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Anne Catherine Scheer

professeur-candidat
Lyce Technique du Centre

Declaration of originality
I, Anne Catherine Scheer, hereby declare that this travail de candidature is all my own work and
that all references contained within it have been correctly cited and the original authors
acknowledged.

Anne Catherine Scheer

Luxembourg, 28th April 2012

Anne Catherine Scheer


professeur-candidat au Lyce Technique du Centre

Teaching English to Digital Natives Harnessing the power of social networks and
Information and Communication Technology (ICT)

Luxembourg, 2012

Abstract
1

Research Aims

In September 2011, facebook claimed to have reached more than 800 million active users1. At fixed times
throughout the week I meet about 100 of them: they are my students. For them, as much as for me, the use of
social networks and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has become an integral part of our daily
lives. A considerable part of the world population follows its innate need and desire for connectedness in this
way, living out its primal tendency as a gregarious being to form communities and interact with others. Thanks
to the Internet, physical distance is effortlessly overcome in the virtual world, which has become an extension
of the real, rather than an alternative environment.
These developments have prompted teams of educators around the world to try and implement
Vygotskys socio-constructivism with the technological tools of the 21st century. Within the framework of this
thesis I would like to:
verify whether online social interaction has inherent educational potential or should be
dismissed as distracting from the acquisition of both language and cognitive/transversal skills
find ways of making the use of social media in particular and ICT in general an integral part of
my teaching in the hope of extending the learning process beyond the walls of my classroom
and creating a truly socio-constructivist learning environment which cultivates a sense of
belonging, and hence responsibility and teamwork

Methodology

I used the educational social platform Edmodo, which allows for the safe, virtual continuation of in-class
interaction, where students can further develop the working relationships necessary for successful teamwork,
as well as engage with a range of tasks. The integration of Google Docs, allowing for real-time collaboration on
word-processed documents, proved a highly useful extension of Edmodos functions. Furthermore, with the
possibility for students to hand in assignments online I could easily keep track of submissions as well as correct,
give feedback on and grade their work, with the platform automatically keeping a record for both the students
and myself. Thus, it is possible to provide formative feedback more easily and at crucial moments. According to
Alan Pritchards definition2 of social constructivism, dialogue is the vehicle by which ideas are considered,
shared and developed and the teacher has the role of stimulating dialogue and maintaining its momentum.
With the technological tools at my disposal it was possible to keep alive and allow that dialogue to branch out
organically beyond the walls of my classroom where it originates.

Outcome

The project can confirm the hypotheses of educators worldwide: that even online social interaction has
educational potential and that the use of ICT can indeed enhance the socio-constructivist dimension of my
students learning experience. While interaction happens in a virtual space, it still exerts a positive effect on
the real world. Edmodo and Google Docs helped create an atmosphere of mutual support, where students
realised and valued each other as resources in the sense of more knowledgeable peers, which in turn
nurtured a more learner-centred, inclusive and constructive environment. Furthermore, it provided a space
within which to practise peer-assessment, group-editing and problem-solving. This allowed students to move
to the higher levels of Benjamin Blooms revised taxonomy3 of analysis, evaluation and creation, which are all
transferable skills that will be useful in different subjects, their professional and even private lives.

http://newsroom.fb.com/content/default.aspx?NewsAreaId=22 - accessed 14th April 2012


Alan Pritchard, Ways of Learning. New York: Routledge, 2009. p. 24
3
http://uwf.edu/cutla/images/bloom_taxonomy.jpg - accessed 30th December 2011
2

Table of Contents
1

Introduction................................................................................................................................ 9
1.1

Digital Natives Who are they and how are they different?........................................ 14

1.2

Of virtual learning environments (VLE) .......................................................................... 26

1.3

and Web 2.0 technologies ............................................................................................. 31

An overview of socio-constructivist theories and concepts .................................................... 37


2.1

Socio-constructivism meets the 21st century ................................................................... 47

2.1.1

Welcome to Edmodo ................................................................................................. 53

2.1.2

Collaboration powered by Google Docs .................................................................... 64

Collaborating on a reading project using Edmodo and Google Docs ...................................... 69


3.1

Project Description............................................................................................................ 69

3.2

Preparation ....................................................................................................................... 69

3.3

Development..................................................................................................................... 74

3.3.1

Edmodo and Google Docs with the 10PS .................................................................. 74

3.3.2

Edmodo and Google Docs with the 12CG ................................................................. 84

3.4

Project Analysis ................................................................................................................. 90

3.5

Learner feedback analysis ................................................................................................. 96

Conclusion .............................................................................................................................. 115

Bibliography............................................................................................................................ 121

Appendices ............................................................................................................................. 125

Table of Figures
Figure 1 - Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. ...................................................... 15
Figure 2 - Percentage of the 54 students who answered my survey with a facebook account. .................. 19
Figure 3 - A tag cloud (a typical Web 2.0 phenomenon in itself) presenting Web 2.0 themes. ................... 32
Figure 4 A screenshot taken on 17/12/11 from Wikipedia showing the Discussion tab leading to a talk
page about the article, and an alert highlighting a necessary review of the article by an expert. .............. 34
Figure 5 - A visual representation of Piaget's stages of development. (Pritchard, 19) ................................ 39
Figure 6 - Tasks must lie within the child's ZPD to allow their completion in collaboration with a more
knowledgeable other or peer. ...................................................................................................................... 42
Figure 7 - Illustration of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy.................................................................................... 46
Figure 8 - A screenshot of Edmodos main page (from my trial group) showing clear resemblances in
design and functionality with facebook, thereby drastically reducing preparation time needed until
students can start using the service. ............................................................................................................ 55
Figure 9 - A month after a lesson on Guy Fawkes, 5th November and the topical Anonymous movement a
student reacts by sharing a video. ................................................................................................................ 58
Figure 10 - A screenshot showing the quiz posting function and student reactions. .................................. 59
Figure 11 - A poll posted at the start of the academic year to ask students to self-assess their skills in
English. .......................................................................................................................................................... 60
Figure 12 - A screenshot of the Edmodo app on an Android operated smartphone. .................................. 61
Figure 13 - A Google document showing the comment stream at the bottom and live chat bar along the
right side of the screen where collaborators can communicate with each other........................................ 66
Figure 14 - A browser screenshot showing Google Docs' sharing options. .................................................. 67
Figure 15 - A screenshot showing Edmodo's quiz creation function. ........................................................... 74
Figure 16 - A screenshot showing overall Edmodo quiz results (left) and a detailed view of an individual
learner's performance with the possibility to comment on each of her answers (right). ............................ 75
Figure 17 - An Edmodo screenshot showing the first shared Google document where Stone Cold
protagonists' character information was collected. Moreover, the screenshot shows how the reply
function was used to provide a student with timely, formative feedback on his writing. ........................... 76
Figure 18 - A browser window showing a Google document with the student's text in the middle, the
comment stream with teacher and student contributions at the bottom, and the revision history on the
right. .............................................................................................................................................................. 78
Figure 19 - A Google document screenshot with a 10PS student's character description........................... 79
Figure 20 - A browser window showing part of the Stone Cold vocabulary list completed by the students
with words to study for the test highlighted in yellow. ................................................................................ 80
Figure 21 - A student states on Edmodo that she has finished work on the vocabulary file and encourages
her fellow author to do the same. ................................................................................................................ 81
Figure 22 - A screenshot of a Google document with a student's early version of her Stone Cold final
assessment.................................................................................................................................................... 82
Figure 23 - A screenshot of a Google document with the same student's finished Stone Cold final
assessment.................................................................................................................................................... 83

Figure 24 - A browser screenshot showing the 12CG's library folder on Edmodo containing their
development questions on euthanasia. ....................................................................................................... 85
Figure 25 - A browser screenshot of a chat between two students collaborating on Google Docs. ........... 86
Figure 26 - A screenshot from the same Google Docs chat showing two students' positive feedback to
each other about their collaboration. .......................................................................................................... 87
Figure 27 - A browser screenshot showing an early version of a groups Google document. ..................... 88
Figure 28 - A browser screenshot showing the finished version of a group's work. .................................... 89
Figure 29 - A browser screenshot of Edmodo showing a student answering his classmate's question. ..... 91
Figure 30 - An Edmodo screenshot showing spontaneous peer-feedback. ................................................. 92
Figure 31 - An Edmodo screenshot showing a breakdown of (in)correct answers per quiz question allowing
the teacher to see which particular passages of the book had been less well understood. ........................ 94
Figure 32 - An Edmodo screenshot showing the teacher's version of the 10PS' online gradebook. ........... 95
Figure 33 - Analysis of 12CG students' feedback on the usefulness of various aspects of the project. ....... 99
Figure 34 12CG students opinion of Google Docs value as a collaboration tool. .................................. 102
Figure 35 - 12CG students self-assessment of their English skills after the project. ................................. 103
Figure 36 - Analysis of 10PS students' feedback on the usefulness of various aspects of the project ...... 106
Figure 37 - 10PS students' self-assessment of their English skills after the project. .................................. 107
Figure 38 - 10PS students' feedback on the usefulness of various aspects of Edmodo ............................. 109
Figure 39 - A quotation by Henry Ford highlighting the difficulty with thinking outside the box and the
necessity for a shift in mindsets.................................................................................................................. 118

Note: For practical as well as stylistic reasons, I have decided to avoid using the formulation he or she with
its related pronoun complications. Instead, I shall refer to the teacher as she, and to the learner as he.

Many of the resources used for this TC are online. Therefore, I have set up a website to accompany the
document. Please go to:

http://ow.ly/alog7
to consult the bibliography, easily access the links from the footnotes, browse the online resources and
find out more about the online tools used for the project described here.

1 Introduction
In September 2011, facebook claimed to have reached more than 800 million active
users. At fixed times throughout the week I meet about 100 of them: they are my
students. For them, as much as for me, the use of social networks and Information and
Communication Technology (ICT) has become an integral part of our daily lives. A
considerable part of the world population follows its innate need and desire for
connectedness in this way, living out its primal tendency as a gregarious being to form
communities and interact with others. Thanks to the Internet, physical distance is
effortlessly overcome in the virtual world, which has become an extension of the real,
rather than an alternative environment.
These developments have prompted teams of educators around the world to try
and implement Vygotskys socio-constructivism with the technological tools of the 21st
century. Rather than challenging this long-standing principle of pedagogy, myriad
practitioners aim to improve or extend its implementation with the help of the vast
potential technological advancement holds. An exciting atmosphere of possibility drives
forward the invention of new teaching tools, often inspired by solutions found for
collaborative working in businesses. Eventually, this current of innovation is bound to
have an effect on the way we teach.

According to Wim Veen, professor at Delft

University, technology will fundamentally change traditional teaching and the roles of all
stakeholders in the education field4. New generations of students are growing up with
technology as so-called Digital Natives and it seems unavoidable that they are more
likely to feel alienated and consequently disengage from traditional teaching and learning
environments than their predecessors. It is therefore our responsibility to help create a
learning culture with which future cohorts may identify better so as to keep them
involved. One of the aims of education is to set our students on the route to lifelong
learning in order to enable them to adapt to increasingly frequent changes in the working
world. If we are to teach our students to learn how to learn, to be versatile and develop
4

th

http://tbm.tudelft.nl/index.php?id=30949 In the Bio tab of his staff profile. - accessed 6 October


2011

10

transferable skills, surely schools and teachers should be role models in this domain
themselves. Instead, change in the education system has historically been ponderous
and reluctantly reactive, rather than proactive or even just accommodating. In his book
Homo zappiens, Veen claims that this has led many students to see schools as analogue,
disconnected institutions whereas they themselves are digital (10). Even the OECDs
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) supports this impression by stating
that there is technology everywhere, except at school (2008, 2). Of course, this may
have kept students sheltered from too frequent experiments conducted on political or
pedagogical whims and given new ideas time to overcome their teething problems before
they were tried and tested in a classroom environment. However, I believe it is fair to say
that ICT has already stood the test of time with regard to its usefulness in myriad
domains, particularly on the levels of communication, collaboration and presentation.
Video conferences, for example via Skype, are scheduled to allow vital exchange between
European and overseas offices of companies, and not many meetings or conferences are
imaginable without slideshows anymore which can often subsequently also be viewed
online or as a part of webinars (seminars on the web). Consequently, this type of
technology should finally be admitted into our learning environments to find out if it can
be used beneficially in this context as well. The new technology might not change the
fundamental insights gained by cognitive science but the odds to successfully teach
learning to learn seem more favourable if the methodology and tools we employ are upto-date, if only to familiarise our students with ways of working they might very well
encounter in their professional lives once they leave the shelter of our schools.
Within the framework of this thesis I would consequently like to:

verify whether online social interaction has inherent educational potential or


should be dismissed as distracting from the acquisition of both language and
cognitive/transversal skills;

find ways of making the use of social media in particular and ICT in general an
integral part of my teaching in the hope of extending the learning process beyond
the walls of my classroom and creating a truly socio-constructivist learning

11

environment which cultivates a sense of belonging, and hence responsibility and


teamwork.
Of course the digital age has not passed education by unnoticed so far. Virtual
Learning Environments (VLE), such as mySchool! or Moodle, have been designed and
implemented in many countries including Luxembourg. However, at the latest by
mySchool!s tenth birthday in October 2011 it had become clear that these solutions have
significant shortcomings. An extensive study by the French Ministry of Education (MEN)
encompassing the use of these platforms in Denmark, the United Kingdom and Spain
bemoans the fact that underdeveloped pedagogic use is made of them and that they
allow for too little active participation by pupils (2010, 70). However, they suggest a
very persuasive hypothesis for the existence of these deficiencies, which might well be
seen as the first step towards a future solution: current problems might be the result of
an (implicit) initial design of the platforms based on a model of knowledge transfer.
Thus, if our use of technology creates but a digital version of the Dickensian Thomas
Gradgrinds classroom revolving around the planting of nothing but Facts (Dickens
1994, 1), no significant improvement can be made. To their defence one might add that
the Web 2.0 revolution had not yet happened at the time the first VLEs were
programmed and hence the available technology might not have encouraged or even
enabled the designers to think outside the box. Either way, technology in and by itself
cannot provide the solution; it still depends on the professional attitudes and convictions
of the designer and later the teacher-user to bring true technological enhancement to our
ways of learning. The best example for this are undoubtedly the very same slideshows
mentioned previously, which all too often prove even to the layman that using technology
does not automatically equal a gripping, relevant, or meaningful learning experience.
It is within this context Veen reminds us that
We currently believe that learning is the mental process of individuals
trying to construct knowledge from information, giving meaning to it.
It is not the mere data that give us understanding of processes

or phenomena; it is the interpretation of the data and


information that leads to knowledge. (Veen and Vrakking, 11)

12

This vision of a different pedagogical model based on communal, collaborative, social


negotiation and construction of knowledge is clearly indebted to Vygotsky and certainly
not new, yet it still occupies pedagogical research today. In their article Minds on Fire,
John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler define this type of social learning as based on the
premise that our understanding of content is socially constructed through conversations
about that content and through grounded interactions (Brown and Adler 2008). Social
learning is thus contrasted sharply from the Cartesian view of knowledge as a transferable
substance with emphasis clearly on what rather than how we learn. Hence the premise I
think, therefore I am, is changed in social learning to We participate, therefore we are.
Perhaps the birth of Web 2.0 technologies might finally help translate these ideas into
digital practice and avoid the pitfalls the VLEs have fallen victim to.
With this hope in mind, I used the educational social platform Edmodo, which
served as students virtual home base bringing them together online in a digital copy of
their classroom, which is simultaneously a hub for communication aiming to prolong and
extend social interaction beyond the school setting. It provided a communal area for
students to share their work with fellows online, encouraging peer-assessment as well as
group-editing. Particularly for the development of the latter skill the integration of Google
Docs, allowing for real-time collaboration, proved a highly useful extension of Edmodos
functions. I hope to show that through the creation of a virtual classroom on Edmodo,
which stresses the social side of a collaborative learning process, students felt the
potential for development within the safety of their group and became more aware of the
benefits of sharing work. Traditionally, individuals work is assessed at school in order to
evaluate distinct students skills. This might still be necessary for summative assessment
as long as school reports exist but it does not need to imply that progress as well is to be
made solely on ones own while the concept of single authorship is jealously guarded. At
the latest since Vygotsky, negotiation of meaning through interaction with peers, more
knowledgeable or not, is well-known to further and/or deepen ones own understanding,
and providing additional space for this interaction can, at least theoretically, only be
positive.

13

According to Pritchards definition of social constructivism, dialogue is the vehicle


by which ideas are considered, shared and developed and the teacher has the role of
stimulating dialogue and maintaining its momentum. (24) In an endeavour to verify
whether the technological tools at my disposal can help me keep that dialogue alive and
allow it to branch out organically beyond the walls of the classroom where it originates I
implemented my project in a 10PS and a 12CG. Out of my available classes this
constituted the most heterogeneous sample set of students due to their different subject
specialisms and age ranges. This allowed an insight into the potentially influencing effects
of these factors on the degree to which students correspond to the concept of Digital
Natives and their subsequent willingness and ease to engage with an ICT-based project.
Overall, the online part of the project targeted, and therefore fostered, students
proficiency in writing, reading and listening in English. Their participation required the
understanding and critical analysis of passages from a book, or an article and a short story
respectively, the viewing of filmed versions of the reading, subsequent communication
and exchange with their peers, and finally collaboration to produce written feedback and
co-author various online documents.
Throughout this travail de candidature I will try to show that the project
confirmed the hypotheses of educators worldwide: that even online social interaction has
educational potential and that the use of ICT could indeed enhance the socioconstructivist dimension of my students learning experience. While interaction happens
in a virtual space, it still exerts a positive effect on the real world. I will also analyse if the
platform helped create an atmosphere of mutual support, where students realised and
valued each other as resources in the sense of more knowledgeable peers, which
nurtured a more learner-centred, inclusive and constructive environment. Furthermore, it
provided a space within which to practise peer-assessment, group-editing and problemsolving. This, in turn, should have encouraged students to move to the higher levels of
Blooms revised taxonomy of analysis, evaluation and creation, which are all transferable
skills that will be useful in different subjects as well as their professional and even private
lives.

14

1.1 Digital Natives Who are they and how are they
different?
In October 2001, Marc Prensky declared that: Our students have changed radically.
Todays students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to
teach. (Prensky, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants 2001, 1) He sees the origin of this
change in the fact that they are the
first generation to grow up with [the new digital] technology [disseminated
rapidly in the last decades of the 20th century]. They have spent their entire lives
surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video
cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age. [my
emphasis]

This generation is who he refers to as Digital Natives and that, by inference, makes the
people on the other side of the desk Digital Immigrants (2). Of course, the latter are
able to learn the new generations language but he believes they are bound to retain, to
some degree, their accent, that is, their foot in the past. Yet what exactly distinguishes
Digital Natives from their predecessors? How has technology changed the ways they
think, process information and interact with their surroundings? According to Prensky,
Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel
process and multi-task. They prefer graphics before their text rather than the
opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when
networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer
games to serious work.

The first characteristic is doubtlessly a result of the speed at which technology allows
news to travel. Rather than waiting for the printed press to report yesterdays news the
following day, the Internet makes it possible for us to learn about current events on the
same day or even while they are still unfolding. Of course it can be argued that the radio
has been providing that same service for much longer. However, the main difference lies
in the two medias accessibility and customisability. For news to reach us via the radio
we have to have it switched on at the right moment, namely when the speakers deliver
their message. Then, once it has been released, there is not, or did not use to be, a way to
listen to the same message again and so the news would simply fail to reach a lot of
people unless it was frequently repeated. Furthermore, the listener is reduced to passivity

15

as he cannot choose which news item he wants to hear more about and which he is less
interested in or would rather ignore. The Internet, on the other hand, allows its user to
check the news whenever and practically wherever he is, while providing total control
over which news items want to be studied in more detail and which will simply drown in
the mass of available information.

Figure 1 - Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast.

The second characteristic is exemplified through the use of multiple tabs in


Internet browsers, chatting to several friends simultaneously but in separate chat
windows, or zapping between TV channels - less out of boredom than to watch several
things at once. It is particularly this latter habit which Veen has highlighted as the namegiving distinguisher between past and present generations. Hence, he feels evolution has
now brought about Homo zappiens (Veen and Vrakking 2006). Modern users have, in a
way, emancipated themselves away from the constraints of or claims to authority that a
book and its author used to have. Perhaps out of respect for the writer and his work, a
reader might have felt he should not put a book away without reading it from cover to
cover. Furthermore, the construction of meaning used to be firmly in the hands of the
author, leaving the reader with little more than the quest for these underlying authorial
intentions. Could it be that Roland Barthes birth of the reader (1990, 232), freeing the
latter from mere receptivity and opening the realm of active construction of meaning, is
continued in the empowered identity of the Internet user or TV viewer? After all, TV
series, like written fiction, tell stories. The readers right to skip a few pages when the
writing is not deemed crucial to plot advancement could be seen to have been translated
into the viewers habit of zapping between two or three different channels. As the reader
would after a few pages, the viewer returns to the initial program after a few moments

16

and continues to construct meaning across the gap of material he missed. Rather than
seeing a negative potential cause for this behaviour, such as a shortened attention span,
Veen portrays zapping as the skill of determining essential kernels of information from
an information flow and, on the basis of these kernels, constructing a meaningful whole
of knowledge. (66) He believes, in fact, that it is possible for Homo zappiens to
recognize instances in films, documentaries and other television programmes that
are less critical to know in order to understand the core of the message or flow of
events. () In particular, they understand that film makers communicate their
messages through images [rather than text spoken by actors]. () That is why they
are able to zap from one channel to another at moments when they expect the
film maker not to communicate important messages. () As a consequence, Homo
zappiens are able to process discontinued information and give a concise summary
of the various television programmes watched.

Rather than zapping leading to an inability to extract, reassemble and understand the
message of any one of the programs scanned only for plot-advancing moments, it is on
the contrary a means of getting that very message out of more than one program at once.
Veen acknowledges that this behaviour might well appear to be extremely superficial
with insufficient attention given to detail and a subsequent, inevitable loss of subtleties
and impossible acquisition of expertise. He argues, however, that in an environment
characterised by information overload it is not being superficial not to focus on details
[but] crucial () in order to avoid getting lost in the information richness. In fact,
focusing on details is an inappropriate strategy for dealing with information overload.
[my emphasis] (67) He continues to compare Homo zappiens to previous generations and
comes to the conclusion that in this respect they do not actually differ that much from
one another: Scanning newspapers by reading only the headlines is a well-known
reading strategy in order to get an overview of the latest news, especially if time is
restricted. Consequently, watching TV in this way can turn it into a more active,
cognitively challenging occupation than the passive immersion it is usually presented as.
Finally, what Internet browsing and TV channel zapping have in common is their
abdication of control over information flow to the user.
The next difference Prensky claims to have discovered is that Digital Natives
prefer random access (like hypertext). Consequently, they should find the lock-step,

17

linear approach to learning that has been advocated in schools for decades, if not
centuries, difficult to engage with. The origin of this preference could at least be two-fold.
As for previous generations of learners, when the volume of pages to read increases, a
linear approach, reading books from cover to cover, becomes exceedingly timeconsuming. As a consequence, being able to scan texts for key passages, read and process
them in random order becomes more and more important. In this sense a non-linear
approach to reading, rather like piecing together a puzzle, resembles the abovementioned habit of zapping and is by no means new. What is new is that content is no
longer exclusively available as printed matter but rather digitalised and therefore more
easily searchable. By pressing Ctrl-F/Cmd-F any text can be searched for keywords,
which simplifies the discovery of relevant passages considerably. Again, the aim is to cut
to the chase, as it were, in order to navigate successfully through unprecedentedly
abundant information. Subsequently, this strategy of focussing on key passages may
easily have become so successful that the need to read anything from beginning to end is
no longer perceived and the habitual, rather than the secondary, reflex is to approach
new documents in this more selective way. Of course that makes paper-based texts,
which lack the convenient Ctrl-F/Cmd-F function, rather tedious supports to work with.
A similar reproach, that of impossible expertise, can be made about this way of
proceeding just as it could about zapping. As Veen sees it, many youngsters do not have
an interest in the details of complex underlying structures: Most of them do not show a
particular interest in technology itself, they just use it. (Veen and Vrakking, 36) Rather
than having ambitions to be experts, many content themselves with being users. Hence, it
seems they have adopted a fairly utilitarian approach. The question asked of technology
might be: How can it help make my life easier?, while that asked of school and texts to
read in different subjects could be: How can they help me answer the questions (mine or
the teachers) satisfactorily in the quickest possible way? They may see texts, like
technology, as means to an end, where intrinsic value, structure and functioning are
relegated to a secondary rank of importance. In fact, just as a large portion of previous
student generations with a focus on efficiency did as well. Nonetheless, there are positive
sides to their behaviour according to Veen:

18
The learner is at the centre of the learning process, he or she deciding what
questions and sequences of questions will be defined and answered. As a
consequence Homo zappiens are active learners taking a non-linear approach in
which they formulate the sequence of search questions to be addressed. (72)

Firstly, the non-linear approach is bound to allow for more personalised learning giving
students a greater degree of autonomy and control over which path to the finishing line
they want to take. Secondly, in order to use the text search function effectively keywords
need to be defined, wherefore the initial formulation of a concise question or goal is
indispensable. As before, if the student fails to understand the task or conceptualise the
expected outcome, the technological tools at his disposal will not automatically translate
into an advantage and even less into success. Lastly, an illogical sequence of questions is
still likely to translate into a lack of structure in the answer the student eventually
produces. One could therefore say that rather than technology dwarfing the importance
of all traditional skills it is merely restructuring their hierarchy while adding new ones that
previous cohorts did not have to master.
Prensky continues by claiming that the new generation of students function best
when networked. Dr Chris Jones, reader at the Institute of Educational Technology (IET)
at the Open University, and Binhui Shao, interpret this type of statement to suggest
that the new generation of learners will be pre-conditioned by their use of
technology to () [favour] aspects of collaboration, particularly team work and
peer-to-peer learning. (Jones and Shao 2011, 9)

One is led to think of mobile phones, text messages, chat programs like MSN, or Skype,
but also social networks like facebook, Google+ or MySpace, and finally blogs and forums.
All of these allow people to connect with others and to communicate either through
writing or speaking, pictures or videos. And indeed, as hinted at in the introduction, the
vast majority of my students who were kind enough to fill in my questionnaire about their
Internet use (see Appendix 1) have signed up to facebook.

19
Do you have a facebook account?
No
9%

Yes
91%

Figure 2 - Percentage of the 54 students who answered my survey with a facebook account.

Communication with a close circle of friends, who are also real-life friends, is first
stretched via social networks to include people we might not see every day or who are
geographically remote from us, to arrive at purely virtual interaction with anybody from
anywhere who might happen to comment on our latest blog entry or video post on
YouTube. Rather than being an end in themselves, networks are highly useful for
problem-solving as the likelihood of finding a more knowledgeable peer increases
proportionally with the size of the network. Thanks to the Internet, there is not even a
need to know the helper personally as it is often enough to post a question in a forum to
get the desired answer shortly afterwards. On a more intimate scale, it might just be
phoning or chatting with a classmate to clarify doubts over a homework assignment. If
these are indeed the resources Digital Natives fall back on, it would not be surprising
should they be frustrated by individual work where they are not even allowed to bounce
ideas off their neighbour before writing them down.
The second but last characterising feature Prensky lists is that Digital Natives
thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. One does probably not need the
assertion of neuroscientists like Ulrich Herrmann to be able to know, implicitly if not
explicitly, that
Belohnung und Spa bewirken, dass das Gehirn umso besser funktioniert, je
attraktiver die Lernsituation empfunden wird, und die Attraktivitt bemisst sich
wie knnte es anders sein an der Abschtzung des zu erwartenden Erfolgs.
(Herrmann 2008, 47)

20

If the positive effect of gratification is not a new discovery, then perhaps Prensky meant
to emphasise the importance of its instantaneity. This would suggest that Digital Natives
find it challenging to stay on task and motivated if they are not encouraged by a
temporally close experience of success. As a consequence, goals or learning objectives
would have to be not only realistically achievable while remaining challenging but
possible to reach within a reasonably short period of time as well. The goal to become
fluent in a foreign language could then at best be an overall motivating formulation
without being able to keep students on track on a daily basis where more bite-sized
objectives are needed. Veen reckons that this expectancy of instant gratification is again
due to their uses of digital technologies.
To them, most of the information they are looking for is only a click away, as is
anybody they want to contact. They hold a positive view on their possibilities of
getting the right information at the right time from anybody and anywhere. (30)

It follows that they expect any need to know that they may have to be stilled more or less
immediately, accompanied by the enjoyable easing off of a feeling of doubt or confusion
that originally triggered their inquisitiveness. On a less self-realising or fulfilling level this
could also simply mean that praise (verbal or in the more tangible form of, say, a sticker)
is experienced as extrinsically motivating and also an effective means of encouraging that
same curiosity.
Yet not only teachers can give frequent rewards, so can games. Perhaps this is
part of the reason why Prensky finishes his list of Digital Natives characteristics by saying
that they prefer games to serious work. Rather than only providing instant
gratification and feelings of success as rewards, games also allow the player to assume an
active role. Veen even states that learning starts as play and it is an exploratory play as
[users] discover and proceed in a game. (38) He suggests that proceeding by a hands-on,
trial-and-error approach is Homo zappiens preferred way of discovering the functions,
goals and story of a game as opposed to reading the instructions before starting to play.
In an English language classroom context, perhaps this preference could be translated
into one for inductive as opposed to deductive (grammar) teaching, once again because it
gives learners the freedom to discover rules through use and an element of active
investigation rather than a top-down approach.

21

However, Prenskys claim has not been embraced and appropriated by everyone
as enthusiastically as by Veen. In fact, the OECDs Centre for Educational Research and
Innovation (CERI) states in its report entitled New Millennium Learners (NML) Initial
findings on the effects of digital technology on school-age learners (OECD/CERI 2008)
that the very concept of NML is an oversimplification which underestimates the impact
of socio-economic status. [my emphasis] (6) Rather than there being a standard and
quite homogenous approach to technologies shared () by the average OECD teenager
there are conspicuous differences or even gaps between usage of new technologies in the
thirty-four member countries. The reproach is certainly valid: the development Prensky
theorised clearly depends on more than a mere passing of time and the subsequently
inevitable generational change. Prensky rightly identifies new technologies as the
catalyst and conditio sine qua non for the evolution he describes and by that very fact it is
only logical that there can be no talk of a uniform, and even less, global development. If
one wants to take this critique even further, it is highly likely that access to ICT and other
technological tools does not only differ widely from one OECD member, or even Central
European, country to another, but also between households of different income levels
and priorities within those countries. Hence, the CERI criticises that the generational
approach adopted by most analysts and essay writers cannot be sustained empirically.
(20) Nonetheless, it has to be said that within the context of this travail de candidature
the students in question all live in Luxembourg which, according to national statistics
released in September 2011, is second only to the Netherlands on a European level in
terms of Internet access availability with 90% of connected households (STATEC
Luxembourg 2011, 35). Furthermore, a related analysis from February 2011, focusing
solely on the use of ICT, specifies that the presence of children or young adults in the
household raises this percentage to 98% (STATEC Luxembourg, 2). It follows that, if there
has indeed been a change like the one described by Prensky and Veen, it is highly likely
that Luxembourgs younger population, through its high rate of adoption of new
technologies, will have been affected by it. Of course, socio-economic background, age
and gender will remain influencing factors even here.

22

A further aspect that has been called into question is the correlation between
extensive everyday use of new technologies and the ability to use computers for
learning. Jones and Shao reference a study conducted by Nina Heinze from the University
of Augsburg Institute for Media and Educational Technology in 2008 whereby information
literacy skills were lower than expected despite students being net savvy (Jones and
Shao, 19). They continue by saying that
Although the net generation learners knew how to use technology for
personal use, this did not mean that they were capable of using it for
learning and working purposes in their future life. () [S]tudents needed
special training which they hadnt acquired naturally through using digital
technologies for leisure.

One cannot fail to notice the differences in foci between conclusions such as these and
those of Veen, who can see the development of positive and useful skills even in activities
as commonly frowned upon as TV channel zapping. While Veen is hopeful that the ability
to process and (re-)construct meaning from discontinued information can become a more
general, transferable, cognitive skill, Heinze, Jones and Shao regret the fact that students
did not learn how to browse a library catalogue or search for subject-specific, ideally
academic information on the Internet effectively by using it mostly for entertainment
purposes. They are looking for precise, practical know-how, whose acquisition seems at
least slightly unrealistic in non-academic contexts. In describing Digital Natives or Homo
zappiens, Prensky and Veen could be seen to prioritise attitudes, preferences and mindsets, the absence of a reticence to experiment with new technologies, to immerse oneself
in them without reading instructions first, confident that they will teach their functions to
the users along the way. And indeed, the latest buzzword in advertisement for devices
such as smartphones seems to be intuitive - something that searching a library
catalogue, understanding book- and shelf marks, let alone physically locating one book
among tens of thousands can hardly be described as; on the contrary, it needs practice
and ideally a patient library assistant. Similarly, one used to only stumble upon Google
Scholar articles when one was already searching for the right keywords, and YouTubes
education channel is also not something one unearths coincidentally while searching for
videos of kittens, arguably funny accidents or the latest meme. For now, technology

23

offers tools that people are free to use how they like and as best their still developing
skills allow. They are neutral; it is the user who decides the work or play context within
which to employ them. Logically, if that choice has mostly fallen on play, it is hardly
surprising that the resulting skills fail to be entirely adequate in the work context. Still,
instead of lamenting the Internet and search engines by themselves falling short of
teaching students how best to use them, one could highlight the positive, reinforced and
far from redundant or even threatened role of the teacher as the guide to alleviate these
deficiencies. Apart from that, Heinzes results are clearly something to bear in mind for
technology-based projects in the classroom in order to approach students with ideally
more appropriate, realistic expectations and avoid taking certain skills for granted.
A further polemic aspect of Prenskys theory is the harsh dichotomy he saw
between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants back in 2001. However, Jones and Shao
highlight that Prensky reviewed his initial stance in his 2009 publication H. Sapiens
Digital: From Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom (Prensky 2009).
Prensky acknowledges that
as we move further into the 21st century when all will have grown up in the
era of digital technology, the distinction between digital natives and digital
immigrants will become less relevant. (1) () Digital wisdom can be, and
must be, learned and taught. As we offer more courses in digital literacy, we
should also offer students guidance in developing digital wisdom. () The
digitally wise () know that just knowing how to use particular technologies
makes one no wiser than just knowing how to read words does. (6)

Leaning on Howard Gardner (Gardner 2000), who suggests that wisdom may be seen in
the breadth of issues considered in arriving at a judgment or decision, Prensky defines it
as the ability to find practical, creative, contextually appropriate, and emotionally
satisfying solutions to complicated human problems. (Prensky 2009, 2) Technology can
enhance this wisdom by allowing us access to a larger set of data to take into
consideration before making up our minds. The richness is bound to complicate the
search for relevant, appropriate material and requires us to develop information literacy
as pointed out by Heinze, as well as Prensky himself; yet once we possess these skills it
seems indubitable that our judgments can indeed be improved by the technological tools
at our disposal. The shift in theories softens the generational divide and surely this can

24

only be positive if the aim is to convince educators to lose their inhibitions, reticence and
fear of contact with new technologies and to discover and draw their educational
potential.
A last point I would like to raise regarding the concepts of Digital Natives and
Homo zappiens is that they mainly seem to have originated and been observed, especially
in Veens case, in a context that is far from identical to the classroom within which I
intend to implement my project. Veen, as a professor at the University of Technology of
Delft, is bound to be surrounded by students who, by the choice of subject for their
higher studies, must in some way be predisposed to be more susceptible to and
interested in new technologies than the majority of my students who do not intend to
continue their studies in this field. It follows that apart from socio-economic background,
age and gender, preferences for certain disciplines also have to be taken into account as
an influencing factor when it comes to habits in technology use and the resulting impact
this might have on the attitudes to an ICT-based project in a secondary school classroom.
On this topic, Jones and Shao quote a survey with 1222 undergraduate students
conducted in 2008 in the UK by Neil Selwyn in an attempt to understand their academic
use of the Internet (Jones and Shao, 14) by analysing how often how many of them
searched for academic-related information online. The data from the survey does
indeed confirm that students academic use of the Internet [is] strongly related with
gender and discipline differences. Apart from this finding, however, it also suggested
that students approaches to learning appeared to be influenced by lecturers teaching
approaches. This statement should not cause surprise: it is only logical that students who
have successfully made their way through, in all likelihood, traditional schooling should
have learnt to adapt not only their methods but probably also their expectations to their
experiences. This claim can be seen as fairly defeatist since it denies to an extent the
existence of a driving force for change in education coming from the students themselves
which Prensky predicted through the advent of new technologies. Nonetheless, it can on
the contrary also be extremely encouraging. If the students follow their lecturers
approaches, this not only confirms the latters guiding role but also opens up a space for
innovation. Again, like the concession that Digital Immigrants can become as digitally wise

25

as Digital Natives, the finding could give confidence to all educators. Instead of being
overrun or threatened by developments they do perhaps not fully grasp, they are given
the choice and opportunity now by both the technology itself and their students to try
and bring the change that is reshaping the world outside education into their domain as
well so as to benefit from digital enhancement of their own and their students wisdom.
Throughout this chapter I have tried to review definitions of Digital Natives, Homo
zappiens, as well as New Millennium Learners terms which I have used interchangeably
to refer to the same concept. The diversity of names alone suggests that debate remains
as to the exact nature of the phenomenon Prensky originally described in 2001. However,
I believe that despite the objections made by the OECDs CERI, or researchers such as
Jones and Shao, Heinze, and Selwyn, there is no doubt about a very real, tangible impact
that the advent of new technologies in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have had on a
majority of industrialised nations populations in both their professional as well as private
lives. The main deficiency Prensky and Veen have been accused of is the lack of largescale, empirical evidence for their claims that technology has indeed changed an entire
generations way of thinking, dealing with information and their expectations of schools
and the world in general. Nonetheless, although their perhaps more anecdotal evidence
might not be sufficient from a scientific point of view to found the generalisations they
have made on, I believe that the concept of Digital Natives in itself retains its usefulness
for further studies and definitely also for the present travail de candidature. The latter
certainly makes no claims to the discovery of universal truths about an entire generation.
Instead, it endeavours to see whether the attitudes of Luxembourgish students, born into
the digital age, facilitate and allow for the successful implementation of an ICT-based,
social media enhanced project whose main aim remains to discover if this approach can
indeed lead to an improvement of students various skills in English.

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1.2 Of virtual learning environments (VLE)


In order to overview the effect of online social interaction and collaboration on my
students skills in English it is necessary to provide them with a virtual space within which
to do just that. On a basic level, this is nothing other than a digital copy of a classroom or
workspace where the vast majority of activities that students would also do in school are
possible. However, a VLE is the technologically enhanced version of its analogue
counterpart. It is like a classroom that is simultaneously a library full of the knowledge,
languages and literature of the world, a quiet study room, a noisy cafeteria for
discussions, just a pleasant corner in which to meet friends and chat, and the teachers
extended office now complete with her gradebook. Not only can the digital classroom
be all that at once, it can also be anywhere in the world at once. It can lead students to
videos, audio recordings or people from the other side of the planet and allow them
insights into different historical or contemporary everyday realities. Of course, the
traditional classroom can bring parts of these experiences to students as well but the
multimedia, more interactive approach bears within it a higher potential to appeal to a
wider range of learning styles. Lastly, perhaps the greatest difference is that it is the
student who controls when, at which speed, how often and with whom or what they
engage to continue in their learning process. As Veen put it, it enables children to keep
control of information flows. (Veen and Vrakking, 10) Consequently, learning is easily
individualised and more autonomous, materials can be consulted at moments when an
actual need to know should increase both the students interest and motivation, while
raising the perceived relevance of the materials themselves.
According to the study report of the French MEN about virtual learning platforms
in Europe, the UKs Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has defined VLEs as
follows:
It is an umbrella term that describes a broad range of ICT systems used to
deliver and support learning. As a minimum, we expect it to combine
communication and collaboration tools, secure individual online working
space, tools to enable teachers to manage and tailor content to user needs,
pupil progress tracking and anytime/anywhere access. (Ministre de
l'ducation nationale, France 2010, 7)

27

A VLE is more than just a database of material to support learning; it also takes on the
more active role of delivering it first. One is led to think of videotaped experiments,
recorded interviews or speeches, posters, newspaper articles or other texts introducing
new concepts, ideas or phenomena. Of course those resources make great lesson starters
in the physical classroom as well but they can also be accessed independently of the
institutionalised learning setting a feature which helps students who missed classes, or
those who want to revise, to keep on top of their work more easily and, on a larger scale,
to democratise the acquisition of knowledge substantially.
The next defining feature is the combination of communication and collaboration
tools: a messaging service to connect the teacher with her students, the students with
their teacher, and the students amongst themselves. It is imaginable that parents, the
school administration or external stakeholders, like companies taking on interns and
apprentices, also be connected in this way. Collaboration relies to a great extent on this
communication and could include tools for the communal editing of documents, a space
whose content and layout in itself can be designed and edited by a group before being
commented on, peer-assessed and improved once again.
Of course, as in the classroom, the aim is to create a safe learning environment. It
is unimaginable that a stranger walk into the school, pick a classroom at random and sit
down next to your students to follow the course and have a look at the work that is being
produced. Similarly, in the context of a VLE, this means that students need to be
sheltered from non-peer comments - when and while appropriate - through the
restriction of school- or class-external access to their working space and work.
Furthermore, it is highly likely that this presupposes an effective antivirus and firewall
protecting the network with all its connected devices and documents. The word
individual used in the DfES definition could denote aforementioned restriction of
access by worldwide and whole-school users to only class-internal ones, or, even more
narrowly, to single users. For a messaging service between individuals the latter is
indispensable so that one can choose one precise recipient for a message but if the VLE
included a (micro) blogging function, a class-account would also be imaginable for this.

28

For a library to be user-friendly there needs to be a good catalogue or index and


pre-defined spaces where new material can be deposited. Similarly, the VLE needs to
provide an orderly framework within which to organise files for both the teachers and
students to navigate through as easily as possible. Furthermore, the possibility to
personalise content is indispensable for it to be relevant as well as appropriate for
students skill level and needs.
In order to give students formative and/or summative feedback it should
moreover be possible to track progress on the VLE. An online, continuously updated
gradebook, for example, could make progression more visible to both the students and
the teacher and should facilitate early remediation in case of difficulties. Apart from this,
the visualization of the progress can be experienced as a rewarding, ideally motivating
feeling of success in itself. Furthermore, real-time comments on student productions can
help correct errors during the very process of writing, rather than only after submission.
Lastly, for a VLE to successfully extend learning beyond the classroom and the
school premises, access needs to be easy and granted around-the-clock from any
computer, laptop and ideally other mobile devices like smartphones or tablet PCs.
Students work best at different times of the day and, as neuro-scientific insights have
confirmed, brains cannot work in lockstep (Herrmann 2008, 47). It is therefore highly
useful if individual students can decide for themselves when to pause and rewind a video
clip or audio recording, rather than being dependent on the teachers use of the (remote)
control. A lack of understanding combined with an impossibility to try and remedy the
situation has indubitably irritating effects and is likely to lead to disengagement.
Inversely, stronger students might very well feel irritated by repetition that is unnecessary
for them, with disengagement also being a probable response. Thus, a VLE should allow
for the creation of a differentiated and inclusive environment encouraging a greater
degree of learner-autonomy.
Of course, the picture painted previously is that of a VLE in its ideal state, under
perfect usage conditions, granting infallible access to well-trained, confident teachers and
students, perfectly integrated and accepted in the learning community. Unfortunately, as
the French MENs study report elaborates, the realities examined in Denmark, the UK and

29

Spain often look different. The biggest problem is that educational uses () are limited
everywhere. (Ministre de l'ducation nationale, France, 68) While the VLEs play an
important role in improving communication between stakeholders (most markedly
between teachers) and are used for organisational aspects such as booking rooms or
ordering materials, the report laments the apparent
absence of a new pedagogical model that would exploit the specific
characteristics of virtual platforms to develop innovative teaching practices,
based on active learning by pupils rather than perpetuating a traditional
pedagogy of transmission from teacher to pupil.

What seems to have happened is that the VLEs have indeed become a digital copy of the
analogue classroom but without the added technological enhancement for which they
were invented and installed in the first place. As long as the pedagogical vision remains
one of transmission of knowledge in a teacher-centred setting, multilateral
communication and collaboration encouraging a more student-centred, socially
negotiated construction of knowledge will remain a rare sight. A further obstacle, the
study claims, is that there is no clear vision of the specific contribution of a platform at
school level. So although the ministries of the respective countries have deemed the
installation of VLEs for schools to be useful to tap into the benefits of technological
advancement, schools themselves mostly seem to fail to see direct applications for the
systems beyond the administrative domain. Other constraints are limited access to
computers at certain times and places and lack of time for teachers to practise the use
of platforms. Veen, in his speech at the Lyce de Garons Luxembourg (LGL) on 6th
October 2011 on the occasion of mySchool!s tenth anniversary, observed and regretted
the same exact problems VLEs elsewhere had run into. He pointed out precisely what the
French MENs study confirms:
Pupils play little part in the exchanges that are organised on virtual
platforms; their participation is limited to the work to be done, uploaded by
teachers. (68)

Instead of sending students for example on web-quests, which in the studies conducted
by education scientist Sugata Mitra (2011) yielded impressive results, teachers perhaps
inadvertently replicate, for want of more innovative ideas, what they do and have done in

30

the traditional classroom for years. Unfortunately, the initially probably exciting novelty
effect of using computers for homework has indubitably worn off with time.
Yet despite these fundamental, deep-rooted issues, the study could nonetheless
report on positive findings from Denmark. One of the highlighted characteristics of their
education system is pupils teamwork on projects. A positive synergy could be
observed between this and the educational use of virtual platforms. Furthermore, they
found that the platforms are also increasingly used by pupils when it comes to
continuing their schoolwork after class time. Thus, at least those pupils and their
teachers must have discovered and are taking advantage of the potential for
communication and collaboration on VLEs. Furthermore, with children signing on from
home the platforms have successfully managed to extend the learning environment to
include the comfort of individual study- or bedrooms. Of course the risk of falling asleep
in too cosy an environment is real but once again neuro-scientist Herrmann placates this
worry: it is precisely in a relaxed atmosphere, free from intense pressure to perform and
fear of failure, that curiosity and creativity take wing (Herrmann, 46).
In general, the French MENs study has highlighted, amongst others, the following
success factors:
Organise (quasi-) permanent access to ICT equipment at school level, particularly in
classrooms rather than dedicated laboratories ()
Develop programmes and actions for training teachers not only in ICT and platform
operation, but also in their pedagogical use ()
Provide technical support, available during usage time (school hours and even outside
these) and capable of responding quickly and effectively to spare teachers from technical
tasks and enable them to concentrate on pedagogical aspects (Ministre de l'ducation

nationale, France, 8-9)


In the Luxembourgish context, some of these aspects are better catered for than others
with pronounced differences between individual schools, particularly in terms of access
to and availability of ICT equipment. At the LTC, projectors are starting to appear in some
classrooms but often without computers attached to them, requiring the teacher to bring
in their own laptop. Throughout teacher education there is no big focus on training
student teachers to use ICT in general or the platform mySchool! in particular, and

31

consequently hardly any ideas for the pedagogical use of the available infrastructure are
introduced. mySchool! training sessions are sporadically organised throughout the year
but it seems that only a minority of teachers feels confident enough to fully embrace its
use on an everyday basis afterwards. After all, it is likely that the hypothesis the French
study puts forward regarding the examined VLEs weaknesses is worth considering in the
context of mySchool! as well: it suggests that their little pedagogic use and insufficient
active participation by students may result from an (implicit) initial design of the
platforms based on a model of knowledge transfer, itself resulting from the absence of a
new pedagogical model. (Ministre de l'ducation nationale, France, 70) The examined
VLEs, as opposed to the idealised version defined by the DfES, only one-sidedly display
one of the characterising, exciting features of modern Web 2.0 technology, which is usergenerated content. It is mostly the teachers who create and the students who consume,
with a pre-defined and therefore limited scope for reaction. However, some of the
ideology has not been dwarfed by everyday school reality. The study retains that VLEs are
nonetheless
bearers of change. The creation of educational resources they have
encouraged, the enhanced teamwork among teachers, and the
modernisation and rationalisation of administrative tasks all bear witness to
this. (70)

The challenge now will be to build on this, retrieve the spirit that inspired the creation of
VLEs in the first place and endeavour to stay closer to it in new attempts to translate it
from ideology into practice. Web 2.0 technologies should facilitate this effort and I will try
to give an overview of what they are in the following section.

1.3 and Web 2.0 technologies


According to Tom Rank, Chris Warren and Trevor Millum in their book Teaching English
using ICT (2011), Web 2.0 is a
generic term for web applications that enable interactive information
sharing and collaboration on the World Wide Web. Examples include social
networking sites, blogs and wikis, emphasizing peer-to-peer relationships
rather than the top-down ones found on static web pages. (166)

32

The overarching ideal is clearly one of participation and creation as opposed to mere
reception and consumption. Of course Tim Berners-Lees founding idea behind the
Internet did not diverge all that much from this but one has to admit that technical
barriers such as a need to be able to write HTML, Java or Flash code to generate
webpages were bound to restrict contribution considerably. What is new about Web 2.0
then is its much more user-friendly accessibility, allowing people from all walks of life and
ages with relatively little technical knowledge to connect, share, create and contribute to
the face of the Internet.

Figure 3 - A tag cloud (a typical Web 2.0 phenomenon in itself) presenting Web 2.0 themes.

Figure 3 shows a tag cloud illustrating different themes summarised in keywords (tags)
associated with Web 2.0. The font size and colour show the importance of each tag, with
the most prominent ones also being the most frequent to be linked with the concept of

Source: Original image by Markus Angermeier, vectorised by Luca Cremonini, from Wikimedia Commons:
commons.wikimedia.org

33

Web 2.0. Tags can serve as labels that will make it easier to find the items they describe
with the help of search engines like Google.
Tim OReilly is widely credited for the invention of the term Web 2.0 after his OReilly
Media organised the Web 2.0 Conference (now Web 2.0 Summit) in late 2004 (O'Reilly
and Batelle 2009). The name reflects hope for the continuing existence, the second
coming (1) of an evolved, if not new, Internet after the dotcom bust, which saw the fall
of myriad Internet based start-up companies, and shows the very clear connection
between the Internet and business, tying all the lofty ideologies firmly to hard cash. While
this might seem lamentable to some, one cannot fail to acknowledge the latters
tremendously incentivising effect. And after all, not only companies but also many
individuals can benefit from the setup of functioning applications translating ideology into
practice. Two great examples, if not the very paragons of the Web 2.0 concept, are
Wikipedia and, more recently, the impressive collaboration tool that is Google Docs. The
latter was certainly built to improve businesses but is free to use for individuals like
teachers and their students and thus gives back a lot to the community. OReilly dubbed
the former encyclopaedia in his 2004 article What is Web 2.0 a radical experiment in
trust, applying Eric Raymonds dictum (originally coined in the context of open source
software) that with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow, to content creation.6 The
success story of a platform allowing any user to add an entry to the encyclopaedia, which
can in turn be edited by any subsequent user, proves in OReillys opinion that Web 2.0 is
all about harnessing collective intelligence. (2009, 1) Of course the element of
dependency on a certain degree of trust, common sense and goodwill is not negligible
and brings with it new challenges for the readers. Consequently, Wikipedia in particular
and the Internet in general require their users to develop information literacy skills such
as a notion of bias, and a healthy portion of scepticism and carefulness to avoid the trap
of gullibility. Nonetheless, Wikipedia can often provide good overviews because it has
succeeded in attracting experts willing to share their knowledge and others who, eagleeyed, find and as soon suggest corrections or highlight omissions.
6

OReilly, Tim. What is Web 2.0. http://oreilly.com/pub/a/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html?page=2 th


accessed 17 December 2011

34

Figure 4 A screenshot taken on 17/12/11 from Wikipedia showing the Discussion tab leading to a talk page about
the article, and an alert highlighting a necessary review of the article by an expert.

The fact that there is a discussion page to talk about the qualities and shortcomings of
each article that is published shows the socio-constructivist spirit behind the project and
allows everyone to witness instances of negotiation of knowledge in action. On this
particular page, the article on Web 2.0 is assessed by the community and rated (this one
received a B), and suggestions or comments for the improvement of the article are made.
Users now have the possibility to use the voice they are given, to come of age so to say,
and to participate in this radical experiment. Of course, consent cannot always be
found, as the revision history section proves, letting draft follow draft and articles
therefore sometimes remaining in a perpetually provisional (perpetual beta, as seen in
the tag cloud) state. Alternatively, users can also choose to remain in the model of
knowledge transfer and simply consult Wikipedia as a resource they do not contribute to.
However, one should not forget that these applications rely on the users participation
and literally get better the more people use them (O'Reilly and Batelle, 1)
While an encyclopaedia might seem a little daunting for first experiments with ones
voice, other applications such as social media sites attract participation more easily.
Practically all of my students have already embraced this aspect of Web 2.0 at least to an
extent by signing up to facebook. My task was to try and use the peer-to-peer
relationships that they were already fostering and nurturing to realise their educational
potential within the socio-constructivist paradigm of learning. Ideally, they would start to
perceive each other as valuable resources to tap into, grow from and grow with.
Furthermore, it should have helped reduce their overreliance on the teacher, increase
confidence in their ability to find the information and help they need by themselves,

35

either on the web or amongst their peers, and let them become more independent,
autonomous and perhaps even more self-incentivised learners.

37

2 An overview of socio-constructivist
theories and concepts
Myriad new technological tools have been designed and programmed to support people,
often initially those in businesses, to solve problems jointly and hence, albeit implicitly,
through essentially Vygotskyan procedures of cooperation and collaboration (Daniels,
Cole and Wertsch 2007, 311). It is no surprise, then, to find that educators have tried to
appropriate and/or adapt the same tools for use in the classroom. The function of this
section is to make explicit once more the underlying socio-constructivist theories and
concepts which have inspired the creation of such tools as Edmodo and Google Docs, and
which are possibly some of the best current examples of a practical, digital link between
the early twentieth-century Russian psychologists thinking and our time. Furthermore,
due its usefulness for assessing the impact of aforementioned tools on students thinking
behaviours and learning, I will conclude this section with a short review of Blooms
revised taxonomy.
As Pritchard explains in Ways of Learning, socio-constructivism superseded
behaviourism, one of the earliest attempts to understand learning (Pritchard 2009, X)
and constructivism, which, compared to its predecessor, took a broader stance on such
things as mental activity, the importance of prior knowledge, social context and social
interaction through the medium of language. In order to provide a more comprehensive
insight into Vygotskys thinking I deem it useful to have a very brief look at preceding
theories and concepts it moved away or evolved from.
According to Pritchard, [b]ehaviourism is a theory of learning focusing on
observable behaviours and discounting any mental activity. Learning is defined simply as
the acquisition of new behaviour. (6) One is led to think of Pavlovs dog conditioned to
associate the ring of a bell with food; a link which eventually triggered the dogs
production of saliva at the mere sound of the bell even before the food was presented. In
this theory,
learning begins with a stimulus-response connection. () [The behavioural]
change [this creates] is effected through a process of reward and

38
reinforcement but has little regard, initially, for mental process or
understanding. (Pritchard, 14-15)

One cannot fail to notice the prominence of rewards (and, by extension, sanctions) in this
approach aiming to prime a desirable response in the learner or discourage an
undesirable one. The subject learns to associate certain behaviour with a positive
consequence, which in turn reinforces the initial behaviour, or, contrarily, he comes to
connect an action with a negative, undesirable response or punishment, which will
discourage its repetition. It follows that in this type of classical conditioning (6) it is not
necessary for the subject to understand why certain behaviour is en- or discouraged; the
focus lies solely on the response itself. While this method may seem of dubitable
helpfulness for the development of more complex, demanding mental processes
required, for example, for the understanding of abstract ideas, behaviourism can
nonetheless be highly useful in situations where, for reasons of safety, it is important
that young children do not do certain things stepping off the kerb, poking electrical
sockets and so on. (9) Of course, behaviourism can also be applied successfully in a
language classroom setting, for example in the form of drills or rote learning (16),
although Pritchard points out that this should be followed by attempts to encourage
understanding.
Constructivism within the educational context, on the other hand, fits under the
umbrella term of cognitive science. (Pritchard, 17) The latter studies how people learn,
remember and interact, often with strong emphasis on mental processes and often with
an emphasis on modern technologies. The importance of rewards and punishments, so
highly rated in conditioning, is considerably reduced in this approach. Focus clearly shifts
from external displays of desired behaviour to understanding how and under which
circumstances we put down new memories, i.e. learn. Four areas of learning are defined:
Knowledge
Concepts
Skills
Attitudes
() We learn factual information; we learn to understand new ideas; we learn skills, both
mental and physical; and we learn about, and develop, new attitudes to our environment. (18)

39

Constructivism is most closely associated with Jean Piaget, who is also one of the best
known psychologists in the field of child development and learning. He believed that
children pass through a sequence of rigidly age-related mental development stages
within which they show behaviour and abilities specific to their current stage.

Formal operational
Concrete
operational
Pre-operational

(11+ years)

(7-11 years)

(2-7 years)
Sensori-motor
(0-2 years)

Figure 5 - A visual representation of Piaget's stages of development. (Pritchard, 19)

Throughout the sensori-motor stage, children move from simple reflexive behaviour to
acquiring the ability to form schemas and to create patterns and chains of behaviour.
Over time children come to realise that objects exist even if they cannot be seen.
(Pritchard, 19) This is followed by the pre-operational stage when children are essentially
egocentric and unable to consider events from anothers point of view. The use of
symbolic thought begins and the imagination also begins to develop. From seven to
eleven years, children move through the concrete operational stage when they begin to
use logical thought about physical operations. Furthermore, they are able to conserve
that is, they realise that two equal physical quantities remain equal even if the
appearance of one changes. Finally, the last mental development stage is the formal
operational. Children are able to think hypothetically and abstractly, although this is
limited by lack of depth and breadth of knowledge.
This concept of age-related stages implies that a child cannot assimilate
knowledge, nor display skills belonging to a later stage of mental development, and that

40

consequently the content and style of teaching must follow and adapt to the childs
developmental stage. Furthermore, Piaget sees learning as a process of adjustment to
environmental influences. (19) Adjustment is achieved through assimilation and
accommodation. This theory acknowledges that students are not blank slates but have
prior knowledge informing the view and understanding of their environment. When new
knowledge is presented it needs to be assimilated, i.e. it has to be incorporated into
existing mental structures. (20) If this new knowledge contradicts the existing model, it
is necessary that the latter be altered to accommodate and cope with the new
experience. Finally, in order to arrive once again at a stable state where there is no
longer a conflict between new and existing knowledge, the learner has to go through a
process of equilibration. It follows that, within the constructivist concept, knowledge
cannot simply be transmitted or transferred to the student; it has to be actively
constructed by the learner who needs to constantly rearrange his current view, or
schemas (21), to make space for new information to be incorporated into an ever larger
picture, like pieces in a puzzle. It seems clear that this can only be achieved successfully
and completely when that information has been understood, as only understanding will
allow the learner to see the new pieces wider connection with and implications on the
prior construct. Hence, one cannot fail to notice a definite shift away from the teacher- to
a more learner-centred approach.
Social constructivism, then, clearly shows its alliance with Piagets view of learning
through its name but emphasises the role and contribution of social interaction and
dialogue in the construction of new ideas and understanding. As opposed to Piagets
view, the child is not a lone scientist (24) but needs and uses dialogue, often with a
more knowledgeable other or alternatively with a peer, as the vehicle by which ideas
are considered, shared and developed. Harry Daniels, in The Cambridge Companion to
Vygotsky, adds that pedagogic provision may be thought of in terms of material things as
well as persons. (Daniels, Cole and Wertsch 2007, 308) Hence, learning can occur, or be
deepened, through interaction with people of a higher or the same level of knowledge, or
objects such as authentic materials, models or even books providing a part of the implicit
or explicit dialogue the learner engages with.

41

One of the main distinctions between Piaget and Vygotskys view is that for the
latter
instruction and development do not coincide. () Instruction is only useful
when it moves ahead of development. When it does, it impels or awakens a
whole series of functions that are in a stage of maturation lying in the zone
of proximal development. This is the major role of instruction in
development. This is what distinguishes the instruction of the child from the
training of animals. () Instruction would be completely unnecessary if it
merely utilized what had already matured in the developmental process, if it
were not itself a source of development. (310)

As opposed to Piagets view that teaching must follow the childs developmental stage,
Vygotsky believes it should anticipate the learners skills that have not fully developed
yet but are, so to say, within reach. Daniels later defines this as proleptic teaching,
which is a type of instruction that takes place in anticipation of competence. (322) The
content of teaching is of course still adapted to the learners developmental stage but
does not only foster competences that have already matured. Instead, it encourages
and helps the student to go beyond his current skills to experiment with those that lie
within his zone of proximal development (ZPD). According to Vygotsky, the ZPD is
the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by
independent problem solving and the level of potential development as
determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in
collaboration with more capable peers. (Daniels, Cole and Wertsch 2007,
278)

Teaching clearly aspires to make the child fulfil his potential and thereby takes on a
developmental function, i.e. tries to help along the mental maturation process. The
social aspect of this type of teaching is key. As Vygotsky put it: We know that the child
can do more in collaboration than he can independently. (311) It is through interaction
with a teacher or a peer that the child is in a way enticed out of his comfort zone and
challenged to complete tasks with the support of a guide or helper that he could not
succeed in on his own. However, it is crucial that said tasks are not beyond the childs
ZPD as it remains impossible to appropriate skills from developmental stages that are
too advanced since the maturation process cannot simply skip parts of itself.

42
alien
territory
ZPD

child's current
developmental
stage

Figure 6 - Tasks must lie within the child's ZPD to allow their completion in collaboration with a more knowledgeable
other or peer.

However, when the tasks are appropriate, maturation of the childs higher mental
functions occurs in this co-operative process (310) and instruction can lead
development. (313)
The assistance referred to here is also called scaffolding but there remains some
debate about its exact nature and practical manifestations. The term itself is not
unproblematic as the provision of such a scaffold could be interpreted as a one-way
process (318) which would make it, in the words of Denis Newman, Peg Griffin, and
Michael Cole, some kind of prefabricated climbing frame designed by the scaffolder
alone. Consequently, instead of the student being involved he would again be reduced to
reception and reaction, which is diametrically opposed to the overarching socioconstructivist ideal. Daniels therefore refers to Luis C. Molls suggestion that the scaffold
be viewed as negotiated and resulting from the collaborative interaction within the ZPD,
which creates, enhances and communicates the meaning that the child is hoped to
appropriate. This interaction could be in the shape of demonstration, leading questions
or the introduction of the initial elements of the tasks solution (318). While assistance
is necessary, Daniels asserts that it is crucial for scaffolding to involve simplifying the
learners role rather than the task. [my emphasis] (317) Only in this way will the learner
eventually fully understand or acquire the whole set of skills, which were demonstrated in
their entirety, after the subsequent, gradual removal of the scaffold. Furthermore, if tasks
are artificially simplified, they are bound to lose in authenticity, which will make a

43

meaningful application of the students knowledge or skills outside of the classroom very
difficult. It is, however, exactly this application which has the potential to turn what
Vygotsky calls dead and empty verbal schemes into living knowledge (312), and allow
us to distance ourselves from a pedagogical model of knowledge transfer with a
disempowered student.
More generally, the discourse around socio-constructivism emphasises a
connection between everyday development and schooled development (328), and,
according to Daniels, Tom Bentley therefore proposed taking education out of its
traditional school context and looking beyond the classroom for social sites of learning.
Similarly, Moll and James B. Greenberg advocate an approach that allows for the
creation of meaningful connections between academic and social life [my emphasis]
and assert that social relations outside classrooms [are necessary to] change and
improve what occurs within the classroom walls. (Daniels, Cole and Wertsch, 326) It
seems logical that positive, constructive relationships between learners and teachers, but
also learners amongst themselves, will further the establishment of a supportive,
inclusive learning environment with relatively low levels of pressure to perform and the
related fear of failure. Furthermore, if students are to acknowledge each other as
resources, reducing their overreliance and dependence on the teacher, if they are to
collaborate and peer-assess one another, this would be greatly aided by an underlying
sense of belonging and complicity. Unfortunately, the reality in schools is often different
in a system that places the greatest value on individual performance in summative tests.
While this may be a well-suited approach to more introverted learners, who do not easily
feel comfortable with group work7, there should also be learning situations that cater to
the more extroverted in order to allow them to live up to their potential.
Hence, the continuing prevalence of assessing individual performance does not
necessarily mean that the learning process also be conducted under the flag of the eachon-their-own mentality. Instead, there should be an active promotion of discourse that
features constructive discussion, questioning, and criticism. (327) It is within this culture
of dialogue and exchange that a constant negotiation of meaning can evolve, which is
7

http://youtu.be/c0KYU2j0TM4 - TED talk by Susan Cain on The power of introverts.

44

necessary for the construction of knowledge. Subsequently, understanding and skills that
have been truly acquired, appropriated and internalised in a social, collaborative
environment can still be used individually by each team member outside of the
supportive group. In fact, in this context summative tests could be seen as an occasion for
the students to show what they can do without the scaffold represented by the group.
According to Ann Brown, Kathleen Metz and Joe Campione the learning community
should have allowed each member to pursue different sequences and progress through
different routes each at their own pace (326) since the classroom is a setting in which
multiple, overlapping zones of proximal development are supported. It follows that this
way of working also represents a great means of differentiation.
Nonetheless, Daniels also highlights the research of Jonathan Tudge and Barbara
Rogoff arguing that
social interaction does not carry blanket benefits and that the
circumstances in which social interaction facilitates development need to be
carefully specified. () The central characteristic of effective interaction was
seen to be the establishment of intersubjectivity irrespective of whether
adults or peers were involved and irrespective of whether the situation was
one that embodied Piagets cognitive conflict or Vygotskys joint problem
solving. (323)

Despite all the positive aspects mentioned previously, the collaboration advocated by
Vygotskys approach is neither unreservedly successful nor applicable in all and any
situations and contexts. The particular aim discussed here by Tudge and Rogoff is that of
moving the learner on in his mental development; they are thus not necessarily talking
about acquiring skills but rather understanding a new concept or piece of information
through social interaction. Whether the new element to be appropriated ran against
learners previous conceptions, thereby causing a cognitive conflict, or whether they
were required to solve a problem collaboratively, the key ingredient for successful
interaction was found to be intersubjectivity. According to the Oxford Dictionaries, the
term is used in the domain of philosophy to describe a state of awareness existing
between two conscious minds; shared by more than one conscious mind. 8 This would
entail that the people involved in the exchange seek to unite their personal
8

http://tinyurl.com/83ymz53 - accessed 23rd February 2012

45

interpretations or subjective views of a new element to reach a consensus or common


definition that they all agree on. If initial views are divergent, it follows that negotiation,
with its related questioning and explaining to seek and give clarification of each
individuals view, would be used to construct a meaning that all agree on. Of course,
intersubjectivity could also be reached through the same process when one student
already thinks to have understood the newly introduced item but needs to convince his
fellows that his view is correct. According to V. Davydov, it is through this process that
the student becomes a true subject (Daniels, Cole and Wertsch, 315) as it encourages
them to discover and master a variety of inner values which are closely linked to human
personality. Finally, this might also be why he believes that the teacher should guide the
students activity but not force or dictate their own will on them. While this seems
extremely difficult to realise on school level with a fairly rigid curriculum firmly in place,
one might be able to introduce at least elements of choice such as which book to read
in class in order to encourage the active participation that is needed from students if
collaboration, that should be socially negotiated, and that should entail transfer of
control to the learner (Daniels, Cole and Wertsch, 319) is to characterise our classroom.
To conclude this section I would like to look briefly at Blooms revised taxonomy
and highlight the possibility of using it as a complementary preparation and evaluation
tool within a socio-constructivist approach. Perhaps one of the most persuasive
arguments in favour of this symbiosis is the fact that the strong emphasis on mental
processes characterising constructivism also plays a crucial role in Blooms work. The
four areas of learning defined by Piaget, i.e. knowledge, concepts, skills and attitudes, can
be found again in the three domains of Blooms taxonomy: the cognitive
(knowledge/concepts), the affective (attitudes) and the psychomotor (skills). (Forehand
2005) Nonetheless, his work covering the cognitive domain seems to be the most widely
known. In 2001 a group including one of the co-editors of the original publication, David
Krathwohl, and Blooms former student, Lorin Anderson, published an updated version of
the taxonomy frequently represented in a pyramid-shaped diagram.

46

Creating

Evaluating

Analysing

Applying

Understanding

Remembering

Figure 7 - Illustration of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy.

According to Mary Forehand, Blooms Taxonomy is a multi-tiered model of classifying


thinking according to six cognitive levels of complexity. The classification is hierarchical,
which means that the higher mental processes build on the lower ones and thus require
achievement of the prior skill or ability before the next. Not only could the taxonomy
guide the teacher in the preparation, development and assessment phases of her
teaching, but it could also provide a common language for test or curriculum designers to
compare standards and test items. Forehand explains that the consequence of its use
within this context was a natural linkage of specific verbs and products with each level of
the taxonomy. She quotes Anderson and Krathwohl defining the levels as follows:
Remembering: Retrieving, recognizing, and recalling relevant knowledge from
long-term memory.
Understanding: Constructing meaning from oral, written, and graphic messages
through interpreting, exemplifying, classifying, summarising, inferring,
comparing, and explaining.
Applying: Carrying out or using a procedure through executing, or implementing.
Analysing: Breaking material into constituent parts, determining how the parts
relate to one another and to an overall structure or purpose through
differentiating, organising, and attributing.

47
Evaluating: Making judgments based on criteria and standards through checking
and critiquing.
Creating: Putting elements together to form a coherent or functional whole;
reorganizing elements into a new pattern or structure through generating,
planning, or producing.
(Anderson and Krathwohl 2001, 67-68)

It certainly does not require a large stretch of the imagination to see how this
comprehensive list could be helpful: not only can it be used like a set of descriptors or
criteria to gauge at which level students are currently working and assess which tasks
would lie within their ZPD, but it can even provide ideas for scaffolding, as it helps the
teacher understand exactly which thought processes are necessary for the student to
climb to the next a level. Lastly, it could also facilitate error analysis. Hence I believe
Blooms revised taxonomy can indeed help to further improve the learning experiences in
a socio-constructivist classroom and to assess them in a meaningful way.

2.1 Socio-constructivism meets the 21st century


When I first started thinking about the possible ways to realise the practical part of this
travail de candidature, it became clear very soon that I needed to be wary to avoid the
shortcomings of VLEs as discussed in section 1.3. I needed to find a new form of VLE that
would leave behind the old pedagogical model of knowledge transfer and allow for more
interactive, collaborative learning. As books on the latest online technologies are bound
to lag behind development in this field, I decided to embark on my search in the very
home of where I hoped my solution was already living and being successfully used by
others: my starting point, then, was the setup of two Google Alerts at the beginning of
May 2011. The company defines them as email updates of the latest relevant Google
results (web, news, etc.) based on [my] queries.9 The keywords or phrases I entered
were social media in the classroom and +ICT +teaching +classroom. I have since
received up to four emails a day with links to all and any online documents containing my
search words, and a thread soon began to emerge: myriad practitioners around the world
were and are expressing their positive experiences and excitement about including new

http://www.google.com/alerts - accessed 18th December 2011

48

technologies in their teaching, with the service that seems to have established itself most
firmly already in numerous schools/universities being YouTube and other online video
sites. In December 2011 YouTube for Schools10 was launched, a service which restricts
access to videos from www.youtube.com/edu, disables comments and the related
videos section to limit distractions, which is expected to further increase the
acceptability of the service. Mike Moran, Jeff Seaman and Hester Tinti-Kane in their
survey designed to be representative of the overall range of faculty teaching in U.S.
higher education (2011, 17) on Teaching, Learning, and Sharing: How Todays Higher
Education Faculty use Social Media found that over 90% of all faculty are using social
media in courses theyre teaching or for their professional careers outside the
classroom. (3) Their definition of social media encompasses online video as it is both in
form and content () user created, user controlled, flexible [and] democratic, and after it
gets shared what was once content becomes conversation (4). This is also what they
see as social medias most distinctive aspect:
the potential to transform from a way of pushing content outward to a way
of inviting conversation, of exchanging information, and of invoking
unparalleled individual, industry, societal, and even global change. (4)

Nonetheless, despite this celebration of the interactive, inclusive and social aspect of
online video, which made it by far the most common type of social media used in class
and posted outside class for student use (12), social networks like facebook or the microblogging service Twitter, which are based on the very same principles, were found to be
rarely used as part of a course. So although social networks are indubitably part of
social media there seems to remain a lack of an educational vision which would integrate
them as thoroughly into teaching as online video has been. Consequently, at least at the
moment of the survey in the months prior to April 2011, the use of facebook was still very
much restricted to the personal as opposed to the professional realm of higher education
faculty. This is explained by the surveys finding that not all social media sites are seen as
being valuable for teaching and the fact that a large proportion of faculty say facebook
(53%) and Twitter (46%) have negative value for use in class. (16) Interestingly, though,
10

Promotional video for YouTube in Schools: http://youtu.be/NegRGfGYOwQ - accessed 18th December


2011

49

58% of faculty still agree that social media can be valuable for collaborative learning.
There is clearly a distinction between the usefulness of a service in class, during teaching,
and its usefulness outside the classroom after teaching. Hence, while facebook is seen to
have limited educational use in seminar rooms or lecture theatres themselves, it could
still be an appropriate tool to extend the classroom beyond teaching times to facilitate
collaboration and communication between learners and teachers in their free time.
How can the panoply of articles about school use of facebook and Twitter, which I
did nonetheless receive as part of my Google Alerts, be explained then? On closer
inspection, the principal reason was threefold: firstly, stories of suggestions for or
successful instances of integration of these two services in particular spread like wildfire
and were posted on many different sites, blogs, forums, etc., and I would often receive
several reactions to basically the same original post. Secondly, one needs to bear in mind
that the Pearson report by Moran, Seaman and Tinti-Kane surveyed the use of social
media in higher education in the U.S. and not in primary and/or secondary schools or
other countries. Thus, it is possible that teachers in these institutions have found
instructional value in facebook and Twitter for their specific settings which has not been
deemed appropriate on a higher education level or simply not yet been tried, tested and
reported on. Thirdly, there was another on-going debate putting social media in the
limelight. Rather than discussing uses, many practitioners, on the contrary, seemed to be
struggling with its very acceptability in education. They were worried about blurring lines
between professional and private identities and potential repercussions of supposedly
private, online utterances on their professional, offline lives11. Others were worried that
contact between teachers and students might become too intimate as a consequence of a
virtual connection and some even called point blank for a ban on teachers and students
befriending each other on sites like facebook12. It soon became clear that a guiding
framework for this encounter between technology and education had only just begun to

11

http://tinyurl.com/c5jsxw8 - Veteran teacher suspended for gay-bashing on facebook. accessed 18


December 2011
12
This sparked particular controversy in Missouri where a legal ban was first imposed in August 2011
th
(http://tinyurl.com/7jsh5bh) and later partly repealed (http://tinyurl.com/6rqwrqo) - both accessed 18
December 2011

th

50

be discussed and was far from finding unreserved consent and adoption. Furthermore,
according to June Ahn, Lauren K. Bivona and Jeffrey Di Scala, where policies on social
media use have emerged they have all too often caused intractable policy controversies
as a consequence of the clash between an evolving, technology-mediated society and
traditional education institutions (Ahn, Bivona and DiScala 2011, 1). Interestingly, the
executive summary of the American National Education Technology plan already released
in November 2010 and entitled Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by
Technology, clearly states the necessity to
leverage social networking technologies and platforms to create
communities of practice that provide career-long personal learning
opportunities for educators within and across schools. (16)

Furthermore,
in a connected teaching model, classroom educators are fully connected to
learning data (); to content (); and directly to their students in support
of learning both in and out of school. (10) [my emphasis]

The American Department of Education is very clearly embracing social networking


technologies to enable a shift from solo practitioners to teams of connected
educators (10) at the level of their teachers, and it also favours direct connections
between them and their students in school as much as outside of it for the benefit of
learning. The discrepancy between the official, national vision and the regional, innerstate stance is striking, not to mention the disagreements between individuals.
Unfortunately, due to my use of English keywords when setting up my Google Alerts, I
only received emails with articles from English-speaking countries, which might have
provided me with a somewhat biased or at least limited insight into the emerging debate.
It is fair to say that a majority of articles were from America or the United Kingdom, with
only a few, for example, from India and other former British colonies. However, as
technological advancement has certainly not been exclusive to those industrialised
nations, there is no reason to suspect that Luxembourgs neighbouring countries, and
indeed any other non-English-speaking countries of the same development level, are not
dealing with similar questions.

51

Since, at the time of writing, Luxembourg had no official guideline on the issue of
online friendships between teachers and students on social media sites, I contacted BEESECURE13, member of the Safer Internet Programme by the European Commission14. In
their guidelines section for adolescents about the safe use of social media 15 they advise
users to
Be watchful of the information they disseminate online
Allow access to their profile only to friends
Only accept friends whom they know in real life as well
Be watchful of the photos they upload
Avoid posting personal/private messages ()
Bear in mind that virtual relationships are also relationships (and might have an
impact on real life)
This common-sense approach should help avoid problems highlighted as risk factors in
Marco Fileccias article on Social Communities Ein Leben im Verzeichnis such as CyberMobbing and Cyber-Grooming (paedo-sexual offenders attempts to win the trust of
nave users) (Fileccia 2009, 5). However, they still leave it up to the individual to decide
how to handle the issue of an online continuation of the in-school, professional
relationship. At this point, I had to make up my own mind, and swiftly decided that I did
not want to add my students as friends on my private facebook profile just as little as I
wanted to create a second, separate, professional profile on the same platform as I felt
they were bound to collide at some point. A further factor that informed this decision was
the fact that facebook is used mostly in an entertainment and leisure context with myriad
game applications pestering users to build and look after virtual farmlands, cities, gangs,
etc. This might very well also be part of the reason for the reaction surveyed by Moran,
Seaman and Tinti-Kane resulting in the extremely limited in-class use of social networks as
opposed to other applications of social media. Although I believe that the blurring of lines
between work and play, as well as a more relaxed atmosphere, can be beneficial for
learning like Herrmann (46) suggests, I thought that it would be an unnecessarily difficult
13

th

www.bee-secure.lu accessed 18 December 2011


14
http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/activities/sip/index_en.htm - accessed 18th December 2011
15
Translated from: http://www.bee-secure.lu/de/jugendliche/soziale-netzwerke - accessed 18th December
2011

52

challenge to try and change students expectations of this particular site to accommodate
learning. Moreover, I suspected that it would be hard to draw the students focus away
from the site as a whole and onto just the one group I would have wanted them to work
in. All in all, I felt there was too much scope for distraction and it seemed a better idea to
start by rebuilding a more limited network consisting of classmates only in an
environment that offered functions more specifically dedicated to education. In short: I
wanted the best of both worlds. Lastly, introducing a different platform based on familiar
principles was likely to allow all students to start on a similar level and yield more
conclusive insights into their willingness to participate in, contribute to and embrace the
introduction of social networks into their work context.
The solution I eventually started looking for should allow the participants:
To create a digital duplicate of the real classroom with access restricted to
members and the teacher
To communicate with the class as a whole and individuals to build the
relationship necessary for future collaboration
To ask questions and find a more knowledgeable peer who can help
To comment on and peer-assess each others work
To share useful resources found on the Internet
To collaborate and group-edit
To display their work once they are happy with it
To keep track of their progress, ideally enhanced by visuals
In a first step, I did not want to potentially scare my students with automatic publication
of their work to the world but rather recreate the same safe atmosphere they knew from
their real classroom until they felt more confident. Therefore, access to their digital space
and work should be password-protected and restricted to them only. Since it was
important that they build a relationship of trust, which would ideally lead to them
accepting one another in turn as more knowledgeable peers with whom to collaborate, it
needed to be possible to exchange messages with the class as a whole and individuals.
They should be allowed to get to know each other better, exchange thoughts and ideas
and ask questions, even if they failed to be entirely work-related all the time.

53

Another aspect that was important to me was that I did not want to spend a lot of
time explaining new software to my students, as I prefer to remain the English teacher
interested in technology-enhanced learning rather than become the ICT teacher
interested in English. For this reason I could not identify with mySchool!, PBWorks (a wiki
creator) or edublogs as they would all have called for several preliminary lessons in a
dedicated computer lab to explain their use to my students. To use the advertisement
buzzword: I wanted intuitive control and I did not want to have to be an expert in order
to be able to get the desired result. For once, being a mere user was my first ambition as I
assumed at least some of my students might not strive to move beyond this level of
expertise either. Digital Natives or not, first impressions of user-friendliness do count.
While Google Alerts had led me to edublogs, it also drew my attention to solutions like
Blackboard or Classroom Salon. Unfortunately, the former turned out to be a VLE much
like mySchool! or Moodle (a platform which is also used in the teacher training
programme at the University of Luxembourg) and the latter, which promised a new way
to build private and public communities around digital media16 and to offer answers
from our collective intelligence, was by invitation and, at the time of writing, for the U.S.
only. Finally, at the beginning of August 2011, Google Alerts started coming up with news
items about Edmodo hailed as a way to bring social media back into the classroom 17 in
the middle of the Missouri laws prohibiting teacher-student friendship on facebook.
Although Edmodo had already been founded in 2008, perhaps its more recent news
appearance was helped along by organisations like the International Society for
Technology in Education (ISTE) and their exhibition Unlocking Potential which Edmodo
attended in June 201118. Be that as it may, my curiosity was spurred.

2.1.1 Welcome to Edmodo


With the title line Edmodo | Secure Social Learning Network for Teachers and Students
[my emphasis] it is clear that the service is aware of the on-going debate indubitably

16

th

www.classroomsalon.org accessed 20 December 2011


17
http://tinyurl.com/3hlb384 or http://tinyurl.com/3c7dnh8 - accessed 20th December 2011
18
th
http://tinyurl.com/83urdf8 - ISTEs Unlocking Potential exhibition June 2011 accessed 20 December
2011

54

hampering its worldwide, systematic use but attempts to steal the lockers and blockers
thunder immediately. Their main page, apart from its login form, houses links to the
companys blog, a section dedicated to finding solutions for entire schools and districts,
Edmodo as an app for smartphones, and their Help Centre. In addition, their promotional
video19 allows a neat glance at all of Edmodos functions. In April 2012, the About
section boasts of 6.5 million teachers and students globally connected through Edmodo
and formulates Nic Borg and Jeff OHaras 2008 founding idea for the service as follows:
they believed that
we need to evolve our school environment to reflect the connected world in
which we live, set out to create a tool that closes the gap between how
students live their lives and how they learn in school.20

With this idea they have clearly picked up on the discrepancy summarised by the OECDs
CERI as technology everywhere, except at school. In their micro-documentary21 about
the history of their product, OHara explains that in his former IT job in a school district he
had to block a lot of social networking and video sites. Thats when [he] felt that
education really needed a place that it could call its own. (Borg and O'Hara 2010) Borg
continues by comparing schools to a void where the tools that connect [students and
teachers] to one another dont exist anymore. Simultaneously, he has understood how
important resource-sharing is precisely in a school environment and so he claims they
absolutely knew this was a place for social media tools to exist, but adapted to meet the
security and privacy concerns brought on by a school environment. As Joshua Condon
reports in his article about Edmodo, it was supposed to be a home base (Condon 2011)
which would bring together a useful but ever-changing string of unconnected web sites
which teachers were already utilising with the addition of the type of social networking
functionalities that students already used in their personal lives, where teachers could
share (and students interact with) relevant web content. Consequently, Edmodo was
created as a closed social network within each classroom, where students can create
profiles (with no private, personal information required) [my emphasis]. This setup thus
19

th

http://tinyurl.com/7w735oq - Edmodo promotional video - accessed 20 December 2011


20
http://about.edmodo.com/?subdomain=www accessed 1st April 2012
21
th
http://www.schooltube.com/embed/cb2bbbd24c5ec1f45ab6 - The history of Edmodo - accessed 20
December 2011

55

easily eradicates distraction and privacy issues of outside social networking tools like
facebook. A further advantage of providing functionalities that students are already
familiar with is the significant reduction of time teachers need to spend on explaining the
use of the platform before work with it can start.

Figure 8 - A screenshot of Edmodos main page (from my trial group) showing clear resemblances in design and
functionality with facebook, thereby drastically reducing preparation time needed until students can start using the
service.

It seems not only teachers see potential in this development. On 8th December
2011, Shayndi Raice from the Wall Street Journal announced that Edmodo had received
$15 million from LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and former facebook vice president
Matt Cohler. (Raice 2011) According to Raice, an important distinguishing factor

56

characterising the newcomer is that it creates its own social networks rather than
building on top of facebooks 800 million users. () [According to Cohler, Edmodo] isnt a
social network, but strictly educational. He continues to explain that
[p]eople arent using it in a social context. People are using it to share
content with other teachers, theyre using it to do homework assignments
and grade assignments and manage their classrooms. Its quite a unique
and important offering.

Although Cohler probably made this comment in the light of the debate around the
propriety of social networks (or should that be simply of facebook?) as learning tools,
some might lament his choice of words. He is clearly trying to protect Edmodo from being
too closely associated with facebook and the stigma of being a non-serious, distracting
tool which might come with that association. Nonetheless, social constructivism, which is
precisely the pedagogical model which Edmodo hinges on, depends by its very nature on
that same social aspect which he tries to play down. Has the term social really lost this
much of the educational potential inherent in its referent already? At least this would
explain why Ahn talks about Virtual Peer Networks instead of social networks in his
latest project22.
So far, several of Edmodos functions have been glossed over already but what
exactly does it have to offer? In his article entitled 15 Things Teachers & Students Can Do
With Edmodo23, Richard Byrne from Free Technology For Teachers, has listed the
following possibilities. I have rearranged them according to my order of importance
and/or frequency of actual use that I have made of them in my classrooms:
1. Create learning groups. Teachers can create groups of their students
according to the courses they teach or create groups of students who are
supposed to be working together.
2. Post messages on the "wall". This allows students to ask questions of each
other and their teacher. Teachers, of course, can post messages for all
students to read.
22

www.ahnjune.com/?page_id=89 Developing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)


th
Identities through Participation in Science-Infused Media and Virtual Peer Networks. accessed 20
December 2011
23
http://ow.ly/aej5J - accessed 12th April 2012

57

3. Embed videos, images, and audio clips into your wall to spark a class
discussion online.
4. Post a quiz for students to take. You can attach links and files to each
question and answer choice. This allows you to post a document and ask
students to read and respond to it. Quizzes can be in multiple choice, true/
false, fill in the blank, or short answer form. You can allow students to see
their scores immediately or you can disable that option.
5. Post assignments for students. Edmodo allows teachers to attach files to
assignment announcements. If there is a file your students need in order to
complete an assignment, they can access it at the same place they view the
announcement. Less clicking is good.
6. Post polls for students. Use the polls to gather informal feedback on a
question like, "do you feel prepared for next week's quiz?"
7. Turn in assignments. Students can upload assignments for their teachers to
view and grade. Teachers can annotate the assignments directly in Edmodo.
8. Access Edmodo through the free Android and iPhone apps.
9. Create digital libraries. Students and teachers can create digital libraries for
housing their important files. No need to keep track of USB drives because
you can access your files from any Internet-connected computer.
10. Create parent accounts. Teachers can create parent accounts. Parent
accounts allow parents to see their children's assignments and grades.
Teachers can also send alerts to parents about school events, missed
assignments, and other important messages through Edmodo.
11. Create a calendar of events and assignments.
12. Connect with other teachers. Join discussion groups to share ideas about
lesson plans, teaching strategies, and project development. Discuss tools
and content that you use. In some cases you can find webinars ().
13. Use the Google Chrome extension or browser bookmarklet to quickly add
content to your Edmodo library. Anytime you find something on the web,
click the Edmodo extension or bookmarklet to save it in your Edmodo
library.

58
14. Embed Wallwisher into your Edmodo wall to host a brainstorming session.
15. Generate printable class rosters. If you're going to have a substitute teacher
in your classroom who needs a printed roster, you can print one from your
Edmodo account. (Byrne 2011)

As stated in section 2.1, my first priority was the possibility to create a virtual duplicate of
the classroom, which is precisely what learning groups in Edmodo allow for. Within these
groups there is ample opportunity for multi-directional communication between: teacherstudent(s), student(s)-teacher, student students.
Apart from posting messages on the groups wall it is also possible to send
private messages. This has been useful to share, for example, a Google Docs link with the
one specific student who is supposed to work on that document so that nobody else
accesses the file until its author is ready to share it.
Furthermore, I have used the wall to post videos that students were asked to
comment on and/or view as an extension and deepening of in-class activities.
Interestingly, students also used that function to share web content they had found and
considered relevant to the topic we were discussing. Even a whole month after a lesson
on Guy Fawkes, 5th November celebrations and the topical Anonymous movement, a
student posted the following:

Figure 9 - A month after a lesson on Guy Fawkes, 5th November and the topical Anonymous movement a student
reacts by sharing a video.

The fact that this student posted the video this long after the lesson shows that its
content has stayed in his thoughts and is still considered relevant enough to share a
reaction to it.

59

Then, as an accompaniment to Robert Swindells Stone Cold (1993), which we


were reading in the 10PS in the context of the project, I created true/false quizzes.

Figure 10 - A screenshot showing the quiz posting function and student reactions.

As part of this function it is possible to display the latest submission date and keep track
of how many students have turned in their quizzes (here: 14/14). In addition, apart from
being able to comment, the teacher can allow the students to receive immediate
feedback on their performance, which is registered as a grade in their virtual gradebook.
If immediate feedback is not desirable because of the risk that classmates will simply copy
the corrected version, it can also only be given after the latest submission date. What I
also found very encouraging about this particular example was the fact that several
students completed their quiz well in advance of the due date and seemed to take pride
in their results.
Setting assignments works in a similar way as posting quizzes. The function also
lets you keep track easily of how many students have handed in and displays the due date
clearly. I have found this highly useful as the precise instructions and support documents
(joined as attachments), which students need or can use to complete their work, are

60

always easily accessible and cannot be lost, unlike paper copies. However, while teachers
can set and students can turn in assignments online, Edmodo does not offer an online, let
alone collaborative, writing function for the actual completion of the work. Of course the
work can have several authors but they need to either physically sit together in front of
the same computer or find a solution outside Edmodo. What the platform expects is that
students receive their instructions, create, for example, a Word file on their own
computer where they write their answers, and then upload this document back onto the
platform for the teacher to read, correct and grade it, and provide feedback. During the
writing process, students are of course free to use the library or messaging service of the
platform to ask peers or the teacher for help, which does allow the creation of a socioconstructivist environment to a certain degree but several students actually working
together on the same document at once is not possible. This is why I decided to
complete Edmodos functions by integrating Google Docs into my project, which I will
describe in more detail in section 2.1.2.
When I introduced Edmodo to the class their first task was to sign in and vote in
two separate polls that I had posted for them. The first asked What are you best at in
English? and the second asked What do you want to become better at in English?

Figure 11 - A poll posted at the start of the academic year to ask students to self-assess their skills in English.

61

Apart from providing a good opportunity to start getting used to the platform and explore
its functions, the poll also produced a visually appealing answer accessible to the whole
class. I had previously sought answers to these questions at the beginning of academic
years through a paper questionnaire which required tedious counting of votes and by the
time the results were ready to be shared with the class they had already lost some of
their topicality. Through Edmodo I could leave them up on the classs virtual wall
throughout and after the voting process, which, as can be seen in Figure 11, even invited
a students comment. In comparison with my paper-based method I might not have saved
time in as far as obtaining results is concerned, since I had decided to give students a
week to log on and enter their answers, but I did save time on the processing, graphical
representation and presentation of the collected data, which Edmodo simply did for me
automatically.
Due to the fact that I wanted students to get used to working collaboratively
online (on Google Docs) I did not use the turn in assignments function as frequently.
Once students had finished work on their Google Document they simply brought this to
my attention in a message or by sending me the link.
The only downside of this was that it unfortunately
did not allow for the automatic, centralised keeping
of records at the home base.
Function 8, which is accessing Edmodo
through a smartphone app, was actually first made
use of by one of my students before I got up to
speed with him. By this time, he had already
convinced several of his classmates to install it as
well, which I think speaks in favour of both the apps
usability and the applicability of the Digital Native
theory at least to these students. As the screenshot
shows, the choice of functions is slightly more
Figure 12 - A screenshot of the Edmodo app
on an Android operated smartphone.

limited on the mobile version of the platform and


one student particularly regretted being unable to

62

complete their quizzes through the app. Nonetheless, I have come to appreciate it as a
great way of cutting down my response time to student questions, which is all the more
crucial in the early stages of use to really show them the benefits of logging on and
nurturing their peer network in preparation for times of need.
Every time the students or I attach a document to one of their posts this is
automatically added to the groups library. Although I did not introduce this function
from the start, it becomes useful and is used by itself after a while when a specific
document needs to be found and one is not inclined to scroll through the entirety of wallposts to find it. Byrne also mentions the possibility to use an Edmodo extension to add
links and files to the library on-the-go during browsing but I have not used this function
so far.
At the parents evening of the first class I used Edmodo with I briefly presented
the project. In personal conversations I offered the distribution of individual parent codes
to allow parents to see what their childs contribution to the platform was but none of
the people present wanted me to provide them with this access. Perhaps at the next
meeting I could highlight that it would also be a good way for them to know about and
encourage their child to do his work or remember important information distributed on
the platform in the form of alerts. While I was teaching in the UK, I learnt of a school24
which even used to send text messages to parents phones from class to praise the child
or inform the parents of inappropriate behaviour. Although this was used as a classroom
management tool, and perhaps not ideal in a Luxembourgish setting with only one
teacher in the room as it would take up class-time, I feel that increased involvement of
and communication with parents might well be beneficial.
The last five functions listed by Byrne have not been used by me yet. Any
assignments and their deadlines posted on Edmodo are automatically added to the
calendar and certainly make it a useful tool. However, I have so far not used it to remind
students of test dates. Perhaps this is something worth trying to further increase the
relevance and use of Edmodo by the class.

24

nd

http://www.hovepark.org.uk/ - Hove Park School - accessed 22 December 2011

63

Another function I have only started to embrace since my 10PS convinced one of
their biology teachers to start using Edmodo as well is the possibility to exchange with
fellow teachers. On a larger scale, it would indubitably also be enriching to gain insights
into other countries approaches to teaching and perhaps find practical ideas to try in my
own classroom. Furthermore, the webinars on offer could also be a good source of
inspiration.
The bookmarklet tool to quickly add content to Edmodo class libraries while
browsing could reduce clicks and therefore time spent on this activity. It could also
reduce the risk of forgetting to add certain resources all together.
Wallwisher is a virtual noticeboard onto which users can stick notes and
rearrange them freely to fit topic areas. While this would enable one to make
brainstorming sessions more organised than getting a long list of replies to an original
post, I felt that I did not immediately want to add yet another service outside of Emodo
on top of Google Docs. I could imagine using it in (visual) support of a lesson starter,
though, and then sharing the finished result in the class library should future reference be
worthwhile.
Lastly, the automatic compilation of a class roster might indeed be useful to a
supply teacher but since there are lists of students in each classs register I do not think
this is a function I will use in this context. With the 12CG, however, I did use the roster to
produce slips of paper with individual student user names and passwords for their initial
sign ins and introductory tasks.
Overall, Edmodo fulfils seven out of my eight wishes listed at the end of section
2.1 with the only shortcoming being the lack of an online, simultaneous and
collaborative editing space that goes beyond short, usually individual replies to thoughtprovoking discussion-starters, questions or brainstorming items. I wanted students to be
able to work on answers to questions, character descriptions, summaries or
interpretations in groups of at least two students, with all the advantages that this
additional brain processing power brings, but enhanced, still, by the comfort of having
ones own computer, as well as that of not having to physically travel to benefit from
those valuable additional opinions. As mentioned previously, in order to fill this gap I

64

decided to integrate Google Docs into the project. Edmodo would be the home base,
the hub for organisational but also just relationship-building communication, for
questions, requests for help, for sharing and displaying finished work, and more generally,
hopefully exactly what Borg and OHara aimed for: a place that education could call its
own.

2.1.2 Collaboration powered by Google Docs


The search giants Help Centre describes Google Docs as
a suite of products that lets you create different kinds of online documents,
work on them in real time with other people, and store your documents and
your other files all online, and all for free. With an Internet connection,
you can access your documents and files from any computer, anywhere in
the world. (Theres even some work you can do without an Internet
connection!)25

Through the creation of a single, online document that several people can work on
simultaneously compatibility issues between different versions or types of editing
software or the document itself are solved: the document will look the same to PC or
Mac, Microsoft Office 2003, 2010 or Libre Office26 users. As long as an Internet
connection is available, access to the document is granted around the clock and from
anywhere so there is no need to email it to oneself or carry potentially sensitive data
around on a USB stick only to end up leaving it on the train. Furthermore, Google Docs
also allows the user to upload, store, share and access a limited amount of files that it did
not generate, such as Word documents, images, and PDF files.
But which kind of products are part of this suite? There are four main, familiar
types of files created by the following applications:
Google documents: an online word processor that lets you create and format text
documents, and collaborate with other people in real time.

25

https://support.google.com/docs/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=49008&topic=1382883&ctx=topic An
nd
overview of Google Docs - accessed 22 December 2011
26
nd
http://www.libreoffice.org/ - A free, open source, personal productivity suite. accessed 22
December

65

Google spreadsheets: an online spreadsheet application that lets you create and
format spreadsheets, charts, and gadgets, and simultaneously work with other
people.
Google presentations: an online presentations editor that allows you to show off
your work in a visual way.
Google drawings: an online drawings editor that lets you create anything from a
scribble to a flow chart while working collaboratively with other people.
In addition to these well-known functions it is also possible to create forms. Forms are a
useful tool to help you plan events, give your pupils a test or collect other information in
an easy, streamlined way.27 This application basically lets you create questionnaires with
a varied selection of answer formats. Furthermore, since the forms are connected to a
spreadsheet, all the data is automatically collected for you and there is a variety of ways
to organise and display it. Apart from the information given in the Help Centre, there is
also a Google Docs channel on YouTube28 with myriad how-to videos explaining and
detailing all the different possibilities of the suite.
The Google Docs application that most completely fills the gap in Edmodos
functions is clearly Google documents. With it, students can work together on the same
text document from their own, separate computers. Communication is ensured in two
ways: firstly, by the comment function where collaborators can write each other
messages to make suggestions about particular text passages or point out mistakes.
These comments remain viewable at any time even after collaborators have left the
document. Secondly, when more than one viewer opens the document in their browser
at the same time, it is possible to display a chat bar on the right hand side of the screen,
allowing everybody to communicate in real-time. The contents of this chat are not saved
and are no longer visible after the document is closed and re-accessed. Furthermore,
there is an auto-save function that continuously backs up the document, making it highly
unlikely that any work will be lost.

27

http://support.google.com/docs/bin/answer.py?hl=en-GB&answer=87809&topic=1360904&ctx=topic
nd
Google Forms - accessed 22 December 2011
28
nd
http://www.youtube.com/docs - Learn more about Google Docs - accessed 22 December 2011

66

Figure 13 - A Google document showing the comment stream at the bottom and live chat bar along the right side of
the screen where collaborators can communicate with each other.

Although owning a Google account makes the use of Google Docs much more
comprehensive, it is nonetheless possible to interact with already created documents
without being a registered user. This makes it possible for the teacher to create the initial
files in the online word processor before sharing them with her students to edit them.
The documents can be made public on the web but access can also be restricted to only
the people with the link.

67

Figure 14 - A browser screenshot showing Google Docs' sharing options.

In both of these cases it is not necessary for the collaborator to sign in to Google Docs to
access the document. There is also a third option to make the document entirely private,
restricting access to only those explicitly granted permission, who then need to identify
themselves by signing in with their email address. However, these are not the only
possibilities. Even when a document is publicly accessible or accessible via the link, the
documents owner can still decide whether people are only allowed to view it, can also
make comments or may even edit the document. When viewers are not required to sign
in they are listed as Unknown User, making it very difficult or even impossible to trace
who made which changes to the document. If the document owner feels the control
which logging track changes gives is necessary for their particular work context, access
will have to be by sign-in so that editing collaborators identify themselves via their email
address. Once work on the document is finished it is of course possible to change the
access criteria again and make it viewable without sign-in.

69

3 Collaborating on a reading project using


Edmodo and Google Docs
3.1 Project Description
The following chapter will provide a detailed overview of the preparation and
development of the project, as well as a retrospective analysis of the project itself and
the learners feedback on it. Although the project was implemented in two different
classes, I believe it to be beneficial not to separate their descriptions but rather to
juxtapose them so as to facilitate comparison and the finding of potential outcomeinfluencing factors such as age or subject specialisms. Consequently, I have only
subdivided the longer project development sections for increased clarity. The two classes
in question are a 10PS and a 12CG. With the younger group, the reading project was
based on Robert Swindells Stone Cold. The older students completed a preparatory task
on a news article about euthanasia from Essential Articles 13 (Shepherd and White 2011)
before working on Roald Dahls short story Genesis and Catastrophe in preparation for
similar tasks in their final year. The 10PS students chose Stone Cold following the reading
of a sneak peek from this book and one from Benjamin Zephaniahs Face (2004). I
suggested these two books on the grounds of their content being in the socio-medical
field, which should coincide with the students interests and reasons to have chosen their
subject specialism. Furthermore, both books lend themselves well to character analysis
and psychological profiling, which coincides with one of the early units in their course
book (Lifelines Intermediate (Hutchinson 2008)).

3.2 Preparation
As stated in the introduction, the aim of this project was to verify whether online social
interaction also has inherent educational potential, and to find ways of extending the
classroom beyond its physical walls through the use of ICT. In my interpretation of this
endeavour both of these aims required the selection and setup of a VLE-type solution,

70

albeit without the possibility to fall back on the already existing structures such as
mySchool! for reasons detailed section 1.2. I needed to find a platform which in its
conception was not based on the pedagogical model of knowledge transfer but allowed
instead for increased learner participation, the setup of a network of more
knowledgeable peers, and hence the creation of a more socio-constructivist, online
learning environment.
As already described in section 2.1, the very first step was the setup of two Google
Alerts with the search-phrases social media in the classroom and +ICT +teaching
+classroom. I hoped that this would lead me to tried and tested examples of best
practice in this area from educators around the world to help inform my eventual choice.
Before settling for Edmodo I had also considered the options of blogs and wikis but soon
abandoned these ideas as I found the solutions not to be comprehensive enough in terms
of the online social interaction which they allowed for. I explicitly wanted it to reflect the
not always only work-oriented atmosphere of the classroom as I believe that positive
relationships between peers are bound to lower everybodys affective filter, which in turn
creates an environment more conducive to learning. In the work world, collaboration
between colleagues who dislike each other might still be fruitful but it certainly requires a
high level of professionalism. I neither dared expect this from my students nor did I want
the project to hinge on it. In short, I sought a way to extend as many aspects of the
classroom as possible beyond its physical walls in the hope of recreating a truer, more
complete online version of it that might improve its chances of exerting positive effects
on the real-life environment and students progress.
The ultimate decision, then, to create virtual duplicates of my classrooms on
Edmodo instead of other platforms was largely motivated by technological factors,
including the user-friendliness of the layout and the breadth of offered functions, which I
deem to be too far-reaching for the scope of the present travail de candidature lest they
be of too little relevance or interest to the reader. One other deciding factor, however,
was the desire to find a free solution as I felt it would be less likely that I could convince
fellow practitioners to try similar projects in their classes if money stood in the way of
implementation.

71

The choice of classes was initially motivated by size, age group and subject
specialism. I felt I should implement the project in at least two out of my five classes to
enlarge the data set I could collect and interpret. The available options were: a 9TEF, a
T0CMF, a 10PS, a T1CH and a 12CG. In order to measure a potential impact of age or
choice of subject specialism on overall acceptance and involvement in the project I
needed to pick groups as diverse as possible. As I had not taught any of the classes before
and could not yet judge the scale of the practical and administrative tasks of my project,
picking my 10PS was first based on their small group size of only fourteen students and on
the fact that a majority of them had reached this class in regular study time, which meant
that they were the most homogenous group in terms of age. At 16.1 years they had the
exact same age average as my 9TEF, who had not chosen their priority subjects yet. The
12CG was the oldest and with twenty-four students also the largest group I taught, and,
with their specialism in the economic field, their interests should, at least in theory, be
different from those of my 10PS.
Since I started the project with the 10PS in term I and with the 12CG in term II
only, the preparatory procedures were slightly amended based on the experience I had
gathered. Before the start of the academic year I set up a 10PS group on Edmodo, posted
a welcome note and a list with the projects objectives as the first message on the class
wall, followed by two polls (see Figure 11, p. 60) about their strengths and weaknesses in
English as part of an initial needs assessment. I was lucky enough to teach this class in a
room equipped with a PC with Internet access and a projector so I could give them a first
glimpse of Edmodo in our usual setting. As there were only fourteen students in this class,
and I wanted to avoid sign-up issues, we registered each of them together at the end of
the lesson. The first task they were set was to sign in and vote in the polls before our next
lesson the following week. I had initially wanted to hand out a paper questionnaire
including the two polls and a question ensuring they did actually have access to a
computer outside of school and ideally at home. However, based on the national
statistics asserting virtually complete Internet-connectedness of all households, and the
fact that the project hinged on their ICT skills, I took my supervisors advice to find
answers to my questions through digital tools. Luckily, it turned out my cautiousness had

72

not been warranted and students did indeed all have the necessary equipment to access
Edmodo at home.
With my older class I went about initial proceedings slightly differently. During the
Christmas break, I set up a 12CG group on Edmodo to be ready for the start of term II but
this time I also immediately registered the students myself. This was possible as Edmodo
does not require the students email address to create an account and it saved valuable
in-class time. In fact, individual in-class registration would not have been practical with
this much larger group. Overall, but particularly at this stage, the accounts do not contain
any personal data beyond a name and are but empty shells with a label. For this reason, I
did not feel like I was infringing the students privacy in any way through my initiative to
register them on Edmodo before introducing the project in class. Unfortunately, for this
presentation I had to book a dedicated IT room as their usual room was neither equipped
with a PC nor a projector. In order to share their user information with them and allow
them to log in I made use of Edmodos automatic class roster function which lists the
students real and user names. Based on this I then created an individual hand-out for
each learner. I had chosen the same password for every account and therefore the first
task for this group was to sign in to the platform and immediately customise their
password and user names if they preferred a different one. During this first login they
were of course also asked to complete the same polls as the 10PS to have a first
possibility of comparing the two classes. Furthermore, I also added a link to a Google
document they could all experiment with to discover its basic functions as soon as
possible, and a questionnaire made with Google Forms about their customary Internet
use (see Appendix 1). All these small tasks allowed the class to get a first impression of
and feel for Edmodo and Google Docs while demonstrating some of their ICT skills. At the
end of the lesson I also pointed out the existence of the Edmodo app for smartphones. I
knew from previously collecting their phones before a class test to avoid what I was going
to encourage in this project, namely technologically enhanced collaboration, that many
did indeed own one and I thought it might incite them to log on to the platform more
frequently. I subsequently also asked the 10PS, as well as my other three classes not
involved in the project as such, to complete the Internet Use questionnaire so as to have

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my own data to compare with the findings made in the context of the Digital Natives
debate.
From the previous description it has become clear that I did not introduce Google
Docs at the initial stages of the project in the 10PS. I wanted to familiarise learners first
with the functions of Edmodo so as to enable them to recognise that the platform not
only looks a lot like facebook but is also controllable in a similar way. Since the project
relied to an extent on them continuing their in-class relationships and social interaction
on the platform, it was important that they feel comfortable with its use so as to, ideally,
accept it as the home base as which Borg and OHara intended it.
Preparative steps for the integration of Google Docs into the project included the
setup of a new Google account for exclusively professional use as I did not want to
associate it with the private account to which my main email address, as well as a
Google+ profile, were already linked. Although using Google Docs with a Google account
bears definite advantages, I did not feel like I could ask all my students to register with
the search giant. Overall, I wanted to have as few requirements as possible in the setup of
the project so that students would not already feel disinclined to engage with it on
grounds that were only indirectly related to the project itself. There certainly are reasons
to disagree with some of Googles worldwide management choices29 and I did not want
issues like these to cause rejection before we had even started. Therefore, I was glad to
discover that the service can be used without signing in, albeit with certain limitations. As
described in section 2.1.2, collaborators would not be identifiable as long as they did not
sign in with an email address, and I would have to create the documents on which I
wanted the students to collaborate before sending them the link, instead of them being
able to create documents themselves. The advantage of this was that it would make me
the document owner, granting me control over the way the document was shared and/or
protected from public access, as well as enabling me to reset any accidental or malicious
changes.

29

http://www.hrichina.org/content/3248 Until March 2010, Google operated a censored search engine at


st
the request of the Chinese government. accessed 21 April 2012

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3.3 Development
3.3.1 Edmodo and Google Docs with the 10PS
The start of the project for the 10PS consisted of in-class reading of the first chapters of
Swindells Stone Cold. As shown in section 2.1.1, I then created true/false quizzes (see
Figure 10, p. 55) on Edmodo for the students to complete with the aim of deepening their
understanding of the story and to encourage more in-depth re-reading of given passages
at their own pace in their free time.

Figure 15 - A screenshot showing Edmodo's quiz creation function.

I let Edmodo display the students result immediately so they received feedback on their
performance as soon as they had finished the quiz. Furthermore, the platform also gave
me an overview of how every learner had done with the possibility to look at individual
students results and add a comment to each of their answers to provide further,
personalised feedback. This type of task mostly required students to work at the two
lower levels of Blooms revised taxonomy, namely remembering and understanding.

75

Figure 16 - A screenshot showing overall Edmodo quiz results (left) and a detailed view of an individual learner's
performance with the possibility to comment on each of her answers (right).

The overall purpose of these quizzes was to serve as scaffolding in preparation for the
freer and more extensive writing tasks students were expected to complete using Google
Docs. The first such task was to write a character description of one of the two main
characters. As further scaffolding for this activity I created a Google document where we
collected adjectives describing the protagonists appearance and behaviour, and
statements they made or which were made about them; these findings would
subsequently help us draw conclusions about their personalities. This document (see
Appendix 3) was displayed in the classroom via the projector and each student made
suggestions of relevant information with the page reference to be added while we were
reading. Apart from the documents intrinsic helpfulness throughout the subsequent
writing of the character descriptions, its creation also allowed students a first glimpse of
the functions of Google Docs and showed them the usefulness of collaboration. They
were subsequently asked to read a couple of chapters on their own and see if they found
anything they could add to the document. Also, before formally introducing Google Docs
in class, I had already shared a link to the above-mentioned document on Edmodo to
allow any potential pioneers to explore it for themselves. Although none of the fourteen
class members added anything to it at least one of them tried to access the document
and commented on it. This proved to be a good occasion to also provide this student with
timely formative feedback on the way he had formulated his reply, which shows another
useful side-effect of integrating Edmodo into my teaching.

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Figure 17 - An Edmodo screenshot showing the first shared Google document where Stone Cold protagonists'
character information was collected. Moreover, the screenshot shows how the reply function was used to provide a
student with timely, formative feedback on his writing.

Once I had introduced Google Docs in class and given instructions for the composition of
their first character description, I asked students who they wanted to collaborate with so I
could send the links to the respective documents to the right people. What happened
next was neither something I had bargained for, nor what the Digital Native literature had
told me to expect: students did not actually want to collaborate and preferred, instead,
to do their work on their own. On being asked why this was so, most agreed that they
thought it would be difficult to arrange for a time to meet online to work on the
document together in real-time. Others said they preferred doing things their way
without having to convince a second author of the reasons why their way was also the
best way. Clearly, our traditional school system based on knowledge transfer had neither

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allowed these students to see the benefits of socio-constructivism and collaboration yet,
nor had they learnt to appreciate this outside of school, for example through (computer)
games where success hinged on teamwork (or if they had, they were unable to draw
parallels between the two contexts). A further reason I saw was that it was very early on
in the academic year and students had only met each other two or three weeks prior to
this first attempt at collaboration. Social interaction had not had a lot of time to come to
fruition in the shape of new working relationships yet. This fact, added to the claim that
many did not to feel confident with the use of Google Docs, despite its functions being
exactly those of all well-known text processors and only the most basic ones being
necessary to complete the task, made me backtrack in my apparently too ambitious
endeavour. I certainly did not want to discourage students entirely at this early stage so I
conceded defeat and created individual documents for each student to write their
character description alone - but still on Google Docs. Students had a week to finish their
work with the help of the file we had created together in class and I did indeed receive
thirteen out of fourteen pieces of homework on time, with one straggler submitting the
following day. While students might have rejected collaboration with their classmates,
they did not have the possibility to opt out of their teacher viewing and commenting on
their progress while they were writing. Throughout the week prior to the deadline I left
Google Docs running in the background and checked for activity in the documents at
regular intervals. Unfortunately, I did not yet know about the existence of the
WatchDoc30 add-in for Googles Chrome browser, which would have significantly
facilitated this task by automatically notifying the owner of a Google document about
changes made to it. Nonetheless, I was able to help and suggest corrections in real-time
to the majority of students and could still leave comments on the documents for students
to find when they returned to it at a later stage to continue their work.

30

http://tinyurl.com/85f86qo - Link to the Chrome web store and the WatchDoc extension accessed 19
February 2012

th

78

Figure 18 - A browser window showing a Google document with the student's text in the middle, the comment
stream with teacher and student contributions at the bottom, and the revision history on the right.

As a consequence, the next lesson started with excited giggles and comments about how
a couple of students thought their PC had a virus when their text was suddenly
highlighted and comments appeared. The reactions from those I had managed to assist in
real-time were positive across the board and thus I hoped that the next time I asked them
to collaborate with their classmates would be met with a more positive attitude.

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Figure 19 - A Google document screenshot with a 10PS student's character description.

Figure 19 shows a further learners character description with teacher comments on the
right. One can see that the student has learnt to include page references and quotations
to support his writing. Overall, I noticed that a feeling for the necessity of editing did not
come naturally and students had to be familiarised with this concept slowly. It took some
a long time to react to the teacher comments and others never did; it seems seeing a
final, much improved version of their work was not incentivising enough and it might be
worth considering extrinsic motivation to help this process along at the beginning.
Nonetheless, the work students produced on this occasion required the use of high level
mental processes such as analysing, evaluating and creating and certainly allowed for
practice and improvement of their reading and writing skills.
In the meantime, it had become apparent both through this first online
assignment and the class tests that this group was overall fairly weak in English and, as
confirmed in consultation with fellow teachers, seemed quite overwhelmed with many of
their other subjects as well. The transition from the cycle infrieur to moyen certainly
appeared to pose a challenge. I realised that comprehension of Stone Cold was severely
hampered by their limited vocabulary and was aware of the fact that the only way to
increase their confidence with the use of Google Docs was through actually using it.
Therefore, I decided to model its potential as a collaborative tool of general benefit

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through using it as a way of collecting new words and expressions from our book during
in-class reading. I displayed the table on the wall and typed in the words they highlighted
in addition to a selection that I deemed useful. Each week we collected about two pages
of new words. After class I posted the link to the file on Edmodo and named an always
changing group of two students who were responsible for looking up the translations in
online dictionaries to complete the list. In order to ensure that students access, use
realise the necessity of their contribution and take responsibility for completing it in time,
I subsequently highlighted a selection of words from this list to study for the tests in
addition to the ones I had chosen from the vocabulary list accompanying their course
book.

Figure 20 - A browser window showing part of the Stone Cold vocabulary list completed by the students with words
to study for the test highlighted in yellow.

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Throughout term I no student missed their turn and one even posted a comment on
Edmodo once she had finished her work and encouraged her fellow in a tongue-in-cheek
way to do the same.

Figure 21 - A student states on Edmodo that she has finished work on the vocabulary file and encourages her fellow
author to do the same.

In term II there finally was one student who did not complete her work on the vocabulary
file (she claimed she just never used the computer at home and was not willing to stay on
after school to use a work station at the library) despite repeated explanations of her
works necessity for the whole class, the related responsibility and increasing peer
pressure. I am glad I did not interfere beyond this point as three days before the test the
vocabulary file was suddenly complete: a student I had certainly not expected it from had
done his peers work for the benefit of the class. While his proclamations about this
heroic feat needed a little toning down, he had certainly averted disaster for everyone
by taking responsibility.
In the last phase of the project, once we had finished reading Stone Cold, I let the
class choose between three final assessment questions (see Appendix 4) to be answered
collaboratively in groups of two to three students on Google Docs. As some continued to
claim they could not get this to work on their home computers we went to a computer
room to start everybody off and this time there was no reluctance to work in small groups
with their chosen partners. However, as only one student chose to concentrate on the

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third Stone Cold final assessment question, which can be seen at the top of Figure 22, she
completed the bulk of the work for the last part of the project mostly on her own.

Figure 22 - A screenshot of a Google document with a student's early version of her Stone Cold final assessment.

The screenshot shows an early version of the chosen question. At this stage the
document includes hardly more than a collection of random bullet point-like statements
with only a few references to the text. Hence, it can be said to have required mostly the
use of lower level mental processes such as remembering and understanding.
Subsequently, however, the author revised the initial text according to the teachers

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comments, moving her to the level of applying. At this point she has not started writing a
continuous, structured answer yet.

Figure 23 - A screenshot of a Google document with the same student's finished Stone Cold final assessment.

Figure 23 shows the final version of the learners work. The evolution in the writing, both
visually and organisationally, is striking: first of all, the title is more clearly visible and the
text is now structured into paragraphs. Ideas have been regrouped, logically and
chronologically ordered, quotations with page references have been correctly inserted,
some good use of connectors has been made, and the piece ends with a conclusion
informed by arguments supported by the text and the learners personal opinion. To
achieve this the student needed to move to the higher levels of Blooms revised

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taxonomy and start analysing and evaluating her own work with reference to the task and
the feedback to finally create a functional whole. Furthermore, extensive use of an
online dictionary (de.pons.eu) was made to express meaning precisely and minimise
repetition. The improvement was achieved through collaboration with a fellow student
who had finished his work early and volunteered to lend a helping hand and the teachers
comments and suggestions. It was encouraging to see that, although the author of the
text had to amend the first draft considerably and received a lot of feedback, she was still
proud of the outcome. I was slightly worried that she might lose her sense of authorship,
and consequently the possibility to feel pride, due to the range of changes she was asked
to make. Although this was not the case here I still believe it is worth bearing in mind that
over-correction should be avoided so as not to alienate the learner from his own writing.

3.3.2 Edmodo and Google Docs with the 12CG


With the initial reluctance with which collaboration had met in the 10PS still fresh in my
mind, I chose a more scaffolded approach for the start of the project in the 12CG. In
class, we read and analysed the article Why preserve a life with no meaning? (Bayfield
2011) from Essential Articles 13 on the topic of assisted suicide and contrasted it with a
past oral exam from 2005 (see Appendix 5) about the fate of Terri Schiavo. Students
subsequently chose between one to three partners to work with on a development
question against or in favour of euthanasia. They started in class and were asked to
upload the finished document onto Edmodo for the following week in order to receive
feedback and corrections from the teacher, as well as to share their work with the rest of
the class so that they could all read everybodys answers. Submissions were fairly slow
and students complained it was difficult to find a time for all group members to meet and
collaborate. It should be mentioned at this point that the class was already truly
dedicated to the very comprehensive Mini-Entreprises project, which might very well
have challenged their time management. Nonetheless, Edmodo was eventually used to
share the finished work in the groups library. More importantly, however, through the
difficulties they had encountered trying to organise offline group work, students could
now see the advantages of online, real-time collaboration independent of physical
proximity.

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Figure 24 - A browser screenshot showing the 12CG's library folder on Edmodo containing their development
questions on euthanasia.

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For the second part of the project we started with


the in-class reading and analysis of Roald Dahls Genesis
and Catastrophe. I subsequently set five tasks about
different aspects of the short story, such as the
protagonists, the link between fact and fiction, and the
authors use of irony. In addition, three tasks consisted
of comparing the story with its filmed counterpart,
which the whole class was asked to watch on YouTube31,
and finally one group of students was also set to
complete a vocabulary file. In total I thus created nine
Google documents and assigned two to three students
to each. I tried to assure a productive mix of people in
each group but after I had handed out the slips of paper
detailing each persons assigned task I allowed for some
swapping where I did not feel the groups success would
be at risk. With my updated list of prospective authors
for each document I sent students the link to their
respective Google document via Edmodo. In a first step, I
asked them all to sign in to the document at home,
create a title and continue familiarising themselves with
Google Docs so that they could ask any questions that
might crop up in the next lesson two days later. None of
the technical difficulties claimed to have been
encountered by some of the 10PS students were
reported by this class and so their work was due the
Figure 25 - A browser screenshot of a
chat between two students
collaborating on Google Docs.

following week. As I did for the 10PS, I kept an eye on


the 12CGs documents throughout the week and
managed to assist most groups in real-time at one point

31

Filmed version of Dahls Genesis and Catastrophe, Part I: http://youtu.be/afjSsauqJfs , Part II:
th
http://youtu.be/Mcmp4CQkdmY , Part III: http://youtu.be/0ALcbRHuhbM , all accessed 19 February 2012

87

or another. Through both an honest mistake on


my and their part, two collaborating students did
not notice that I still had their document open
while they were working on it and could thus
follow their chat exchange (see Figure 25 and
Figure 26). Interestingly, while Anonymous User
9459 had made the effort to ask questions and
reply to me in English, conversation switched to
French as soon as they thought I had left. The
issue they were struggling with here was that
they had replied to each subdivision of the task I
had set them individually instead of writing a

Figure 26 - A screenshot from the same Google


Docs chat showing two students' positive
feedback to each other about their collaboration.

continuous text with an introduction. Since Anonymous User 7401 had only joined the
document later, his co-author had to explain first what they needed to improve by
appropriating and reformulating my comments in her own words and sharing them. She
later chose to copy what I had written, perhaps so as to prove that what she was saying
was true and somehow authoritative, and perhaps create a greater sense of urgency in
her fellow writer. In the last line of the chat in Figure 25 one can see her nudging the
other on to try and contribute to the document as well, so rather than taking
responsibility for all of it because it would have been quicker she was willing to wait or
simply unwilling to do all the work herself. The highly positive outcome was that they
truly collaborated on the highest level of Blooms revised taxonomy and produced a more
than acceptable piece of writing (see Appendix 6), which particularly pleased me for this
pair as one of them had previously explicitly doubted that collaboration would work at all.
Finally, in the last lines of their exchange (Figure 26) they even complimented one
another on their work and gave each other very positive feedback on their collaboration.
This was not the only group to start answering the questions I had set them in a
discrete way.

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Figure 27 - A browser screenshot showing an early version of a groups Google document.

As can be seen in Figure 27, students started by writing down their initial thoughts to
each question separately. Below the task instructions one can see a first attempt at
writing an introduction for the continuous text that their answer was eventually going to
be. In order to achieve this, students would have to use paragraphs and linking words,
and find logical connections between the paragraphs on top of looking up unknown
words, negotiating the ideas the group as a whole wanted to express and finding
satisfactory ways of expressing them. The final version of the document shows vast
improvements in all of these domains, achieved through collaboration between the
students and the teacher.

89

Figure 28 - A browser screenshot showing the finished version of a group's work.

The final version of this groups document has a clear title and is neatly organised into
paragraphs, which are logically linked. There was some discussion before students could
agree on the title, which I had not expected. The difficulty consisted in understanding
entirely what the task was about and what the individual questions I had set them were
meant to achieve as a whole. With hindsight I am therefore glad not to have given the
tasks titles myself as the process of finding an adequate one encouraged more
negotiation between the collaborators until they agreed on the overall purpose of their
work. Moreover, students used the automatic spellchecker to eliminate misspellings
although I did sometimes have to remind them of the significance of the dotted red lines
in a comment. Lastly, the authors could not agree on whether they preferred the written
or filmed version of Genesis and Catastrophe and thus had to write a differentiated

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conclusion, which allowed them to practise arguing skills they would also need in pro/con
essays and discussions.
In order to provide an overall incentive to complete all the tasks and transfer
responsibility to each group, I decided to base the next test on their work (see Appendix
7). It included a development question on euthanasia, asked for vocabulary from Genesis
and Catastrophe, and required the answers from two of the remaining eight tasks on the
short story. A week before the test we spent another double lesson in the computer room
to apply the finishing touches to all documents and allow those who had already finished
to start reading their peers work, which I had made available to them, and eventually the
whole class, through links on Edmodo.

3.4 Project Analysis


After the development has been outlined it remains to be seen whether the project
achieved the aims it set out to fulfil.
The basic tenet it revolved around was socio-constructivism and thus the first
question will be as to whether the project managed to translate theory into practice. As
could be seen in Figure 25 and Figure 26 (pp. 86-87), Google Docs allowed for
communication between peers, as well as between teacher and students (Figure 18, p.
78), throughout the creation of various documents. Before, during and after this phase,
interaction and exchange was also facilitated through the use of Edmodo, as documented
for example in Figure 21 (p. 81). Hence it can be said that the ICT tools did not only enable
but extend the social aspect of the classroom into the virtual world.

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Figure 29 - A browser screenshot of Edmodo showing a student answering his classmate's question.

The vast majority of this communication was used to support and collaboratively
author a series of documents, which in themselves are constructs of this communal
effort. Furthermore, the writing process required the negotiation and construction of
meaning and understanding of the text aspects they discussed, which eventually led
students to operate on the highest level of Blooms revised taxonomy. In addition, the
build-up to the final productions was carefully scaffolded and thus allowed students to
improve gradually within their ZPD. Examples of this process can be seen in Figure 17 (p.
76), where the initial element of the solution, i.e. quotations and textual evidence, was
introduced to later facilitate the writing of a character description. Throughout the
writing further scaffolding was provided through interaction with the teacher in the form
of comments and suggestions left on Google documents (Figure 18, p. 78). Development
and progress within the ZPD can be seen from Figure 22 (p. 82) to Figure 23 (p. 83) and
from Figure 27 (p. 88) to Figure 28 (p. 89). Moreover, through the fact that each group of
students focused on one task in the final production phase, they subsequently became
and had to rely on their more knowledgeable peers and their work to prepare themselves
for the test. This allowed them to experience the benefits of group work while also raising
awareness of each individuals responsibility within it. Towards the end of the project at
least some 10PS students also felt entitled not only to answer their peers questions
(Figure 29) but even suggest corrections to posts they had made on Edmodo (Figure 30).

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Thus, it can be said that the project was indeed of a socio-constructivist nature and taking
a step in the direction of a peer-assessment culture, which increases learners
responsibility while reducing their dependence and overreliance on the teacher.

Figure 30 - An Edmodo screenshot showing spontaneous peer-feedback.

As could be seen in Figure 11 (p. 60), 10PS students had highlighted writing as
their weakest skill in English and thus the project could directly target this perceived
deficiency. Different media were used to this effect in an attempt at targeting all
students learning preferences: apart from the text, the project was accompanied by
audio-visual input in the form of YouTube videos showing the filmed version of Stone
Cold32. In contrast, the 12CGs poll showed that improving writing was their second
priority after speaking so the project responded less to this groups preferences. Through
using the visual input from a past oral exam paper during the initial scaffolding phase,
students could nonetheless see the relevance of our work and nobody seemed to be
demotivated by the fact that we only focused on speaking as such after this project. The
older group, too, was given audio-visual material alongside Dahls short story to open a
wider range of channels. The fact that several students commented on both the written
32

http://youtu.be/Gj3e9XtRGbs - YouTube link to the first part of the first episode of Stone Colds filmed
th
version. accessed 5 April 2012

93

and filmed version of Genesis and Catastrophe in the feedback (see Appendix 9) showed
that the stimuli had reached their goal of waking the students interest and triggering a
response.
A further aspect which could be seen to show the success of the project was that a
majority of students accepted both Edmodo and Google Docs as an extension of our
classroom. First and foremost Edmodo was used for communication purposes, mostly to
ask the teacher questions. Since I used the platform from the very start of the year in the
10PS I cannot judge whether they might have sent me the questions they had via email
instead, had they not been able to use Edmodo. In the 12CG, however, I did not receive a
single email throughout the first term despite the fact that I reminded them of this
possibility several times. Perhaps the platforms setup was perceived as less formal and
students felt more at ease with asking a question on the classs wall as opposed to
sending me an email. Overall, Edmodo certainly helped to make the teacher more easily
accessible and I felt this was beneficial to the general classroom climate. This connection
can be seen as another practical manifestation of a scaffold, facilitating the students
progress within their ZPD. Edmodo helped provide the link between the teachers
superior knowledge, or alien territory, and the students, and thus allowed them to join
efforts constructively. The greatest advantage from my viewpoint was that questions
were usually asked and answered for the whole class to see, which meant I did not have
to reply to the same question several times. In both classes, there was a clear increase in
use before tests as opposed to the rest of the term, with students logging in more
frequently to Edmodo and Google Docs to find or revise study material. It can thus be said
that both services became accepted as valuable resources as well. This aspect, in addition
to the freer and more frequent communication, certainly contributed to the extension of
the classroom: resources could be found and accessed online from any students
computer, tablet or smartphone and the dialogue so crucial for learning within the socioconstructivist framework could easily be kept alive beyond the school setting via tools
they generally felt comfortable with. The project undoubtedly made me feel much more
connected to my students and I strongly believe even the less formal exchanges always
held in English - were beneficial not only to create a greater sense of belonging but also to

94

move the students on in their learning process. Consequently, online interaction certainly
did have an effect on the offline learning environment in addition to having educational
potential.
Furthermore, Edmodo and Google Docs were highly useful to give students
formative and summative feedback on their work. The quiz function used with the 10PS
allowed them as much as myself to check to what degree certain parts of Stone Cold had
been understood.

Figure 31 - An Edmodo screenshot showing a breakdown of (in)correct answers per quiz question allowing the
teacher to see which particular passages of the book had been less well understood.

With this information not only the students knew which passages they had best re-read
but I also had very precise data on which I could base my next lesson. The fact that

95

quizzes were also completed well before the deadline by some learners (see Figure 10, p.
59) showed their motivation and acceptance of this newly suggested way of working.
Formative feedback could of course be given whenever a student posted anything on
Edmodo as well (see Figure 17, p.76) and we had also decided together that I edit any
mistakes out of their posts when I found them. Alongside this, Google Docs allowed for
instances of in-time teaching and formative assessment even more extensively. As can be
seen in Figure 18 (p. 78), it was possible to assist students in real-time during the writing
process by leaving comments to which the student could then respond or act upon
immediately. More comprehensive assistance could also be provided through the chat
function and since this was always kept in English it represented a learning and practise
opportunity in itself. Both the comment as well as the chat function provided the
possibility to give timely and, certainly even more importantly, highly individualised
feedback, which allowed for differentiation and made the project much more inclusive
overall. Once students had finished their Google documents I added summative feedback
in a comment before assigning a mark to them. This mark was then entered into students
online gradebook on Edmodo, which kept a visual record of their achievement. The
teachers version of the gradebook, as can be seen in Figure 32, showed not only a neat
summary of marks but also calculated students averages.

Figure 32 - An Edmodo screenshot showing the teacher's version of the 10PS' online gradebook.

In as far as the improvement of language skills, particularly in writing and, to a


lesser extent, in reading and listening, is concerned, it is not realistic to use this relatively
short project as an indicator for long-term progress. Overall, marks were significantly

96

better in those tests that included or were based on students work with Google Docs33
but it is likely that many factors played a role in this and results cannot be linked to a
general, undifferentiated improvement in skills. Some students may have studied answers
by heart or, in the 12CG, might have benefited from the fact that they could earn marks
on a small vocabulary task, which the first test did not include. Although concrete
measurements of skill improvement might not be feasible, it still struck me as highly
positive to see how much time and effort the majority of students put into the writing
and improvement of their documents. Particularly weaker students seemed to have been
motivated by the format, which certainly offered more support in the shape of peers and
the teacher, and achieved higher marks than usual. One can only hope that the positive
experience of seeing their efforts come to fruition will leave students motivated to keep
up their work and continue making such valuable contributions to their groups and the
course in general.

3.5 Learner feedback analysis


In order to collect the learners feedback on the project I prepared further online
questionnaires, which I integrated into Edmodo for the students to fill in. I shall start by
analysing the 12CGs data as I received this first and later amended the questionnaire
slightly for use with the 10PS.
In the 12CG, the questionnaire (see Appendix 8) focused on the collaborative
reading project, rather than on our use of Edmodo, and allowed students to give feedback
on different aspects of it, starting with their overall appreciation of Dahls short story, the
idea of using Google Docs to discuss it, and, more generally, the use of a computer for a
school project. The results showed that 82% of the students enjoyed reading Genesis and
Catastrophe, while the questions Did you like using Google Docs to discuss the short
story? and Did you like using a computer for a school project? received a 2.6 and a 2.0
grade respectively, on a scale from 1 to 5 (with 1 standing for very much and 5 for
not at all). On closer inspection of the submitted answers it turned out that the one
33

The average in test II, 1 in the 10PS was 34.6/60. In test II, 2 (based on work with Google Docs) students
achieved an average of 43.3/60. The 12CG test II, 1 average was 37.3/60 and in test II,2 (based on work with
Google Docs) it was 44/60.

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student who had given Google Docs its worst grade was the one who had not used it at
home at all. Instead, he had submitted his handwritten work to his co-writers as he
refused to use a computer in the library after school: his personal computer was broken
and his siblings would not let him use theirs. Apart from that there was also a trend for
low-performing students to grade Google Docs lower than those who found expressing
their thoughts easier. This can be interpreted to show a certain degree of frustration with
the challenging nature of the project and the need to spend time negotiating the content
of an answer with a colleague rather than being able to jot down ones own thoughts and
be done with it. The idea of (re-)drafting, and even less the need for it, does not come
naturally to anyone and although its outcome is rewarding the process is rarely so. Since
no student complained about the usability of Google Docs, it seems likely that the grade it
received reflects their experience with the tasks I set them as much as with the service
itself. Once again it becomes apparent that technology fades into the background and is
used as a mere tool to complete a task. Thus, the approach emphasised the learners
rather than the technologys role. In the same vein, the fact that using a computer for a
project is well received but not given a first class grade by all makes a similarly
encouraging point: students appear to intuitively acknowledge that technology in itself is
not what makes a project succeed; it may at best allow for enhancements of a necessarily
already well thought-out and implemented project, which analogue means would not
be able to provide.
Interestingly, despite the grade they had awarded Google Docs, students could
think very easily of the applications advantages, while the vast majority failed to point
out disadvantages. Again, this seems to support the earlier hypothesis that the grade was
influenced by their experience with the challenging tasks. Here are a few of the students
verbatim comments in favour of Google Docs:
Teacher can correct me very fast so its usful
Everybody can change the text and make the text to be better
We can work in a team without being together
Everyone can work together in one document instead of each one working alone and then
having to rewrite the whole thing to reconcile the answers and opinions
We can share with everybody what we have wroten

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The overwhelming echo was that learners appreciated the timely, formative feedback
the teacher could give while they were still in the process of writing. Errors or omissions
could immediately be addressed and they could also avoid wasting time developing an
idea which was not actually going to answer the question. Moreover, rather than only
valuing the teachers suggestions for improvement, learners started recognising their
peers contributions as valuable also. The second highlight was the possibility to access,
edit and discuss the document as a team and all at the same time. (we can all se about
other peoples ideas and we can complete or change certain things) While the teacher
mostly used the comment function to leave feedback on specific passages, the students
used the chat bar to negotiate individual tasks and responsibilities, as can be seen in
Figure 25 and Figure 26 (pp. 86-87). Finally, once each team had finished their tasks and
the last corrections had been made, the whole classs work could very easily be shared:
by putting the links on Edmodo everybody had the answers to all nine tasks although they
had only contributed to the completion of one.
As hinted at earlier, students did not highlight many disadvantageous aspects of
Google Docs. The most common answers to the question were that there are no
disadvantages, and that we need a computer with an Internet connection. While the
former was obviously the answer I had hoped for, the latter should not have been a
problem, either, since there was always ample allowance of time for each student to
complete their work. The fact that one student managed to finish the project without
using Google Docs in his free time at all showed that, albeit only thanks to the help and
willingness of his co-authors, it had even been possible to contribute to the project to an
extent without a computer at all. Of course this was far from ideal as the student was
only involved in collaborative negotiations during the in-school Google Docs sessions but
at least the team had not let him get away with contributing no writing at all. Lastly, a
couple of students regretted that their co-writers could delete things they had written
and thought to be good presumably without discussing these changes first. First of all it
needs to be said that editing rights were exclusively given to the one or two collaborators
and the teacher, and that as soon as the document was declared to be finished and
shared with the rest of the class, people could only access but not edit it. The issue here,

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then, is once more not one of Google Docs as such but a lack of a certain degree of
courtesy amongst the co-writers. Unfortunately, since nobody highlighted this issue
during the course of the project we could not communally work out a set of rules that
might have made collaboration smoother but it is something to bear in mind for future
projects.
These initial questions were followed by a set about the usefulness of various
aspects of the collaborative writing project, as displayed in Figure 33.
How useful did you find the following aspects of the Google Docs project?
16
14
12
10
8
6

4
2
0

Being able
to work
Being able together
with
to write my
homework another
online
student on
the same
document

Having my Being able


Being able
Being able
homework
to read
to
checked
other
Having
to share my
comment
homework
and
students'
mistakes
on other
with other
commented homework pointed out
students'
students
on by the to prepare
homework
teacher for the test

Very useful

11

15

15

Useful

13

10

14

13

13

Not useful

Figure 33 - Analysis of 12CG students' feedback on the usefulness of various aspects of the project.

Coherent with previous answers regarding their attitude to using a computer for a
school project, most students found being able to write [their] homework online useful,
with only about a third of the class finding it very useful. Thus, it seems, students did not
attribute exaggerated importance to the medium through which the project was carried
out: collaborative writing was at the core of the project and although Google Docs made
collaboration more convenient, writing in itself did not change in meaningfulness through
being done online. In contrast, a small majority found the possibility to collaborate on the
same document with another student very useful, with ten more students finding it

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useful. This can be interpreted to weaken Prenskys assertion that Digital Natives
preferred work setup is collaborative, or be seen to confirm his sceptics impression that
simply because a generation was born between certain dates and grew up in a
technology-rich environment this does not make them a homogenous group with
universally the same preferences. As highlighted before, collaboration is a skill that needs
to be practised and will always depend on group dynamics.
Interestingly, although a majority found sharing their homework with other
students to be only useful, a greater majority found being able to read other students
homework to prepare for the test very useful. This seems to betray a somewhat
utilitarian approach whereby others work is only valuable once it serves ones own
endeavour to achieve good marks in a test. While this confirmed my impression of a need
for extrinsic motivation, it might also be an aspect that could lose in salience once the
spirit of collaboration had truly taken root and overcome the each-on-their-own
mentality propagated by our current school system. Unsurprisingly, then, six students
found the possibility to comment on their classmates work not to be useful, with a
majority of thirteen finding it useful and only three very useful. The comment function
thus seems to be welcome but not highly used by non-collaborators once the document is
declared to be finished and made accessible to all. Again, our current school system
certainly fails to instil a peer-assessment culture into our learners and hence it is only
logical that they do not see the benefit of this feature for their own way of thinking and
skills of analysis, as for others and themselves as potential recipients. On the other hand,
it might also be a question of feeling inadequate or unqualified to make comments once
the teacher has already worked through the documents with its authors. If there had
been more time, it might have been useful to make the documents available to all while
they were still works in progress and asked the students to give at least one other group
feedback then. However, it is likely that many would have felt busy enough with their
own work at this stage and the administrative effort would have been quite considerable.
Apart from having the possibility to use their fellows work to prepare for the test,
students also highly appreciated having their documents checked and commented on by
the teacher. Throughout the writing process students reacted in a highly positive way to

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formative feedback given in real-time when both the teacher and co-writers were online
simultaneously, as opposed to finding the teachers comments at a later stage with no
immediate help available. While direct communication was more enjoyable for both due
to reduced waiting-time, there might be a risk of students remaining too dependent or
taking the easy option by asking the teacher for help too often instead of using resources
like a dictionary, a grammar reference book and their peers. Fortunately, as could be seen
in Figure 25 and Figure 26 (pp. 86-87), students did work independently and responsibly
as a team when the teacher was not online. Once more, the importance generally
attributed to summative and formative feedback from the teacher reflects students prior
experiences with our school system where the authoritative stamp of approval
guarantees the quality of their work and gives a sense of achievement. Of course one
could argue that I was partly to blame for this myself through choosing to assess their
work indirectly in the test: including all the ideas I had already approved of in their online
documents was clearly the way to achieve the best marks and hence it is not surprising
that they found my checks useful to gauge my expectations. Finally, although students
appreciated summative and formative feedback as a whole, a majority of thirteen
students found having mistakes pointed out to be useful, with nine finding it very useful.
They may have preferred me to correct mistakes immediately instead of them having to
go over the document again and amending it themselves, and so the experience of having
to redraft their work might have rendered their appreciation of it slightly more subdued.
It therefore seems like the teacher might have had a more modern or advanced attitude
to learning than her students, who still appeared to expect a teacher-fronted course with
little or no attention paid to peer-assessment and peer feedback.
The next three questions moved their focus from individual components of the
project to Google Docs as a whole. When asked if they would choose to use Google Docs
again for another project, 82% of students replied in the affirmative, wherefore it is fair to
say that they found its use helpful and motivating. This impression was confirmed by the
results of the subsequent question, asking whether they thought Google Docs was a good
solution to collaborate with their colleagues, as can be seen in Figure 34.

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Do you think Google Docs is a good solution to
collaborate with your colleagues?
No
4%

Don't know
5%

Yes
91%

Figure 34 12CG students opinion of Google Docs value as a collaboration tool.

Finally, a further 77% of students claimed they would suggest or choose to use Google
Docs in future to collaborate with their colleagues. I can certainly confirm that their
subsequent actions spoke as loud as their words when WatchDoc alerted me about
activity in the classs initial trial document a few weeks later. To my surprise I first found
three, and, on a separate occasion, another five, students using it to collaborate on
homework in a different subject. Since this was not related to our course I created clean
Google documents for them and asked them to transfer their work into these, which they
gratefully accepted. Consequently, I believe it is safe to say that Google Docs has truly
managed to satisfy a real need at least in this group of students, as it has allowed them to
show initiative and to work independently.
With the feedback on the more technical side of things collected, the final
pressing question required students to self-assess their progress made in English through
the project, with results displayed in Figure 35.

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Has your English improved because of the
collaborative writing project?

Don't know
14%
No
13%
Yes
73%

Figure 35 - 12CG students self-assessment of their English skills after the project.

Despite the predominantly positive answers, I was glad to have followed my supervisors
example and made students qualify their replies to this question. Here are a few of the
auto-evaluative comments I received:
it helped me to learn how to write a continuous text and as the teacher corrected the text
i learned new ways of expressing my thoughts
I learned to write a continuous text in english with linking words that I didn't know. I
thought a lot to change the sense of the sentence.
i learned more vocabulairy from the work of others.
I don t really realise when my englis evolues or not
My English is already good plus the peoples I have worked it were not better than me so I
couldn't learn anything from them. (I am not cocky, just keep it real)

The first three statements express students impressions to have progressed in their
writing skills as they learnt valuable ways of formulating ideas, structuring a text, and
overall broadened their vocabulary. The fourth highlights the non-negligible difficulty
many experience with self-assessment: since it is not generally practised throughout
schooling, they often do not possess a set of concrete criteria in their mind that would
allow them to realise what improvement consists of. To use Blooms terms, it seems
many have not reached the level of analysis in the meta-cognitive domain. Lastly, one of
the learners who claimed her English had not improved might have benefited from the
explanation that helping and explaining things to others also deepens ones own grasp of
the issue at stake. Although I was too worried to lose their interest by giving them an

104

insight into the meta-cognitive agenda behind the project, it seems it might have been
valuable at least in small doses and is to be borne in mind for the future. Ultimately, it has
to be said that the project was relatively short in this class so it certainly is not the time to
rest on our laurels, especially since practice makes perfect.
As mentioned at the beginning of this section, I amended the questionnaire
slightly for my 10PS (see Appendix 10) based on the experience gained with the 12CG. I
consequently dropped the question in future, do you think you will choose or suggest to
use Google Docs to collaborate with your colleagues? as I found the two previous
questions already went in a similar direction. Moreover, I added a series of questions on
our use of Edmodo as the platform had been used more extensively in this class than in
the 12CG.
Throughout our reading of Swindells Stone Cold it had become clear that the
majority of students struggled noticeably with the books language level, which was why
we compiled the previously mentioned vocabulary file to accompany it. Despite these
difficulties, 79% of students still stated they liked the book. Google Docs as a tool to
discuss the book received a 2.5 grade, while using a computer for a school project got a
2.2 on a scale from 1 to 5 (with 1 being very positive). Compared with the 12CG, the
younger group, with their subject specialism in the socio-medial field, enjoyed the use
of Google Docs slightly more but cared slightly less about using a computer for school
work.
Views on Google Docs advantages and disadvantages were similar in both classes.
Here is a selection of 10PS students comments in favour of the application:
The advanteges of using GoogleDocs is that the teacher can correct when we are writing.
It's better then writing on a cheet and then give it to the teacher to correct. And because
our teacher can type very fast there is no problem for her.
We can all work on the same document at the same time. We can stay at home and
collaborate with our class mates. It's going much faster when we write our homework
online, and our Prof. can correct it there. So we don't have to waste our english lessons at
school.
We can write what we think and the others can correct it.

The first comment shows that students rank immediate feedback received at the moment
of writing above corrections given at a later stage. This appears to confirm both Prensky

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and Veens impression that the current generation of students does indeed seek and
thrive on instant gratification. However, it is likely that previous cohorts would have felt
the same way but were simply not given the option and therefore adapted their
expectations accordingly.
The second comment resembles the 12CGs feedback in that it praised the
possibility to collaborate with classmates from the comfort of ones home and in real
time. Apart from appreciating the teachers corrections, the student also pointed out how
the use of Google Docs can save valuable lesson time. Of course the same comment can
also be interpreted to mean that the application allows for the extension of lesson time,
and certainly of teacher assistance, beyond the classroom.
Lastly, the third comment shows that some students are indeed starting to value
their classmates as resources and do not only accept but appreciate the help and
corrections they can provide. Given the relatively short duration of the project and the
clear lack of focus on this aspect in general schooling I found this was a very encouraging
statement.
As with the older group, the disadvantage most frequently pointed out regarded
Google Docs dependence on the availability of a computer with Internet access.
Throughout the project between two to four students from this group claimed to have
had issues accessing files. However, during the group sessions in the computer room it
also transpired that most of those who had struggled had not tried particularly hard to
overcome their problems. It did not occur to them that simply refreshing a page might be
enough and, arguably even more interestingly, the majority only ever complained of
problems after deadlines rather than ask their peers or me for help on Edmodo or via
email beforehand. Nonetheless, I believe not all of this was down to ill will but rather
proved that even computer skills one might consider as basic should simply not be taken
for granted despite the technology-dominated times in which these students have grown
up. Again as in the 12CG, there was also one student in this group who regretted that
everybody could change the text; he felt these changes were annoying when he deemed
them not to be for the better at all. It is likely that the underlying issue here is one of
insufficient communication between collaborators where work was not changed as a

106

consequence of negotiation but rather at one students own discretion, which is a


difficulty that should be easily overcome with practice.
The next seven questions enquired once more about the usefulness of various
aspects of the project.
How useful did you find the following aspects of the Google Docs project?
14
12
10

8
6
4
2
0

Being able
to work
Being able Being able
together
Being able
to share my to comment
with
to write my
homework on other
homework
another
with other students'
online
student on
students homework
the same
document

Being able
Having my
to read
homework
other
Having
checked and
students'
mistakes
commented
homework pointed out
on by the
to prepare
teacher
for the test

Very useful

12

Useful

12

10

Not useful

Figure 36 - Analysis of 10PS students' feedback on the usefulness of various aspects of the project

Both classes feedback lets the graphs peak at the same answer options for all save the
last two questions. The differences that are there show that the 10PS views being able
to work together with another student on the same document as considerably more
useful than the 12CG but find sharing their work with others less useful than their older
counterparts. Unfortunately, it is hard to make more than speculations for the reasons of
these results; students age might have had an effect and could imply that the older,
more mature group had a preference for more independence than the younger group.
Furthermore, the possibility to comment on others work is perceived as slightly more
useful by the younger group but both agree that the teachers comments are the most
useful aspect of the project. Interestingly, results for the last two questions in this series

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are inversed: despite needing their peers work to prepare for the test, a majority of the
10PS found easy access to this to be only useful. More encouragingly, then, was the
outcome of the last question, where most of the younger group rates having mistakes
pointed out to be very useful.
When asked whether they would choose to use Google Docs for other projects,
too, 86% replied in the affirmative and the remaining 14% said they did not know. This
overwhelmingly positive response was also swiftly translated into action with three
students asking me to help them set up an account so they could use Google Docs for
homework in other subjects as well. Rather than using only the document function, they
independently worked out how to make presentations and only asked for help to include
a diagram they had also made together online. It is not surprising, then, that 86% of the
class thought Google Docs was a good solution to collaborate with their colleagues.
Unfortunately, they did not have many suggestions for future projects apart from several
students stating that we should use Google Docs more. In line with this one student also
said everything would work better if people worked harder in general. This was
particularly true for our use of Edmodo, which, as OReilly and Batelle claim of all Web 2.0
applications, get better the more people use them.
However, before moving on to the classs feedback on Edmodo, the question as to
whether their English had improved remains to be analysed.
Has your English improved because of the
collaborative writing project?

Yes
36%
Don't know
57%

No
7%
Figure 37 - 10PS students' self-assessment of their English skills after the project.

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One cannot fail to notice that this group of students was much more cautious in their selfassessment. On closer inspection of their explanations, a majority stated they could not
judge whether their English had improved or not. Other statements included the
following:
At 9ieme my English was very bad and I couldn't say a word without a error but now my
English is much more fluent and I can express my ideas.
In the last years we haven't make anything a project where we can write in English.
Teacher help me in my vocabulary and in my grammar.
i don t know why my english improved im getting better in speaking
I think that someone can improve his English only when he's talking a lot to other people
and when they correct his mistakes.

The first three comments reflect positive experiences, with students more or less lucid
about what and why they had improved. Interestingly, the last comment appears to
doubt that anything other than speaking practice can really help somebody improve in a
language. Immersion certainly would be the quickest way but studying underlying
grammatical structures and practising them in writing and reading, to provide the brain
with visual and kinaesthetic on top of this auditory in/output, would obviously also help
to ease the strain on the memory and support appropriation. Overall, I believe this result
shows that trying to share clear criteria of what improvement consists of and what
expectations are might help students learn to learn and could perhaps also lower their
level of dependence on the teacher.
After analysing the 10PS feedback on Google Docs I shall now move on to the
second part of their questionnaire on our use of Edmodo. In order to gather data as
comparable as possible I started with similar seven questions about the platforms
usefulness.

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How useful did you find the following aspects of Edmodo?


14
12
10
8
6
4
2
0

Being able
Being able
Doing Stone
Being able
Being able
to message
Using
to send
Cold quizzes Receiving
the whole
to send
to check
messages Edmodo to
to check your marks
messages
your marks
class in one
share links
from the
and
how well
and
in your
group
quizzes
questions to to Google
you have
questions to
online
instead of
Docs
your
understood immediately
using email
the teacher
gradebook
classmates
the story
addresses

Very useful

12

Useful

12

Not useful

Figure 38 - 10PS students' feedback on the usefulness of various aspects of Edmodo

The first question - about the usefulness of being able to send messages and questions to
the teacher was met with an overwhelmingly positive response. I believe this goes to
show that students appreciate a teachers efforts to be more easily available and invite
conversation outside lesson times. In addition, a majority of this group found it useful to
be able to send messages to their peers but there was a very clear preference for using
the teacher as a resource. This response was hardly surprising and could even be seen as
yet another indicator that traditional schooling does not encourage students to embrace
socio-constructivist values of collaboration. Students seem to lack an understanding of
themselves as a group of potentially mutually useful learners.
As part of my endeavour to make Edmodo the hub or home base it was intended
as, I used it to share all the links to students Google documents. Although this
connection, without which any work would have been impossible, was objectively one of
the more important aspects of Edmodo, the vast majority of students rated it to be useful
rather than very useful. Perhaps this function had become second nature to them so
quickly that they did not realise its pivotal role any longer. Using individual email
addresses to share links would of course also have been possible but it would have been
much less practical. As responses to question 4 show, a majority of learners did

110

appreciate this advantage but they may not have connected the dots as they remained at
the receiving end of the link shares rather than using this function themselves.
Questions 5 and 6 asked the class to evaluate Edmodos quiz function. A small
majority found the quizzes to be very useful, with nearly the entire rest of the class
finding them useful, and only one student failing to see their use. Coincidentally, this was
also one of the few students who had to be reminded several times to log in and
complete them, which might go some way to explain the negative feedback.
Furthermore, receiving quiz results immediately may have been expected to be
considered very useful by a larger majority of students based on Prenskys claims that
Digital Natives thrive on instant gratification. Perhaps this could be explained by the fact
that quiz results were not linked to rewards such as extra marks and hence the
gratification received through the result itself was not as incentivising as expected.
Finally, the marks which could be checked at any time on Edmodo were for the
longest part of the project the students quiz results. Towards the end I also used the
online gradebook to inform students of the mark received on their Google document
before telling them in class. As mentioned previously, quiz results had no effect on school
reports which might explain why only a small, rather than a larger, majority found this
function to be very useful. However, one student explicitly mentioned this aspect of
Edmodo in an extended comment at the end of the questionnaire: With Edmodo we can
see our marks without going to class (it goes more rapidly). This led me to think that a
more extensive use of this function to also include grades which impact on students term
average would be advantageous to make it more relevant, and simultaneously incite
students to log on to the platform more frequently.
The next three questions aimed to gauge to what degree students thought online
interaction had influenced the relationship with their peers. The first of this set asked if
students thought differently of a classmate because of something they did/did not do on
Edmodo or Google Docs. The response was divided: 43% of students claimed their
opinion had not changed, 36% said it had, and the remaining 21% said they did not know.
Here are a few of the explanatory comments they added to their answers:

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Yes sometimes because some people didn't make anything and next morning they say
"ooh i can't log in in my pc" or "really i don't know that" and that annoys me.
Yes i was positively surprise because in the vocables everyone makes his work. That means
that we can trust each other by things about school.
My opinion did not change because sure that was Olivier do was very good and friendly
but it didn't change my opinion of him.
I think everybody can share their opinion and questions because we are here to help them.

The first comment showed that unreliability can not only impact the teacher but also the
students impression of their fellows and influences mutual esteem negatively. In
contrast, when cooperation is experienced as successful it has a positive effect on the
learning community and is even said to build trust. The third comment referred to the
incident where one student failed to complete her work on the Stone Cold vocabulary file
and another eventually stepped up and did her work for her and the rest of the class.
While the learner claimed not to have changed her opinion about either of her fellows, it
was clearly an incident she remembered. Lastly, the fourth explanation appears to
originate from an alternative understanding of the question. The response suggests a
non-judgmental, supportive attitude in the speaker, who is embracing the idea of a
collaborative, tolerant, and inclusive learning environment. His opinion of his fellows was
thus not influenced by anything they did or did not do on Edmodo or Google Docs.
The second question of this set asked if collaborating with a classmate changed
their impression of them. This certainly overlapped with the first to an extent but aimed
to narrow the question down from the overall to the small-group experience made
through co-authoring a document on Google Docs. Exactly half of the class stated it had
changed their impression, with 43% claiming it had not. Two of the explanatory
comments might make this data more meaningful:
It was very positive already!
I choose no because I knew already that Tessy works good in groups.

In this class, as opposed to the 12CG, I let students choose their own team members,
which meant they were all working with somebody they already knew and appreciated.
Consequently, it is less surprising that collaboration did not always change the impression
they had of one another. Subsequently, responses to the third question of this set, asking
if Edmodo had helped them get to know their classmates better, should likely be viewed

112

in the same light. 57% stated it had not helped them, 29% said they did not know, and
only 14% thought it had allowed them to find out more about their peers.
The concluding question asked for students overall thoughts on Edmodo but also
prompted some to give feedback on Google Docs as well.
The best on edmodo is that we can write a text and the teacheer correct it with us that is
the same thing that the teacher is with us.
Yes, it was helpful. I like using Edmodo an Google Docs, because we can work better in
groups, even when we are not in school. I think it is good to continue to work with Edmodo
and Google Docs.
Edmodo is a very good comunication with students and teachers but the problem is that
some of our classmates are not on Edmodo except if there are voc. or quizes.
I like Edmodo because it is very convenient, it's simple to go on edmodo.
It's convenient for the vocabulary and corrections of exercices.

The first as much as the second comment is clearly an assessment of both services we
used. While I did edit students posts on Edmodo to help them with question formation
and more generally to formulate their ideas, most of the editing work was done on
Google Docs. The comments author clearly appreciated the real-time, online assistance
and even went as far as to equate this virtual with a real presence. Thus, the combination
of both applications seems to have succeeded in extending the classroom beyond its
physical walls. The second statement takes this idea up as well but focuses on the positive
experiences with the collaborative aspect of our project. Not only did it allow the
teachers help to reach further but it also enabled students to work together without
having to be physically close.
The third statement includes two separate ideas: firstly, it praises Edmodo for
facilitating communication between students and teachers, thereby fulfilling its function
as the pivotal hub it was designed to be. The second idea, however, expresses a regret
which another student formulated as follows: People dont use Edmodo enough. This
once again adds to the claim that Web 2.0 tools improve with frequency of use and
number of users. After all, if fellows do not check their messages and participate in the
activities offered on Edmodo, it is unlikely to live up to its potential of becoming the home
base or digital extension of the classroom. It seems full adoption needs a shift in mindset

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even among students and I will need to find further ways of integrating it more
extensively into day to day teaching to increase its relevance.
The next comment, praising the user-friendliness and accessibility of Edmodo,
takes the wind out of the sails of those who repeatedly used technical difficulties as an
excuse not to participate. Of course, one cannot speak for all computer setups but at least
not on a single one from the LTCs computer-room, the library, the staff-room or my own
were there ever any connection issues. This certainly contributed to both this and the last
students assessment of Edmodo as convenient. Apart from granting easy access, it also
made link- and file-sharing very straightforward. Despite my initial qualms about using
non-interactive, old VLE practises, I eventually uploaded extra grammar exercises with
keys and even just the keys of exercises (Figure 30, p. 92) we had not been able to finish
correcting in class for students to revise before a test. It seems that in small doses even
these elements can be experienced in a positive way.
Ultimately, the single most encouraging piece of feedback I received from this
class was not something any of the learners put down in writing; instead, they let their
actions speak louder than words. Towards the middle of the second term, they went and
convinced one of their biology teachers to start using Edmodo as well. In addition, one of
the students even helped that teacher sign up and create a second, subject-specific
virtual classroom. We have since created a nano professional community of practitioners
and I have tried as best I could to answer any questions he had. I strongly believe not only
the students but also further fellow teachers could benefit from this solution if they
received the right training, support and ideas on how to make meaningful use of it while
avoiding the pitfalls of the old VLEs.

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4 Conclusion
At the beginning of this travail de candidature I raised two questions as to whether online
social interaction had educational potential and whether it was possible to implement
socio-constructivist learning theories with the help of ICT. After carrying out a reading and
writing project strongly based on online collaboration in a 10PS and a 12CG, it remains to
be seen to what extent the questions could be answered and what conclusions can be
drawn for future projects.
The underlying reasoning in favour of trying to use online social interaction for
educational purposes was two-fold. First of all, it is an undeniable fact that an increasing
number of people, and not only Digital Natives, choose an always-on lifestyle in which
they are almost continuously connected to and reachable by people they know via
mobiles, smartphones and various devices with Internet connectivity. In fact, these
devices even extend connections from a known circle of friends or acquaintances to
people they have never met. Thus, myriad individuals personal networks quickly
interconnect and allow their utility to grow far beyond their initial scope. They are no
longer limited to being a convenient way of contacting your friends in the hope of finding
someone willing to carry that really heavy box of books or help you manoeuvre that
unwieldy fish tank when you are moving flats at the weekend; instead, you can ask the
Internet for help with almost anything. Of course, it might be wiser to rely on your dads
oldest friend when it comes to emptying your flat of your possessions, rather than
*Prince_Ipleless* you met on MSN Messenger the previous week at least if you are not
just after a good excuse to go on an extended shopping spree. So while trust certainly
plays a crucial role, and with it the acquisition of the skill to judge reliability, online
interaction certainly can be not only a convenient way to mobilise resources but also a
great source of knowledge, as projects such as Wikipedia prove. Hence, the idea to use
this growing desire for and ease of connectedness in an educational context grew first
and foremost out of the hope of being able to combine the everyday, enjoyable with the
useful; surely some of the time spent online could be discreetly diverted away from the

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play to the work context without losing all of its attractiveness. The aim was clearly to
present students with a new learning experience that would keep affective filters low and
their motivation high through integrating tools which they already used and, ideally, felt
confident with. Hence, I aimed to turn personal networks into what Will Richardson and
Rob Mancabelli call personal learning networks (Richardson and Mancabelli 2011).
Secondly, I hoped that continuing the social interaction from within the classroom
online would extend the learning environment beyond its physical walls, prolong the
time learners spent jointly, simultaneously or one after the other, discussing educational
material, and hence allow the socio-constructivist dialogue necessary for learning to stay
alive beyond school hours. The idea was again one of combining the useful with the
enjoyable (or at least with the more convenient): I wanted students to benefit from all
the advantages of group work, with its potential to create a more cohesive class nurturing
the learners sense of belonging, without the inconvenience of having to find a time and a
place for all group members to meet but with all of them being able to join efforts from
the comfort of their own chosen spot.
It is crucial to note that the term interaction implies active participation of all
group members in an exchange and is thus explicitly different from a situation where
many more or less passively receive what one, or few, create and share. The meaning can
be illustrated again through the example of crowd-sourced projects such as Wikipedia, or
even YouTube: reading articles or watching videos does not constitute interaction in the
sense it is used here, despite the fact that this can very well allow the consumer to
acquire new knowledge. Instead, interaction starts when users accept the Web 2.0 tools
invitation to join the (global) conversation and make use of the voice they offer to
contribute their knowledge and understanding to the creation of a larger and evergrowing whole. It is clearly through this aspect that current technological tools do indeed
lend themselves to support the implementation of socio-constructivist tenets.
While the scope of the collaborative reading and writing project implemented in
my classes did not extend to the global scale, it nonetheless required active participation
of all students in the form of contributions both to the negotiation of meaning as well as
to the actual writing of the documents. The overall positive learner feedback on this

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mode of working supported by Edmodo and Google Docs has led me to conclude that in
terms of keeping students motivation up and affective filters low the project was a
success. Students across the board appreciated
the increased ease of multi-directional communication
the heightened level of timely, easily available assistance
the convenience of online collaboration
the possibility to work within their own time scale
the contributions of their peers
Despite their sheer insatiable desire for approval from the teacher, students slowly but
certainly learnt to also value and accept their peers feedback, as well as starting to feel
confident enough to give feedback themselves and let their voice be heard. Nonetheless,
this development has remained timid in most and will need to be nurtured further in
future learning activities. Similarly, although a majority of the 12CG and at least a part of
the 10PS self-assessed their English skills to have improved over the course of the project,
it is clear that long-term progress cannot be adequately evaluated neither by them, nor
by the teacher, through a short- to mid-term project. As stated in section 3.4, it is true
that mark averages of tests based on the project were notably higher than previous tests
but this was certainly due to a range of factors and not simply a general improvement in
skills. The fact that a significant number of learners also admitted they did not know
whether they had become more proficient raised questions as to the utility of sharing a
set of more precise evaluation criteria with the students to make self-assessment more
meaningful. It would have been interesting to see to what extent more extensive focus on
a self- and peer-assessment culture would support projects such as this and should be
borne in mind for the future.
Overall I believe that, based on the student productions (see Appendix 12 and 13)
and the learner feedback, it is fair to say that online social interaction does indeed hold
educational potential, and the current development level of ICT supports socioconstructivist practises such as scaffolding and the setup of individual, co-existing ZPDs
through facilitating collaborative negotiation of meaning even outside the classroom.
Nonetheless, the fact that technological tools allow for the extension of good classroom

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practice into a digital space does not simultaneously mean that all students, let alone
teachers, feel equally confident with or are open to this mode of working. A conclusion
which must also be drawn from the project is that the current cohorts of students, albeit
born into the Digital Native generation, are not a homogenous group. As my experience
with the 10PS showed, collaboration is not necessarily their preferred way of working and
they might just prefer to keep using their smartphones and computers in a leisure rather
than in a work context.

Figure 39 - A quotation by Henry Ford highlighting the difficulty with thinking outside the box and the necessity for a
shift in mindsets.

Furthermore, the Digital Native concept bears within it a risk to make unwarranted
assumptions as to the skill set of our students. Using technology in a private and/or
entertainment context does not necessarily mean students know how to transfer them to
a work context, and task- or subject-specific skills are unlikely to be fostered at all.
Therefore, it seems advisable to spend a sufficient amount of time on the preparation
phase of ICT projects of this kind in order to avoid raising students affective filter
unnecessarily.
Moreover, 21st century skills, such as information literacy, simply have to be
taught and it is in this domain that a mind shift not only in the ranks of the students but
also in those of the teachers is necessary. As Vincent Gautrais, the University of

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Montreals chair of e-security and e-business law, puts it: We are currently undergoing a
revolution and the classic reflex is to reject it. But we must evolve and consider the
positive aspects of social media. (2011) Instead of acting according to the dictum If it
aint broke, dont fix it! the professional community of educators should limit the
amount of energy wasted on resisting the new point-blank, and instead use some of it to
critically analyse which aspects of the new technologies might actually make their efforts
easier and support the good work they are doing in the classroom. Once again, using
technology is not a goal in itself; it should serve as the tool that it is to improve learning
experiences in a way analogue means could not. This is therefore far from a call to
abandon everything old in favour of the new, merely because it is new. In fact, the US
Department of Education found in their meta-analysis about online learning that the
latter was more effective than classroom learning but that the most effective of all
was actually blended learning. (Richardson and Mancabelli 2011, 31) What made online
learning more effective were the potentials for collaboration, which is precisely what
services like Edmodo and Google Docs can boast of.
So what might teachers be expected to evolve into? Ian Gilbert, in his book Why
do I need a teacher when Ive got Google? (Gilbert 2011), suggests that the role of the
twenty-first century teacher
is to help young people know where to find the knowledge, to know what to
do with it when they get it, to know good knowledge from bad
knowledge, to know how to use it, to apply it, to synthesize it, to be creative
with it, to add to it even, to know which bits to use and when and how to
use them and to know how to remember key parts of it. Add to that your
powerful role in helping them develop their communication skills, their
creativity, their curiosity, their ability to work well as a team, their
confidence and self-esteem, their sense of what is wrong and what is right,
their ability to deal with adversity, their understanding of their role as a
citizen of the world in other words all the things computers cant do yet
() (24)

One cannot fail to notice that in this list new skills or rather old skills applied to the 21st
century reality - stand shoulder to shoulder with evergreens as old as education itself,
leaving no doubt as to the continued crucial role of the teacher. So instead of feeling
threatened, perhaps we should try to use our eyes so practised in seeing potential to scan

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and analyse what opportunities new technologies hold, and model, instead of just teach,
skills such as adaptability, initiative, curiosity and imagination to equip our students for an
exciting, changing future.

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6 Appendices
Note: As the following appendices were all created digitally, I have included them on an
accompanying CD-ROM to avoid corrupting their form and content through printing.

Appendix 1.

Your Internet Use questionnaire made with Google Forms.

Appendix 2.

Students answers to the Your Internet Use questionnaire (Appendix 1).

Appendix 3.

Google document where information about Link and Shelters characters


was collected during in-class reading. http://tinyurl.com/878bn2y

Appendix 4.

Google document with a choice of three final assessment questions about


Stone Cold. http://tinyurl.com/6w5m8or

Appendix 5.

An oral exam from 2005 on the topic of euthanasia and the case of Terri
Schiavo.

Appendix 6.

Two 12CG students Google document on Genesis and Catastrophe The


Film, Part 3.

Appendix 7.

12CG test II, 1.1 and II, 1.2.

Appendix 8.

12CG questionnaire about the collaborative reading project with Google


Docs.

Appendix 9.

12CG students project feedback obtained via the questionnaire (Appendix


8).

Appendix 10. 10PS questionnaire about the collaborative reading project with Google
Docs and Edmodo.
Appendix 11. 10PS students project feedback obtained via the questionnaire (Appendix
10).
Appendix 12. 10PS student productions.
Appendix 13. 12CG student productions.

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Acknowledgements
I would like to thank the following people for their assistance at various stages
throughout this travail de candidature:
Michel Bintener, for sharing numerous invaluable resources and ideas which first
provided a good starting point and then ensured the right scope for this travail de
candidature. Moreover, I would like to thank him for asking and making me ask
the right questions at the right time, providing technical tips and help when
necessary, and responding to my emails at no less than the utterly impressive
speed of lightning.
Frank Schmit, for the encouraging words to Promo 11 to grit our teeth and get on
with the travail de candidature, and for demonstrating the power and importance
of learning networks by being the link connecting Michel and I.
Alain Hoffmann, for taking the time for a preliminary talk, which influenced not
only the direction but also shape of this travail de candidature, and for the
initiative to drop the highly useful French MENs report on the use of VLEs in my
pigeonhole.
The students of the 10PS1 and 12CG1 at the Lyce Technique du Centre (20112012), for all their patience with my project (and I), for showing initiative and for
giving their best. Without them neither the project nor this travail de candidature
would have been possible.
Georges Knell and David Raison from BEE-SECURE, for their quick answers to all of
my Internet security policy questions and the resources they provided.
Rupert Coler, for his patience of a saint throughout innumerable and endless
Skype calls, his technical help and advice, and for being my outsourced voice of
reason reminding me to take breaks and keep smiling.
Ronny Van de Berg, for bearing with me, through my nagging and my gloating, for
cheering me up and cheering me on, and for maintaining the supportive friendship
despite it all.