Thoughts about my use of this website, Turnitin.com, Schoology, and Google Drive/Gmail in concert:
I’m using a ton of different web-based applications with my classroom, and that is both good and a bit scattershot. It would be nice if I could find the “one suite to rule them all,” but that seems unlikely. At present my setup and logic is a four-headed beast that provides every functionality I can presently imagine needing.
First of all, I use Google Drive every day. At the beginning of each year I have my students create an academic Google account, one that they don’t use signing up for games and other websites. Policing this is a drag, but it is a mess if you don’t. Most students don’t really understand the concept of email, so they tend to get their email accounts so spam-ridden that they don’t even notice when they receive important emails. Plus I am trying to get students used to having a professional persona on the internet that they can use for jobs, college, applications, etc. So once they have these quasi-official accounts, I share two folders with them.
One way I use Google Drive is with a “ReadOnly” folder dedicated to their particular class (Honors World, US, etc.). These class ReadOnly folders contain a folder for each unit and some general folders. I put all the readings, powerpoints, images, slideshows, rubrics, unit plans, and what-have-you in the relevant sub-folders. This way everything is easily accessible to the students. The students can’t edit anything in the folder, though they can copy as they please. This keeps the folder neat. I don’t put this on the open web because I don’t want to have to worry about copyright issues or student privacy issues. The folder is only available to the students in my classes and I can kick them out the following year.
The second set of Google Drive folders the students and I share are student turn-in folders. These are folders that I have the students make in their own Google Drive and then share with me. The students name the folders according to a guideline I give them (ClassName.Period#.LastName.FirstName – 2017-2018). The students then turn in their electronic work by just dropping the file in or creating the file in that folder. I have to create a set of master folders, one for each class period. Each of the class master folders contains the student-created turn-in folders. There is a decent amount of clicking to get to student work, but on the other hand work can’t be lost, the teacher can check date stamps and revision histories, the teacher can help or check in, and the students have to make an effort to lose their work. This folder become a de facto portfolio. Also, if you make them follow the naming format, the folders will be in alphabetical order. The resultant teacher folder structure looks like:
Generally, they make copies of assignments from the ReadOnly folder, rename them according to instructions, and then type into those now-personal files. Then they drop their personalized files in their turn-in folder. The cool thing here is that I can make editing comments, paste in rubrics, and otherwise manipulate their files as need be.
There are costs and benefits to Google-based (or any electronic) work. At this date, electronic work cannot replace handwritten work and still maintain accountability. Like all student work these days, anything short of an extremely controlled environment is easily cheatable, but Google makes it perfectly simple. They can share work easily, their parents can ghost-write work on the student login, etc. Phone cameras allow the same with written work of course, but Google makes it easiest. On the other hand, Google allows students to work collaboratively on single documents. There are a ton of interesting assignments that can be created this way, such as group papers, slideshows, image collections, spreadsheets, etc. I also think that knowing that students can cheat perfectly is a useful thing to internalize. One must create assignments that deal with this new reality and also spend real time and effort on creating a culture of intellectual honesty.
Since the students have Gmail accounts with Google, they also email me a lot asking for clarifications and such. This is extremely handy on my phone, since I don’t have to do the long school login. I can also mass email announcements such as schedule changes or resources easily and efficiently. I also build parent email lists for obvious reasons.
After Google, I use Turnitin.com. This is only handy for formal work. The automatic plagiarism checker is crucial. It’s not so much that it does anything other than scare the students, but that is enough. After a few times showing students how well it finds plagiarism, students mostly stop trying. It also pretty much ends those irritating parent complaints that their perfect angel would never cheat. Turnitin is also more formal than Google Drive. Turnitin is a second login and can’t be edited live again and again. So that is handy.
The website, the one you are on, I didn’t even use for the last two years. For the first 19 or so years of it’s existence (in its various forms), I used it as I use the ReadOnly folder in Google Drive. It was a place to disseminate readings, images, etc. That worked great, but I ran into five key problems. (1) Typos and embarrassing mistakes happened and were a constant irritation to fix. (2) Twice I got death threats based on factual information about religious history from people I have never met. (3) Putting up documents and images occasionally ran afoul of copyright issues and I had to change things, or never post things in the first place. (4) The website also didn’t work well on phones, and in the last few years it has become obvious that if it doesn’t work on phones, it doesn’t work for students. Luckily, the new website building tools are designed to work elegantly and easily on multiple sorts of devices, eliminating this issue. (5) Finally, the website is a bit cumbersome to update quickly and easily, unlike Google Drive which I can fix over drinks on a Saturday night on my phone if need be. So now I am using the website to disseminate videos, particularly read-aloud videos. I tried a Youtube channel, figuring that this would be easier for “the kids,” but that turned out not to be true. Also, back when I had the website I do know that other teachers and parents (from far and wide) used and were thankful for material I made broadly available. So the website will be a sort of best-of-and-legal-to-post of my Google Drive ReadOnly folder and it will organize the videos I’ve made. Plus I can include this lovely blog, which may or may not have some value.
The final element of my web-based teaching is Schoology, our district’s educational apps suite. I could host files and videos here, but this site is pretty clunky and requires a somewhat tricky login for the students. More importantly, since the district set it up, it is a compromise, cheap and controllable enough not to get sued. Schoology is clunky. I stick with Google Drive for most file dissemination to avoid having to delve deep into something the district might walk away from one day and which I cannot easily share or interact with easily. That said, Schoology does allow two useful apps that I use a great deal. The most important is online quizzing. I can build a quiz to do almost anything, and the quiz auto-grades itself. I can easily see if the students finish on time as such. This works great for practice and low-points sorts of assignments. Unfortunately, anything on the web is fairly easily cheatable (mostly through screen-capturing images), so it is tricky to use with actual tests, unless the students are in the room with you at a particular time. But for vocab practice, basic reading checks, or any memorization stuff, the quizzes are great. There is also a discussion board element on Schoology that has some promise, but teaching the students to do online discussions well is difficult. Still, there are times when this is handy. So I do need Schoology or something like it for that small element of my teaching.
In addition to this four-headed monster of web-based services that I put to use there are more than a few small web-based thingies that I can’t get rid of. One is electronic book logins. These are a blessing and a curse. Students can’t lose or destroy the expensive books electronically, but these web-based books are also a pain for students to use with phones and they often have browser issues. Poorer students can’t use the web-based books at all reliably. Setting up the logins is a pain and the district forces that work down to the teachers, which takes hours. My Youtube channel is also technically an addition to the four-headed monster, but that is what the website is for, to make that navigation go away.
So that is my web-based setup at present. I can’t imagine any additional functionality I could use at the moment. When I started teaching, I could imagine each of these elements and how they could help me teach better. I’m just glad they are here in the late middle of my career to take advantage of. The tech I need is finally here, and making it work for students is one of the most entertaining and useful parts of my job. Most importantly, the tech constantly suggests new and more effective ways of teaching that would have been impossible or too time-consuming in the past.