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June 7, 2008 / Ben Chun

The Promise of Google App Engine for Education

Since figuring out what Google App Engine actually is, I have been thinking more about what might be done with it. In my earlier post, I missed a huge key opportunity for education: building software that supports writing. [Update: Doesn’t Google Docs already do this? Well, when adults sit down to write, the software we want is a word processor. But when teaching students to write, it takes more than just a blank page. I’ve gotten some experience with this over the past year. In addition to prompting students to really think about issues and struggle with them (prewriting) in order to have something meaningful to say, we also have to teach them about revising, editing, getting feedback, and iterating that process.]

I remember being clued in to the idea that software can support the writing process by a post on Kassblog, in which Richard describes a “writing environment (that) far outstrips blogs, forums, or wikis in its richness and support for student writing activities”. He was describing a commercial software product called DIWE, the Deadalus Integrated Writing Environment. He was also talking about building a free version of it on top of Drupal or Moodle. Do you see where I’m going with this? It seems like having a structured way to present prompts, then step students through prewriting, writing, editing, and revision is smart. It seems like making that easy for teachers, administrators, and IT people to manage is smart.

After doing a lot of online discussions this year using Moodle, I know that online forums can work well for prewriting. I also recently ran across the NCTE Read Write Think web site that has a bunch of lessons with writing prompts. And I know there must be many more resources out there.

So, imagine taking those sort of content and activities, along with the structure of a writing-specific application environment, and putting it all online using Google App engine. If a school already has Apps for Your Domain (which, since it’s free to schools, seems like a no-brainer) the system will leverage the logins students already use. Any teacher could use an App Engine account to upload the application — no IT support needed. Building this sounds like a fun programming project, and imagine if it was open-sourced and free and had support for exporting and importing lesson modules. A teacher forum for exchanging, discussing, and improving these lesson modules would probably not be far behind.

Doing this on Google App Engine would enable an individual teacher (or school, or district) to go from zero to a complete online writing process without investing any money in servers, hosting, accounts, services, or software. Would that be of value? I’d love to find out what English teachers think, how BAWP and the National Writing Project sees this, and if there’s support from folks at Google.

8 Comments

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  1. Roberto / Jun 7 2008 12:50 pm

    Why can’t you use straight away google docs for writing (or google sites for the content being structured in a wiki-like way)? Well maybe I do not understand your specific problem domain (I am a software developer and not familiar with specific needs for education)

    Roberto

  2. Ben Chun / Jun 7 2008 11:40 pm

    Roberto, great question. I probably should have said more about how this relates to the existing applications. Docs is great because it allows collaboration within an online document, and that means students can help each other edit, teachers can easily add comments, and students can revise from any computer. What Docs doesn’t have is any particularly easy way for a teacher to manage the flow of documents (considering that some teachers, like myself, will have 150 or more students), and more importantly it lacks a way to structure a student’s progress through a set of steps in the pre-writing/writing process. Sites is likewise flexible because of its freeform nature, and while this is generally good, we want to be more constrained and directed here.

    We can always give instructions and directions to students to do things a certain way or in a certain order, but it’s very helpful to have an interface that directs them and helps them. The student who can sit down at a blank document and produce good writing based on a prompt doesn’t need more than Docs (or Word for that matter) but that student is also extremely rare. To teach writing, we need to teach process and strategies. We need to track progress and give feedback in an efficient and timely way. We need to be able to share and refine lessons with other teachers easily. What I see here is an opportunity to build an application specifically designed to support these needs.

  3. Patrick Delaney / Jun 13 2008 9:09 pm

    Hmmm. Grandiose or practical? I’m not sure. I’d like to see a simple sample of what you have in mind. I remember a fantastic sentence combining system created by a guy at the University of Utah that allowed easy teacher direction and feedback while allowing and encouraging student creativity within a story telling unit. Always thought there was great potential for such a thing to be 1.) tweaked for expository writing and 2.) made interactive on the web. Maybe we can fool around with this next year. Happy vacation.

  4. David Cole / Aug 4 2008 8:44 am

    Hey Ben,

    I saw this post via a link to your blog from the NAF Collaboration Network. Turns out this question about using the Google Apps Engine to create an integrated “teacher dashboard” has been floating around for a while — we had conversations with the NWP and others about this specifically. True integration of the Apps tools and platforms seems, still, to be a grail quest. A lot of the Apps integration discussions around things like Sites and the Social Layer for all of this trends very much in that direction but as for creating really usable integration of features along the lines of what Patrick’s talking about above, say, or even a tightly integrated set of writing and presentation tools that don’t require one to bounce between various Apps interfaces…this isn’t there yet.

    As for the writing question, Docs does a pretty good job for teachers who commit themselves to the class mgmt. setup required to create a coherent workflow for entry, editing, revision, sharing and publishing. There’s an exciting writing initiative around the Student Mock Elections coming up that’s going to involve exactly this featureset, laid out around a structured in-class activity. The NWP is directly involved and we’re hoping to bring it to the NAF Network as a program so there’ll be an opportunity to look at standard writing and instruction through this basic 21st Century Skills lens.

    Lets catch up before the school year gets away from us. Nice to meet you finally at the conference!

    Regards,

    David

  5. Richard Kassissieh / Aug 31 2008 8:23 pm

    Some of DIWE’s features are easily replicated in other systems. One remains unique (to me) — structured prompts to guide the writing of a first draft. Instead of the student facing a blank page, the teacher provides questions to help the student generate the ideas that ultimately become the first draft. I have not yet seen this in another writing environment. One teacher claims, “writer’s block does not exist at our school.”

    Richard

  6. Ben Chun / Sep 1 2008 7:40 pm

    I’ve been thinking a lot more about writing a spec for something like this and outsourcing it. Perhaps there is grant money available. It seems like this is a situation where a small amount of dollars, correctly applied to purchasing some work-for-hire in the context of Google App Engine, and then licensed as open source, could have a wide-ranging impact.

    How difficult do you think it is to build these sorts of structured writing prompts? Could a good English teacher sit down and generate 20 of them in a week if paid to do so? Or do they require iteration and refinement over long periods of time with lots of student testing? Or could they be licensed from DIWE?

    My goal here is to get this kind of tool into the hands of teachers — that means it needs to be free and not require any tech support from the school (other than providing web browsers). Google App Engine makes me feel like it’s possible. Are there other roadblocks?

  7. Thea Ganoe / Oct 15 2008 9:13 am

    I just finished developing my first application with Google App Engine and I would say at this point, App Engine is harder to master than Moodle.

    But App Engine– I think it would specifically be a good place to host some functionality or web service you want to make available to the national/international market. An individual teacher can customize it for her particular class. The school does not have to worry about bandwidth if something like videos are being provided to the students (think NASA videos, for example). My app program displays photos but does not store the photos with in it, merely the links to the Picasa albums.

    If you created the logic for a “writing tutor” and wanted to make it available nation-wide, then, yes, this would be a great application for App Engine. (Just be sure to write it in Python for now !)

    Your product would be something like a customized Doc that behaves in a scripted manner that teachers could set up and provide the links to their students, whose work would be saved for the teacher to review.

    If it became wildly popular and you had every English teacher in the country trying to access it at the same time, Google could scale it for you. That is the area that App Engine shines over the rest.

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