Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Google Docs for Collaborative Poem Writing

In a recent posting I gave a brief overview of Google Docs and some ideas of what it can do. In this posting I give an example strategy of how Google Docs can use used to have students work in a collaborative environment to create a poem.

At the beginning of the year you will go to Google Docs and create a class set of accounts for your students. Creating the accounts yourself will give you control over the accounts and will help when the students forget their passwords. I like to create the accounts with student numbers to maintain anonymity. This will take an hour or so and some patience. Once the accounts are set up you can give each student the username and password to their own Google Docs account.

Let's assume that you have a class of 24 students. You will be putting your students into groups of four. To prepare for the class you will log into your own Google account and create six documents. You will 'share' document number 1 with the students on team number 1. You will do the same for document 2 and so on for the 6 documents. At the top of each document you will provide the instructions for the activity.

Students' Document
In this activity you will be creating a poem with three of your friends. You are responsible for creating only two lines of the poem and each of your teammates will also create two lines for a total of eight. Your student number will be next to the lines you need to write on below. Find your lines and start writing. Don't be afraid to change your words as you see what your friends have written. 

Student 1
Student 2
Student 3
Student 4
Student 2
Student 1
Student 4
Student 3

There are a number of learning environments in which this activity can be done, but perhaps the most appropriate would be a computer lab. Each student would be on an individual computer and will be asked to log into Google Docs. When the students log into Google Docs they will find a document which is only visible to the members of their own team. 

As students type into their document the software auto saves and auto updates every 10 seconds or so. This means that as students make changes to the document all the other students on the team will see the changes along with their own changes every 10 seconds - it becomes a living document. As students are creating their lines they will see what their teammates are creating and in turn alter their own lines to better fit the evolving lines of their friends.

The poems will change and evolve and the students will interact with the poem much like a game. Eventually the poem will find a collective balance and will be finished.

You can arrange this activity so that students will not know who their teammates are. The activity can also be done with students spearate by great distance.

- Andrew Mercer

Sunday, November 15, 2009 for Eportfolio

Eportfolios (electronic portfolios) provide an excellent way for students to collect and organize their digital content. Online eportfolios can also be accessed from any computer connected to the Internet, enabling students to use and contribute to their eportfolios from practically anywhere.

For the past couple of years I have had students use for their eportfolios. is a free online file storage area. It allows me to create an unlimited about of unique sites for my students with 100megs of storage each. There is sophisticated password protection and permissions which allows me to protect the students work from prying eyes.

Here is how I set up eportfolios for my students:
I first go to and create a unique drop for each student. The address for each will be something like I assign an administrator password for me and a guest password for the students. I make the guest password the same for all students. This saves on the headaches when they forget. When I give the students their eportfolio address I ask them not to share their address with anyone. I create one more drop for the class to serve as a showcase site. All students are given the address and password for this site. When a students create exceptionally good pieces of work I, with their approval, show it on the class drop. is pretty bare bones, but where it lacks sophisticated features it makes up with it's intuitive design. My students enjoy it and they can keep the drop to use for years to come.

- Andrew

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Technology tools for creating an online learning environment

This article was posted in the fall 2008 of the Canadian Music Educator Journal.

Technology tools for creating an online learning environment
I recently had a friend observe several of my online music classes after which he commented on the variety of technology tools my students and I use to create our learning environment. Life would be simple if Swiss Army made a computer/communication tool that satisfied all our needs, but unfortunately to create a rich educational experience for online learners we must avail of many pieces of hardware and software. In this article I present some of the tools my students and I use in our virtual music room.
My students and I use video extensively in our classes. Due to varying learning preferences students prefer to work with content in various media formats. For this reason, I supplement most text content with video and audio alternatives and encourage students to consider the format that works best for them.
I have three types of cameras I use to create video footage. The first is a webcam that is built in my laptop. This is a low quality camera, but is good for quick video shoots from my desktop. The second is a digital photography camera that allows me to take video clips. The video quality is better than my webcam and the camera size permits me to shoot virtually anywhere. My third option is a professional digital video camera, which I use whenever possible for it provides the best quality. Unfortunately, the size of this camera makes it difficult to use outside a controlled environment.
I have three pieces of software I use for editing video. On my Apple laptop I edit video with the iMovie. This is a basic application, but it allows me to do quick editing and posting to the Internet. When using my Windows computer I use both Windows Movie Maker and Adobe Premier Pro. The free Windows Movie Maker has an excellent feature set and is simple to use. Adobe Premier Pro is a professional level application that gives me limitless editing possibilities.
I encourage students to create video as part of our courses. Students use their schools’ digital still cameras to shoot video and Windows Movie Maker to edit.
The ubiquitous YouTube ( is used extensively in our music classes as an online video storage and delivery service for course video content. It is also and excellent source for third party video and audio content related to our courses.
To play audio recordings during class, I use iTunes on my Apple computer and Windows Media Player on my Windows computer. Both applications organize my music and permit me to call up specific pieces at a moment’s notice. If I require a piece of music that is not on my computer I can usually find it on YouTube within seconds. Having instant access to virtually any piece of music allows me to provide relevant musical examples as the class explorations and discussions move around the musical landscape.
Students are often asked to record audio as part of their online music courses. We use the free application Audacity ( for this task. Audacity is an intuitive and feature rich audio recorder and editor. Due to its popularity, a quick search of the Internet produces numerous Audacity tutorials.
To assist in theory and ear training my students use Music Ace Maestro ( This commercial application challenges my students with a wide range of interactive lessons and games.
All my online students are provided with the Microsoft Office suite of products. To supplement Microsoft Office I encourage students to use Google Docs ( when working with text documents, slideshows and spreadsheets. Google Docs is a free web-based application, which means that it is not installed on my students’ computers, but instead functions through their web browsers. Content is not saved and stored on my students’ computers, but instead is save on Google’s server. This allows students to access their files from any Internet enabled computer. Google Docs is perfect for students who do not own a similar commercial product or for students who work from a number of different computers. Web applications hold a great deal of potential and are quickly changing software industry.
An ‘e-portfolio’ is an excellent way to have students develop and organize a body of digital work. Through collaboration with Glenn Cake, an online teacher of French, I create e-portfolios for my students using the free online service ( allows me to create a unique webpage for each student where they can store up to 100 megabytes content. Each e-portfolio is password protected and students are encouraged to upload any content they create: text, video, audio, images, etc. With student permission, I select outstanding examples from their e-portfolios to be featured on a ‘common area’ page that is visible to all students.
Since I began teaching high school music via the Internet the tools available to us have improved dramatically. It is difficult to imagine how future educational tools will empower online music students, but I am confident that the online music room will be an exciting and creative place to teach and learn.
 - Andrew Mercer

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Social Influences on Learning in an Online Environment

This article is published in the fall edition of the Canadian Music Educator Journal.

“Learning is influenced by social interactions, interpersonal relations, and communication with others” (Learner-Centered Principles Work Group, 2007, ¶12).

In the context of teaching High School music courses via the Internet, I am often asked of the social implications of the medium and more specifically, what role ‘social networking’ plays in the online learning process. Many of today’s students have very active online social lives and social networking is at the center of this phenomenon. Social networking generally refers to the ability for people to connect and interact with one another via the Internet. Social networking tools and strategies are at the heart of online music education.

An effective online learning environment provides many compelling tools that allow all the learning stake-holders to collaborate freely, such as Eluminate Live (virtual classroom), Desire2Learn (learning management system), MSN Instant Messenger (online chatting software), and PolyCom Systems (video conferencing). In this environment students can form communities of practice. “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Wenger, 2007, p. 1). A community of practice gives students an online social setting where they can interact with their like-minded peers to explore ideas. With extensive guidance from the teacher, these online communities of practice can be powerful social and academic forums where everyone can have their say without fear. In the context of a High School social online communities are created and monitored by the teachers to create a positive learning experience.

Many students enrolled in my High School music classes are from schools with a total population of less than thirty students. These small schools provide students with a small number of peers with whom they can socialize. The Internet provides a means for these isolated students to interact with like-minded peers from other communities. The social interactions between students in my courses can be critical in their development as learners and young adults.

In my online classes, music students come from a wide variety of ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds. One class may have Inuit students from the coast of Labrador along with Mi’kmaq students from central Newfoundland and students from the urban centre of St. John’s. This and similar contexts have its challenges as educators consider this diversity and its effects on students and their learning. I have found that as students see that their own individual social and cultural situations are being respected, valued, and viewed as a critical asset to the learning process of all their classmates, students’ motivation to learn increases dramatically. Students perceive the course content and delivery as being culturally relevant to them and to a large degree, under their control which in turn increases their level effort, a key indicator of motivation to learn (Learner-Centered Principles Work Group, 2007, ¶11).

The social diversity of cultures in a typical online music class can be enlightening for the participants. Through direct contact with their culturally diverse peers, students learn about the music of the region’s diverse cultures directly from the source – their classmates. This practice of peer tutoring and cognitive apprenticeship has proven to be very effective in this environment (Collins, 2001). Students are shown that their cultures are relevant and important to the class and this in turn motivates students to showcase their own personal music for the class. Students are also motivated to learn more about and how to perform their classmates’ cultural music. Through the exploration of their classmates’ music it is hoped that students will be more open to music of foreign cultures. This exposure to novel content and experiences encourages flexible and creative thinking as well as social sensitivity and social competence. (Learner-Centered Principles Work Group, 2007, ¶13)

The unprecedented ability to interact with one another does have its drawbacks. In the article The hyperconnected, Grossman (2007) points out that society is becoming dependant on being connected – an addiction to the Internet. Perhaps students, both on and offline, need to be educated on the need to “unplug” from time to time.

In his article The new music educator, Webster (1998) points out that computer technology, and more specifically the Internet, will be the catalyst for new breakthroughs in music education. The Internet provides a unique environment for educational collaboration between all educational stakeholders. Educators are only beginning to ponder the social possibilities offered by this new medium. As the Internet and its uses are considered from the point of view of sound pedagogical practice, opportunities will begin to emerge that have not yet been imagined. That is not to say that all is good with the Internet; challenges exist. As with any new learning opportunity there is a need to identify its strengths and weaknesses and utilize it to its maximum teaching and learning potential.


Collins, A., Brown J. S., & Holum, A. (1991). Cognitive apprenticeship: Making thinking visible. American Educator, 15(3), 6-11, 38-46.
Learner-Centered Principles Work Group (2007). Learner-centered psychological principles. Retrieved July 11, 2007, from
Grossman, L. (2007). The hyperconnected. Time, 169(16), 54, 56.
Webster, P. R. (1998). The new music educator. Arts Education Policy Review, 100(2), 2-6.
Wenger, E. (2007), Communities of practice. Retrieved June 5, 2007, from

Google Docs in Education

Google Docs may change the way your students learn. Google Docs is an online word processor. It us much like Microsoft Word or Corel Wordperfect. The biggest difference is that it is a free, online application that functions through your Internet browser.

Virtually any computer with access to the Internet can run Google Docs. This is great for students who may not be able to afford a commercial word processor or have access to a high performance computer.

Google Docs stores all your documents on their server so they can be accessed from any computer you are using. A secure login protects your stuff from baddies.

Because your files are stored on the Internet, you can chose to share them with friends. You can also invite peers to collaborate on specific document with you. Any changes they make can be seen, reviewed and accepted by you. This makes Google Docs great for group collaborations over a distance or across a classroom.

The educational uses for this technology is only beginning to be explored. Explore this online application and comment here on any ideas or inspirations you may have.

- Andrew Mercer