Q&A with Andrew Stillman, Developer of Doctopus, A Google Apps Script for Teachers (Part I)

We recently sat down with Andrew Stillman, New Visions' digital instruction officer, to hear more about a set of tools he developed for teachers on Google's Apps for Education platform. One of these tools, a document creation and management tool called Doctopus, launched in July 2012.

The script has a devoted set of users who have collectively created almost 120,000 student writing assignments with it. As Andrew explains in Part I of our conversation, Doctopus has the potential to make the management of multiple-part classroom projects much easier for teachers.

Q: You developed Doctopus, a very successful Google Apps Script that has found a following among teachers and school administrators. Can you tell us how it works?

Doctopus is an Apps Script designed to function like your teacher-helper in the room.  It's a way of automating document creation, revision and management, so as a teacher you can spend more time on instruction and less time on the cumbersome administrative tasks that make classrooms so inefficient.

For the newcomer, an Apps Script is probably better named an "Apps Extension." It's a program that extends the functionality of the Google Apps environment.  Just launch a Spreadsheet from Google Drive, go to the Tools-->Script Gallery, and you can install a variety of Apps Scripts in one click.  Look in the "Featured" section and you’ll see that 5 of the 10 scripts currently featured by Google were produced by New Visions, a very big honor for us.

Q: How did the idea for Doctopus come about?

I was a teacher for ten years and I did a lot of project-based learning (PBL). The management of PBL was always challenging. In the 24 hours of a day, I felt I could never stay quite organized enough to give kids the timely feedback that they needed.  So you end up with lackluster projects or poor student writing that doesn't improve the way it should over time, often, because you just don't have the systems in place to manage it. 

In my work here at New Visions, I'd written a previous script, called the Autocrat.  Autocrat is a basic merge utility that lets you, for instance, generate a thousand report cards with individualized student grades in them.  Autocrat is getting a lot of administrative use in schools. I went to a teachers' unconference, and I was thinking to myself, "how can I get teachers to use Autocrat to better manage PBL?"

So, I would say Doctopus came through having had a deep amount of experience in doing PBL as a teacher, and then having created a script that was already able to generate personalized documents. But when I tried to give a presentation on Autocrat to a bunch of teachers I realized that the set up was 15 steps and they were never going to actually do it.  So I came back to my desk and within a week of the conference I wrote the code for the script. 

Q: You're an evangelist for schools using Google Docs, the free, cloud-based applications that include word processing, spreadsheets, calendars and other functions. How are Google Docs, and Doctopus, helpful in managing classroom work?

Imagine you wanted to launch a new project with your students and you have a bunch of worksheets associated with it. Say the class is studying the Civil War, and you're going to have each of the six project groups pursue it in a different way. They're going to answer different questions and then you're going to have some kind of a roundtable experience, or a peer interaction protocol. 

Moving into Google Docs opens up a tremendous set of possibilities.  A Google Doc can be shared between students. Let's say we want to have student presentations--two or three class periods at the end of the unit where each project group gets up and does a 15 or 20-minute presentation on something they've learned.  Great college-ready learning opportunity, right? 

The students can all access that slide deck from any Internet-connected device -- i.e. from home, library, sidewalk cafe, McDonald's.  They can even edit or look at slides on an iPad, or an iPhone.  You've opened up this wealth of opportunities: you don't have to save the files on the local laptop, so there's a gain there. If you're using a different laptop tomorrow, it doesn't matter, you can get back to your work pretty quickly. 

Doing PBL in the cloud opens this beautiful, culminating experience that is referenced in project-based pedagogy: you're giving kids an authentic audience. It's everything our New Visions charter schools try to do, it's everything a lot of our small schools have always tried to do. 

But managing these kinds of projects is a tremendous load, whether you're using paper or any other technology, in how you manage and review student work in a way that allows you to give real-time feedback and to intervene when a group is not making progress. You've created a situation in which there are many moving parts. 

Q: What are some of the challenges of using Google Docs?

Google Docs solves a lot of the baseline problems that teachers have had around using technology for student projects, but it still creates an enormous drain on the actual management of the documents. 

Before Doctopus, the standard work flow would be: divide class into groups, assign students to be project leaders, then ask each of the project leaders to start a Google presentation, sharing the document with each of his or her team members and adding them as editors. But this would require me to provide each of the project managers with a list of email addresses.

It's now 15 minutes into class and maybe I have 70 percent compliance around this. I'm not well positioned to be successful. 

Doctopus takes the class roster and it lets you designate groupings. You can have different starter documents per group, in the case of a jigsaw-style project.  They get copied, provisioned, shared with the right kids, and it takes thirty seconds.  And they're all sitting there in a folder, organized for you as the teacher. 

Doctopus even lets you distribute the documents into student dropboxes in Drive, so the student always knows where to find assignments.  You've got links to each of them, they show you the last edit time on the document. If there's a group that you notice is shopping for sneakers instead of doing the work, you could literally project it on your screen in the room.  You have the ability to grade and offer feedback in the spreadsheet and then instantly send that feedback to students.  You can strip away editing rights if you want to create a deadline. When you hand back the first draft, and you want students to resume their editing, you just give the editing rights back. There's no retyping, no chasing after files.  So at every point in the workflow, I've tried to streamline it. (Here's a screencast to get you started.)

The most recent version of Doctopus now allows you to add a teacher's aide or a co-teacher, so that you can share the burdens of evaluating student work.  That's going to be great for teacher teams, or cross-grade level projects where you have multiple teachers that you want reviewing and jurying the same work. 

Doctopus is also good for individualized assignments.  It lets you do single-level, individual starter documents, or you can create different level starter documents for each student.

Q: Do kids need to have a Google account in order to access it?

Yes.  Although I would strongly discourage schools from using commercial Gmail accounts with students.  It's not good practice.  You have no way to know whether kids are being safe, or taking any responsibility for it.  Apps for Education is free, it takes about two hours to set up, you don't have to be a technical genius, it's all done through menus and you just upload a spreadsheet full of kids and they all have accounts.  It's totally within reach for a tech-savvy teacher or admin. New Visions has probably had 35 schools in the last few years just pick it up and do it themselves.  We have resources to help with adoption.

Q: So who created the Doctopus icon?

I did.  My daughter gave me some inspiration.  I had her draw some octopuses--octopi--and, it's meant to look kind of grade school-ish, cuddly.  And I've taken to having this signature, animated gif-style icon on all of my scripts.  It's like low-tech, hi-tech, it's kind of like this little horse-and-buggy plug-in.  And I also want to be clear that a teacher made it.


Andrew Stillman is digital instruction officer at New Visions and the creator of a peer-led professional development site for teachers, Youpd.org. You can follow him on Twitter: @astillman.

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