September 24

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Insight: Sharing is Caring or, Why Google Loves You

Just this past summer, my wife returned to school. As she gathered her school materials, she grabbed her Chromebook in lieu of a notebook. At the end of the first day, she asked me to help her scan paper handouts for conversion into Google Docs format so she could use them digitally. While we both frowned in confusion over the archaic-looking handouts mixing type, handwriting, and tape-and-paste, those frowns quickly disappeared into concentration over digitized work.

But this is not my story.

The story begins with a conversation in week two. My wife told me of a fellow student that had missed a day of class and asked for her copies of notes. Easy enough to share through Google Drive. But, on the next day of class, the fellow student asked if she could continue to use my wife’s notes because they were “better than hers.” I laughed, unsurprised, but she looked back with a bit of concern.

“You’re not sure whether you should share them,” I noted.

“Yeah, I mean . . .”

“It feels like she’s cheating?”

“Kinda.”

“Would you be taking the notes anyway?”

“Yes.”

“Then it’s easy enough to share them, right?”

“I guess.”

We talked about it for a while, and I offered that the twentysomething student may not have ever learned how to take notes, that she might have seen the notes as invaluable help as she worked at her own education. My wife may be providing her guidance she needed. Besides, I noted, creating a relationship of positive collaboration with another student based on this kind of sharing is the first step to mutual support, and that’s priceless in any endeavor, but especially education.

McCord's Digital Natives

My McCord students using Chromebooks to join their energies and ideas.

My wife had encountered a practice of educational collaboration that emerged naturally in my classroom as my students and I grew into a paperless environment. We realized that the sharing of documents through Google Drive could easily lead to “note buddies,” partnerships between students to take notes during class discussion and lecture. One student would create a document, and both would take notes on it, perhaps dividing responsibilities on which types of notes to take. Two students could cover twice as much material in the same time, or they could cover the same amount of material but with less stress to keep up with my fast pace. The “note buddies” idea bloomed into collaboration through Google Drive in a variety of forms over the two years of paperless teaching I tried at McCord from 2013-2015.

That was only four years after I attended the Ohio eTech conference where a session introduced teachers to a new Google application in beta testing called Google Docs. That February 2009 conference session followed two years after Google debuted Docs to its app users. It was the dawn of cloud collaboration, and after I spent a few minutes wrapping my head around the concept, I fell in love and have never fallen out.

Cloud collaboration has quickly become a standard for data storage and productivity, with products like Google Drive, Dropbox, and Onedrive offering users the ability to access their data from any device at any time and share that data with any user they wish to collaborate. This approach to work has come to us in education in a small way, but as we adjust our instructional practices to the new paradigm, we need to take a look around. Cloud collaboration is not just a fun new toy. It is one of the most important change agents in our world.

Let’s look at cloud collaboration across the globe.

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Ushahidi collects information from users’ experiences to help.

In 2007, Ushahidi, a new online service, collected reports of violence during the Kenyan political crisis and mapped them for users to access. The mapping came from user reports and kept citizens informed during the growing unrest. The same software was used to focus the energies of users to chart the individual events of the 2010 Haitian Earthquake and Deepwater Horizon Oil Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and is still in use today for similar social and humanitarian projects.

In 2005, the Katrina PeopleFinder Project led to a standardized software format for building user reports into a search tool to find survivors of disasters. The software helped create Google Person Finder, which is being used today in situations such as the recent Nepalese earthquake for users to access the information of others to find loved ones.

On a less disaster-oriented note, we can look at reCaptcha. You know those pictures with words you need to type into a box before buying a concert ticket or signing up for a secure service? Those are Captchas. ReCaptcha uses those few seconds of effort you expend and transforms it into value. Now, when you type those words, you might actually be helping digitize old books that computers cannot decipher or annotate images for easy searching. Yes, you have probably participated in a global collaborative effort without even knowing it.

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Digital collaboration can organize and energize a revolution.

But this does not even take into account the giants of cloud collaboration: Wikipedia and Facebook. The former has become the definitive democratic space for information collection and curation as tens of thousands of users contribute and edit data for free access. The latter enables each of us to do so much more than play Farmville or share memes. Facebook, and the social media revolution it has inspired (Twitter, Instagram, Vine . . .) is the engine that drives political participation in powerful ways. From organizing revolutionary events in Egypt during the Arab Spring to tipping the scales in the 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama, average citizens the world over have pooled their collective resources to become more powerful than ever before.

The Internet has done more than enabled me to shop for holiday gifts in my pajamas from home or acquaint the world more intimately with cat culture. It has given us the ability to share ourselves and our energies in ways and at speeds that were never possible before. The human race has seen that opening and jumped right through it into a world that is defined by personal connections, shared effort, and true democratization. We are a joined world now, and we can use our newly built global commune to redefine citizenship, creativity, work, and so much more. Actually, I shouldn’t say, “we can.” I should say, “we will.”

Which brings me back to the classroom and our new BFF Google. Yes, our students could always collaborate on group projects within the classroom or within the school. You need look no further than Southview’s Dance for a Chance to see the non-digital possibilities of this collaboration. But what can our students do with cloud collaboration? What will we teachers do to guide them through that collaboration?

The possible answers to those questions make me excited to be a teacher in 2015. Answers like these:

  • Passaic (Dig Learning Day) photo

    Working digitally should always mean working together.

    Digital pen pals that include Google Hangouts so students can bridge gaps with peers from across the nation and world.

  • Collaborative work groups across grade levels through Google Drive where older, expert students mentor younger learners in projects and assignments.
  • Creating blogs with discussion pages through a service like Kidblog for students to connect with adult mentors on research projects.
  • Active research online where students use Google Forms to survey users from a wider variety of locales.
  • Students participating in discussion boards on a service like TED Ed, where they can discuss issues in a safe and managed environment with learners of diverse backgrounds.
  • Competition among different classes, possibly in different buildings, using a game generator like Kahoot.
  • An online campaign for an issue or a candidate where students create the candidate and debate the issues across social studies classes in different buildings, culminating with a teacher-managed election day.

And those are just a few ideas joined to the old standbys of class peers using technology to collaborate on class assignments in real time at different locations. It doesn’t matter whether it’s one of these ideas or another as long as it unleashes the collaborative power of the Internet.

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Check out Clay Shirky on TED.

This is why Google is such an excellent driver for educator and partner for us. The rise of Google Drive in our classrooms has not just given us a cool toy to play with. It has pushed us to change our approach to education by entering the age of collaborative producers and exiting the age of isolated consumers. As social media theorist Clay Shirky put it, “The media landscape in the 20th century was very good at helping people consume, and we got, as a result, very good at consuming. But now that we’ve been given media tools — the Internet, mobile phones — that let us do more than consume, what we’re seeing is that people weren’t couch potatoes because we liked to be. We were couch potatoes because that was the only opportunity given to us. We still like to consume, of course. But it turns out we also like to create, and we like to share.”

So when anyone, a teacher, an administrator, or my wife, asks me whether or not to share, my answer will always be yes. The world is joined, and when we embrace that fact, we will gain a power both in our classrooms and out that will transform our students into energized adults that make a difference.


[For a fascinating and energizing exploration of modern collaboration, complete with a warning on its pitfalls, check out the TED Radio Hour’s episode entitled “Why We Collaborate.”]