What are your kids learning whilst you’re not looking?

Nov 23, 2008

Miles Berry

Terry Freedman and I are presenting for the BCS at the BETT show next January, with the above title. We’re going to be exploring some of the ways that young people are using technology outside of school for informal learning, such as social networking, digital photography and video, games and perhaps even blogging, drawing some comparisons with more formal learning inside school and looking at some of the implications of the former for the latter. It’s a huge area, and I know our allotted 45 minute will hardly let us scratch the surface (a problem we’ve encountered in our BETT presentations before…), but it’s fascinating reading some of the existing research in the field, and we’re looking forward to selecting a few illuminating case studies.

Anyhow, as well as the literature review and case studies, we’d like to collect a little quantitative data of our own, and so have assembled a Google-Form based survey, which we’re hoping teachers (and parents) might find 10-15 minutes for pupils to complete online. The survey’s at http://edtechuk.net/ .

Having used the venerable phpesp as the online survey tool for my MBA dissertation, I was impressed by how things have moved on over the last three and a half years, but not quite as impressed with Google-Forms as I’d hoped I would be.

Google Docs has, in part through buying up Writely, led the way with cloud based office software. The wordprocessor is really nice, with an impressive collection of templates available, version control and nearly real-time collaborative editing – this latter proved jolly useful as my co-presenter and I were planning the presentation and the survey. I’ve also used Google Docs for collaborative exercises with my LVI AS ICT set, and they and I have found the interface very accessible. The spreadsheet has some good charting facilities and keeps getting better and better, with additional gadgets now including pivot tables. The presentation application (released September 07) is probably the weakest of the three, but the absence of some of PowerPoint’s bells and whistles might yet result in more effective presentations.

People had already started using the spreadsheet application for data collection before the form interface came out last February. The form is essentially a data entry front end to a spreadsheet, which is used as a store for the data collected, and can, of course, be exported to Excel or a proper stats package for proper analysis. There are some nice, relatively basic, graphs built into the forms application, which makes it easier to track a survey whilst it’s running.

The problem comes though with the interface for creating the forms in the first place – just that bit too clunky still for anything even moderately complicated, and lots of patience (or planning) is needed to get things looking just how you want them. A few niggles:

  • For range questions (ie Likert scales), Google only lets you label the end points of the scale, not the intermediate values
  • Reordering the options inside multi-choice answers means adding and deleting – a little AJAX here, perhaps?
  • I couldn’t get any formatting tags to work  – we’d have liked to use italics for emphasis, perhaps add a few hyperlinks or even images etc
  • Whilst you can add explanatory text to a question, there’s no way (as far as I could see) to add extra text into the form between questions
  • Whilst there is AJAX for changing the order of questions, I had lots of problems getting this to work, with questions apparently re-arranging themselves randomly when my back was turned – I ended up doing a Nick Park like stop-motion – move it a bit, save, move it a bit, save etc.

My guess is that we’d have been better using a more serious survey tool, such as surveymonkey or polldaddy for a project like this, which is probably pushing the upper limit of Google Form’s capabilities at the moment, but as with so much of Web 2.0, once you invest time in one site, you have a disincentive to move to another. For the time being, it’s fine for a small scale project in school or for  club, but perhaps not yet as an academic research tool.