Thursday, October 12, 2006

Web Spreadsheets – Gathering Student Generated Data – Using Google Tools for Instruction

I’m taking advantage of the fact that with my leg injury and because of transitioning to the new job, my calendar is still comparatively unscheduled and hence I have a fair amount of free time. This morning, I spent some time playing with Google Spreadsheet. It definitely has possibilities.

Let me note straight away, the one function I’d really want to see but isn’t there now. It doesn’t graph data. That is a big limitation, one that will continue to get most folks to stay with Excel. But it does have quite a bit of other functionality that seems to make it a terrific adjoint to be used in conjunction with Excel or as a stand alone for certain purposes (see below). It does have a large array of formulas, with the same names as in Excel, it will import spreadsheets without difficulty, and the really nice part is how it can be shared with others.

Now let me turn to a teaching idea that I think is for the here and now, but which I suspect doesn’t happen nearly as often as it might at present. I’ve discussed the idea before, for example here. (See the section near the end on data ingest.) The idea is design various activities to be done online where each student contributes some data and then collectively the data forms an experiment to be done in class to demonstrate a certain point relevant to the class or to test a hypothesis that has already been developed in class. This would give a much need empirical aspect to what we teach and in my experience would really engage the students.

I will leave the design of these type of experiments to another post and here simply focus on the data ingest issue. One can use the survey tool in the Course Management System for this purpose. But as those tools are currently designed:

(1) The student does not get a record of their own submission for later review.
(2) The students don’t have direct access to the submissions of other students and can only get at the data if the instructor posts it. (Typically done once by the instructor after the deadline for submissions has past, so the instructor uploads all the submission at one time._ But note this is extra work for the instructor. And, further, students might want to look at the aggregate in mid stream, at our around the time they make their own submission.

So it would nice to have a system that addresses both (1) and (2) above. I’ve made a little demo to show how Google Spreadsheet can be used to manage these issues. (To access this demo, you must have a Gmail account and use that as the login.) I’m going to talk through the demo a bit so you can get the idea. It would also help for you to try to make your own spreadsheet so you can see the functionality that you don’t see in the demo.

You have read access to the demo, but not write access. (I’m happy to give anyone write access; just send me your Gmail address and I’ll set that up for you.) When you have write access there is an additional tab called Edit, which is where the data entry occurs. You also don’t have access to the Formula Tab, which allows using the spreadsheet in an intelligent manner so it does data manipulation.

There are individual worksheets labeled with people’s names: Al, Barb, Carl, Don…. up to Lou. Those names are meant to index hypothetical students. I’ve put in the data for the student named Hank. The other students haven’t yet entered any data.

There is one other worksheet called Aggregates. This worksheet shows the data entered by all the students in one view. It gets these data from the individual student worksheets. This worksheet will update automatically as students enter their individual data. You can see Hank’s data in column I. of the Aggregates sheet. (Perhaps I should have put it in column H, but I used column A to label the content of each field.)

That’s pretty much it. Obviously this is a fairly simple minded demo, but I hope the idea comes across clearly. Because the entire thing can readily be exported (use the File menu) students can do data manipulation on the aggregates at any time, even while the data collection effort is still in progress. This is really quite nice. (The dark side is that if each student has write access to the thing, they have write access to every worksheet and hence can overwrite other student data. This is, in essence, the same problem that Wikipedia faces. That problem appears to be manageable, but students do need to save a local copy of the spreadsheet after they submit their own data.)

Now let me turn to another related issue. This revolves around the ethics and usability of requiring students to have a Gmail account to be used for instruction. Suppose in a class of 50 or 60, perhaps 3 or 4 students don’t want to have a Gmail account for this purpose, because they don’t want Google to mine their identity information. Is that a likelihood? If so, what should be done in this case?

This is the type of question that would trouble us, in the Central IT organization for the campus, but for me as an instructor, I have a fairly simple work around. I can make dummy Gmail accounts, which when created were sent to my email address, not to the students. I can then give these students the login and password and tell them to use for this purpose only. Google then has no profile info on the students at all. The risk moves onto me. I’m willing to bear the risk.

And actually, the biggest possible hassle from this is that these students forget the login and password info and then I’ve got to spend my scarce time playing the role of help desk for them. If that happened on a recurring basis, I’d probably abandon the approach. But it seems a low risk to me.

So what are we waiting for?

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