Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Google Sheets: share a sheet or distribute copies with Google Classroom?

I can't believe I've had a three-month hiatus from posting! Academic life intervened, you know: with an active federal research grant, more of my time is dedicated to mentoring students in my research laboratory now; I'm only teaching one class this fall semester. This is both good and bad for this blog and for my exploration of the application of mobile technology to pedagogy.

Bad: I spend less time this term focused on this topic.

Good: with only one class to prep, which I've taught before (a graduate course in molecular biology, based almost entirely on reading and critically evaluating published research literature), all of my efforts are highly focused on leveraging tablets in this course.

I've taught one other graduate course as a DISCOVERe course before (DISCOVERe is Fresno State's initiative to teach courses in which every student is required to use a tablet computer during class). Transforming this molecular biology course has been different, though, because of the learning outcomes, which include:
  • scientific information literacy (identifying and accessing primary literature sources)
  • quantitative analysis and reasoning; critical thinking

Leveraging tablets for the former has been relatively straightforward: we explored how to locate primary research literature on the web. Integrating the latter with a digital approach has been a blast to work on so far (now five weeks into the semester)! My goal now is to share with you a couple of ideas of how to use Google Sheets to help students
  • appreciate biology
  • peer-evaluate information literacy skills
  • analyze and understand the limitations of published research

Week 4: Appreciate Biology and Peer-Evaluate Information Literacy

The topic for the class period: DNA replication

To help students get a sense for why studying DNA replication is important, I asked them to use their tablets and the web to find a few pieces of information. The students entered these data onto a collaborative (shared) Google Sheet, which I reformatted and had entered each student's name in adjacent columns:

Each student worked to find published evidence of
the size of a chromosome from a species of their choosing (in base pairs)
how quickly chromosomes from a species are replicated (in base pairs per minute)
how rapidly cells from different species divide (in minutes). After students had edited this Sheet, we were able to
  • perform calculations (to fill in the red cell, above) that revealed that, in theory, it should take DNA polymerase (the enzyme that replicates chromosomes) longer to replicate a chromosome than a cell takes to divide (which would be a serious issue for our cells, if that were true)
  • see where all of the students were obtaining their information (we then had a discussion about the appropriateness of using different sources)
  • assess whether independent data sources all pointed to the same fact: that there is a discrepancy between chromosome replication times and cell division times

I emphasize here independent data sources in particular, because my opinion (based on my experience as a student) is that teachers should have students develop the examples used in class to remove any question of whether the teacher's favorite case study is an outlier and doesn't generally represent any general trend. This is a great use of mobile technology that can be used to search the web for information!

This process didn't work flawlessly (which it never does the first time around). I ran into two issues with deploying this exercise. Please, learn from my mistakes!
  1. I didn't provide the students enough in-class time to perform the entire exercise (which is why the screen shot above shows that the data entry was not completed)
  2. I shared the URL to the shared Google Sheet via a shortened URL, displayed to the class on the video projector; some of the students had issues entering the URL into their web browsers, mainly because of ambiguities such as whether a character in the URL was a lower-case L or a numeral one, or a zero vs. a letter o, and so on. While I also projected a QR code that students could capture with a QR code scanner app, it wasn't apparent that anybody used this approach (which probably would have been preferable).

Week 5: Analyze and understand the limitations of published research

Like the example above, I created an outline of a Google Sheet, for students to fill in information and to practice performing calculations within the Google Sheet. The long-term goal is to get students used to the practice of being skeptical about the methods and interpretations of others (i.e critical analysis): to use the raw data presented in a research manuscript and to perform and interpret calculations in the ways the students think are best and to compare the outcomes to the published interpretation (i.e. quantitative reasoning).

In this case, authors of a published manuscript had essentially indicated that, in photographs of chromosomes, every micrometer (µm) of chromosome image comprised 423,077 base pairs of DNA:

My goal was to prompt students to question the accuracy of this very precise(-seeming) value. So, the Google Sheet I developed included the length in pixels, and a conversion factor (pixels/µm) based on the authors' paper. Together with the published conversion factor (bp/µm), the students calculated the predicted (for more than the one chromosome shown in the above image) length of the chromosome, measured in base pairs of DNA (entered in the blank red cell), and compared that value to the published value (number in the other red cell). It became rapidly clear that the process that the authors had used to estimate the sizes of chromosomes was imprecise.

For this exercise, instead of a collaborative worksheet, I used Google Classroom to distribute each student her/his own copy of the sheet to edit individually. This process seemed to work more smoothly than a group-edited sheet, with the drawback that students couldn't as easily see each others' work.

In sum, shared Google Sheet vs. distributing each student her/his own copy of a Google Sheet (using Google Classroom)? It depends on the goal of the lesson: if peer evaluation is involved, the shared sheet makes sense; if not, having Google Classroom produce copies of a sheet for each student is the way to go!


  1. Hi Joe! It sounds as if the problem was in the distribution process. Would your initial distribution of a Shared Sheet have worked if you posted the link in an LMS for access?
    Mary P.

    1. Good point, and yes, that would potentially have helped with the occasional ambiguities of characters in shortened URLs. The one possible downside is the use of an additional app (e.g. Blackboard Student), which I don't otherwise require my students to use.


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