Google Docs Will Free Librarians (to Engage Students More Directly in the Natural Writing Environment)

March 12, 2012, 3:46 pm

I had a vivid dream last night. I typically forget all my dreams, but this one stood out. In this world no one spoke directly to each other. Everyone was a ventriloquist and used dummies or puppets to communicate. I walked through restaurants, grocery stores, malls and a few other common locations– and everyone had their avatar on their hand. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for iPhones and digital devices and social media and how they are disconnecting traditional social interactions  – but that seems too obvious. I think the larger message is centered on the need to evolve with mainstream communication preferences and practices.


In the dream I didn’t have a dummy/puppet/avatar and hence everyone I tried to interact with just ignored me. This is likely a confluence of several things. I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of libraries, the future of information, the future of communications—while also reading about the historical development of computers, the rise and history of print publishing, and the evolution of teaching and learning.

The past and future are colliding and the result: hand puppet technology!

Google Docs  (The Library Inside)

Virginia Tech is going to be switching over (upgrading) to gmail. Faculty, alumni, students—everyone has the option to convert. This got me thinking about support services. I can envision instructional content around using Google Docs and other services from the “knowledge management” or “knowledge creation” stance. Helping students and faculty become more effective with the information tools that are part of their standard email suite. Helping groups collaborate more efficiently on their projects. Helping researchers interact more creatively. It’s a great platform for the library to get involved with.


But that’s largely just training. (Click here. Do this. Do that, etc.)


What would be really exciting is to build upon the chat tool already embedded in the Google Docs platform. Imagine an overlay to Google Docs with citation management and project management functionality. Imagine being able to talk with others in your class about the assignment that you’re working on right now. Imagine being able to invite in library support and others, such as the writing center, directly into the digital workspace.  I’m not saying that we’d linger there big brother style, but it gives us a more natural window into the effort. It enables us to see what they are working on or struggling with, and address real-time needs.


The point is—this sharing technology can open the door and bring us closer to the research process. It would enable us to see what the student is working on, rather than just having them tell us what they think they are doing. We would be able to see the problems ourselves, instead of trying to parse though interpretation. Again, they would invite us into this process for a glimpse– it’s not a monitoring effort.


Instead of a student saying “I need to find three peer reviewed articles on the ethics of cloning” the conversation becomes more about growing their ideas, applying critical thinking, and teaching them find and evaluate resources that support their narrative. Instead of info literacy being an abstract concept focused around using library databases, it shifts the focus toward addressing the needs of the student via a context that motivates them. Info Lit happens everywhere, not just in the library’s classroom.


In short—Google Docs potentially opens the doorway into the learning / writing process. Just as Jon Udell dissected the creation of Wikipedia articles we could follow the development of term papers over time to observe patterns of success and failure. What are the tricky concepts, the threshold concepts, holding students back? How can we alleviate research anxiety? How might this insight improve what we teach and the way we teach it? And lastly, might Google Docs reduce the barrier of initiation by embedding a library presence directly into the writing environment rather than through a third-party channel like text, IM, or email?


Getting into the writing environment (the act of scholarship)

Over the last decade there has been a lot of talk in the profession about getting the library into the course management system or learning management system (Blackboard, Sakai, Moodle, etc)  — and there is value to that goal. You want library services to mingle with the syllabus and assignments and other instructional components. There are a lot of eyeballs in the CMS and so it makes sense for us to want to be here. But tools like Google Docs let us take it further. Google helps us with engagement rather than just publicity.

The CMS/LMS is where students go to take tests, find readings, and review projects—but the word processing software is where they go to create. It’s where they struggle. It’s where they need help. The CMS/LMS is where they learn about what they need to do, but Google Docs will become the interface where they will actually learn.


A core theme that I see shaping up for this decade is moving the library closer to the learning process. Engaging students while they are in the act of scholarship. By providing help via Google Docs we could expand not just the way we provide help, but our entire relationship to the writing and research process.


Just some Monday morning brainstorming.

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