Thursday, December 01, 2011

Transparency in Commenting: An Unintended Experiment with Google Docs

I've been requiring students to turn projects in via Google Docs for a couple of years now, for at least three reasons:

  • It's online, so students don't have to worry about forgetting their homework at home and I don't have to worry about carrying around a stack of papers when I grade.
  • Docs are private by default, but easy to share with specific collaborators. So students can post online without having to worry that their papers will be seen by unintended readers.
  • It has a lot of collaborative functions, so students can easily collaborate and peer-review.
GDocs isn't the only tool that will do these things - I could have students use a closed wiki, Zoho Write, or various other tools. But GDocs is easy to use, imports MS Word fairly well, and looks enough like Word that I don't have to provide much of a tutorial. And now that UT has gone with Google Apps for students, the barrier for entry has been lowered. 

Finally, Google also keeps improving GDocs' functionality, so I find new capabilities in the suite each semester. 

But I have traditionally used GDocs as a read-only platform when I grade: I typically read the project, then type up comments in a separate window. That way there's no danger that students will see my comments before I post the grades. (The grades, of course, are posted in the university's secure system, never in a form stored on an outside server such as GDocs or email.)

Here was my reasoning for not embedding comments in the document:
  • Students might log in, see the comments, and get paranoid.
  • Students might actually try to edit the document while I'm working on it.
  • I might make a comment that I later realize is based on a poor reading of the paper. Sure, I could delete it later, but students would still see some of the backstage work that I prefer to keep hidden.
But in one of my courses this semester - Principles of Technical Writing - I decided to go ahead and comment inside the documents as I went. The rewards seemed too high not to do so. GDocs' new commenting system allowed me to highlight individual characters or phrases, then comment easily in the margins, and it also allowed me to post replies to my own comments. I had seen my students use this system well in their peer reviews, and I saw the real benefits for the fine-grained commenting I needed to do on their proposals. 

But there was a little thing I forgot about the new commenting system until halfway through the first paper. Every time you make a comment, by default, it emails the document's owner. Not only was there a chance that students would see my comments in practice, it was assured. When I realized that, I had a moment of panic, then realized the damage was done. I shrugged, put a comment at the top of the page to the effect of "I'll fill in overall comments once I'm done grading," then graded the others in the same way.

Students loved it.

I was quite surprised, actually. I thought that the many emailed comments, some positive, some critical, would make students paranoid. But they reported - both at the time and today, at the end of the semester - that they appreciated seeing the grading work going on. From their perspective, here are some of the advantages:
  • They knew when I had gotten to their paper.
  • They had a good idea of how their paper was shaping up, just by looking at the comments.
  • Many were busy enough with other classes - apparently they take other classes too - that they deferred reading the emailed comments until they had time. So they weren't becoming more tense with each email.
  • By the time I wrote up the overall comments, they had a good idea what I was going to say.
Later in the semester, when I was having them turn in minor revisions every class period, they were also impressed by how quickly I got to their papers and how quickly I could comment them (an unexpected boost to my ethos). 

Talking over this experience with the students, I realized that more than anything, they appreciated the transparency. They are used to professors black-boxing the commenting process, but that doesn't mean they can't handle a more transparent process. They actually prefer it. And that makes total sense: They're used to seeing short messages (think texting, Twitter, Facebook) and they're mature enough to understand that the overall comment and grade are inductively realized through this process that I accidentally made transparent. 

In the end, my students recommended that I continue commenting this way. And I believe I will.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Join me at SIGDOC 2012

Consider joining me at the 2012 ACM Special Interest Group on Design of Communication conference, which will be held in Seattle, Washington, October 3-5, 2012.

We're looking for research and technical papers, experience reports, and posters. Deadline for submission is June 1, so get started now! Don't hesitate to contact me with questions, and please do get the word out to colleagues and grad students.