Thursday, December 3, 2009

One class, one paper...

I have been spending an over abundance of time considering the new doors technology can open in the classroom.  Using technology, just for technologies sake, just does not sit right with me and I am constantly trying to ensure its use is justified.  One of the things that has been running through my mind deals with the ease in which Google Docs allows collaboration to take place.  In education collaboration is really nothing new, I certainly can remember swapping papers with other students to get feedback on rough drafts.  What I have been pondering lately however, is whether or not we can take collaboration a step further, and start exposing students to the creative process their peers use when working on a project.  What would be the educational benefit for students to be able to witness other students collecting research, writing, proofing, editing, and documenting each others work?

With this thought in mind I set out to have my environmental science students write a paper on seed dispersal.  I have had my students research a method of seed dispersal for the last couple of years.  They would write a small paper and then we would discuss what they found and how it relates to succession.  This year I decided to do something different.  I expanded the paper to relate seed dispersal to succession and include multiple examples of seed dispersal.  I also decided to have the students follow APA guidelines for the paper's format and documentation.  In the past this was done as a quick assignment to gather examples to discuss in class.  Besides making a major increase to the requirements of this assignment, I made one more major change.  The class would be writing this paper as one large collaborative effort.  Thats right, a group of twenty!

My environmental science class is definitely a heterogeneous group of students.  Before proposing this assignment to them I came up with seven different roles and a description of each.  I then went over each role with the students, and had them volunteer for the role in which they thought they would excel.  I will include a link at the bottom of this blog to the roles and descriptions that I came up with.  Once the roles where selected I let the students get to work.

I would love to report that this activity went off without a hitch, but as is so often the case when we venture into uncharted territory, it has had its fair share of problems.  The first major problem I ran into was a limitation imposed by Google Docs.  Apparently only ten people can edit a document at a time.  More can view the document, but they will not have editing rights.  This problem was easily solved by splitting the paper into sections and only sharing it with those students working on each particular section.  The students that took on the roles of editors have access to all sections and are responsible for cutting and pasting the final document together.  I also rearranged the room so students working on a particular section would be sitting together to better enhance communication.  I found it funny when one student asked me how they would know when a student in another group was done.  My response was to simply ask.  It does not all have to be done with sophisticated technology.           

Another problem, which I realized even before starting the assignment was the fact that the researchers would be busy at the beginning of the process, and the proof readers and editors would busy at the end.  Thinking about the progression of the whole process I realized that student activity would basically take place on a bell shaped curve.  I accepted this reality before starting and have looked for ways to try and keep all students active throughout the entire process.  This has been achieved by having students aid others and sometimes pick up the roles of other students who were absent.  I have also run into issues with some students who just are not able to get their job done in a timely manner.  This unfortunately has a rippling effect on the project, especially if that student has one of the preliminary roles, like that of a researcher. 

With all these problems in mind, and granted I am writing this before the project is even finished, I would like to share my initial thoughts on the success so far.  Quite honestly I have had a blast doing this project.  I think in the future, with applying what I have learned in this attempt, this definitely will be an even better learning experience for the students.  We have worked on it now for three days and I definitely hope to finish it up tomorrow or the next day at the very latest.  Each night I have found a few minutes to sit down and look through all that was completed during class that day.  I have used Google Docs ability to go through and leave comments where I felt they were needed to help give direction for the following day.  I have had a ton of fun with this and really feel that I have had the opportunity to facilitate the learning taking place during the writing of this paper.  I have also been impressed with the comments students have been leaving for each other and have been amazed to watch paragraphs totally reconstructed and made better because of them.  One of my goals for this project, besides the content in which they are being exposed, was that students get the opportunity to witness each others creative process and learn from each other.  So far, it seems that this is taking place.

Link to the roles and descriptions -

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