Category - Teaching Praxis

Google Drive: The Experiment Continues
Seamless Service-Learning
Intellectual Property Challenge
Drive On: Google Drive in the Classroom

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.

Seamless Service-Learning

Last week I co-facilitated a Department of Focused Inquiry faculty symposium with my colleagues in the Service-Learning FLC. We titled our event “Seamless Service-Learning” and focused on how to make service-learning an integral part of the shared curriculum for UNIV 111, 112, and 200.

The first half of our presentation described the wide range of service-learning options by citing examples from our own courses. Here we emphasized the possibilities for indirect as well as direct service, and compared individual volunteering to project-based service. I described how I place students in groups based on common availability and have them consider all community partners paired with the course before deciding on one. For each partner the groups brainstorm ideas for individual and group service contributions that draw on their talents and meet the partners’ needs.

For the second half of the symposium, we discussed practical strategies for integrating service-learning into our courses. We offered suggestions on matters of course design, including adapting Focused Inquiry assignments for service-learning sections, and how to handle logistics. I spoke of the course email address shared by my teaching assistants and me. We have students and partners carbon-copy this address on all correspondence to keep everyone in the loop and to document indirect service in the form of advance planning over email. I also shared the Google Spreadsheets my students use to map out their service across the term and keep track of their hours.

We were happy that the symposium attracted instructors who hadn’t yet taught a service-learning course. Hopefully we inspired them to give the possibility more thought in advance of the VCU Service-Learning Institute scheduled for early May.

There was some discussion that the FLC should follow up this event with another that centers on working through particular challenges for different courses in the Focused Inquiry curriculum—something like a course design workshop. (I think this is a great idea! I’ll keep you posted.)

Intellectual Property Challenge

Below is a sample post created for the 2015 Spring Focused Inquiry Faculty Institute. My colleagues and I were asked to add five links to the sample text and include an image and video. The activity was meant to test our understanding of documentation of online materials and the ethical use of others’ intellectual property on the web. With that in mind, my group made sure that our image and video were in the public domain or not proprietary and when clicked would open the pages where we found them. We concluded that the links themselves in the text were adequate documentation, meaning a separate list of sources was unnecessary. I wish that linking was possible in the tools that I have my students use to create infographics, which is the one assignment in my section of UNIV 200 where these documentation issues arise. My students typically end up creating an abbreviated list of works cited and credits for images found online, and it would be much less obtrusive to link to these materials. Essentially they’re creating a static product—a single image—that often refers to web materials. Yet the output is easily shareable because it’s a single image and not a multimedia creation. I hadn’t considered the infographic medium in that way before, and maybe that’s worth mentioning to my students.


Map of Richmond, VA (Wikimedia Commons)

Richmond, VA is one of the oldest cities in America and is famous for being the capital of the confederacy. Today, Richmond is a thriving, metropolitan city with much to do and see in the day and night. Richmond is home to many colleges and universities, including Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Richmond, and Virginia Union. There are also several community colleges in the area, including J. Sargeant Reynolds and John Tyler Community College, as well as vocational colleges like ECPI College of Technology and ITT Technical Institute.

Arts and culture in Richmond are thriving. The city is home to the VA Historical Society and the VA Museum of Fine Arts, as well as the Science Museum of VA, the Children’s Museum of Richmond, and the VA Center for Architecture. Other interesting historical sights include the Edgar Allen Poe House and Museum, the John Marshall House and Hollywood Cemetery. Monument Avenue is well-known for it’s confederate statues commemorating soldiers such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Performing arts flourish in Richmond. The Landmark Theater, Carpenter Center, Barksdale Theater and Empire Theater are notable venues for formal performances. For music, the Richmond Folk Festival is a multi-day event that hosts folk, bluegrass and country music every summer. Many smaller theaters and venues throughout the city are home to live music on a daily or weekly basis as well. Finally, the Richmond Mural Project and the RVA Street Art Festival have facilitated the production of murals by nationally and internationally acclaimed artists throughout the city. According to Shane Pomajambo, owner of the Art Whino Gallery and sponsor of the Richmond Mural Project, the murals that were produced during 2014 “continue to build Richmond’s reputation as a go to destination” that invites “exploration of the city.” In addition, this project has beautified many less than beautiful or simply plain areas in Richmond.

Drive On: Google Drive in the Classroom

My breakup with Blackboard is definitive! This semester I’m transitioning to Google Drive as a repository for course files and a means for turning in and giving back student work.

Each student will have a shared folder containing four subfolders: Files by Week, Returned, Shared with Group, and Turn In. They will need to name their files using a set of conventions and store them in Files by Week. Documents they submit for grading must be placed in the Turn In folder where I will pick them up. Graded files will be given back to students via the Returned folder.

The syllabus, assignment descriptions, rubrics, and other documents will be placed in a separate read-only folder that all students have access to. Technically, the course schedule will be outside the Drive environment, since it will be set up as a public Google Calendar as I have been doing for years now. (Maybe I can write a post about this in the future, not only the how-to use Google Calendar but also the why—if students take advantage of its advanced features to stay current in the class.)

I wasn’t able to set up a grade book as a dynamic Google Sheets file that would display grade information for students on an individual basis. The ability to protect cells and sheets is too basic in the Google Drive environment, and I’m leery of its level of security. Instead, I will have my own Microsoft Excel file with grade information, and periodically I’ll have to generate grade reports for each student. Yes, this will be time-consuming, but the benefit is significant: I’ll have control over how grades are displayed to students. In turn these design choices should help students understand how the assessments work together to measure their overall performance in the course. I always get a handful of student questions every semester about what a particular grade means and how it is calculated. Blackboard doesn’t offer a “student-view,” so it’s difficult even to try to grasp what they are seeing to get an idea of why they might misperceive their own grades. (More on these matters in a future post.)

Using Google Drive instead of Blackboard will expose students to the real dynamics of collaboration with others in the cloud. They will need to learn file naming and organization conventions, as well as participate in a group work flow, just as if they were using a shared drive in an office environment. Blackboard is a black box: it gives students and instructors two different interfaces, so that at times one group can’t know what the other is doing or can do, and it automates processes to the point that users lose awareness of the particulars of the system’s procedures and potential.
Black box

If anyone has used Google Drive extensively for sharing work, I would be glad to know of any unexpected problems you’ve encountered in the environment. I have identified two idiosyncrasies that I’m prepared for:

  • Conflicting file and folder permissions. A user can assign one of three permissions to a file or a folder: view, comment on, or edit. The settings for the folder will override those of the individual file, which makes sense, and that’s why I made the read-only folder of course materials separate from students’ individual folders. So I think I’ve contained the problem to occurring only when students don’t configure their Shared with Group folders correctly.
  • Google Drive desktop app versus browser interface. Because some students might already have the desktop app installed, which mirrors the contents of their Google Drive on their computers, I don’t think I should pretend the app doesn’t exist. It offers some powerful benefits that I’ll certainly be taking advantage of. I’m aware of the quirks of multi-platform cloud storage from using Dropbox and Evernote daily. Though not all students will already have the same frame of reference, they can learn—and maybe direct experience is the best teacher.


Copyright © 2014 Matthew James Vechinski. Created by Meks. Powered by WordPress.