Archive - June 2015

Google Drive: The Experiment Continues
On PAR (Participatory Action Research) and Social Design for Community Engagement [#CuriousCoLab]
Open Scholarship: Accessible to Whom? [#CuriousCoLab]

Google Drive: The Experiment Continues

At the beginning of the calendar year, I wrote a post on my decision to abandon Blackboard for Google Drive for the Spring 2015 semester. The experience was overwhelmingly successful, and my impressions were confirmed by a survey I gave students asking for their feedback. There many shared comments mentioning that they will continue using Google Drive as a resource in the future, which suggests that they see a value in organizing their work in one place and collaborating with others.

Google Drive

I found that using Drive helped me keep up with grading because I didn’t dread logging in as I did with Blackboard. I took a different approach to calculating participation grades as well: I asked that students submit a weekly reflection, and I concentrated on giving feedback on those documents. I didn’t grade every small homework assignment or in-class activity, though I expected that these files were in students’ Drive folders and that their contents were referenced in weekly reflections. I believe this system kept our exchanges to a smaller number of files, meaning students were more likely to read and digest the comments I gave.

One limitation I encountered early is that a shared file in Google Drive cannot be unshared or made private by anyone except its creator. While a collaborator can move that file to another location, for the creator and for other collaborators, that file stays in the location on their Drive folders where they originally placed it. Thus a shared file is not really one entity like a folder in a file cabinet; people hold many keys that unlock the same door, as it were, and they can store these keys where they prefer. That way students always have the ability to modify document they created, even if I or someone else moved the file (really, their key) to another folder they don’t have access to. That means that when grading major assignments, I had to make a copy of students’ files to move to a private folder and assess the copy rather than the original file. Since I only collect a handful of final products with hard deadlines, this wasn’t too taxing, plus I needed to verify that students had indeed completed these assignments anyway or else late penalties would apply.

My biggest disappointment with the platform: while Drive makes it easy to share and coauthor documents, this proved difficult to do in real-time during class. Inviting classmates to share a file and folder should be as easy as sending them an email. But students sometimes have multiple Google accounts: personal accounts and university accounts linked to their VCU email address. Then there’s the strange phenomenon at VCU of students having two email addresses suffixes that go to the same inbox ( and, though students can only link a single Google account to one or the other. This problem is only exacerbated by a quirk in Drive: if the invite goes to one email address, a person might be signed into a different account on her browser when she accepts it, and Google then attributes the collaboration to that account. Needlessly confusing! (I’ll just leave this description here: I’m not going to go into more any more detail about other strange sharing exceptions that I’ve encountered with my students.)

I’ve concluded that the only way to eliminate sharing difficulties once and for all is to set up shared folders for groups within the folders that I use to share course materials. The easiest way would be to assign students to groups that remain the same throughout the semester, or maybe change them by unit. Or I could instead create a set of folders (“Group 1,” “Group 2”) that would serve as temporary housing places for students’ collaborative work for that day, allowing me to reconfigure the groups at will. Either way, students would need to copy their shared work into their own Drive folders at the end of the period, or else grading will become far more complicated. There’s nothing preventing me from combining both approaches, except I don’t want to make the procedure confusing. I’ll need to test out some options and see what works best.

Lastly, here are a few other measures I’m going to implement in the Fall to make Google Drive even better integrated into the classroom culture:

  • Make the course schedule a Google Doc. I have been using Google Calendar for this, but that app is outside of the Drive ecosystem.
  • Ask students to coauthor daily class notes. I have been providing PDFs of my PowerPoints, but I want to try providing the slides in Google Docs as images or as text, and have students write around them. The goal, then, will be to capture how the class discussion elaborates on the given material.
  • Create voice-over videos using Jing demonstrating certain features of Google Drive (renaming files, searching for files across files, commenting functions in Google Docs, etc.). I wrote help files in document form, but I suspect these were not widely read!

If you have other tips or ideas to share, please add them to the comments.

On PAR (Participatory Action Research) and Social Design for Community Engagement [#CuriousCoLab]

Last week I moved apartments within Richmond, which really got me out of sync with the real-time schedule of the Collaborative Curiosity course. With this post I’ll reflect on my takeaways from this week’s and last week’s readings, gathering my thoughts before moving onto the last two weeks of the course.

Recall that I’m not actually designing a community-engaged research project myself; instead, I’m interested in seeing how what I learn about CEnR could be applied to teaching undergraduate service-learning courses. So I didn’t need to choose between a Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) or Participatory Action Research (PAR) methodology. Yet I found myself drawn to the latter, especially because articles I came across by way of the Participatory Action Research and Organizational Change site problematized what participation means in useful ways. In “Participatory Action Research as a Process and as a Goal,” Greenwood, Whyte, and Harkavy stress “the impossibility of imposing participation on the research process”; it is instead emergent in nature, and falls on a continuum with “expert research” on one end and full PAR on the other.


I could see exploring the concept of participation with my students, who would be selecting a community partner and designing a research project with the goal of having their service experience complement what they find in conventional sources. Sometimes it is a good match, sometimes not. However, the success of the pairing depends in part on how students take ownership of their service. I seek placements for students where they have the ability to design how they will contribute to their partners’ missions—independent initiatives that work in tandem with established programs these organizations already have in place. Greenwood, Whyte, and Harkavy note that there must be “participatory intent” at the outset that may be sustained by “building participatory processes into the activity within the limits set by the participants and the conditions.” The CBPR methodology seemed to me more focused on inquiring into those conditions and setting the parameters for collaboration, which requires time to develop deep relationships before arriving at the research objectives. For students in my semester-long class, it makes more sense to focus on working within constraints. That’s an idea I touch upon throughout the term. I initially encourage students to be open to discovery, but eventually they need to commit to a limited scope and to working with the information and experience they are able to gather.

The theme of my UNIV 200 course is the social construction of technology, and next year I’m going to stress design parameters—conditions, intentions, emergence—to encourage students to think more critically about technology. I have focused on communities’ access to technologies, but I believe I also should help students examine design choices and effects more closely. Eric Gordon and Jessica Baldwin-Philippi’s article on “Playful Civic Learning” through a game environment might be a great example to share with them. It was fascinating how the Community PlanIt platform encouraged players to build networks by sharing their views, which ultimately provided them with an alternate means of civic engagement. Their contributions offered researchers with one set of data, and studying how players actually took advantage of the interface was another.

Over the summer I’ve been researching social design (also known as design for social change/innovation) as another possible point of entry, with the hope that the subject might inspire students to recognize design as a heuristic for their service and research. The Civic Media Project could provide useful illustrations for discussions on social design. Gordon’s work gives me a lot to think about as I redesign my course description. I really should try to complete the statement of my theme in time to share it with the class before the Collaborative Curiosity course reaches its conclusion.

Open Scholarship: Accessible to Whom? [#CuriousCoLab]

George Veletsianos and Royce Kimmons’s article “Assumptions and Challenges of Open Scholarship” provides an excellent overview of the ways that open scholarship is poised to transform academic research. Yet it doesn’t really consider open scholarship from a community partner’s point of view. This was something I had to consider when teaching a service-learning course and having students blog about their experiences. There are obvious arguments against having raw reflection publicly available, though on the other hand there are benefits to sharing one’s working thoughts with others and collaborating online. Should there be—or can there be—limits on whom the preliminary work reaches? While incremental open scholarship upholds transparency, community partners may have qualms about discussing in a public forum difficulties their clients face and the difficulties of addressing those needs. So in some cases, it may be better to hold off until there are final outcomes from CEnR so that everyone involved can weigh in on how those results might be presented. It would be important, too, that these outcomes are not expressed only in discipline-specific or academic discourse. Open scholarship demands that large audiences be able appreciate the value of the work.

Here’s where we also need to consider dissemination venues. One assumption Veletsianos and Kimmons discuss is the role of Internet technologies in open scholarship, which is thought to be “an emergent scholarly phenomenon that is co-evolutionary with technological advancements in the larger culture.” But is access to the technologies we’re using for open scholarship limited for the underprivileged communities and less established organizations that may be involved in our CEnR? For example, my service-learning students last semester at first thought social media would be the perfect way to get the word out about an initiative, only to realize that the community didn’t use the web as much or in the same ways as they did. Veletsianos and Kimmons note that “scholars need to develop an understanding of the affordance of the participatory web for scholarship and consider the implications of online identity and digital participation.” For CEnR, I argue that this requires thinking about how the community you collaborate with actually engages with these technologies (or what alternative technologies it prefers to use). Otherwise, what difference is there between a blog post and an article in a small journal if the post doesn’t reach and engage the community it is speaking about?

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