America has been a nation of poor writers for as long as I can remember. Employers constantly hear complaints that even college graduates have weak writing and critical thinking skills. One of the reasons for this weakness is because teaching writing is difficult and time-consuming. As a writing teacher, I am lucky if I can correct an essay in fifteen minutes. A typical high school teacher load is five classes. If I have 150 student essays, that takes 37.5 hours to correct and grade them all. When English teachers struggle, students have a hard time learning to write.
Google has been at the forefront of the collaborative writing space since 2007 with Google Docs. It first acquired a tool called Writely from a three-person startup called Upstartle in March 2006.1 I was pretty excited when, in February 2007, Google incorporated Writely into the Google suite of tools (now called Google Apps) and renamed it Docs. At that time, Google added folders (instead of labels) to the front page and made Docs easier to use.
Since 2007, Google Docs has grown into a vital part of the teachers’ toolkit for writing instruction; it is also an effective way for companies and individuals to share writing on the web. Google Apps is on a meteoric rise. Ten million students used Google Apps in 2010.2 That number rose to twenty million in 2012.3 If we assume a linear growth model, it will increase to thirty million by October of 2014.
Google Docs changed my life as a teacher and as a writer. No longer did my students have to email themselves Word files that would not open on the school computers; no longer did I have to purchase a new version of the program every six months; no longer did I have to carry home hundreds of essays. They were all online and could be edited online by me or by student peer editors. Google Docs made it possible for students to collaborate online from any computer anywhere in the world. It made writing fun and productive. Students actually learned to write because they have more opportunity for peer evaluation, more eyes reading their work, and more people providing feedback.
Then, in 2011, Hapara arrived on the scene. Hapara is an educational platform that works with Google Apps and improves how teachers can manage the classroom. For example, the Teacher Dashboard and Remote Control functions enable teachers to see all of their students’ work in “real time” on their computer screen. Figure 1 This is what a teacher’s computer screen looks like using Remote Control. She can see what every student is doing at a glance.
With this tool, I can easily identify students who look like they need help; I can see who is collaborating with whom; I can see students who are on Facebook instead of working; and I can use the Remote Control function to remotely open or close application tabs on any student’s computer. I can stand in front of the class and see everything each student is doing. This “transparency” is useful because it helps the teacher focus their instruction in the classroom.
Research shows that students learn if they have immediate feedback.4 This makes sense because most students cannot remember what they wrote after two days, let alone two weeks, which is how long it used to take me to return their papers. That old system was ineffective. With Google Docs and Hapara, kids can collaborate and peer edit on a regular basis making my job as a teacher easier and improving the outcome. It makes it easy to provide immediate feedback easy and cuts the correction time down by half. Now, teaching writing is rewarding for the teacher and productive forthe student.
The Teacher Dashboard is really the key.
It displays a history of documents that students have had open so teachers can see what students have been working on, when, and for how long. The old excuse of “I worked on it for three hours last night” just won’t work anymore if the student is not truthful.
Hapara has been very well received by the teaching community.5 It has won multiple awards including Best Administrative Application in the New York City Gap App Challenge in Spring 2013. In the summer of 2013, Hapara was the Co-Awardee with New Visions for Public Schools for a Bill and Melinda Gates Literacy Courseware Challenge Grant for a proposal to build a literacy analytics and intervention recommendation platform. Also, in January 2014, they were selected as an Innovation Zone Company by the Texas Association of School Administrators.
Blended learning is on the rise now in the United States. The Clayton Christensen Institute defines blended learning as “a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through online delivery of content and instruction with some element of student control over time, place, path and/or pace.”6
In a blended learning classroom, a defined percentage of the class—usually about 50%—is devoted to student-controlled learning using online delivery in the school or at home. Hapara increases the safety and efficacy of the blended learning classroom because of the controls. It makes it easier for the teacher to differentiate instruction for students in their class. Thus a teacher can assign grade-level specific work to students within the same class who are at different grade levels.
Here are some additional pros of Hapara:
- When Hapara is coupled with Google Apps, teachers can oversee what is being published in student blogs. Both teachers and students can use Google’s powerful social media tools in Blogger and Google Plus. Teachers can see at a glance what students are writing in their blogs and can even see the comments.
- The tools organize the student and the teacher in the Google environment—docs, comments, blogs, calendar, portfolios reflect school and class structure.
- Consistent organization of students’ work across classes is particularly useful because it helps students keep all their assignments together and develop their portfolios. Students (and their teachers) can keep track of their work over the course of their entire schooling career.
- A student-focused communication repository for teachers provides the teachers with an outlet to communicate with each other about the strengths and areas for development of the students they collectively serve. This knowledge management structure tracks with the student longitudinally, providing a history for educators that is all too often missing from the teacher approach.
- Hapara focuses on activity rather than content, making the student learning process visible wherever the student is engaging. This creates an “on-ramp” for teachers that gradually shifts teacher behavior toward facilitation. The teacher is encouraged by the platform itself to be a guide. Drawn in by the availability of student progress data, the teacher can more easily manage student projects that are chosen by the students themselves.
- The tools provide immediate benefit to teachers without the need for “buy-in” upfront and with zero teacher effort.
- Teachers are “present” throughout the process of student work/development.
- It is easy to use. Hapara has great online demonstrations and videos anyone can watch for free.
- Hapara works with a school’s Google Apps domain (i.e., in a school environment); teachers don’t have to worry about managing students’ personal Gmail accounts.
- Teachers can quickly send messages and documents to students, individually or as a group.
- Hapara includes a free Parent Portal, which gives parents access to student work and parent newsletters.
- Miscellaneous administration functions that sap class time are also included (e.g., teachers can reset passwords for students as needed).
- Team leaders and principals can get overview access and leave comments on student work.
Of course, like everything, Hapara has some problem areas or cons:
- Hapara is most effective in middle schools and high schools. That does not mean it won’t work in elementary settings, but it is not as easy for elementary students.
- The degree of transparency the system brings raises important questions about reasonable expectation of privacy by students, how much oversight is appropriate, and teacher behavior. While controls are in place to limit inappropriate teacher access (especially to student screens), adoption of this type of technology should drive discussion about balancing institutional risks and personal privacy.
- It is more effective if the entire school is using the tool.
- It is harder for individual teachers to set this up.
- The product is not free. It costs four dollars per student per year after the thirty-day pilot, which is not expensive considering that districts spend from $12,000 per year per student in Hawaii to $19,000 per year per student in New York. However, districts are always pennypinchers, and it would be best for educational outcomes if they did not pinch pennies on this tool. The four dollars includes the Parent Portal. Remote Control (available only for Chromebooks) is an additional two dollars per student per year. Hapara now has the Teacher Dashboard Innovator product, which makes it available for individual teachers for $99 per year.
One participant in a Gates Foundation survey about the desirability of digital instructional tools summarized teachers’ needs this way: “Number one, find inexpensive technologies that are aligned with Common Core standards. Number two, the technology must be engaging for the students, and number three, the technology needs to be simple so that more teachers will use it.”7 Digital tools can and are revolutionizing the education world. Tools like Hapara that meet teachers’ needs indeed make it a better place for students to learn and teachers to teach.
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Teachers Know Best: What Educators Want from Digital Instructional Tools. Seattle: College Ready, 2014. http://collegeready.gatesfoundation.org/Portals/0/Documents/Teachers%20Know%20Best/Teachers%20Know%20Best.pdf.
“Google Acquires Writely Online Word Processing Service.” InformationWeek.com. March 9, 2006. http://www.informationweek.com/google-acquires-writely-online-word-processing-service/d/d-id/1041208?.
“Hapara Teacher Dashboard.” edSurge.com. Accessed May 1, 2014. https://www.edsurge.com/hapara-teacher-dashboard.
Hattie, John, and Helen Temperley. “The Power of Feedback.” Review of Educational Research 77, no. 1 (2007): 81-112. http://www.udir.no/PageFiles/Vurdering%20for%20laring/Dokumenter/Bibliotek/2/Hattie_Taimperley_2007_Power_of_Feedback%5B1%5D.pdf.
Lardionois, Frederic. “Over 10 Million Students Now Use Google Apps for Education.” readwrite.com. October 14, 2010. http://readwrite.com/2010/10/14/over_10_million_students_now_use_google_apps_for_e#awesm=~oE7ngzPCVLtxCI.
———. “Google Says Apps for Education Now Has More Than 20 Million Users. TechCrunch.com. October 1, 2012. http://techcrunch.com/2012/10/01/google-says-apps-for-education-now-has-more-than-20-million-users/.
Staker, Heather, and Michael B. Horn. Classifying K-12 Blended Learning. San Mateo, CA: Innosight Institute, 2012. http://www.christenseninstitute.org/publications/classifying-k-12-blended-learning-2/.
- “Google Acquires Writely Online Word Processing Service,” InformationWeek.com, March 9, 2006, http://www.informationweek.com/google-acquires-writely-online-word-processing-service/d/d-id/1041208?.↵
- Frederic Lardinois, “Over 10 Million Students Now Use Google Apps for Education,” readwrite.com, October 14, 2010, http://readwrite.com/2010/10/14/over_10_million_students_now_use_google_apps_for_e#awesm=~oE7ngzPCVLtxCI.↵
- Frederic Lardinois, “Google Says Apps for Education Now Has More Than 20 Million Users,” TechCrunch.com, October 1, 2012, http://techcrunch.com/2012/10/01/google-says-apps-for-education-now-has-more-than-20-million-users/.↵
- See John Hattie and Helen Temperley, “The Power of Feedback,” Review of Educational Research 77, no. 1 (2007): 81-112. http://www.udir.no/PageFiles/Vurdering%20for%20laring/Dokumenter/Bibliotek/2/Hattie_Taimperley_2007_Power_of_Feedback%5B1%5D.pdf.↵
- Reviews of this function are available on “Hapara Teacher Dashboard,” edSurge.com, accessed May 1, 2014, https://www.edsurge.com/hapara-teacher-dashboard.↵
- Heather Staker and Michael B. Horn, Classifying K-12 Blended Learning (San Mateo, CA: Innosight Institute, 2012), 3, http://www.christenseninstitute.org/publications/classifying-k-12-blended-learning-2/.↵
- Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Teachers Know Best: What Educators Want from Digital Instructional Tools (Seattle: College Ready, 2014), 9, http://collegeready.gatesfoundation.org/Portals/0/Documents/Teachers%20Know%20Best/Teachers%20Know%20Best.pdf.↵