This paper outlines the initial findings of a practitioner research project into the ways in which Google Classroom can be used to support classroom dialogue. These findings are taken from the first phase of a doctoral (EdD) study at Cambridge University. The setting for this ongoing project is an independent preparatory school that is making use of the Google Classroom platform to deliver curriculum materials to students in a range of subjects, with the focus here on Year 7 lessons.
There is a growing interest in schools currently in exploring the potential for The effective use of talk for teaching and learning, involvi... to increase students’ capacity for reasoning and reflection (Faculty of Education, 2018). Through lesson planning, surveys and interviews, participants in this phase of the project help to identify some of the ways in which Google Classroom can be used to open up new spaces for such dialogue.
Talk is a natural tool used by teachers to encourage learning, through A method of instruction in which concepts or skills are taug..., questioning and broader discussion. But not all communication is dialogue. Dialogue requires all participants to be open to others in the shared exchange of ideas. Dialogic teaching takes place when classroom talk is deliberately utilised to help students to develop their higher order thinking. Dialogue implies that a horizontal (between participants) rather than vertical (from teacher to student) transmission of knowledge is the route to lasting cognitive change (Alexander, 2001). This pedagogy is built on the social constructivist idea that it is impossible to separate the social and psychological functions of dialogue. Lev Vygotsky (1978) claimed that an important way in which students learn to think individually is through learning to reason with others.
Classrooms in which dialogic activities take place tend to share features that most teachers would wish to see in their own lessons: the open exchange of ideas, collaborative inquiry, reasoning, engagement with different perspectives and mutual respect (Haneda, 2017). A recent study by the Education Endowment Foundation found that dialogic pedagogy led to an average of two additional months of progress in Year 5 English and science lessons (Jay et al., 2017). Despite increasing support for dialogic pedagogy, large-scale studies suggest that system-wide change is yet to occur (Haneda, 2017). Classroom discussion is often ring-fenced, since most student contributions tend to align with those of the teacher whose comments direct the flow of enquiry. In contrast to traditional teaching, learning via an expanded dialogue can empower participants to construct new knowledge for themselves (Wegerif, 2013). Reflective dialogue is characterised by gaps between perspectives remaining open – an essential condition for productive discourse. The working definition of dialogue for this EdD project is ‘a sign-based interaction that promotes intersubjectivity between participants’ (after Marková and Linell, 1996).
Google Classroom is a free, cloud-based learning management system (LMS) that is an integrated part of the ‘G Suite for Education’. The platform aids the distribution of digital teaching materials and the coordination of collaborative projects. Since 2015, the number of users of Google Classroom has risen to 70 million (Tech Crunch, 2017). Given the global usage of this LMS, the tools are likely to soon be accessible to most teachers.
When working within the framework of the Google Classroom, it is essential that teachers identify ways to develop the skills that they most value in their students. Of particular interest are the collaborative functions of Google Classroom that can support dialogue in classrooms. These include Share and Comments functions, which allow users to collaborate in the creation of digital media. Users generate lasting digital artefacts, allowing dialogues to take place over a sustained period and at a pace controlled by the learners. In theory, the timeless, multimodal and visible nature of these artefacts should highlight the differences in perspectives between students and thus sustain reflective dialogue between them (Mercer et al., 2017).
In keeping with other design-based research (DBR) (Brown, 1992), this ongoing project aims to improve educational practices through three cycles of design, implementation, analysis and revision (Cobb et al., 2003). Furthermore, it features collaboration between the researcher and fellow teachers, enabling the alignment of theory and practice (Major et al., 2015). This article outlines the methods and findings of the first phase of the project.
Methods for the first phase of the project included a teacher questionnaire devised to better understand the prevailing beliefs about classroom technology (adapted from Haßler et al., 2016). This survey consisted of Likert scale questions, although teachers were given the opportunity to expand on their answers. Two teachers who agreed on the importance of promoting dialogue between students, and who both use Google Classroom, were then invited to become co-researchers. The two co-researchers and I completed three joint planning exercises in order to devise dialogic interventions, which were trialled with mixed-ability Year 7 students using the Google Classroom platform. Participants were observed delivering two lessons each, one as they would have typically planned it, and another augmented version based on the discussions of our planning meetings. Following each lesson, semi-structured interviews were conducted with small focus groups of students. Qualitative analysis of the audio-visual and interview transcripts then took place to identify emerging themes from the data (Bryman, 2008).
All teachers at the school agreed that promoting dialogue between students is important, and that educational technology improves the quality of both teaching and learning. Sixty-eight per cent have used features of the LMS for real-time collaboration in their lessons, although this use is occasional for most. Indeed, many of the features of Google Classroom that could be used to promote dialogue are not utilised by the majority of staff. There is a willingness to adopt new practices, but a sense that finding the time to develop these is limited.
The students surveyed appreciate the collaborative activities and feel comfortable carrying them out, recognising that other students ‘might have other ideas’, and that ‘it helps you to discover a lot more on the topic from each other’. That said, the students recognise that not all talk is productive and that teachers should retain some measure of control over the direction of discussion: ‘… often these conversations go off on a tangent like when we should be talking about poetry, but half the class is discussing how Arsenal did at the weekend’.
Google Classroom is highly valued by the students in aiding the organisation and submission of their work. ‘In Google Classroom it’s very easy to put all of your work together and there’s no way it can get lost.’ The questionnaire also revealed unexpected modes of student use. For instance, 24 per cent of teachers never expect students to use online videos to better understand a topic and yet 86 per cent of the Year 7 students do so.
The Year 7 students are clear that talk is an important classroom activity and none of them consider it to be a waste of lesson time. However, the children do not consider the act of talking in the classroom to be work. ‘So, in some lessons you might talk and, in some lessons, you might get on with some work.’ Despite the value placed on dialogue and collaborative activities by both staff and students, there is sporadic use of the Share function of Google documents in lessons. However, teachers who have explored this feature find it to be a useful means to promote dialogue. This approach facilitates exploratory talk (Mercer and Littleton, 2007) by making ideas public and allowing participants to critically engage with one another’s ideas. That said, students do harbour frustrations with this approach, because sometimes ‘people put stupid stuff in the suggestions’. Etiquette is still being negotiated in this new space.
In the first planning meeting, we looked to devise an intervention that would encourage students to justify their opinions. It was suggested that by using the Share function of the LMS, children could pause and discuss video independently of the teacher, who would otherwise have done this for them on the interactive whiteboard. The lesson plan was therefore altered to include a Google Slide activity, asking students to collaboratively select and annotate screenshots in a shared document. Furthermore, the children were encouraged to add Comments to expand or challenge the ideas of others. The atmosphere during the activity was described as studious and the teacher noted that students in some of the groups were ‘connecting to one another’ in a way not previously seen. Whilst students were looking at their own machines, they chatted and collaborated simultaneously.
An apparent strength of the intervention was the removal of the teacher’s control of the media. However, very few of the children moved on to comment or exchange in dialogue with any other group’s work, and where they had done so, the comments failed to build upon one another’s ideas. The children were ‘wrapped up in what they were doing’ and did not find time to move on. With this in mind, we decided that in the next augmented lesson we would continue to make use of the Share function of Google Slides but focus solely on encouraging dialogue between small groups of students, rather than expecting them to also engage in written dialogue with others. The number of digital devices was also reduced to one between two in order to maintain real-world talk.
Whilst using the Slides to coordinate their ideas, the students shared their thoughts more openly and the groups offered ideas that had not been anticipated by the teacher. There was a consensus among the participants that the intervention had led to more explicit reasoning and better coordination of ideas. This intervention was refined in the final planning meeting, where limitations were placed on the design of the slides, increasing the opportunities for dialogue by creating more actions that required consideration of the opinions of others. The number of digital devices was further reduced to one between three.
In many schools this technology will not be introduced to enhance teaching, but to better curate student work. Whilst cloud-based technologies such as Google Classroom have opened up the possibility of new forms of dialogue, the realisation of this is still brokered by teachers. Reflective dialogue will not be a natural consequence of having this technology to hand. Instead, the relevant features must be recognised and exploited if they are to have transformative effects. Teachers must also be mindful of the restrictions that the technology might put upon the dialogue in their lessons, such as the time taken logging on to the platform, and individual device use. In order to promote dialogue, it is beneficial to have students share their devices, and a ratio of one to three was found to be effective in this project. Therefore, schools with limited ICT resources or those with bring-your-own-device policies can still benefit from the collaborative features of the platform.
Engaging with fellow practitioners in joint planning activities proved to be an effective means of developing pedagogy in the first phase of this EdD project. For instance, by using the Share function, a teacher’s tendency to direct students towards a predetermined outcome was reduced and kept the dialogue open and wide-ranging. Whilst practitioner research of this kind may limit the extent to which these findings can be applied in all settings, it did lead to the development of principles that promoted dialogue in this context. All teachers working with new technologies such as Google Classroom should be encouraged to discuss and experiment in this way in order to find practices that fit the demands of their school.
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