Apply the adjacent possible

Dan Waldhoff, JALT Ibaraki Chapter


In 2009, I wrote in this column about adopting Google’s Blogger as the Ibaraki Chapter web log publishing tool. That has worked out very well, fulfilling the Simple is Better dictum. Last March that Google experience came to mind while I was dreaming about eliminating the long waits while copying the many printed items that were flying at teachers, then students, like parade confetti. In my heart I knew that eventually it was making a circuitous trip to paper recycling in students’ neighborhoods. Because of the earthquake we were being urged to be economical with energy and materials. However, there was conflict between that goal and our process. So I applied much of what I had learned to make a try at a Google-based class.

On the first day of classes I directed my students to a site I'd created in Blogger. They were required to use that site to download PDF versions of all the handouts and .txt templates for all written assignments. All work was to be emailed to me at a Gmail address. I would pass out no paper other than tests and would accept no paper. I showed an instructional video I'd made demonstrating how to use assignment templates. Students typed, then copied and pasted into the body of an email. That Blogger page received more than 4,500 visits from my students. I was out of the line at the copy machine. I was also relieved of the several kilos of paper that I'd had to print, distribute, collect, store, and eventually recycle myself. As their work arrived I edited Google Docs spreadsheets, keeping my online student records up to date. It worked. However, I kept thinking there must be a better way. Some students were not following directions as well as others and I was consistently getting a few improperly formatted attachments. When deadlines came, my email volume increased so I encouraged students to work ahead, enforcing deadlines with feigned mercilessness. The term’s major achievements were that none of the students were confounded by the system, all embraced it for making their work easier, and I had much less tedium filching my time while being economical with energy and materials.

In May I made a presentation to the JALT Ibaraki Chapter, Using Contemporary Technology Tools in the Classroom. Among other things, I spoke about the Google classroom experiment. I'd had a month to use it and was mostly satisfied with it, but in preparing the presentation I began thinking more about the secondary theme, Apply the Adjacent Possible. At the close of the first term when I had a chance to review everything and began planning for the second term, I really could apply the adjacent possible. My biggest first term challenges had been reading 1,300 student-emailed assignments (instead of collecting, then reading 1,300 printed or handwritten assignment papers, which often came late or mangled), and making everything even easier for my students to experience success. In case you’re wondering about answering 1,300 emails, I used Gmail’s vacation responder to confirm receipt, thus avoiding having to answer messages other than those with special subject lines.

While experimenting one day I discovered that Google's spreadsheet has a Forms function - into which users input data online. Eureka! That was the answer! Using that function I made spreadsheets for each written assignment, linking them to my class Blogger site. The online forms are familiar to any student who's ever used a CALL study program. What the student sees is absolutely clear with no chance of error or omission. What I see is a sophisticated spreadsheet, which can be accessed by multiple student users simultaneously. The time stamped student data is entered directly into the appropriate cells. All form cells must be completed before it can be submitted. Successful submission is confirmed automatically. In future there will be no emails missing vital information and no attachments. Vacation responder gets furlough. Inbox Zero will be attainable.

By the time you've had a chance to read this I'll have had experience in the second term to work out any additional challenges. I'll make another presentation to the Ibaraki Chapter and I'll post a detailed "How To" on their website <>.

My class website is at <>; come look but do not touch.

Now the next projects are moving tests from paper to iPad and projector, and giving students the English speaking time for which they’ve waited years!

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