Building a Collaborative Culture with G Suite

By Tracy Lane

Aim to create a culture that is positive, powerful, and achievement-oriented, where students work hard, want to learn, and collaborate with their classmates to reach their goals.

Outsiders often view summers as a time off for teachers, but teachers know that summers are a time of planning, research, and professional development. I spent many summers imagining how I wanted my classroom to function in the next school year, and I made plans on how to make that happen.

The AppsEvents Google Summit in Valdosta, Georgia last summer came at a perfect time of the year to allow teachers to explore new strategies for instruction and culture in their classrooms. I was so excited to be a part of it and to see the engagement and collaboration among teachers as they made plans for the coming year.

I am an admitted Google nut! As a teacher, I see so much value in the tools and the ways that they interact with one another. I am excited about the ways that Google apps can change classrooms for the better and engage students. For those reasons, I was thrilled to present “Building a Collaborative Culture with G Suite for Education” at the summit, and I was invigorated by the excitement of the participants as they explored new and different ways to utilize the G Suite apps with their students.

Why a collaborative culture?

Think back to your teacher preparation classes and remember theorist Lev Vygotsky. For me, it’s been awhile, but I still remember a few things. Vygotsky gave us the Social Development Theory and Zone of Proximal Development. Basically all the large words and clinical explanations tell us that students learn more from social interaction with their teachers and with peers than from working alone. What does this mean for our classrooms? Students need interaction. They need to discuss information. They need to work with others. They need to receive feedback about their thinking from the teacher and their peers. They will not learn as much if they work alone quietly.

How do Google apps contribute to a collaborative culture?

Google describes the G Suite apps as “productivity tools to help students and teachers interact seamlessly and securely across devices.” The apps in G Suite encourage a collaboration among users. The tools are designed for communication and working with others. They can be used in all subject areas and at all levels of instruction. Here are some of the features that encourage collaboration:

Users share responsibility for a document

Google has three levels of editing rights when using its apps:

– “Can edit” allows all users to make changes to a document equally.
– “Can comment” allows the teacher and peers to make comments that give feedback about the work shared without making any changes to the original work.
– “Can view” allows teachers and students to share work with others without receiving any changes or feedback on the document itself. Users can only look at the work.

    Using the various levels of editing rights on assignments allows teachers to vary the instructional activities assigned to students. For example, allowing all students to edit a doc creates a collaborative document that all students can use for reference or learning.

    In my district, I often hear math teachers claim that their material does not lend itself to the use of digital tools. G Suite changes that. Using Google Slides, the teacher can provide the structure for a class presentation. In this example, Math Collaboration, the students work in pairs to create math problems for their peers to answer. Students are able to answer the math problems on paper, and then take a photo of the paper to insert on the slide. This is done by clicking Insert > Image > Camera. This feature can also be used to take photos of real world examples around the classroom, students acting out concepts, and work done with manipulatives.

    Contributors are accountable for their work

    When users are signed into Google with an account, Google maintains a record of all changes made to a document and who made them. In addition, the various Google apps have ways of showing where particular contributors are working within a project. For example, in Docs, all contributors are shown along the top of the screen with a color that corresponds to the colored cursors shown throughout the document as people work. In Google Slides, the profile pictures of contributors are shown on the slide they are working on in the left hand sorter column.

    Teachers will also gain a lot of contributor information from the Version History of the document. As each contributor makes changes to the document, add or removes content from the document, that information is recorded in the version history. It can be accessed by clicking File > Version history > See version history. In addition to reviewing which students contributed to, or sabotaged, a document, teachers can also instruct students to name the various versions of their work, making the First Draft, Revision, and Final Draft obvious within the list.

    Two examples of activities that encourage the understanding that all students in our class contribute to our learning and have valuable information to share are the jigsaw activities using Google Slides to create a cells structure study guide in science and using Google Forms, Sheets, and Maps to create a WWII battles study guide in social studies.

    In the cells structure study guide, pairs of students are assigned to work on a slide about the structure and function of one of the parts of a cell. The presentation is provided by the teacher with all students having editing rights on the document. Each pair adds their information to the assigned slide. Upon completion by all groups, the teacher adds a transparent box over the top of each slide that links back to the 1st slide with the cell diagram. On the 1st slide, the teacher creates a box for each cell part that links to the slide that describes its structure and function. Finally, the teacher provides the class with the study tool created by the students by sharing the link created by changing the end of the URL in the omnibox from /edit to /present.

    The WWII battles study guide is another jigsaw activity that requires each group of students to work together to research and develop answers to a set of questions about an assigned battle. The groups enter those answers into a Google Form that organizes the answers into a useable spreadsheet with all groups’ contributions. The teacher then uses Google My Maps and the Google Sheet to create a map that is shared with the class using these steps.

    Collaboration can happen anytime, anywhere

    Students and teachers no longer have to be side by side in the classroom in order to be able to create together or give each other feedback. Although, that works with G Suite too. One of my first experiences with watching students work together happened in my own home. My little nerd of a niece (whom I love dearly) had taken the trip four hours south of her home to mine to spend her Thanksgiving Break with me. While sitting in my living room, she began working on a school project in real time with a friend back at home. They were communicating about their project, making changes to the presentation, and loving learning the whole time they were working. This was during a break from school, and they were so excited about working together that they spent their off time doing the work.

    Collaborating in real time can be very effective for teacher and student feedback as well. When teaching writing to students, we all know that we can easily distract them by walking around and reading over their shoulders. We break their train of thought. Using the commenting tools available in Google, teachers can give real-time feedback to students while they are working on their writings. For example, Live Marking papers allows the teacher to review the opening paragraph of each student’s writing for the hook and give feedback while the students are working on the rest of their papers.

    How should I start?

    Scaffold the process – Don’t assume students know how to work in groups. Use this as a means to teach social/emotional skills.

    Establish trust in your classroom – Having students work in teams and be responsible to a team teaches trust. Play team-building games in your classroom to develop this trust. Also, get to know your students and open up about yourself. Be persistent with this. Real connections take time.

    Establish group norms for accountability – Create a framework for the structure of your classroom while allowing students autonomy within that framework. Then, create the norms for group work together. Create a poster of the norms as a class and put it up for referral. Also, assign roles in groups to help with monitoring the groups during the working process.

    Have clear objectives – Having interactive activities just for interaction is not the best use of instructional time and degrades the power of real collaborative exchanges. Group work enhances the objective when you desire a synthesis of ideas concerning a question or problem. Focus on the process of learning.

    Practice listening, questioning, and negotiating skills – Encourage students to actively listen by maintaining eye contact, showing empathy, and restraining from interrupting. Effective questioning involves questions that are open-ended, thoughtful, daring, and neutral. Strong negotiators listen well, are patient, are flexible, point out shared ideas and agreements, and think under pressure. Remind students that the loudest contributor may get the most said, but they may not convince anyone to agree with their ideas.

    About the Author

    Tracy Lane is an educator in the Dougherty County School System in Albany, GA. She works as an Instructional Support Specialist, training and supporting teachers within her district in effective instructional strategies and technology integration.

    She is a Google Certified Trainer and Educator. She is passionate about helping teachers to expose students to learning activities that encourage communication and collaboration while utilizing digital tools in order to prepare them for the careers they will be embarking on in the future. She loves traveling and experiencing the cultures of new places.

    Contact her at tracylane126@gmail.com if you are interested in learning more about this presentation or any of the other training presentations she is happy to do with your teachers about the G Suite for Education applications.

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