Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Using Google Docs in the classroom

I've been aware of the potential of Google Docs for collaboration for quite a while but I had never really considered the use of Google Docs for classroom activities.  That is, until a few weeks ago...

I run a final-year undergraduate module called Building Adaptation and Conservation, in which students are required to consider the adaptive reuse of historic buildings.  The students are generally well engaged and fairly opinionated, which makes the module enjoyable because the subject lends itself to a lot of discussion.

I wanted to run a class exercise in which students work in groups to discuss the preparation of a conservation plan.  I gave a lecture in which I explained the purpose of conservation plans and identified the key components of such a plan. In previous years when I have run a similar exercise, students formed themselves into groups, discussed the topic, made notes within their group and then fed back to a plenary session. There was no formal capture of the outcomes of these discussions.

It occurred to me that Google Docs could provide a means of addressing this problem. I knew there would be a maximum of fifteen groups in the session, so beforehand I created fifteen documents in Google Docs which were identical apart from the document heading, which simply indicated a group number. I then created a separate link to each Google Doc from within Blackboard (our virtual learning environment) and made these links available to all students on the module. I also made some example conservation plans available to the students via Blackboard. I asked students in advance to bring devices with them to the session from which they could access the internet. 

I presented a case study based on a real Georgian building in central London. I outlined some of the key features of the building and showed the students a series of photographs. Once they had formed their groups I allocated a number to each group by simply giving the group a slip of paper with a number on it. Each group then had to access a specific Google Doc on Blackboard and add information to the document. 
Specifically, I asked each group to consider:
  • How would you go about preparing the conservation plan?
  • What information would go in to the conservation plan?
  • What format would the conservation plan be in?
  • How could you present information in a way which can be understood?

Screenshot from Blackboard showing access to Google Docs

The students appeared to engage quite well with the exercise. They were able to access Google Docs on a variety of devices including laptops, tablets and smart phones. Once the exercise was complete I was able to open individual group documents on the screen at the front and talk through some of the issues identified. 

The advantages of using Google Docs were as follows:
  • Groups had a ready-made template in which to enter the outcomes of their discussion immediately.
  • Individual members of each group could all add information to the document simultaneously as long as they had a suitable device with them.
  • Once the exercise was complete all members of the group had equal access to the document they had prepared.
  • All students had access to the documents produced by other groups, thus enabling them to benefit from the input of the entire class.

I think this worked rather well as a means of capturing the discussions, and was much better than students simply writing their ideas down on a piece of paper and not really sharing that with anyone else. 

I'll be using this approach again.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Are our undergraduate construction students really ‘digital natives’?

In the higher education world we often hear that nowadays the students joining our courses have grown up immersed in digital technologies and are already highly proficient in using these technologies. They are the so-called ‘digital natives’ whilst the older generation are the ‘digital immigrants’. I realise that these ideas have been challenged but in my experience it is a widely held view that young people entering higher education are very ‘tech-savvy’ and don’t need any advice from us about the use of technology.

I wanted to get the students’ own views on this issue in order that we can adapt our provision to cater for students’ needs. At the start of the academic year last month I conducted a survey of all new students joining the Construction Studies Undergraduate Programme to identify the level of access they had to computing and how familiar they were with various technologies. The programme comprises five honours degree courses in construction-related disciplines, namely Architectural Technology, Building Engineering, Building Surveying, Construction Management, and Quantity Surveying & Commercial Management.

The survey yielded a total of 99 responses out of a total intake of 129 students so it is obviously just a small snapshot from one programme in one university. Nevertheless, it does produce some interesting results. Here are just a few of the key findings:
  • The vast majority of students (93%) have access to their own laptop. The majority of these devices run the Windows operating system.

  • Only around half the students currently have access to a tablet device.

  • The overwhelming majority of students (95%) have a smart phone. Around a half of these are iPhones.

  • Use of social media is nowhere near as widespread as we might expect. Whilst most students have a Facebook account, around two thirds of them post to Facebook rarely or never. Around 40% of students do not have a Twitter account and of those students who do, most of them rarely ‘tweet’. Google+ is only used frequently by around 20% of students.

  • 95% of students have never maintained their own blog. Similarly, around 95% have limited or no experience of using wikis, and almost 90% have limited or no experience of using discussion boards.

  • 95% of students have limited or no experience of using social bookmarking (such as Diigo or Delicious) and almost 80% of students have limited or no experience of using image hosting services (such as Flickr).

  • Around half the students do not use any form of cloud storage.

  • There is very limited use of ‘productivity’ web apps such as notetaking apps (e.g Evernote) or ‘to-do’ list apps (e.g. Wunderlist).
What does this tell us?
In my view this suggests that we cannot simply assume that our students are highly proficient in the use of digital technologies. I think our courses have to incorporate guidance on digital literacies and the effective use of digital technologies so that students can get the most from their studies and be better prepared for the professional world.

Further information
A document summarising the responses to the survey is available in PDF format here.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

A good read...

I’ve just finished reading Alan Johnson’s book about his childhood up to the age of eighteen. Alan Johnson is a Labour MP who held senior cabinet positions in the last government, including Home Secretary. He was born and brought up in Notting Hill in West London in the 1950s.

Nowadays Notting Hill is home to several senior politicians, and indeed David Cameron had a house there prior to becoming prime minister. An average family home there would probably set you back around £5 million so people understandably think of Notting Hill as a very well-to-do area. What many people won’t realise is that 60 years ago the area was a slum. Johnson lived in abject poverty with very little support from a feckless father who abandoned the family. Living conditions were apalling by modern standards, with damp rooms, no heating, no proper sanitation and shared cooking facilities. His mother, who battled constantly against ill-health, worked at several jobs to scrape together enough to feed him and his older sister.

Despite the sadness, the story is ultimately about love and perseverance in the face of adversity.

Given the choice between a prime minister who lived in Notting Hill in the 1950s and one who lived there in 2010 I know which one I’d choose.

Alan Johnson - perhaps the best prime minister we never had.