case-study notebooks: google announcements page and iPad camera

In ENGL 329: Grammar, Style, and Writing, students conducted a case study in which they used rhetorical concepts to analyze the stylistic choices made by an entity or organization in print, web, and mobile composing environments. The bulk of their work was collected using Google sites Announcements pages as notebooks. I'm definitely not the first person to use this tool in this way, but it worked really well in my courses last year, so I thought I would share how we used it. I find a few advantages especially important for classroom use:

  • established account: All Boise State students already have a Google apps account through the university, and we're already using Google sites for other work during the course.
  • classroom writing: Since students' notebooks were part of a Google site for the course, this writing fit clearly within the class parameters.
  • privacy: During this course, we did public writing, but I prefer that clearly academic work remain within the walled garden of the course site. Posting reading responses or case study entries on a public blog feels to me a bit like passing out math worksheets on the sidewalk. When we do public writing in the course, I like for students to write with a particular audience (beyond the class) in mind.

case study notebook assignment

This assignment ran much of the semester and was completed in conjunction with a set of readings related to rhetorical style (Fahnestock's Rhetorical Style; Lanham's Economies of Attention), web writing (e.g., Barton, Kalmbach, and Lowe's "The Rhetorics of Web Pages" from Writing Spaces' style guide for the web), and convergence (Jenkins's Convergence Culture). Students selected an organization (e.g., Teach for America, Red Bull) or entity (e.g., Piers Morgan, Kim Kardashian) and studied rhetorical style employed in  web, print, and mobile spaces.

Each entry included a description of the artifact(s) examined, an artifact(s) analysis, and visuals (e.g., photograph, screenshot, video) of the artifact. They were evaluated based on quality, scope, and promptness.

notebooks & announcements pages

We used Google sites Announcements pages for this assignment. I created  an assignment landing page and individual notebook pages for each student.

For those unfamiliar with Google sites, there are five page types: Web page, Announcements, File cabinet, List page, and Start page.

assignment landing page

The assignment landing page is a standard Google Web page, and students' notebooks are Announcements subpages located under it. I include a general assignment description and deadline as well as instructions for posting new entries and commenting on others' entries.

landing page

This landing page uses the right sidebar layout, which is accessible from the Layout menu in Edit page mode. In the right sidebar, I added the Subpage listing gadget, which displays links to all pages under the current page.

case study notebooks

Students in this class had individual Announcements pages.

Much like a blog, announcement pages display posts you make to the page in chronological order, starting with the most recent. For example, an announcement page would be great for keeping a record of weekly meeting notes, while providing quick access to the most recent meeting info.

To write a new case study notebook entry, students simply click the New post button. From there, they could compose and save a draft until they were ready to publish the entry. Postings are always labeled with the the author's name and date and time.

case study notebook page


Users can also insert images into their posts or attach them (or other files) to the page. Each new entry creates a new site page, which is indexed in the Subpage listing gadget I discussed earlier.

screenshots with the iPad camera

One reason that case study notebooks worked so well in this course is that, thanks to Boise State's mLearning Scholars Program, all students in the course had iPads. One excellent but sometimes overlooked function of this tablet is the ability to take screenshots by holding down and releasing the home and sleep buttons at the same time. I use this feature all the time. Actually, I began using it by accidentally doing this. A lot. My first iPhone had tons of pictures of my home screen in the camera roll. Now I use it for all sorts of purposes--sharing an image with tech support when something isn't working, grabbing shots of web sites for cataloging and analyzing, clipping pages from the latest issue of Vogue to post on Pinterest, creating how-to documents for students or colleagues. Indeed, I gathered the images in this post using this technique.

csn with image

Students used this function to capture artifacts for their case studies. The example above includes both a screenshot of text and a thumbnail from a single blog post. Screen capture functionality is not new or unique, but the ease of use on the iPad made this assignment much easier to implement. Since taking a screenshot is much like taking a photograph with a mobile phone, and since it is stored and manipulated as a photograph would be, students could capture screens, crop the images, and insert them into web pages--all using skills they already had.

final thoughts

The case study notebook was a for-credit, rather than graded, assignment. I rarely commented on individual notebooks. Students were expected to provide feedback to their class colleagues, and they commented on one another's entries far more than they were required to. As a result, they were able to engage with challenging concepts from rhetorical style, and I was able to read their work and use their analyses as examples in class, all in a low-stakes assignment that required little grading. Although this project was designed for a highly specialized group (upper-division writing emphasis students) in a class capped at 20, the basics of the case study notebook are transferable to other levels and content areas and scalable for larger classes. 

How have you finessed Google apps to meet your course's needs?