Google's Letters to the Next President project showcases yet again why cloud computing has a real place in education. I had the opportunity to speak yesterday with Andrew Chang, a Product Marketing Manager on Google Docs, about this particularly cool project, designed to give students a relevant, interesting, and collaborative writing assignment, enabled via Google Docs.
Letters to the Next President began last spring when Google partnered with the National Writing Project. Mr. Chang new of students and schools using Google Docs to write scripts, poetry, keep daily journals, etc., and was looking for new ways to get students engaged in writing. Ultimately, 235 teachers in 45 states responded to the call to have their students use Google Docs to write letters to the next president, using all of the collaboration features in Docs for peer review, teacher edits, and even editing by parents and administrators.
Perhaps more importantly, students were able to be part of a shifting mindset in education. Whereas even five years ago, the final step in writing was a final, typed version of an assignment handed in to a teacher, the final step now is publication. Well over 6000 letters were published via Google Docs and collected in a Google mashup using Google Maps to show the locations of the students writing the letters (at the city/town level and only if approved by the teacher, allowing for enough anonymity, even in small towns, for students to openly express themselves).
As I talked with Mr. Chang, it became very clear that tools like Google Docs are really changing the way students write, even beyond the ability to easily publish their work. Students are moving from one or two drafts to much more extensive peer review and editing cycles, simply because Docs makes it so easy to solicit input, revise, and resubmit for review. Brainstorming as well can become collaborative. Similarly, the anonymity afforded by collaboration online allows students to be freer and more creative. Many schools chose to have their students use pen names; even if their collaborators obviously know who they are, the peer review process simply has a different feel online than it does on paper.
Check out the letters: they run a spectrum of topics and viewpoints, hopes and ideas. Even better, they were written and published with technologies that didn't even exist five years ago.