Research Phase: Google Research Tool

Last, I wrote how gDocs has greatly helped my students collaborate with each other and how it has also helped me work with them during class time.  A second issue that middle school students (and I would wager much older students) struggle with is to keep track of sources. Like hummingbirds that flit from flower to flower, they bounce from web page to web page. An idea is poached from one place, snagged from another, linked from another and when it’s all said and done, they have no idea where information came from.

Earlier this year, I read a post (I think it was by Richard Byrne but I’m not positive)  on the Google Research Tool. Tucked under the “Tools” tab, the Research button opens up a new pane within the document that a student is working in. I modeled with students – we are discussing environmental problems and it turns out a massive coal powered plant is in their back yard. They had no idea! Opening up a new document, I showed how to get the research screen.

Untitled document - Google Drive (1)The research pane allows students to conduct a search directly from the document they are working on, but a few additional features make it work better for students.


Hovering over an interesting search result gives several options:

1. Preview: this will open the web page on another tab so the student can decide whether or not it is useful.

2. Insert Link: this places the link of the webpage into the student’s document.

3. Cite – this creates a footnote. Awesome! In my example, a footnote of 1 was placed beside Taichung Power Plant. In the document’s footer, the following text (linked to the source page) was automatically inserted:

“Taichung power plant world’s worst polluter: survey – Taipei Times.” 2008. 19 Apr. 2013 <>

I encourage my students to make a brief write-up of each source as they work. They include important details and how the source helps the ideas they are developing. Later, the list of sources at the bottom can be turned into a citation page if necessary.

A recent teacher conversation I observed went along the lines of my students can’t do research. They just type everything into Google and hope for the best.

As teachers, we need to take a step back and realize if it is not us giving students the skills to research and use technology, who is? Somewhere along the line, “old school” book research and index cards got left on the curb. Those skills were taught, though as a student I admit it was quite painful. In many situations, a replacement was not put into place. The web is there. Go research. Students still need to be taught how to use the vast resources available to them.

I like the citation feature of the gResearch tool because it is easy for students to begin developing habits of crediting sources and keeping track of information flow. I currently teach science and math but it is my responsibility to help students now what tools can help them in an academic setting.

Research Phase: Using Google Docs

Shawn Cornally at ThinkThankThunk advocates for a great departure from the standard classroom. I like his thoughts but sometimes question if I’m ready for the big leap. My class has become much more project /inquiry based though students move through the content in unison. I’m not sure how to fully open the door. The current Invention Convention project my students are working on hopes to tap into the interests of students. Project problems are selected and students are now in the research phase.

Computer time + students = black hole of productivity? Do you get the feeling that turning students loose in a computer lab can be a possible recipe for lost time? In the past, students logged onto computers and I did my best to bounce around the room checking in with individuals to discuss ideas. At times, I might reach a group only once during a class and if I was lucky twice. Who knows what the others were doing when I visited groups on the other side of the room. Yes, if the project is truly engaging students continue working without monitoring – that’s at least what I kept telling myself. But, and here’s the true catch, my students in grade 6 – 8 really are not sure how to keep moving along with research. Somewhere inside their minds they wonder what is a good site to visit – I know we’ve talked about this, but…, what information should I write down – everything written on this page is exactly what I want, aargh, this project is soooooo long.

Google Docs has helped tremendously. A student group shares one document among group members. Gone are issues surrounding lost files, incompatible formats…They also share the document with me.

Research Ideas - Google DriveAs students work, I monitor each group’s progress. Questions are asked, suggestions given and students know that I am there with them.

I can provide a comment and students can respond immediately or wait until they have the mental space to get back with me. Instead of putting a halt on their work to have a conversation about their progress, I can see what has been accomplished and encourage or nudge. Since my comments are embedded in the chat window or in the text, students can also keep referring instead of forgetting everything that was discussed the moment I walked away.

An interesting side effect is the sound generated during class. I remember having to excuse myself from group conversations to ask the rest of the class to lower voices to a reasonable level. Now, a productive hum permeates through the class as more students are on task.

There has been a lot of recent conversation on the twitterblogosphere about the role of technology. Technology is not curriculum. Technology is not the building block around which to construct a unit/lesson. Technology does allow for collaboration in different ways. Whiteboards are great but when the work becomes more text based, share a document! Using gDocs can help me see the process. What are students doing as they work? How are they using their time? Where are they getting stuck? I want to see more of how technology is allowing for better collaboration and feedback; not more lists of the 20+ apps I absolutely need to have to make a 21st Century classroom.

Google Apps Ninja

For the second year, I will teach an Introduction to Computer Technology course. This course is provided to incoming 6th graders and other new middle school students. The focus of the course is for students to become familiar with the suite of applications provided by Google that can help them in their studies:

  • Gmail (Students receive a school email address but often have one of their own – until Google surprises them with an age check.)
  • Calendar (I was impressed by how many students began tracking assignments from other courses on gCal.)
  • Search (My, oh my, there can be fewer time sinks than a student in front of a search engine.)
  • Drive (The biggie)
      • Documents – Word Processing
      • Spreadsheets
      • Presentations
      • Forms – Surveys
  • Sites (Students build their own pages).

The fact that students walk into a class at different ability levels is compounded in an intro course as this one. Last year, I provided a series of mini-lessons to teach the applications to students though some were already quite familiar with a few of the programs.

Site modified for the purposes of my tech class.

This year, I am jumping on the Ninja Program started by Jeff Utecht. His program appears to be designed for a school community at large whereas I intend to focus on my class. A few changes:

  • Fortunately my class is Pass/Fail so I do not need to assign students a grade but I do need minimum expectations.
  • His program is based solely upon the completion of “belt” tests. I am working on projects that students will also complete to fully earn the belt level..
  • Mini-lessons will continue. Students have the option to attend or continue working if they understand the concept being discussed. The daily mini-lesson will be posted on the Home page.
  • Students still have the option of taking a test as often as they need. I want them to continue working and to seek out help (Searching is a key skill.) I hope to have more time to work with the students who struggle.
  • Several people using this program have sites that post students in the class and their current belt level for each category. I fear that a ranking system in the class could develop that I want to avoid. Instead, I have place a “Congratulations: board on the home page and will keep this updated on a weekly basis as students earn belts.

My AST Ninja site is almost fully functional. I need to finish linking the tests and plug in appropriate projects. I am definitely looking forward to seeing the reception to this self-paced learning experiment.