Collaborative writing using Delicious and Google Docs:Technology boon or bane?

I have just given my workshop called Collaborative writing using Delicious and Google Docs at the TESOL Arabia Conference in Dubai Friday, March 11, 2011. As with all my presentations I put my slides and handouts online. This one is here: and there is a link in the slide show that points to the Moodle course which incorporates the materials I was presenting:

<To access the Moodle course, no need to log in, simply Enter as a Guest>

At the top of that course it says “TLL goes to TESOL Arabia” and right below that you can find my presentation handouts in pdf format. I made numerous copies of those handouts and brought them with me from Abu Dhabi to the conference in Dubai.

When I proposed a 45 minute workshop, I assumed I would run it from an internet connected computer before a room full of participants also at their own internet-connected computers.But since I’m in the loop with the conference organizers by virtue of being active in the TA EdTech SIG, I knew that there was some doubt whether there would be Internet there at all, or even if there would be more than one computer in the room, so I conceived the presentation as if there would be no Internet and the participants would have no computers. Within a week or so of the conference we learned that there would in fact be wireless Internet in the room and that one of the colleges had contributed laptops, and so from that point I was able to assume I would be able to conduct an actual hands-on workshop.

Still one never knows what connectivity will really be like on site at a conference in a hotel, so soon after reaching Dubai I went to the room where I would be giving the presentation. This was Thursday evening, the day before I was to go live. Using my laptop, I got online with no problem, so this was when I decided for sure that I would be conducting a workshop with Internet.  Also it was from that moment only that it seemed possible that I could broadcast live from my presentation.

I never announce a live event anymore until I have actually established connectivity from the room I’ll be presenting from and the computer I’ll be using, and that night I was even able to arrange to get online from my hotel room, so when I finalized my slide show there I was able to upload it to That was when I decided to create a space at my Moodle course for my presentation materials (that Moodle course is unlikely to ever be used again with students at the institute where I developed these materials, so converting it to a presentation site seemed exactly the right way to seal development of the course). I uploaded all my handouts there, and before bed I sent word out to my network, my PLN, that I would attempt to go live from the presentation venue the following day.

Actually, through another strange twist of fate, my presentation was given an hour and a half time slot though as I mentioned earlier the CfP form had solicited proposals for 45 minute sessions. At one point in time when it seemed my workshop might actually have neither Internet nor computers for participants to get their hands on, and I didn’t think I would need more than 45 minutes, I was nominated to be the featured speaker for the TA EdTech SIG at the conference. Had the SIG had its act together earlier we could possibly have invited someone truly worthy to come and give a featured presentation, funded in part by the conference organizers, but we were organizing organically at the time and the opportunity slipped. However as we were still entitled to put forward such a speaker, it occurred to someone that I might fit the position (plus I would require no budget outlay to encourage me to attend) and when I was nominated, we thought we might use the time after I had done with my workshop to talk about the EdTech SIG and show off its Ning at

It was THIS time that I had in mind for our live presentation. I didn’t think I would be able to conduct a workshop tethered to a headset on my presentation PC. But for the latter part of the show, where we would talk about our plans for the TA EdTech SIG I thought it would be marvelous if we could bring in other voices from around the region to speak to our local conference-goers, and give them the sense of connectiveness with peers at a distance. So when I made the announcement, I told people we would be online at 7 a.m. GMT, one hour into a workshop that started at 6 a.m. GMT and would last till 7:30. In other words, the live participants would be the last part of the show. I even prepared a blog post on the philosophy behind such an occasion, and the LAST thing I did the night before was to publish my post, cleaned up but still incomplete, but tightly wrought with regard to the arguments I intended to make:

So Friday morning I was at the presentation room an hour early and getting set up, rearranging the room according to my needs. The table I would be using was tiny so I requested a larger one. The datashow projector provided for the event seemed to be running on a 40 watt bulb; the screen was in effect illegible at the back of the room, but there was nothing to be done about that. I was asked if I would need speakers for the PC, and since I was planning to have voices join us from cyberspace I said yes, and someone went to get some.

I got my powerpoint up in Slideshare, opened my handouts in pdf, and in yet another window launched the Elluminate presentation room we would be using. I tweeted what I was doing in a last-minute 140-character call for participation. Someone brought the speakers and we ran a sound check on some music that comes with Windows in the music folder. By then participants were arriving, and they took their places to the languid rhythm of Brazilian samba.

The presentation began, participants appeared suitably rapt as I explained the philosophy behind what I was doing. The philosophy is something I’ve worked out well in my mind, and it makes sense to audiences. I explained however that it was another matter to teach in this way to students, let alone write those materials in a way that teachers who were unfamiliar with the tools, Google Docs and Delicious, would be able to teach from them. The materials would therefore have to teach the teachers as they taught the students.

This part is a little complex but I turned to the point in my workshop where I would get the teachers to follow me in what could be complicated for some. They would have to form groups, create a Google document, share it with one another and with me, write something there, publish the document, create tiny URLs from the publication link, and then tag the published work in Delicious using a tag I would provide, which would allow anyone to aggregate at one URL all content created under that tag.

I had all those windows open on my computer and I was just about to start showing them what to do when suddenly the datashow projector went blue. I saw quickly that this happened because my laptop had gone into sleep mode and now that it had got my attention I could see it had done that because the power light was not on, meaning it had been running on battery all that time. So I excused myself and got down on my hands and knees and crawled under the table where the drapes on the table were concealing the real problem. When the workers had brought the speakers they had needed a place to plug them in, so they had created one by unplugging the charger to my laptop.

This could have been a momentary hitch except that the wiring was done with supermarket adaptors so when I removed the plug for the speakers and plugged in the power cord for my laptop there was a surge that knocked out power to the projector and also to the router, so that suddenly not only had the laptop and projector died, but the room was without Internet.

Phillip Towndrow, who was present at the time, complimented me later on how smoothly I responded to the sudden change in circumstances. It wasn’t that difficult actually since I had prepared my presentation from the outset with no hard, fast assumption that there would be internet or even computers there for each participant. My PowerPoint was in fact a set of screenshots showing each step in the process, and my handout was a printout from this presentation. So when it became evident that the show would have to go on without technology, I was prepared for that eventuality. After an initial search for tech support, I simply asked participants to follow their handouts and took it from there.

Now here’s the interesting bit. Many asked me later how my presentation went after the total tech breakdown, and I said to me it seemed to go very well. Those present also said, to my face at least, that my presentation was a good one. Why would this be? Interestingly, as soon as the computers went down, gone were the distractions. The squinting at the dim screen behind me stopped. The multitasking diminished. I no longer had the need to navigate the multiple windows on my desktop, with screen real estate confusingly constrained by cramped resolution when the datashow was attached, and further reduced when I put in a magnifier to compensate. Whatever, I didn’t have to deal with what people couldn’t properly see anyway, or ask them to page forward with me in their version of the slides at I simply held up my copy of the handout and said, here at step 3 you’ll see this, and at step 4 this will happen. Though I had to ask them to imagine what they might see on their screens if they actually followed those steps, all were focused with me on the handout. I couldn’t actually show them until at the end connectivity was restored, and then I could open a Google Doc and show them the interface and history and show them how a set of Google Docs could be aggregated in Delicious around a class tag.

So I thought it went well, perhaps better than if I had tried to lead them in synch hands on, with half of them getting lost, some not paying attention. My only regret was that when I finally got reconnected with Elluminate, we found that Graham Stanley had tried to join us but was no longer responsive. Later he tweeted me at his end that he had had a computer freeze as well.

That’s technology. Some might think we’d be better off without it, but it’s only through trial and working through error that pioneers can blaze trails that others can follow and establish the trail as a mainstream superhighway.






About Vance Stevens
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One Response to Collaborative writing using Delicious and Google Docs:Technology boon or bane?

  1. Anonymous says:

    That’s an experience we often have around.

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