Last week my superintendent came to me to after our last board meeting and said that the board was interested in holding paperless meetings. There is a vendor with a product specifically for this process, but I told him I’d also explore other options. So, for my meeting with my school tech coordinators on Thursday, I decided to see what we could do with a paperless meeting using Google Docs.
Each of my tech team has an iPad, so I decided to start from there. I’ve also set up a domain name specifically for Google Apps for our district, so we already had an infrastructure in place. We just had to figure out the workflow and procedures. I chose Google Docs over a wiki or similar collaborative platform because the final product could be downloaded as a PDF or DOC file, and because I had a good way to track versions and who made changes to the documents.
Setting up the process reminded me of putting together a simple web page, but with interactive components. I first created an agenda document, almost exactly like the paper ones we’ve used for years. The tech team was given viewing rights to that document (I prefer to stick to an agenda once its set, and not change it, so no editing rights.) On that agenda document I provided links to other Google documents for specific agenda items up for discussion. Those documents were editable. The idea was that each of us would contribute to the item documents so that we all had a consistent set of notes that could be shared with principals and others. These item documents had a few comments I’d already typed as bullet points, but could be expanded as our discussion progressed.
Since we’ve just jumped into the deep end of the iPad pool, one of our agenda items was discussing a way to gather resources, suggest tips and tricks, as well as apps we’ve found useful. That document had space to add these things as we discussed them, but it also had a way for us to brainstorm the best way to set up and format to use for a discussion forum for teachers. I also had a link to a simple poll set up as a Google form so I could get a feel for how iPads were being deployed in our schools.
We were also discussing a new component of our PowerSchool student database – the Incident Manager. On that document I’d added my comments, but I had also included links to the state department’s manual for that system, as well as a link to a document we had gotten from another district on the subject. Both of these had been uploaded to my Docs account as a PDF file for ready access.
The idea was that we would all contribute, typing on the agenda documents as we had the floor. I had my iPad patched into the big TV in the board room so that everyone could see the changes. We would wind up with a consistent set of notes. If attendees wanted their own notes, they could create a separate document that wasn’t shared. Once the meeting was over the documents could be downloaded as a PDF or MS-Word file, if someone was so inclined.
So, how did it work?
…not bad for a first attempt. We had to get through the novelty of the process first, and that took some time. Not all of my tech team are as into Google Docs as I am, so I had to send out some refreshers prior to the meeting as to how to access the documents. There was a bit of a learning curve, albeit a short one because these folks are tech savvy.
The little poll I created worked beautifully. Within seconds I had a pretty good view of how we were using iPads in our schools without having to go around the table, ask, then record each response. Using the documents was a bit trickier. I knew from some of the workshops I’ve conducted that things can get chaotic with multiple people collaborating simultaneously, so it’s best if only one person at a time is editing the document. I had hoped this technical limitation might bring some order to our somewhat chaotic meetings.
There were also some technical challenges. You’ve got to have enough wireless capacity to support all of the devices on the network, and good Internet access to get to Docs. We were OK as far as that was concerned. The problem was with the iPads. While Google Docs works quite well for individuals on the iPad, as a real-time collaborative platform it was not as clean. You have to refresh the document to see the changes and it was easy to get confused as to whether or not you were in edit mode or view mode. The full version of Docs doesn’t have those problems, so laptops or netbooks with a modern browser would be the absolute best platform.
In the end, I wound up doing most of the typing and taking notes, which is not exactly how I wanted this to go. There was just too much confusion about simultaneous editing on the iPads. I think it would have gone much, much better with access to the full version of Docs rather than the mobile version. I left the documents open so that the tech team could add more as they thought of things over the next few days.
Will we do it again?
Most certainly. This does require a bit more prep work setting up the documents. However, instead of running copies of handouts, I just upload them to Docs and make them accessible, so it’s not that different. I’m also hoping the novelty will wear off, and we will fall into a routine.
I would count this first experiment as a qualified success. I don’t think this would be the best method to use for our school board, though. For this meeting I was working with a group that could adapt on the fly when we had problems. That’s not going to happen at a public board meeting. It’s got to be nailed down and working perfectly from the get go. There are also concerns about security, FOI, and all the rules and regulations that govern documentation of meetings of elected officials. But, as a proof of concept, I think it went beautifully.