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Monday, May 11, 2015

Online Collaborative Inquiry

Using Google Docs in 2011

Effective online collaboration involves a few key components. First, everyone involved must understand that despite the digital medium - the essence is the same. One of the first things I impress upon my students each year is that there is really no major distinction between online and real life. There are certainly different aspects to how information is shared, but in the end, what you are left with is human generated content. Be it face to face or asynchronously online, communication is the same. I strive to have the same rules apply. This should always be rule number one - what you do/say/type/delete digitally you also do/say/type/delete in "real life." Framing it this way makes it  easier for students to understand. I prefer to use the terms digital life and physical life as two sides to the same coin that is real life.

Let's look a google docs, for example. This is probably the easiest entry into online collaboration for students, however, if certain norms are not established - it can quickly devolve into chaos and mayhem. In order to help you avoid potential catastrophes I'll lay out just a few things to keep in mind.

  • chat
    • It takes kids all of 0.7 seconds to find out that a document shared between them also has a pop-out chat feature. The idea of this feature is to allow collaborators to discuss the document and plan without writing on the document itself, which can get messy very quickly. I remind kids that what they say on the chat is the same thing as saying it aloud in class. If you would not raise your hand and say it aloud in a "normal" class setting, don't say it on the chat. Just be sure that you are logged on to the chat prior to the kids (open multiple tabs if needed for each document) because unfortunately you will only be able to see what has transpired if you are on the document. There is no backlog. Lastly, depending on your style, you might want to be a tad lenient with the chat. The "real life" thing works both ways. In "real life" you know as well as I do that kids will stray from topic in face to face discussion to a degree. It is inevitable, and if we are to hold onto the real life/digital life mantra - we should hold it for all things.  
  • deleting other's work
    • Depending on how many kids are accessing the same document, you might run into several issues. It can be very overwhelming to have multiple cursors on the same page trying to type at the same time. Imaging the physical world equivalent for a moment. How impossible and absurd would it be to have a group of several kids trying to write on a single piece of paper at the same time? Additionally, could you imagine a student erasing the work on another student's physical paper work? I'm sure it does happen from time to time, but I guarantee it does not happen with the frequency and flippancy of erasing work on a shared digital document. Online collaboration does not mean that they must all work on the same document at the same time. I frequently tell kids to open a new document for themselves and work there, then copy/paste on the shared doc and begin the process of negotiating through the editing and revising process.    
  • accountability & revision history
    • Another benefit of using google docs with collaborative projects is the high accountability factor. You can see who contributed what to the document and when they did it. In short, you can assign grades based on actual contributions to the document. This allows the kids who always bear the brunt of the work to breathe easier knowing that their contribution will not be diluted amongst the entire group. It also lets those who typically coast by on the shoulders of peers know that their usual course of action is no longer an option. This is by no means a perfect solution for fair grading. I typically create a google form (like this one) for kids to complete at the end of a project as a supplement to checking the revision.
Here is a short video tutorial showing you the chrome extension Draftback for google docs and how it can help you visualize the edits made on collaborative documents.

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