Day 15: What’s up Doc?

25 09 2009

My old method of taking attendance was an EPIC FAIL! Okay, that’s an exaggeration—it was perfectly functional, but a major pain to administer.  I had the students send an email to a drop box I set up on gmail (like classmonday@gmail.com or something) and include a subject line I gave them in class. What I had visualized was that my student worker could open the Gmail account, sort the messages by sender, and quickly find which ones were missing. Alas, in reality you can’t easily sort a column of messages in Gmail (at least I can’t) so it winds up being a manual seek-and-find to locate the ones who weren’t in the list. Workable, but not at all smooth or efficient. Time for roll-checking, part deux.

For this go-round I set up a form in Google docs which consists of three blanks: name, today’s magic word, and favorite color. I ask their name so I can check roll (duh). Also it’s good to make sure their last name gets in their first, so you can sort it. I ask the code word to make sure they are (probably) actually in class. I ask their favorite color just for fun, and will probably use the data in an upcoming attention-getter. How did it work? Smooth as melted butter. With all the data in a single spreadsheet, it was child’s play to sort them and compare them to an existing class list column. Problem solved.

Oh yeah, except that about 70% of the students had to submit it twice (or more) to get it to work, and 5 students never did get it to accept their input. Without knowing the nuts and bolts of Google docs, I’m assuming that too many folks were trying to access the file simultaneously, but I don’t know for sure. In the days since then we’ve tried other experiments and there seems to be an inherent bug in hitting Google docs from Safari. Not sure why, and not sure how much my students’ individual device differences has to do with it. We’ll try again next week.

Group projects are like that cereal called “Grape Nuts”: we know it’s probably good for us, but it is as hard as cast iron and taste like, well, like cast iron. With a hint of cinnamon. Whenever we talk to employers who hire our grads, their list of important skills ALWAYS includes “working in teams”; conversely if we ask our students for their pet peeves in school, many  list “team projects,” so we’re in a bind. At our school we choose to go with what the employers want, but I find that group projects present countless opportunities for conflict. This situation is exacerbated by the students’ absolute unwillingness to point the finger at other students who are slacking, or even to let me know if they are in trouble. In many cases I only hear about it after the damage is done and it’s too late to repair it.

Fortunately, I found a solution for this using Google docs as well. First, for this document I disabled the user-tracking; this makes the responses completely anonymous. Then, I had each group think up a one-word code word. Finally, the students individually completed the survey, which asks general questions about how the workload is being shared, if they think their group is going to succeed, etc. By using the group codewords, I could then group participants into their teams, but still have no idea which team is which.

What did the data look like? The good news is that most of my groups are in pretty fair shape. But I had two who said they rate their chance of success as “low”. Now I can casually ask around on one of our project days and get an idea who needs help. In this situation the anonymity of the response encourages honesty, and the feedback helps me be a more effective learning guide.

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