Published: April 28, 2013

Elspeth DusinberreI would like to explore the use of technology, and particularly social media, in helping my students to play (in the “deep play sense”) in my class this semester.  I'm teaching an upper-division class, our senior capstone seminar, to ten undergraduates, on narrative. It seems to me that the primary way in which our students interact with narrative is online. They constantly create narratives through technology, especially in the way they post to Facebook or Instagram.



I would like to explore the use of technology, and particularly social media, in helping my students to play (in the “deep play sense”) in my class this semester.  I'm teaching an upper-division class, our senior capstone seminar, to ten undergraduates, on narrative. It seems to me that the primary way in which our students interact with narrative is online. They constantly create narratives through technology, especially in the way they post to Facebook or Instagram (or whatever). Sometimes they are characterizing themselves or creating a narrative of themselves without putting much thought into that narrative or characterization. Sometimes they are very savvy. And sometimes I think they give no thought to the ways the medium of expression influences either the narrative they are creating or how it might be received and understood. In the context of this class, we are thinking about narrative very explicitly, including a lot of narrative theory. Thus I am hoping to challenge the students to be more self-aware about their narrative choices.

Sometimes they are tremendously self-aware and creative! Thus I asked them on the first day of class to write down ten things about themselves they’d like their classmates to know -- this was a creation of narrative of self. I scanned these and put them up online, along with images of themselves to go with. I hoped thus to get them to create a verbal and a visual narrative of self before we even started problematizing the issue in class. I was astounded by the variety in response, especially in the visual images: they ranged from the unthinking to the carefully contrived, and they were astonishingly revealing about the students as individuals.

I would like to set up the class so that it integrates different kinds of technology better to help students with each other and with me, to encourage them to think more seriously about the kinds of narratives it is possible to create -- whether that be a narrative of self or a narrative about someone else, and to help them learn a little more about certain aspects of technological manipulation, so that it helps the students be more sophisticated thinkers about narrative and presenters of themselves.

I would like to get the students in this class to make verbal and visual narratives of self and other stories and put those on the course website. I would like to set up a Google Drive (or something else?) account so we can share things more readily online, and to encourage actual collaboration in class as opposed to reaction to each other’s ideas. I’d like to think about having them use technology to work collaboratively, not just reactively.

I would like to ask an expert to come work with the students to help them think about some of the principles of graphic design so they can be more effectively creative in their visuals. I’d like to help them learn the tools they will need to make and promote narratives that are verbal, visual, and multi-media.

I will ask them to create several narratives over the course of the semester, some with pen and paper and some with other media. These will include PowerPoint and will give the students the option of using Facebook, Vimeo, YouTube, websites, etc., in a final assignment to create a complex narrative (although they could also make a quilt, write a story, etc.). I will give them several choices on this final assignment: would they like to collaborate in small groups or as a class, or would they like to work alone? They need not all do the same thing. It may be easier for them to create a slightly less personal narrative; I will suggest to them that they might create a narrative of their time at CU (they’re all graduating in May). I am curious to see how this multimedia narrative will compare to that created by the Film Studies students for the graduation ceremony at Folsom!

I want to ask them to use Google Apps to do some collaborative work of different kinds -- and in different sized groups, too. Does Google Hangout help them? Do they really interact on Google Drive? What do they think of it? Is it different for them in a group of 3 as opposed to a group of 9? How might I think about this in a bigger class? What are the plusses and minuses of collaborative work as opposed ot individual work?

I will also ask them to write a series of metacognitive essays about how their sense of narrative impact is developing, how technology affects the possibilities of narrative structure etc.

Course and Assignment Details:

My class has ten students enrolled.

  • I have required the students to use PowerPoint, KeyNotes, or Google’s Presentation software to create three types of narratives.

  • I have asked them to do one paper as a class collaboration on Google Drive.

  • I have asked them to do next week’s paper as a collaborative assignment in groups of three on Google Drive.

  • I have changed their final assignment to allow for collaborative possibility in the creation of a final narrative.

  • I will ask that their final projects be turned in to the Google Drive account so they can all see them.

  • I will be using Google Drive to share images with them as we move into considering visual narratives.

  • The students have at least in one case used Google Hangout to talk with each other as they work on a collaborative project.

  • They are using it weekly now to share work with me and each other.

Additional support:

  • Thanks to Mark Werner I have made a Google Drive account for us.

  • Amanda McAndrew came to speak to us about how to use Google Apps.

  • Dave Underwood has come to speak to us twice, once on design and once on analysis of images.

My goal is to try to increase collaboration in the class; my guess is that larger group work will be more responsive, smaller group work will be more collaborative. I am curious to see the following things: is the quality of their work (amount, thought, depth, time spent, variety of sources and information incorporated) higher when they work together? Will any of them choose to work together on the final project, or will they prefer to work alone?

I hoped to use technology to increase collaborative learning in a small class. I will know that collaborative learning happened if the papers I ask them to write together become more collaborative and less simply responsive. I’ll also know if collaborative learning happened if students are drawing on each other’s papers in better written papers of their own. I’ll also be able to get a sense of it from the discussions in class: do they remember what each other has talked about in the past, and do they seem to be interacting with each other outside the simple classroom context as well?

Here are my approaches to assessment.

Things to evaluate:

  •   valuable from my perspective?

  •   valuable from students’ perspective?

  •   a horrific drag?

  •   transferable to another context?

What am I looking for in outcomes?

  •   longer papers

  •   more thoughtful papers

  •   papers with more and better examples

  •   better written papers

  •   papers that draw on each other’s expertise and ideas

  •   papers that demonstrate the students have talked to/communicated with each other

  •   papers that use more ancient and modern examples

  •   papers that have greater applicability to students’ lives

In their final narrative of self, I am seeking more evidence for listening to each other

  •    more use of each other’s ideas

  •    more depth

  •    more sophistication

I can also talk to students in class about their experiences

  •    what makes a positive difference?

  •    what do they like?

  •    what do they find difficult?

  •    what do they think are the pluses and minuses?

  •    how do they feel about each other?

  •    how do they feel their learning is different?

  •    what is their impression of the standards they are trying to meet?

  •    how much effort did they invest?

I can ask for anonymous written feedback too: what learn about narrative? what learn about self? what learn about self-portrayal? what was role of google apps in this?

This experiment in using Google Drive to increase collaborative learning in a small class was a resounding success -- I couldn’t be more pleased. I used Google Apps in several different contexts in this class of ten students:

  1. I posted materials to our Google Drive account for the students to use

  2. The students posted some of their projects to our Google Drive account so we could all have a chance to see again what each other had done

  3. I asked the whole class to write a collaborative paper together in Google Drive

  4. I asked the class to write another collaborative paper, this time in groups of only three students per paper

  5. I asked the students to write another collaborative paper in groups of three that included drawing an architectural plan of a building as well as discussion of the ways that a viewer moving through the space would interact with the architecture

I hoped thereby to increase the collaborative possibilities outside class that we were exploring in class via small group projects, discussions, etc.

I noticed a very marked improvement in quality in the papers the students wrote together as collaborative assignments.

The first one, with all the students working on a single paper, was too big a group to function well as truly collaborative learning; what happened instead was that they responded to each other (both in the text of the paper and via comments). It was a terrific final result, but not real collaboration. This is why I split them into small groups the second and third times.

Those second and third sets of papers were truly outstanding, some of the best student work I have seen -- thoughtful, insightful, articulate, polished, and really excellent overall. It was clear that they had invested serious time and work into their collaborative papers, that they were striving to impress each other, that they benefited greatly from each other’s insights and contributions and ideas. I was snowed! They united ancient and modern examples in their discussions, thought deeply about the applicability of the concepts we were studying to their lives now. The papers were at least twice as long as their usual mono-authored weekly papers. They referred to discussions in class with other students as well as delving deeply into the discussion with each other in this written context. They managed to agree AND to disagree in polite and very productive ways in their papers -- the increased sophistication of their analysis and interpretation was very marked.

I also noticed an increase in collaborative friendship on the part of the students in class. I am not sure how much of this is due to using Google Drive, as it was a highly interactive class overall anyway and we did several things outside class together as well, but I am certain that Google Drive allowed the students to take that collaborative sense of enjoying each other into their work together outside the classroom as well as what we did in class itself.

The students’ final presentations in class, a narrative of self, demonstrated this collaboration most fully. They drew on each other’s ideas and likes in ways that were lovely to see. The projects were -- again -- the best I’ve ever seen in a class (graduate or undergraduate). And the thing that was most striking was the degree of open honesty, of brave sharing, that characterized them. The students were willing to talk about terrible things that had happened to them or aching vulnerabilities that dominated them. One of them (a young man) did an interpretive dance for his classmates. Their sense of intimate friendship was really exceptional. I was moved to tears several times in the course of the class period. I am sure that the increased collaboration allowed by Google Drive contributed to this sense of safety and friendship, and also to the desire to excel, that underlay every presentation that day.

I got mixed feedback from the students themselves on the use of Google Drive. The first set of feedback came in the form of a class interview conducted by a colleague as part of my normal in-class review for Multiple Measures of Teaching. This was carried out shortly before the last collaborative paper was due, and it appears to me the students were worried about the demands of drawing architectural plans and discussing architecture as narrative in that collaborative online context. Here is what they said (in response to a question asking them if there were things I could do differently to improve the class):

  • I feel uncomfortable doing group work. If I work on my own, I can procrastinate and then get it done. There is something about needing to do things for the group.

  • A lot of assignments involve new technologies. I’m not used to dealing with social media stuff. Other students might be more tech savvy. There is an assumption that we are tech savvy, but some of us are not.

  • We could use more of a technology briefing at the beginning to bring us up to speed on this.

  • She could not force us to do group work. When we have weekly papers to do and only two days to do them, it makes it more difficult to have to work with the group because you can’t just do the assignment when you have the time. You have to do it with the group.

Overall I view this as a plus, since it shows they too recognize they were investing more work into the collaborative assignments. I am taking very seriously their comments, however, about not feeling sufficiently tech-savvy. This is something I will hope to remedy next time I try this kind of project.

Once they were done with all of their Google Drive assignments, I had them fill out responses to a series of questions about their work, as outlined in Post Three of this project. Only eight of them were in class, but their responses were overwhelmingly positive. Nobody even breathed a hint of anguish! To a person, they claimed to love all of the collaborative work both inside class and via Google Drive (although several of them repeated the inconvenience of working on someone else’s time). Most interesting to me was their passion about each other -- I asked them “how do you feel about your classmates?” as one of their questions. This is what they said:

  • I feel that my classmates are knowledgeable, passionate, and easy going -- I respect all of them.

  • I think my classmates all have unique and interesting perspectives to bring into discussion.

  • I have great respect for some of the people in this room and appreciate the chance to learn more about how they think and the myriad strengths they bring to these topics, many of which I do not possess.

  • They’re amazing! I enjoy their presence in class and they have insightful comments in discussion. We all come from a different background and they provide variety.

  • My classmates have been valuable to my learning experience. Each one has contributed to my intellectual and analytical mental prowess while creating a successful senior narrative within Classics.

  • I think they’re all wonderful and intelligent individuals. They each have lovely personalities and are so unique!

  • I think my classmates are all brilliant and love hearing what they come up with.

  • I really enjoy hearing my classmates’ views and working together is really enlightening.

As for Google Apps, this is what they say (the question was “what was the role, if any, of Google Apps in your learning these things in class?”)

  • I believe I would have gained more from Google Apps if we used it on a weekly basis. I found that I gained a lot from collaborative group work, and being able to use Google Docs as a means to collaborate made it extremely useful for our many different schedules to work around.

  • Google Apps was a really fun tool to learn and use. It does make collaborating a lot easier by taking away the need to email and allowing us to chat and make comments while working on the piece. Google Apps facilitated group work well, but didn’t necessarily make me learn more.

  • I love the Google Apps. It’s pivotal to tying the ancient concepts of narrative to how they apply in the real world and to our lives. It helps to make Classics a relevant major of study -- a.k.a. all Classics classes should try and incorporate this.

  • Google Drive’s live updates allowed the entire group to view and correspond with each other in real time. It was a unique experience and really promoted a shared effort in our effort.

  • It brought us together to work, other than that it was okay. Made writing collaborative papers easier.

  • I don’t think Google Apps added markedly to the experience, but I do think it was a novel, still rewarding, experience.

  • I really enjoyed using Google Apps, since I already had strong knowledge of them before this class, and I feel I gained most of these things outside of using Google Apps, however.

  • Apps Drive was the best way that I know of to work collaboratively.

A resounding success. I am going to use Google Apps again to assist collaborative work in the future!