30 May 2008

When GoogleDocs Are Outlawed

...only outlaws will have GoogleDocs.

I did manage a way for kids to try GoogleDocs over the last couple of days (until The Tree-Killer shut us down). I have to say that it has been two of the most fun and rewarding days I've had in the classroom in a long time---maybe all year. It was one of those times where the end definitely justified the means, even if the example of rule-breaking is not one that I typically believe is right.

But to watch 30 kids...all working...all engaged...all collaborating on four documents for a real audience was a powerful and awesome thing. I gave minimal instructions. I really think that most kids have an intuitive sense of programs these days. They don't need me to hold their hands and explain every little button on the menu bar. We did a short (as in one sentence) assignment at first so that they could see how to create a document, embed a link, and invite someone to see or collaborate with them. After that, I shared a bare bones lesson plan with them for the kindergartners and told them to have at it.

And, oh, did they.

Students had a blast. It was not only collaborative---it was competitive. Who could find the best picture of a sand dollar? Who could make the format easier to read? Some did get a bit silly in terms of deleting one another's edits, but it really was in fun. When was the last time you saw your kids laughing while they were writing? There was a lot of exploration and joy. It's well worth any hassle or grief The Tree-Killer attempts to cause. Kids were already talking about all of the ways they want to use the tool...how happy they'd be not to have to carry a thumb drive...the ability to work with anyone, anywhere on projects.

In Here Comes Everybody, Shirky speaks to the kind of "bargain" that comes with collaborations like this (and like Wikipedia). It's true that someone can add bad information to a document just as easily as good information. It would have been simple enough for any of my students to trash the whole project. But it is also true that just one click is all it takes to restore things...that the number of people willing to buy in for the good of the project easily overwhelms the one or two vandalizing apples. As a result, the overall result is one of continuous improvement through small changes.

The number of edits (so far) to the lesson plans range from 266 - 745. That's a lot of kids doing a lot of work to a skeleton document. The results are kid-like, as you might imagine. There is a rainbow of text colours, some stream of consciousness comments, interesting pictures (e.g. comparing a pile worm to a Swiffer duster) and this great sense of collective voice and enthusiasm. I'm really proud of them.

The kids are, of course, very unhappy about having the tool blocked. I explained to them that Mordac said blocking GoogleDocs is not due to fears of exposing them to predators---it's because the school district is afraid of any information that they can't control. Since the documents would not be housed on a district server, they have no ability to monitor what kids are doing. And while I appreciate the need for monitoring student behavior, I also think that they're trying to push back the tide with a broom. None of the information kids are accessing on-line is stored on our servers. It belongs to someone else. I've posted this comic strip here before, but it bears repeating:

Although I shared a document with my students, I did not give them the necessary permissions to invite other collaborators or viewers. What they create is another matter, of course. But within my province---especially because this was our first attempt to use these tools together---I made sure the information stayed within our small circle and kept a continual watch on the computers. I told them that if they're really upset about being shut out, then they should collaborate on a letter. They have the tools and know-how now. Can the power for change be far behind?


Unknown said...

Google is highly promoting a controlled, domain specific, suite of tools for educators in Google Apps.


Google Apps Education Edition includes Google Docs and several other tools.
In fact, I'm aware of several districts who have rehosted their email and web to these services.
Best of all it's entirely free.

From some of your posts, it sounds like your local IT staff aren't soliciting input from outside the district and that's unfortunate.

If I were you, I'd be asking if your IT staff were attending or contributing to the ESTC programs OSPI coordinates for our Washington State SD's.

I think you'd find examples of how some districts have safely and successfully used some of the technologies you feel are out of reach.


The Science Goddess said...

Thanks for the suggestions.

There is some obfuscation occurring at the district level. The head IT guy gives everyone the run around...and then blames things on Cabinet. But considering that Cabinet is depending upon him for interpretation and advice on techy things, I somehow doubt that they're making the choice on their own about what should be blocked.

I am desperately hoping for a more enlightened central office staff.

Unknown said...

I find sometimes it's effective to ask what the folks next door are doing.

Comparing your own level of accessibility to a neighbor could be pretty eye opening...

If not a next door neighbor, find a case study of how districts have integrated collaboration tools/wikis/web 2.0 apps out there.

An smarter man than I recently explained that just like a busy street, the internet is a potentially dangerous place.
Why is it we spend so much time teaching children to look both ways before crossing, but we'd rather pretend the dangerous parts of the net don't exist, rather than teach our children how to use it safely?

The Science Goddess said...

I will see what sort of research I can round up. Meanwhile, it hasn't helped to point out what our neighbour districts do or don't do. It's kind of like when you asked mom to stay out until 12 like the other kids---and she gave you the statement about how it didn't matter what all the other parents did. This was her house. Yadda-yadda-yadda.

I completely agree that it makes far more sense to teach kids about the riskier internet behaviors at school. Right now, we just block things and pretend they don't exist. That seems so irresponsible on our parts. There is a difference between protecting children from being exposed to illegal or obscene (however you define that) information while at school...and using a social networking tool for learning.

loonyhiker said...

I love using Google Docs! I think students find it easy to use and fun too.

Sandra Porter said...

This is amazing!

I use Google Docs with the class that I teach at Shoreline Community College and I've been setting up wikis for teachers in Seattle.

If the argument is that kids might get into trouble, you can set the document up and then invite the kids. That way, you have the ultimate control over the document and whether it gets published or not. That should satisfy the IT nazis.

The Science Goddess said...

That's what I did...but the IT Nazis were unrequited. Ugh.