Friday, October 10, 2014

Connecting Lives With Digital Tools - Reflecting on Our Google Adventure

Our session with Google Guru, Michael Wacker was so eye-opening, it took about 24 hours for my head to stop spinning and I was able to start processing all the Googlicious opportunities that lay ahead.  Although I always felt like I had a pretty good grasp of how to integrate Google Drive/Apps into the classroom, there were so many more apps and functions introduced that night, that I too felt like it was information overload. Quite honestly, just the collaborative tools which we engaged in that night left me wondering, when did technology get so interactive? 

I have engaged in blogging with my students for the last 6 years, and although I felt like I was really giving them an opportunity to collaborate and share, I now realize how much further we can take students with collaboration. It used to be so complicated to share projects or ideas, now it's so immediate and accessible. As long as a person has a device and wifi, they are able to connect with this digital highway. And although Google is pretty fantastic by making it's products free, one can't help but wonder, who has access? Who is collaborating? Who is connecting? Are all faces being represented? How can we take collaborative tools like the apps that Google provides for all, for free, and use them to digitally empower? What percentage of the world is able to have these tools for empowerment?

In the fall of 2010, I heard that my friend Karen Hamelin, an R.C.M.P. officer and instructor at Depot, was accepted with the U.N. to go to Sudan and be part of a peacekeeping mission during the historic referendum and the formation of new country. I believed that this once-in-a-lifetime mission was one that Karen could not keep to herself, so I approached her about blogging with my grade 7/8 students. Initially Corporal Karen was not interested in "blogging with a bunch of Canadian kids". However, through some convincing, she came around to agree that it would be a rewarding collaborative learning experience for the students. After months of blogging, she grew to enjoy their amusing observations, comments and questions. She was also quite touched by their reflections and insights. At the conclusion of her mission, it was evident that the experience was one that touched the hearts of not only the students but also our U. N. Peacekeeper. 

Our project gave the grade eights the opportunity to use technology for more than just checking Facebook updates and texting. It gave them the opportunity to see more about life in Southern Sudan than what they would with just television or Internet news feeds. By blogging with Karen, they were able to see beyond the "polished" lens of the news. Without sounding overly cliche, it seemed as though blogging and connecting with Corporal Karen, the students were able to truly connect with life vastly different than their own, and appreciate many of the opportunities we take for granted as Canadians. Blogging gave the students the chance to connect in an asynchronous way. On the other hand, the tools available through Google, could allow students to share in a synchronous way, making learning feel all the more immediate, and even more connected.

So, what does all this have to do with the fast-paced trip through Google on Tuesday? Well it makes me realize how these tools make communication and collaboration feel "real". Working on a live document with a comments/conversation side-bar, allowed for a large group of people to communicate even more than in a face-to-face class. Although there will always be different degrees of comfort when sharing in class, I believe that there was far more discussion via the comments area, than one would have in a f2f class. Now when you think of the classroom, and all students being able to collaborate via any device with Google, you can't help but wonder how many more voices are being "heard". 

After our discussion, many of us were thinking, "This is sooooo awesome! Now how I begin?"  and "Why didn't I start this months ago?"   Seriously though, how does one begin? How do we get collaborative classrooms organized seamlessly? How do we take collaboration to that epic level? How do we get everyone up to speed so that we can have more inter-school peer to peer collaboration? Where to begin... Hmmm...

I really like Kelly Christopherson's comment in his blog post, "Drinking From the Fire Hydrant", on why it's important to focus on how the tools fit the learning at hand. As a matter of fact, Kelly states it so well, it's definitely worthy a repeat in my post... 

Refocus on the people that you are working with – what will help them?
Refocus on the students that you teach and their learning – why/how will it help?
Refocus on the goals you have for your own learning – why/how does it fit?

Kelly's comments remind me that it's about crawling before you can run. In order to get everyone there, we need to make sure that everyone is moving at their own pace on that proverbial digital highway. It's all about looking at how the technology will take learning further than before. Looking first at the students' needs, then the outcomes, then looking at the tools that will help learning. Whether it's collaborating with peers or with a person across an ocean. It's about looking at where the tools can take learning for students and make it more engaging and meaningful... whatever that tool may be.

Cpl. Karen Hamelin on left


  1. What a great project Jenn. I bet that Karen learned as much from blogging as your students did from her. The reflection piece is huge. I agree that it is one step at a time. Find out where your teachers are at and help them from there. There is something to offer teachers at all levels through googledocs. Find out what they need and show them all the possibilities. You have an exciting job!

  2. Thanks for your wise words Jen! I think it's important to reflect on how we're using technology and on who is (and isn't) digitally connected. As a teacher I am very cognizant of how important it is to give my students the opportunity to get connected especially since they might not otherwise get that opportunity. But, I also appreciate your reflections on Kelly's post about looking to your needs (and those of your students) and then seeking out the tools to address those needs. Thanks again for a great post:)

  3. Great post! Thanks for pointing out that more voices are being heard when using a collaborative environment like Google Docs. The chat from our session last week was definitely full of great ideas and questions. I think this also applies to our students and the classrooms we work with every day. A Google Doc may help more introverted students share their ideas in a safe online environment.