Using Office 365 to create collaborative learning activities

Last week I was at the BETT show, working for The Tablet Academy who were running the interactive classroom on the Microsoft stand. We ran a series of 15 minutes interactive sessions, with one of my sessions being on the use of Office 365 to create collaborative activities. This session turned out to be very popular showing the interest from educators in this way of working.

The principle that I demonstrated wasn’t new – it was something that I have been doing for 8 or 9 years using the collaborative functionality of Google Drive (formerly known as Google Docs) which I have previously blogged about, however many education organisations are nervous about using Google Drive in this way, and the example that I used in my blog post, did involve the work being potentially visible to anyone in the World, which didn’t matter for what I was doing, but for other subjects would be an issue. If an organisation has adopted Google Apps for education then it could all be kept safely enclosed within the organisation, but most places don’t have this – but if they do have Microsoft, and now that Office 365 offers a real time collaborative functionality – I can easily set up similar activities in a way that the IT/Network manager will be happier with.

Before we progress we need to understand a bit about how Office 365 works in conjunction with OneDrive (Microsoft’s cloud storage option – formerly called SkyDrive). When a teacher creates a file using Word, PowerPoint Excel or similar – they can save this to their OneDrive – this will appear on their computer just like any other network drive, so behaviour wise it is very easy for staff. If they are offline, it doesn’t matter the work will save, and as soon as they are online again it will Synchronise with the OneDrive server.

The files are now stored on the computer but also in the cloud – this means that I can access them from any internet enabled computer by going to the OneDrive website and logging in as me.

Image showing the web view of Skydrive with the Words (Download, Share, Embed and Manage highlighted)

Example view of the OneDrive web interface

You will see in the  image that there are 4 options highlighted with the red rectangle:

  • Download – allows for a local copy of the file to be downloaded onto the computer.
  • Share – Is what we want here, as we can give students access to the file, without having to send them a copy.
  • Embed – allows for files to be embedded into something like a website, blog or VLE – this could be very useful for displaying a graph or chart following an experiment or survey.
  • Manage – allows options such as renaming, but also a version history – so if someone sabotages a collaborative file, you can roll back to an earlier version and find out who did the sabotaging.

These different options can be applied to individual files, multiple files or even folders. The folders options could be very useful, as you could set up sharing options with individual students at folder level once at the start of the year, then any file that is added into that folder will automatically be visible to the student – I can see lots of potential here for giving feedback after assessment, and an ability for students to make comments etc. on their feedback all with the same document. The history functionality gives me the data integrity that I need for assessment purposes which in the past caused us to produce lots of inefficient different files with no information moving between them.

If I were to set up a collaborative activity using these tools, there are 2 options for the students. They can either edit the file in the web app – this is great if accessing this activity via a device that doesn’t have Microsoft Office on it (e.g. an iPhone or iPad), and allows for real time synchronous editing (lots of people editing same document at same time) – but you don’t get the full Office functionality. Or students can access and edit the file in Office, which gives the full functionality and great for small scale non-synchronous collaboration.

The key to making any of this work, is changing the way that we behave with files – which will take time. Email although a great tool, has created a culture of sending files as attachments – which creates multiple copies of the same file in different location which then leads to problems. If a single file is stored in one place and a link to this file is shared then there is only 1 file and therefore less problems.

In the coming days I will release posts, giving examples of different collaborative activities using PowerPoint, Excel and Word.

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Using Google Docs (Drive) to create a collaborative learning activity

Google Docs or Google Drive as it has changed it’s name to, is a suite of office tools that work via the internet and store the different files in the cloud (on the internet) rather than locally onto the computer. This has huge advantages in terms of the files are backed up automatically, can be edited on a variety of different computers (including Smart phones) and they allow multiple people to contribute or view the files.

It is the ability to allow multiple people to edit that makes Google Docs an excellent collaborative learning tool, as it is possible to set up activities where different learners are accessing and editing the same document at the same time – this means that they can see and respond to what each other is doing in real time.

An example of such an activity is one that I ran recently used at a training event as part of the Advanced Teacher Learning Coaches programme. This took me about 10 minutes to create and set up, so nice and quick, and the learning experience was far greater than doing this in a non-collaborative way. If you want to use the activity above (possibly swapping in your own websites for your particular area), click on the link above, then save a copy of this (from the file menu) – you can then alter the sharing settings to allow other people to edit it. A video showing how to do this can be found below.

Using Google Docs for collaborative activities – is a great way of working with higher order thinking skills. What I will often do is set a simple task where each person or small group of people have to edit an area within the document answering a question or questions. What I then do is ask everyone to swap areas (e.g. so they are looking at someone else’s contribution) – I can then ask a more challenging question – such as critique the other person’s responses, or present a counter argument to their point, or ask them to identify which of the points made by the first group would also be examples of….. etc. and if time allows, then I sometimes set a third question where they look at a third different set of responses and answer another challenging task or question.

Another really useful feature within Google Docs, is that you can see the revision history – so you can identify which people have contributed most (and when) – which can be useful if doing this as part of an assessed activity – and you can roll back to earlier versions of a document, so if someone does something very damaging (e.g. deleting everything, writing something defamatory, or using it to cyber bully) you can roll back to an earlier version (or restore point).

The fact that these documents will work on most if not all Smart phones makes this a really powerful, versatile and truly mobile opportunity.

Google Docs ‘In Plain English’

Many people will know that I am a big fan of Google Docs and use them a lot in my work (and non-work) life, because they are easy to set up, are great for any form of collaboration, and used properly can save huge amounts of time. However there are a lot of people out there who still don’t get the concept, and more importantly don’t understand the problem of having lots of different copies of the same files.

So to try and explain the principle, here is a video produced by  CommonCraft .

Podcast on Google Docs (and a few other things)

Last week I contributed to another panel podcast, this time with only 3 of us, and we discussed the uses of tools like Google Docs in education. Google Docs is improving all the time, and there is a lot that can be done with it, which when I get a bit of time will have a look at. There is a new type of doc within the Google Suite called a ‘form’ which looks like it could be used for capturing data from people, which could be very useful for evluations, or signing up for events.

Anyway the podcast can be found at http://elearningstuff.wordpress.com/2008/12/07/e-learning-stuff-podcast-010-lets-take-a-note/