Google Docs Presenations: Limits, Benefits, and Questions

Over the past week I’ve had some really mind-stretching experiences with the new presentation feature in Google Docs. The best way I know to process these experiences is to reflect on them and write a post about it. I’ve also had many conversations via twitter with people I respect, and I hope this might lead to more.

My Experiences

My arewareness of Google’s new collaborative web-based presentation tool began last week when Vicki Davis posted an invitation on twitter for people to join her in a demo Google presentation. When a slideshow is presented online it includes a chat feature that allows the collaborators, the audience, and anyone else online to have a synchronous discussion. What happened was an eye opening experience for many of us who were in involved. Here’s the story in Vicki’s words. For my part, I participated in the chat and tried to ask some meaningful questions, but I didn’t throw myself into it to the degree where I was actually collaborating on editing the slides. I even wondered if when Vicki posted a tweet saying that some of the people involved didn’t understand collaboration she might have meant people like me. Regardless, it was amazing that so many people came together so quickly from all over the world to collaborate and learn together. In this case, though, there was no actual presentation going on. This was just a gathering of peers to play with a new tool. (Perhaps the coolest part was that the chat was archived in everyone’s gmail account. Sadly, this is no longer happening. I don’t have any archives of the subsequent chats mentioned below.)

A few days later I jumped on the opportunity to try this tool in a workshop for school administrators. I blogged about it right away because this turned out to be my favorite administrator training yet. Having David Jakes and Sharon Peters and others show up in the presentation when I posted an invite to twitter was thrilling, and the ease with which we brought the world into the workshop definitely had an impact on the participating administrators. But, the experience in the room and the experience that Dave, Sharon, and the others had were very different. In the room we were still running our usual morning welcome activities – and I merely interrupted from time to time to point out what Dave and Sharon were typing… ultimately, they shared far more than the attendees could process. And other than the thrill of doing something new, I’m not sure what Dave and Sharon got out of the experience.

The next day, I had a similar experience when I used Google Docs for an introduction to blogging workshop for a small group of 3rd through 6th grade teachers. They all had laptops, so I expected this to be an even better experience for them. However, all but two did not have Google accounts – with a short time frame and other goals at hand, I didn’t rush everyone through creating an account. The key was for them to get an introduction to blogging. What was required was for me to introduce the concepts and get them hands-on as soon as possible. Even so, they were impressed (and perhaps a bit overwhelmed) when David Jakes and Hall Davidson and Jennifer Jones and others popped in. I know Dave and Hall enjoyed catching up in the chat… and they all shared more resources than I could ever have shared with a group of beginning bloggers. In fact, one lady remarked (in the first few minutes of the workshop at this point), “how do you stay on top of all this?” Unfortunately, the overwhelming amount of information was not the first impression I wanted to have on this group of new bloggers. So I began wondering if this tool was really right for my audience. Also, Hall and the others were really missing what was happening in the room. They lamented the lack of audio, and they couldn’t see all the websites and examples that I was sharing with the participants – so I also wondered if the tool was right for our visitors.

Finally, I had an absolutely mind-blowing experience last night – on the other end of the equation again. This time, Kim Cofino was making a presentation to parents. Others posted links to the presentation on twitter and I popped in. I wish I could go back and review the chat transcript to see who all was there (and I hesitate to try to recall and leave people out), but I know we had folks from all over the world, Pennsylvania, Chicago, California, Australia, New Zealand, and more… and the presentation turned out to be in Bankok. Even more surprising (for me), Kim was presenting the Internet Awareness and Safety slides I created for the Laguna Beach USD! (These are shared under a Creative Commons license, so I was thrilled to see them used – I do wonder if attribution was given, though.) As Ted Lai said, the feeling was something like starting a rumor and having it come back to you. In any case, again I think the experience in the chat was very different from the experience of the attendees. Those of us in the chat were learning a lot about the nature of the tool, but we had no idea what Kim or her attendees were saying. We asked if there were ways we could contribute or questions we could answer. We discussed this a little bit amongst ourselves and David Jakes had a great idea that others then jumped off from… he suggested that each slide should include a question for the visitors. (I had in the earlier sessions addressed questions to the visitors in the chat box a couple of times – with good results.) Even if this were done only periodically rather than every slide, this could be effective… and it would be a bit like writing questions for a student response system except that the questions could be open ended. Then the presenter could share answers with the crowd. All of this, of course, would work best if the participants had computers themselves.

Incidentally, at the same time this was taking place, I had a technical issue with iCal. It’s a new issue; there was one other post about it on the Apple support forums – a few days old and with no answer. I posted my details and prepared to wait… days at least. I posted to twitter, too. In minutes Ted Lai solved the problem and posted the solution to the Apple forum. That’s the power of twitter.

I hope these stories communicate some of the experience I’ve had, but I also thought some summary might be called for. I’ve begun to see some of the limits and surprising benefits of this tool. More importantly, I’ve started to hone in on some clear questions…

The Limits

Here are some of the limits of Google Docs presentations that have become clear:

  • There is no audio. Visitors cannot hear the presenter via the web without use of a third party application like Skype.
  • Though the presenter can control the slides (and participants can also move around independently), this is not a screen sharing or screen casting tool. Participants who are not present face-to-face can’t see other applications or sites the presenter shows.
  • Participants all need computers in order to participate in the online chat feature.
  • Participants also need google accounts in order to participate in the online chat feature. (I wish the chat worked more like the chat feature on Thinkature… input a nickname and we’re off…)
  • There is no archive of the chat (or at least not any longer). This was killing me yesterday and last night when I wanted to review all the resources people had shared… and today as I wanted to review who was even there.
  • The chat feature is of limited relevance to presentation attendees.
  • The presentation feature is of limited relevance to online visitors.

The Benefits

Despite these limitations, I’ve discovered several benefits, some of which I didn’t initially expect:

  • Google presentations are best used for collaboratively creating a slide show, just as Google Docs and Spreadsheets are best used for collaborative authoring and editing. Ultimately, this tool is a shared web-based file storage that allows simultaneous editing. The chat feature is gravy.
  • Even so, it’s never been easier to model the power of a permeable classroom. In each of the instances above, experts from all over the world were brought into a situation that would’ve previously been limited to just the people in the room.
  • Because of this, there really was a transfer of power. As a presenter, some of my power went to the visitors, who were then sharing other resources and making other comments (and sharing in the participants’ focus). As someone said last night, the presenter is no longer the smartest person in the room (or in more specific terms, the presenter is no longer the only authority in the room). Also, when a few of the face-to-face participants did have computers, they too had the power to interact with others, including other experts, during the presentation. I see this as a benefit, even if it is difficult to adjust to. I’ve always struggled with the fact that I advocate teachers giving the power to their students without actually modeling that myself in many workshops, especially those that are a presentation format.
  • The most striking thing for me, though, was the way posting a link on twitter could create a sort of “flash chat” in minutes, a sort of virtual flash mob… with an educational purpose. The power and benefits of this will take some time to really sort out.

My Questions

Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself and others about these tools. I’d love to read any responses in the comments:

  • How can this tool best be used to benefit presentation attendees? (… if they have computers? … and if they don’t?)
  • How can it be used to benefit online visitors?
  • Is this really a presentation tool? (Or, is this really a chat tool? And is it really a backchannel chat, which a lot of edubloggers are excited about right now, if the presenter can see it?)
  • Is this the best way to “present” information? (In other words, does the chat function add to a “presentation”?)
  • Is it the best way to facilitate two-way teaching? (In other words, if we want participation, why a presentation to begin with?)
  • What sorts of new things can we do with this hybrid tool?
  • And, what does it mean for ordinary teachers and students that they could potentially tap into a network of global experts who could converge on their online presentation at any time of day or night on a moment’s notice?

So what did I miss, overlook, or exaggerate? Let me know in the comments. I look forward to hearing about others’ experiences in the comments below – and as time goes by. Imagine, by the time NECC rolls around this will merely be a tool.