Recently, I designed and facilitated my first blended learning course after spending a summer reading related scholarship (see Garrison and Vaughan). Google Docs evolved as the choice destination for collaborative, asynchronous meetings. Retrospectively, I think of Google Docs as having served the dual function of classroom meeting and working space as well composing and discussion tool or platform. Using Google Docs, I was able to facilitate reasonably successful discussions, peer reviews, and collaborative compositions and projects.
One primary way I used Google Docs in this course was to facilitate online, small group discussion (usually 3-4 students). I created the docs for each group and ensured the doc was shared amongst group members. When students accessed the doc, they saw questions I had posted about the reading along with instructions for responding to the questions as well as to one another using the comment feature. I also engaged in the dialogue by posting responses to the discussion that were geared either toward individuals or the entire group. In addition to linguistic-based responses, students also included images, videos, and/or audio to help them engage in a multimodal meaning-making experience.
At this point, I anticipate the question, “Why not just use Blackboard?” and will, at the very least, offer some thoughtful reflection regarding why my students and I gravitated toward Google Docs instead. Initially, I did use Blackboard as a classroom workplace/space because of its affordances such as threaded conversations, nested comments, and student access. However, I want to explore the possibility that using a digital tool like Google Docs for discussion fosters a more dynamic and engaging (also user-friendly) experience and view of the discussion.
Although the organizational structure of the Blackboard discussion board presents as an affordance, responses are compartmentalized, and users must move between nested comment threads when participating in a discussion. Arguably such a structure is necessary for large group or whole class discussions online where without this sort of compartmentalization the discussion potentially become unwieldy and difficult to navigate. However, for smaller group discussions, using Google Docs gives users a more “immediate” sort of communicative experience by presenting the discussion in its entirety at first glance. “Bob’s” initial post directly follows “Jane’s” initial post, which is immediately preceded by “Kara’s” initial post. Then, Bob, Jane, and Kara (and the instructor) can all easily dialogue with one another by commenting directly on each other’s posts, highlighting and responding to specific ideas. The group can then read the discussion as an interactive whole where comments sprinkled throughout reflect, I think, the organic nature of a classroom discussion.
I have not collected data to measure students’ perceptions of using Google Docs as a collaborative class meeting space and as a tool for facilitating discussion and learning, but I think it might be worthwhile to do so. Anecdotally, several students conveyed that they enjoyed meeting in and using Google Docs and that they transferred the skills they acquired using this digital tool to other academic and work-related projects outside of our classroom.
Overall, Google Docs proved to be a useful digital tool for collaborating, dialoguing, chatting, and commenting as well as inventing, writing, and revising, but I do plan to change some of the logistics. Going forward, in an effort to make my own workload more manageable, I plan to keep groups consistent rather than rotate group members, create a course file for each group, and make group members responsible for creating their own group docs for the discussions and other various assignments. I hypothesize that doing so will also support my ancillary goal of using digital tools to facilitate a sense of community amongst students.
I hope to hear from others who have used Google Docs for similar and different purposes and who can help me think further about how to refine my use of this digital tool for discussion.
Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. (2008). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.