*UPDATE* I did follow up and try Zoho and Prezi the next time. Read what happened (it was good by the way) here.
Google Docs offers something that Microsoft PowerPoint, OpenOffice, LibreOffice, and iWorks cannot–real time collaboration. I recently just finished up a unit working with two of my grade six classes about building an effective presentation and how to present. I gave them a general topic and they were to create a presentation in Google Docs, share it with their partner, and share it with me. How did Google Docs do? Well . . . not so great. Read on past the break to find out why I used it and what went wrong.
Using Google Docs was not a knee jerk reaction. At the beginning of the semester I had students sign up with G-mail with this very project in mind. I liked the idea of students working with one document saved in the same place every time. This will help reduce lost presentations due to lost USB or if a person’s partner was absent. I trialled it with other teachers in the school, and even got it working with another student. The program itself is very bare bones and is incredibly straightforward, especially if the students have a background with Microsoft PowerPoint (which mine do). In fact, I had very little questions about how to do something inside the program.
So, what was the problem? It started almost immediately. Students had no problem accessing Google Docs and no problem accessing the Presentation program. It was when they tried to share it. That is when there were problems. Students couldn’t share it, or if it was shared, the partner could not see it in their Google Docs. So, I asked the pairs of students to group around a computer. This worked, but seemed to defeat the purpose of using an online program that offers real time collaboration. Now, this did not happen to every group. Some groups were able to share and edit at the same time and it worked well, but those groups were in the large minority.
If a group was able to open it up with their partner and edit at the same time, there were other problems that arouse. One was text. When text was entered, it would sometimes be displayed in a strange and unusual layout. Instead of the textbox going length wise, it would be vertical (up and down) on their partner’s computer, and the text was altered to fit the textbox. So, the other person would try to fix it, and it would then change on the other person’s screen. I just told them to leave it as it was and move on. The next time they opened their presentation, it seemed to correct itself, but for sixth graders, this can be a real sticky point.
Another issue that we had was that once it was opened on two computers, one would just stop updating. It did not freeze, a student could add to it, but it was not updating on either screen. It was as if they were working on two separate files. When if eventually updated, there was a mash of ideas, text boxes, pictures, and just a mess in general. It doesn’t sound too bad, but this was happening every class and to a majority of the students. The unit all of a sudden became about Google Docs and less about how to create and present and effective presentation. What a wreck!
I asked my IT director about a possible cause to this problem and while he could not give me a definite answer, he did take an educated guess. He said that our school has one IP address and when there are a lot of requests from one IP address, Google may think that it is a spamming program and it limits how many requests it will answer. I searched online but could find no answer. To either verify or debunk, but he’s a pretty knowledgeable guy who knows his IT, so I’ll take his word for it.
Instead of having a unit that should let students focus on creating an effective presentation with a partner while working seamlessly with each other online. It became a little too heavy on the technology and not enough on the presentation. While the presentations did turn out OK (if a little on the dry side), I felt bad. Then I realized that hey-I took a chance and learned something. While it did not go as smoothly as planned, and while the focus did not play out as well as I had hoped, it was a stepping stone. It means I get to move forward. I still really like the idea of collaborating online with a single document, and I’ll keep looking for ways to make it work. In other words, the search continues. The next stop . . . Zoho. I’ll let you know in May how that goes.
I asked my students which they liked: Google Docs or PowerPoint. The results are no surprise with all the technical problems.