Friday, October 14, 2011

Writing Workshops with Google Docs

Peer workshops are a regular part of my writing classes. As I say on the syllabus, I consider workshop days the most important ones of the semester. They encourage students to see writing as a process, they build community through helping one another, they expose students to other writers' ideas and strategies, they encourage independent judgment, and they provide an early deadline for students' work.

Since I was including so much tech this year, and since one of my classes is held in a computer classroom, I decided to experiment with using Google Docs for the workshop. Overall, I'm pleased with the experiment.

What appealed to me about GDocs was that the files would be in a format that all the students could read. In my previous attempts at electronic workshops, I had students upload files to Blackboard, then download the files in their group, make comments, and re-upload them. Inevitably there were problems with file format, especially MS Works and OpenOffice. With GDocs, this process is greatly simplified. Here is the procedure we followed:
  1. Students create a Google ID so that they can access GDocs. My students already had one, since they all have Blogspot accounts.
  2. I recommend holding a practice session to make sure students can use GDocs and also to practice commenting on a file. We discovered that GDocs freaks out a bit when four or five people are editing at a time, while three seemed to be okay.
  3. Students upload their files. Have students check the option to convert the file to a GDocs format, or else it can't be edited (though it can still be viewed). At the first workshop students did this in class, while at the second workshop I had them complete this step ahead of time.
  4. Students share the file with those in their group and with the instructor. This is easier if the students are physically together so that they can tell each other their IDs. If you're more organized, students can share their IDs before the workshop. (I figured that step was one too many and it was fine to use workshop time for it.) Make sure students choose "can edit" and not just "can view."
  5. Students use the comment function to comment on the file and write end remarks per instruction. I ran into a couple of difficulties with this. Some people like to highlight a whole paragraph to make one comment, and it becomes hard to see what the comment points to. A bigger problem was their hesitation to make changes to the document itself. The comment feature was easier for them to handle, but their remarks were also shorter. On the second workshop I emphasized what should be inserted in the body of the paper by the reviewers at the end.
  6. During the workshop, I log on to GDocs and review the drafts to make sure they're complete. I also watch what the students are doing in real-time, which means I can immediately say things like, "Beth, tell Jason how to add depth. Make some specific suggestions."
After the first workshop, I conducted a survey and found that all but one student (out of 31 who took the survey) enjoyed using GDocs for the workshop.

First I asked, how much stress did GDocs cause you? The "tech class" (the one held in a computer classroom regularly) answered 15% high, 15% average, 38% mild, and 30% none. The "low-tech" class (held in a regular classroom but scheduled in a computer lab for the workshop) answered 5% very high, 11% average, 33% mild, and 50% none.

Next I asked them to gauge their agreement with the statement, "Google Docs is a good tool to use for workshopping papers." In the tech class, 31% strongly agreed and 69% agreed. In the low-tech class, 44% strongly agreed, 50% agreed, and 6% neither agreed nor disagreed.

In my final question, I asked whether for the second workshop we should stick to GDocs or switch to the traditional paper method. In the tech class, 69% said "Yes, use Google Docs" while 31% said "I'm fine either way." In the low-tech class, 78% said "Yes, use Google Docs," 17% said "I'm fine either way," and 6% (1 person) said "Switch to paper."

We used GDocs for the second workshop, and I think I will use it next semester, too. I'm also interested in trying Microsoft Office Live Workspace, which is now linked to students' email accounts. My hesitation is that it is NOT linked to faculty accounts, which will make sharing with me more complicated.

If any students are reading this, please comment about your experiences. And if faculty are reading who have used GDocs or similar tools, I also would like to hear your thoughts.