This chapter describes cloud-based solutions for three main areas of students’ and teachers’ work lives: creating and saving documents, keeping notes and other non-document information organized, and managing all the information and actions associated with the course.  There are a multitude of  tools for each of these areas, but for the sake of clarity, I will focus on solutions that are not only the most widely-used, but also offer a Web 2.o experience.  However, a short list of other solutions can be found in the glossary.

Documents

Ever since computers have been used by teachers and students, the ‘traditional’ way for creating digital documents has been to use word processors such as Microsoft Word.  And traditionally, these have either been saved on a hard drive, or a portable storage device such as a USB key.  However, as the previous section discussed, there are limitations when a digital document is saved to one physical location.

However, even when creating digital documents using ‘traditional’ applications such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, there are solutions for saving the documents in the cloud.  The most popular of these solutions is Dropbox, a free application that provides online storage.

In essence, Dropbox works like your computer’s hard drive: documents, photographs, presentations or whatever you want to save are uploaded to a remote server and can be retrieved and edited at any time.

However, while Dropbox does provide cloud storage for all kinds of files, in many ways using it restricts you to  “Web 1.0” experience: you are still likely to be using traditional applications like Word, but just saving them remotely rather than locally.

The Web 2.0 experience is more easily achieved using Google Docs.  This application offers cloud-based word processing, spreadsheet, presentation applications which resemble their venerable Microsoft cousins, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.  However, Google Docs offers Web 2.0 characteristics in that it facilitates collaboration, sharing of documents, and dialogue.  Google Docs contain most of the editing/ computing features of Microsoft Office products, but it is critically different in the following ways:

  • Each time changes are made to the document, these changes are saved in a “revision history.”  The revisions to the document can be viewed, and you can revert to a previous version of the document at any time.  This is useful in that it eliminates the possibility of having multiple versions of the same document;
  • Multiple users can edit the document at the same time.   This allows for collaborative work without the need to email or share the document or carefully label the different users’ input.
  • Each time changes are made to the document, each of the collaborators can choose to receive automatic notifications of changes to the documents
  • There is an easy-to-use comment feature in Google Docs that is highly useful for providing feedback on documents  (more about this in Chapter 3, Section 5.)

The benefits, then, of using Google Docs over Word is that the Google Docs are ‘live,’ recorded and accessible: the version you see is the most up-to-date one, but can be edited at any time and each person with whom it is shared will instantly have all the latest edits.

Google Docs provides a Web 2.0 (collaborative, shared) word processing experience due to the enhanced levels of communication facilitated by this application.  Gallery 3.1 illustrates the features discussed in this section.

Organization

Not all of our digital documents and ‘stuff’ will neatly fit into Google Docs: emails, quick notes, photos, webpages, web addresses and links do not neatly find a place in word processed documents.  There are ways of fitting these square pegs into Google Doc’s round holes, but there are other solutions for catch-all digital notebooks to collect and organize your digital ‘stuff’.

As with all digital tools, there is an rapidly expanding plethora of resources that offer great potential for organization and synchronization of documents and information.  One of the most popular is Evernote.  This application allows you to create notes, organize them into notebooks, and share these notebooks with other users.  However, there are also a number of richer features: you can add photos to your notes, take pictures within a note, and add voice memos to notes (this includes the ability to take a photo of a paper document and include this image in the Evernote note).  You can upload PDFs to your Evernote notebooks, and furthermore, the paid version of Evernote has Optical Character Recognition that allows you to search PDFs by keywords (more about this in Chapter 5, Section 1).  Evernote also a useful ‘web-clipper’ function (see Movie 3.5) that allows you to ‘clip’ and send articles, full pages, or web addresses to specific Evernote notebooks directly from your web browser.  Finally, you can also email content to specific notebooks using a user-specific email  address.  See Movie 3.1 for a demonstration of how these Evernote features work in real time.

In short, Evernote is cloud-based storage for everything that does not lend itself easily to the word-processing, presentation, and spreadsheet applications of Google Docs.  Evernote allows very easy synchronization across all your devices: once a note has been created on your desktop, it is immediately available (and editable) on your smartphone or iPad.  Evernote is clearly a Web 2.0 tool: notebooks can be shared, students can collaborate on notes, and it is media-rich.  In terms of helping our students stay organized, Evernote is a must-have tool.  Using Evernote, they can keep all their notes, images, voice memos, links to articles and webpages and much more in one place.  Moreover, this ‘place’ is in the cloud: they cannot leave it at home!

Course Management

Michael’s teachers have done a great job providing online resources for him.  However, he is more confused than ever: he needs to check his homework on one website, find his assignments on his teachers’ personal webpages, and then access the school’s subscription services for his research on the school’s webpage.  What’s more, he has seven different passwords, and he can’t remember three of them.

It is clear that to help Michael, we should keep things as straightforward as possible.  There are ways to use both Gmail and Evernote as communication hubs, but neither of them are as feature rich as an Online Learning Management system.  One of the most popular is Moodle or even-better, its cloud-based big brother MoodleRooms.  Once students are enrolled in a teacher’s Moodle course, it acts as a communication hub in the following ways:

  • students can see the assignments for a course, and they can submit their work for these assignments either by uploading a document or by simply cutting and pasting;
  • the teacher can post links, webpages, instructions, or any kind of digital text, presentation, images, or videos for the students to access at any time;
  • all enrolled users (and this can include parents) can view the course’s calendar, scope and sequence, overview, guidelines and expectations;
  • students can participate in an online discussion forum or add comments to text posted by other students

What is important here is that this course information is not located in a physical location (in a paper notebook) or single digital location (a computer’s hard-drive); students can access this information wherever they can get online.  Moreover, all the information for the course is located in one place with one sign-in.

Conclusion

Google Docs, Evernote, and Moodle offer cloud-based storage for documents, notes/ images/ webpages, and course information respectively.  Cloud-based storage is one of the most effective ways to insure that your documents are not only backed up, but are also accessible anywhere you have access to the internet.  However, more than this, each application offers and even encourages participation in a Web 2.0 experience of collaboration, sharing, and connectedness which as we shall see, are crucial in engaging and motivating students.

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Beyond the Paperless Classroom by David Doherty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.