It is my sincere hope that the details of this post will be useless in the near future. Until that time, this is one way I’ve cooked up to facilitate my students writing digital.
The reason that I hope that much of this post will be useless is that my fingers are crossed that Google will soon have a way to use most of the Google Docs features on a tablet interface. For the moment, Google Docs is not the right solution if you want students with iPads doing word processing. You know this if you’ve tried to use Google Docs on your iPad or a smartphone. Here’s what you get:
All the excitement of plain text without, well, any formatting tools. Snooze.
Our current unit is focused on informational texts, and the writing project focuses on writing a persuasive essay. (The full rubric for the assignment is here (pdf).)
In addition to writing a strong essay that effectively addresses opposing viewpoints, I want the final product to feel polished and published. But I also want it stored in Google Docs so it’s easy to turn into a webpage and easier still for me to read and type comments on. So while I’m not always a fan of app-based solutions (as opposed to web-based solutions) because they require lots of installation and debugging, this is one instance where I had to have an app to do what I thought best for my students.
There are several well-rated word processing/productivity apps for the iPad that will let you create and edit documents in standard Microsoft Office formats. Among them is Apple’s own Pages app, designed specifically for high-touch editing on iOS devices. I immediately ruled this out because it doesn’t integrate with any cloud service besides iCloud.
I don’t want to digress into a comparison of the various productivity apps, so I’ll just say that I use Quickoffice Pro HD. This may not even be the best option at the time of this writing, but it’s what I committed to in October, and any app with cloud service storage will let you do what I’m describing here. The $20 price tag made me flinch at first, but since I only had to buy it once and could then load it on all 29 iPads in my room, the features won me over. (All my iPads are synced to one Apple ID that I control and protect with a very strong password.) In addition to a simple writing interface and good looks, it integrates with a long list of cloud storage services, including popular ones like Dropbox and Google Docs. Here’s what editing in Quickoffice Pro HD looks like:
When students create a new document and save it on their iPad, then can of course revisit that document when they come back the next day. But they need a way to submit the assignment for me to review when the project is done. Emailing the file from Quickoffice is not a good solution because it would require configuring yet another app, namely, Mail, with an email account. Moreover, submitting a document by email can sometimes happen prematurely—or attachments can get left off, or the wrong one attached, etc. You’ve made these mistakes yourself on a regular basis. Now multiply them by 100 7th-grade students.
The other underlying issue here is that iOS doesn’t have a normal file system that allows you to upload files from the tablet to a website. If you could “attach” a word processing file created in Pages or Quickoffice to an assignment in Edmodo or Moodle, this whole discussion would be moot. But documents on an iOS device are more or less only accessible within certain apps, and iOS web browsers like Safari can’t open up a dialog box and let you navigate to the essay you just wrote and saved in another app.
Instead, I simply have my students upload their documents from their iPads to a shared Google Docs account from within Quickoffice. This means:
- their work is safely stored in the cloud
- they can return to it and make revisions if necessary
- I can open the documents in the fancier Google Docs web interface to review, score, and place typed comments directly on the assignment
- since I am the administrator of the Google account, I can move the files stored there around and change permissions if necessary to clean up the folders.
To aid organization, I simply have students save their work with their name as the filename. They then drag their work to a pre-synced Google Doc account and drop it in a folder named for their class period’s college.
You should not link your personal Google account to student iPads, nor your school Google account if you have one. For our class, we have a complimentary Google Apps for Education suite, and I simply made a generic account, email@example.com, with a simple password so that a small team of students can help me login into the account through Quickoffice on the iPads—no configuration necessary. You could of course just sign up for a new independent Google account (firstname.lastname@example.org, for instance), or set up Dropbox as your cloud service and create a dedicated account for that.
I used a system similar to this in December for a personal narrative project and got good results. I’m hoping that this time around, we’ll be making even further strides as writers, thinkers, and digital publishers. It’s nowhere near perfect, but I want my students publishing, not just writing.
Questions on this system? Got another way you manage student digital work? Leave a comment or @appratt.