Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Making Timelines Easier

So this post isn't an announcement that I have finished the documentation on rolling your own timeline. That's still a bit away. But last week, Google added a new functionality to its spreadsheets in Google Docs. You can read about it here. (Thanks go to JBJ for pointing it out to me.)

Basically, sharing a spreadsheet with other people in the past required them to sign up for a Google Docs account. In order to skirt this issue, Google has allowed you to create forms to generate the data within a spreadsheet. I've spent a little time playing around with this feature, wondering if I could get this to work with my timelines, which, as you know, are powered by Google Spreadsheets. The result is the Google Forms Timeline.

You can add an event (or 18) to the timeline by filling out the form. A link is provided on the timeline's page, but you can get there from here as well. You can see the actual spreadsheet here.

I see some decided advantages to using forms for populating the spreadsheet:
  1. In the first place, students don't have to interface with the actual spreadsheet. This is good because the spreadsheet isn't easy to understand in and of itself. There's no place for instructions within it as there is within a form.
  2. There is no chance that the students could do major damage to the spreadsheet (erasing large chunks, etc.) because they aren't allowed to touch it.
  3. Students don't have to sign up for a Google docs account. I'm guessing that most of them will have a Gmail account, but there will be a few Yahoo! reactionaries among them, I'm sure. To get around this, you can either send students the link or send the form to them within an email. They can actually fill out the form from within the email, which is pretty cool. (Warning, my testing shows that this function didn't work well with Hotmail.)
There are some disadvantages, however:
  1. If students make a mistake on the form, there is no way for them to correct it since they don't have access to the spreadsheet. They would have to email you, and you would have to log in and change things. This could happen repeatedly.
  2. More importantly, by not giving them access to the spreadsheet, it feels to me as if the entire process could become less collaborative. In other words, if students aren't interacting with the entire data set, it will feel less like a wiki and, maybe, even less dynamic. They can't repeatedly make small changes to their events and watch them update in real time on the timeline.
In my mind, I'm not sure that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. I've always really liked the wiki/collaboration idea of this project. And I like the fact that the students are interacting with the database without the intermediary step of a form. The form might be easier in the short run, but it somehow makes the exercise or assignments that might come from the timeline less intriguing to me.

No comments: