Digital Pedagogy Teaching Writing

The Quick Write and the Coke Machine …

... or, How I Learned to Love the Google Doc

Google Drive image, from Google website
Google Drive image, from Google website

This semester the subject of my English 1102 course is "The Rhetoric of Digital Media and Interaction Design." I've wanted to teach this for a while: not only does it allow me to flex my DH muscles in a way I haven't in the last few semesters, but I also believe there is a real need for Georgia Tech students to understand how and why they respond to digital media and how they can become better developers of well-crafted software.

Early indicators suggest that I've struck a nerve. This is the first semester I haven't lost a single student in the drop/add period and I'm still getting emails asking if I'll consider a course override. Several students have come up to me at the end of class and actually squee'd - something I haven't experienced at GT at the start of Shakespeare-related courses. I'm working to incorporate as many meta-lessons as possible, encouraging students to break the tools and texts we're using. And so the breaking has begun.

In Friday's class I assigned a quick write on a Google doc. I'd never done a live-action Google doc assignment in class before, where everyone is pounding on the same space simultaneously. I know Google says that a doc can accommodate 50 simultaneous editors, but in my experience if tech can fail it will. But in a weird way, this time it didn't. Instead, the failures (as such) became successes.

The assignment was straightforward and designed to help students begin to articulate their use of technology and digital media. It consisted of eight prompts:

  1. Identify a digital artifact (software as well as hardware) that you enjoy interacting with
  2. Consider it in terms of "genre"
  3. Using yourself as a gauge, what is the primary audience for this artifact? Is there a secondary audience? Where do you fall within these two groups?
  4. Where do you use this artifact?
  5. When do you use it?
  6. Define what you think is your "reason" for using it (e.g. schoolwork, play, communication, organization, living, etc.)
  7. Do you use this artifact alone or with other people? If the latter, are they physically present in your space, or do you interact with these people electronically?
  8. Explain the narrative process by which you approach and initiate interaction. Explain how you end your use and disengage.

We fired up the Google Doc; I put it up on the class screens to reinforce the collaborative real-time experience. Within seconds little colored cursors were popping up and students were playing in the space. I expected them to be jaded about this form of interaction, but many started giggling and posting silly greetings, comments, and playing around with font face, color, and size. After they settled down a bit - and stopped overwriting one another's text - we started the exercise. I didn't dictate how they should write their responses; they took cues from one another rather than me in terms of how they should organize and display their work.

Super-cool soda machine

I hadn't intended to clarify the terms I used; I wanted to see how they would interpret artifact, hardware, software, genre, and narrative in particular. They did need a bit of guidance after all, so I gave the (innocuous?) example of the soda machine with all of the brand/flavor buttons. In the first of my three sections one student described how one of these machines had ruined his trip to the movies because a little kid just ahead of him in line had broken the machine. In the second section a student used my example to riff on how he loved those soda machines. As his classmates found his comments (without my noticing) the caliber and creativity of their responses spiked.

coke machine riff
Student reflection on love of coke machines


"Coming to grips with my indecisiveness, sadly I choose none." I think this is the most fun I have ever had working on a writing assignment with students. It may have been for them, too.

So what did I learn, what did they learn, and what does this mean for the tenor of the course going forward?

  • I had no confidence going in that the Google Doc would work the way I hoped, or that the students would feel comfortable expressing themselves so openly. I took unexpected advantage of the experience to make on-the-spot connections to multimodal communication and good/bad interaction design.
  • By surrendering control of the assignment (sort of), I offered students a sense of agency. They ran with it, and even got to know one another a little better both physically and virtually - several times someone would call out, "Who is [..]?" to put a face with a post.
  • They certainly got the point that the writing they will do in this class has nothing to do with the dreaded five-paragraph essay of old.
  • Their responses demonstrated that their definitions of what is digital, what it means to enjoy these forms of interaction, and how articulating the narrative or process of that interaction helps them to better consider what works and what doesn't.

This was more than an ice-breaker. I intend to return to this form of collaborative expression throughout the semester - not just because it's fun, but because it establishes discourse that does not always happen in traditional writing and class discussion formats.

Now to find the next coke machine example ...

For more examples of how my colleagues and I in the Writing & Communication program at Georgia Tech are experimenting with progressive forms of pedagogy, see TECHSyle.

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