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Create collaborative research projects with Google Apps

By Leigh Zeitz
June 9, 2014
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School was once a place where teachers were the experts. They stood at the front of the classroom and transferred their knowledge to students in the form of step-by-step instructions and premade problems that were unrelated to real life. And the students' primary tasks were to memorize and follow directions.

Once upon a time, this model worked. But that time is over.

This research project is different. It addresses all six of the ISTE Standards for Students (ISTE StandardsS) It's a student-centered, challenge-based, authentic learning experience . It gives them practice using basic research methods and collaborating in an online environment much like the ones they will encounter in their future workplaces. And it encourages them to be lifelong, self-taught learners who are prepared to master the rapidly evolving technologies of their world.

To meet these learning objectives, this unit incorporates three challenges:

Challenge 1: Students collaborate in small teams entirely online.

Students must communicate with each other only through digital media, so that they can gain online collaboration skills that will serve them well in the future when they will be expected to collaborate with colleagues from different offices or different parts of the world. This will also help them meet ISTE StandardsS 2:  Communication and Collaboration and 6: Technology Operations and Concepts.

Challenge 2: Students practice basic research and reporting skills.

In this unit, students are in charge. They are responsible for running their own collaborative research project, from start to finish, including identifying a research question, surveying their classmates, analyzing the results, creating a presentation with charts representing the results, making a short video and posting it online to a potentially global audience. In the process, they will address ISTE StandardsS 6 and 3: Research and Information Fluency. The teacher will address ISTE Standard for Teachers 1-3.

Challenge 3: Students teach themselves how to use all the tools. 

I asked my students to use only free online tools: Google Apps, Twitter, Jing or Screen-cast-omatic, and a wiki. Rather than doling out step-by-step instructions, I challenged my students to learn to use the tools on their own, either from each other or through online tutorials. My school has subscriptions to both and Atomic Learning, so students searched there, but they could just as easily have used free tutorial services, such as Jeff Utecht's Ninja Program. In addition to ISTE StandardsS 6, this addresses Standard 3: Critical Thinking, Problem Solving and Decision Making and the lifelong learning indicator in 5: Digital Citizenship.

I did this project with college-age students, but it would work just as well with high school or even middle school students. Here are the steps my students took to complete their collaborative research projects.

Step 1: Break into groups and identify team member roles.

The first day of the unit was the only time the students met in person. They launched their projects by breaking into teams of three or four members, each of whom had a specialized role to play in addition to participating in all of the work. This allowed them to get used to the process of working on a collaborative team.

I suggested four primary roles:

  • Leader: This person was responsible for keeping the project organized, owning the primary collaborative file and acting as a liaison with the teacher. 
  • Expediter: This person kept the team on task. She created a calendar of what needed to be accomplished and by when, then worked closely with the leader to ensure each task was accomplished in a timely manner.
  • Detail specialist: This person assured that the data in the report was accurate and that the quality of the work was as high as possible. He was responsible for editing the material before it was released.
  • Technical consultant: This was the most tech-savvy member. Although every team member was responsible for at least one technological step in the process, she offered assistance to all when necessary. Each team member was also in charge of mastering one or more tools and teaching the others how to use them.

Step 2: Set communication protocol.

During their initial face-to-face meeting, each group discussed and decided which communication tools they would use for their collaboration throughout the project. Some groups decided to use the Google Docs chat and its comment functions. Others decided to text on their phones, send email or engage through Facebook. Many chose to talk to each other through Skype, FaceTime or Google Hangouts. A few opted to use the entire Google+ suite of communication tools, including Gmail, Talk and Hangout. Most groups ended up changing their communication tools as the project progressed, however, as they identified tools that better suited their needs.

Next, students moved to other rooms in the school, or at least to different places in the room, so that all communication and collaboration would take place online. The primary requirement for the working locations they chose was access to Wi-Fi.

Step 3: Write the research question(s) and survey questions.

The leader of each group created a Google Doc and shared it with the other team members. The team then collaborated via their chosen communication channel to develop a research question that would guide them in developing questions for a survey they would administer to their classmates.

I have found it best to use research questions that are simple enough to complete in a short time but complex enough to make it interesting. It's ideal to relate the research to something the class is studying. But if your main objective is to provide practice using these collaborative tools to engage in research, allowing them to choose questions based on their interests — such as "What is the most popular band among class members?" or "Which communication tools do students prefer?" — may increase their engagement.

Google Docs is also the best tool to use for writing the survey questions that they will enter into Google Forms in the next step.

Step 4: Create the survey form.

Surveys should include two to five questions, and it works best if one students enters them one by one into a Google Form. I have found that questions with a predetermined set of solutions generate data that's easier to analyze. That means students should select either the multiple-choice question type, which allows one possible answer, or the checkbox question type, which allows respondents to choose more than one answer.

Here's an example of a checkbox question:

Select your top three preferred tools for communicating for personal purposes.

  • Hand-written letters
  • Email
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Google+
  • Phone
  • Instagram
  • LinkedIn
  • YouTube
  • Skype
  • Google Hangouts

Learn more about using Google Forms in this screencast.

Step 5: Announce the survey.

Once the surveys are ready, it's time to let the world — or at least the class — know about it. Each group needs to send out a tweet asking their classmates to complete their survey. This meant that each member needs to have a Twitter account. Keep in mind that, to sign up for Twitter, students must be at least 13. Younger students can post their announcements on a shared Google Doc instead.

The announcement tweet should include the request, the deadline for submission and a link to the survey Google Form. But the most important part is the class hashtag that the teacher or the class establishes ahead of time — something like #myclass or #DrZTechClass. The hashtag lets students find the surveys in the vast Twittersphere. They search for the hashtag, and all tweets that include it will be returned in a single stream. If you haven't created a hashtag before, it's as easy as deciding on a word that applies to your class, adding a # to the beginning and searching Twitter to make sure it's not already in use.

Here's an example tweet:

Which communication tools do you prefer? Complete our short survey by Tuesday @ 3:00 #drztechclass

Step 6: Start creating the presentation.

My students didn't want to waste time while they were waiting for the survey responses, so they started work on their slide presentations right away. They just added a couple of blank slides for the charts and diagrams they would create in Step 9.

This is where they got to address ISTE StandardS 1: Creativity and Innovation, and it was also a fun task to discuss over Hangouts or Skype.

One student can start a Google Presentation slideshow and share it with the rest of the team. They all open the presentation file together and then discussed what needs to be done while it was being developed. Typically, they would each identify a separate slide to develop, but they could talk about it as they worked. My students found especially useful when they were searching for copyright-appropriate images to use in their presentation.

See how one student group used Google Presenter to collaborate on their presentation.

Step 7: Analyze and report the data.

The data collected through the Google Form is automatically captured in a Google Spreadsheet. After the survey deadline, all team members can access the spreadsheet and discuss how to analyze the final data over their communication channel.

This doesn't need to be a formal statistical analysis if students don't have those skills yet, as the results are not as important as the process. They can just select the Show Summary of Responses tool in the Form menu to generate an automatic data analysis.

They can also create graphics, such as pie charts and bar graphs, using the Summary of Responses tool. For example, they might generate a pie chart showing ratio of preferences for various tools. Finally, they paste their graphics into their Google Presentations.

See how students used Google Spreadsheets to capture their data and create charts to report it.

Step 8: Record the presentation. 

Instead of doing live presentations in front of the class, my students recorded their presentations and posted them on the internet.

This doesn't require cameras. Instead, students can create a screencast — a video recording of your computer screen — using a screencast tool. Students can record their slideshow and narrative as they give a presentation. They just start the tool, identify the part (or all) of the screen they want to record and press the record button.

I like to use Jing because it is free and easy to use. Jing allows you to upload your recorded presentation to the website and gives you a link that you can post to a wiki to make it available for your classmates, your grandmother or your blog following. Screencast-o-matic is another free tool that also allows you to upload to YouTube. The free versions of these screencasters have a five-minute recording limit, so students must keep their screencasts short.

Each group added the link to their screencast to the organizational Google Doc that they began at the beginning of the project.

Check out an example of a final presentation! We used Screencast-o-matic to create this presentation because it is compatible with YouTube.

Step 9: Post the group's Google Doc.

The last step in this research project is sharing it with the world. Each group began the process by creating a Google Doc that, when completed, becomes their research report. They should include explanations and links to everything that went into the project, including:

  • Group members' names and roles
  • The research question
  • Link to the survey form
  • Link to the survey announcement tweet
  • Link to their survey data spreadsheet
  • Link to their Google Presentation
  • Link to the screencast of their presentation


Step 9

To share, the owner of the Google Doc needs to set its sharing setting to "Anyone with the link," then post that link on the class wiki page so that the other groups can see their work.

This project-based unit was challenging, engaging and exciting for both my students and me. One of my students described it as "scary but amazingly rewarding." For me, it was a perfect way to begin the semester because it laid a foundation for using collaborative tools for the rest of the course. For my students, it provided a chance to flex their collaborative, creative, critical-thinking and technical muscles while engaging in an authentic, real-world learning experience.


Thank you Kathy Wegley (from the ICE 2014 Conference) for your editing contributions to this article.

ZeitzLeigh Zeitz — aka Dr. Z — is an associate professor of instructional technology at the University of Northern Iowa. His vision of education involves challenging and empowering learners by providing a learning environment that is teacher led and student driven. Visit him at and follow him on Twitter @zeitz.

Get more tips for teambuilding and collaboration during the Encore 2014 virtual conference  free to ISTE members!