Monday, 10 September 2012

Piloting an online writing advisory service using Google Apps

At the English Language Teaching Centre (ELTC) we offer a special writing advisory service for international students. They can sign up for a one-hour individual consultation with a tutor, bring along a piece of writing they are working on and get advice about where they need to improve their academic writing skills.

Until recently this was only available for students actually based in Sheffield. However, over the last six months or so we had received quite a few requests for these tutorials from distance learning students based in other countries or home students based in towns and cities outside of Sheffield and so we decided there was a need to offer an online version of this service. We piloted it this summer by offering tutorials to a limited number of students.

The first issue was what online tools to use to both promote and deliver the service. In the end we went with a variety of Google Apps as they are free (a major consideration!) and already integrated within the university and so familiar to a lot of the students. I wanted to avoid students having to sign up for external services and the potential confusion that might bring.

Promoting the service

We created a Google Site to promote and explain the service to students. Doing this was useful as the sharing options within the Site meant we could limit who actually had access to it and this meant that only students we explicitly targeted for the service could view it.

The other benefit of a Google Site is that you can easily integrate and embed any Google services within it. So, for example, we decided to use Google Calendar and the appointments function (link) as the sign-up form for the tutorials and this was easily embedded on a page of the site. Similarly, we needed to show them the Google Docs form they needed to complete when submitting their essay and this could also be embedded on the page. 

Submitting their writing

Once students had signed up for an appointment, they were sent a Google Doc onto which they had to copy and paste a portion of their essay up to a maximum of six pages. You can see an example of this document here. On the document they had to specify four areas they wanted the tutor to focus on when looking at their writing (e.g. the clarity of the introduction, sentence structure) and help was given on the website about how to do this. This had to be done at least two days before the appointment time to give the tutors the chance to read through and comment on the essay. 

The appointment

We offered two types of appointment for students: the first kind was simply the option to submit a piece of writing and have it commented on by a tutor. The second option was to submit a piece of writing, have it commented on and then have a video conference with the tutor to discuss it. This was another reason we wanted to use Google Apps because of the integration between Google Docs and Google+ Hangouts. It’s possible to conduct a video conference and be able to view and edit a Google Doc at the same time, obviously a tremendous advantage for this type of service. 

Using Google Docs within a Hangout

So, how did it go?

Surprisingly well. Our initial fear was that there wouldn’t be enough students interested to make the pilot worthwhile. As there was only one tutor involved in this, we could only offer a couple of appointment slots a day over a four-week period and initial take up was quite slow. However, after sending out a few more emails to students, interest picked up and in fact all of the slots were taken and students were requesting we made more available!

Some students had some initial difficulties working with the Google Doc they had to submit their writing on but a quick email seemed to easily clarify that as well as improved instructions on the website.

The process of commenting on students’ writing was very smooth, Google Docs has an excellent margin commenting system and it was very easy to indicate areas the student needed to work on. 

The video conferences went well when all the technology worked, but there were occasional technical hiccups. The biggest issue for us was the need to get students to sign up for Google+ before we could use the Hangouts feature with them. This is not done by default, so we had to send quite lengthy instructions to make sure they had done this before the meeting was to take place. The other difficulty was enabling Google Docs during the Hangouts, again not done by default and not always easy to explain how to do. But the actual integration of Google Docs is excellent, it’s better than simple screensharing as you can still see the other person and there is also the option for both of you to edit the text. 

Student feedback

At the end of the summer I surveyed all the students that used the service to get some ideas about what they liked/disliked about the service. Here are a selection of their comments:

'it was very useful to me because i live in manchester. i would have wasted valuable time and limited resources by coming to sheffield, whilst the video conference felt like a face to face encounter and was interesting to take part in at the same time.'

'the most useful thing is it saving us to go to the ELTC, and can have the appointment at anywhere, and the result can be recorded.'

'Being an international student, sometimes face to face appointment gives me pressure because I will feel embarrassed due to the errors I made on my writing. I feel more comfortable if I simply submit a piece of my work and get comments on it.'

'It's more convenient to make and appointment online than by phone or in person.'

'the tutor is really very nice and explains everything in detail.'

'make it easier to access. i say this as a mature person who is not comfortable with computers and social networking interfaces. for instance without a link to my writing i would be at a loss to retrieve it once it had been commented on. so just clear steps about what you do each time you want to submit and retrieve comments.'

'As I would like to make another appointment after I got my essay back, the other appointments are fully booked. So it will be better to have more appointments available during summer, for most postgraduates need it. Thank you.'

'i think the way to submit the essay is a little confusing.'

The responses were positive enough for us to continue with the pilot this term and this will give us the chance to try to refine the submission procedure and provide more slots to students. We’re hoping that this will really become a useful service to all the distance learning students at the university.

1 comment:

  1. Hi David

    Great post. This is obviously going to be very useful to many teachers. How did you approach the first exchanges of a Hangout with a new student? Did you have a kind of script, checking that everything works OK, introducing yourself etc?

    Also, could you explain a bit more about the problems students had with getting Google Apps? Are these registered UoS students?



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