved throughout the assignment using the “see revision history” tool. This feature allows you to see how the document progressed – when content was added, changed, or otherwise revised. It’s incredibly useful in long-term projects as it not only allows you to keep tabs on your students’ progress, but it allows you to see what changes they made (substantive and minor) throughout the project.
Break it into Steps
I believe that larger projects should be “chunked out” so that students work on the process – focusing on the necessary elements step by step rather than trying to throw everything together all at once. As such, students had to submit to me: A thesis statement, Annotated Bibliography, Detailed Outline, Rough Draft, and Final Draft all through Google Drive.
I explained to them my expectations on each of the assignments and showed them how I would view their process using the track changes feature. I believe in being transparent with my students – I let them know why this process was important.
Peer Review with Comments Rather than Changes
One of the biggest changes for students (and teachers) in revision is that you’re doing it on screen – this means you cannot circle and underline, rather you highlight and comment. Still, it lends to a different focus in the revision process. Some students like to correct spelling and grammar for their peers. However, I find that when developing writing skills, it is always better for the author to make the adjustments and changes themselves. A such, I instruct students that if they noticed a lot of typos, they should leave a comment directing their peer to proofread. If a phrase was awkward, they should leave a comment explaining why the phrase was problematic and suggest that the student rephrase it.
Providing Feedback to Students
One of the best features of Google Drive is that it allows me to leave student comments in a variety of ways. I wrote an article a little while back entitled “Google Drive: A Better Method for Giving Student Feedback.” It highlights the fact that by working in the cloud, students and I can engage in a conversation; the comment process is no longer static. Additionally, it provides both me and the student greater flexibility in the process. Another cool tool that works in conjunction with Google Drive is Kaizena, a cloud based app that allows you to leave voice comments on a student’s a paper.
Watching the Evolution of Writing
The best feature of Google Drive is that, using the track changes tool, I can view the evolution of a student’s work. Overall, the writing process is the most important element of the work. Even if a student’s final product is not up to par, I can look at how often they worked on it, what changes they made, how they addressed their peers’ and my critiques, and overall how their paper evolved over time. Additionally, it provides greater accountability for the students – they know that they cannot just throw the paper together at the last minute, as I can see when content is added.
Engaging in a paperless research essay was a new journey for both me and my students. While the change in context and kinesthetics at time was uncomfortable (I don’t always like reading on a screen and neither do many of my students), there were numerous benefits that outweighed those drawbacks. The primary benefit was that students could work on the project wherever they were – on any computer on campus, on their cell phones while riding the bus to a game, or at home making changes before they turned it in.
I know that my students and I both need to engage further with Drive to feel fully comfortable with this tool (we had to with Word as well, although the 1980’s and 1990’s may seem far away). Still, I’m excited to move forward with a more portable, flexible, and greener assignment.