Why Use Google Spreadsheets?

There are lots of reasons that you might use Google Spreadsheets instead of Microsoft’s Excel or SPSS. As a teaser for this week’s Faculty Friday, here are a narrow set of the benefits you’ll find with Spreadsheets.

Instant Results

Careful and measured data analysis is an important part of the research process. With that in mind, it’s also important to have a sense of what the data is saying at a glance. Google Spreadsheets gives you the flexibility to survey students about a topic and immediately transfer that information into a spreadsheet. Instant results means being able to skip the steps of scoring results, inputting them in a spreadsheet, and doing calculations by hand. While those skills are essential to learn and cultivate, it’s easy for students to feel lost in a sea of procedural steps before they see any results. Using Spreadsheets allows you to talk the data you’ve collected immediately, explore questions around what might be missing or inconsistant, and coach students through the process of data analysis.

Data that’s in a Spreadsheet

Google Spreadsheets gives you a variety of options for downloading your data once you’ve collected it. You can pull your data as a CSV (Comma Separated Value), HTML, Text, Excel, OpenOffice, or a PDF. This gives you the flexibility to go back to Excel or SPSS, if that’s where you’re comfortable working with data, if you would rather not use Google Spreadsheets.

Data that you can Graph – Immediately

Once you understand how Spreadsheets organizes data, it’s easy to create graphs that update in real time. Real time graphs give you a tool, as an instructor, that allows you to create visual representations of trends or attitudes. Reading charts and graphs is an important part of interpreting quantitative data, and this gives you an avenu for reinforcing that skill set.

Data that you can reference

Spreadsheets are a tremendously powerful tool. Hands down. The problem is that learning to use them well can be an intimidating process. One of the wonderful things about a spreadsheet is that values in cells can be referenced in other cells or on other pages. This means that results and calculations can be deeply connected to one another. It also means that a single data set can be used for multiple purposes without needing to be copied or altered.

Data that students can manipulate

The real benefit of a Google Spreadsheet over an Excel spreadsheet comes in the form of real time collaboration and manipulation. Instead of trading a single file back and forth with multiple versions, students access a single document that behaves in the same way on a PC and on a Mac. You always have access to the most recent version of the document, and you can track the revisions of a document over time. Additionally, you have the ability to lock portions of the spreadsheet if you need to protect your raw data. Locked pages in a spreadsheet can still be referenced with formulas on other pages. This means that students reference your primary data set, and the data set of their peers, but not be able to accidentally delete data or formulas.

Richer Professional Development

CELT may have hit on a richer type of learning experience – students and faculty learning together – and all by accident. Here’s how it happened.

Matthew Ragan was planning a workshop with Elli Caldwell on using Google Spreadsheets as a interactive data gathering tool.

Matthew had made a guest appearance in Elli’s classes to walk students through an activity in which students used Google Spreadsheets to examine complex (or not so complex) data sets. In this case, the class was looking at the caloric content of fast food menu items. The class used a Google Spreadsheet to estimate the calorie content of several fast foods, and then recorded the actual calorie counts of those foods. Finally, they created charts and compared the data they had just compiled.

Elli and Matthew decided to use this same activity for a professional development workshop. Instead of simply telling the attending faculty about the activity, they decided that the real value of the lesson was in the activity itself: it’s difficult to imagine how an activity is going to work without first seeing it. They decided that while they worked through the same lesson they had delivered to Elli’s class, they should also stop along the way to discuss the theory and purpose behind specific teaching techniques. Rather than only lecturing about the content of the lesson, the participants would be asked to participate in each step of the process.

You can see the spreadsheet they came up with here: Food Fight SpreadSheet

Typically it’s only Keene State faculty who attend CELT’s Faculty Friday professional development sessions. This Friday, however, was different. Professor Susan Whittemore heard about the presentation and asked if she could come and bring the students working with her on a research project. Her cohort of students was getting ready to collect a chunk of data, and hoped that learning a little more about Google Spreadsheets might help their efforts.

Since the space was available, CELT invited the students to attend the workshop – and that made all the difference.

As the 7 students and 5 faculty worked through the activities, lots of exciting things happened:

Students and faculty worked together on teams tussling with the data problems, getting to see how each other thought and worked on problems

Students got to see their teachers as learners.

Students watched their teachers grappling with how they could use this learning activity in their classroom, seeing their own learning at a different level.

Faculty got to see students engage in a simulation activity with several reflection components.

Students shared how they planned to use Google Spreadsheets in conjunction with the work they were doing in their research.

Faculty shared what assignments and lessons could better be facilitated by examining data critically.

Students and faculty were engaged in a dialogue, together, about how to use this technology.

Faculty had the opportunity to see how students collaborated with one another in real time, and hear students reactions to this type of activity.

Students and faculty left with skills they could use immediately.

While this format for a professional development workshop won’t always be best, in this case it did provide valuable insight into the learning process for both the attending faculty and students. For students, it made the process of  teaching a little more transparent and highlighted the intention behind classroom-based activities. Faculty got to see students actively engaged in the learning process, and hear student enthusiasm about being able to work collaboratively with their peers.