Marsha Ratzel and Shelley Wright are regular writers here at PLP’s Voices from the Learning Revolution group blog. They both teach science, they both keep popular personal blogs about their classroom practice. Marsha’s from Kansas, Shelley’s from Saskatchewan. Shelley teaches high schoolers, Marsha teaches ‘tweens.

They’ve never met but they’ve become colleagues and collaborators thanks to their Powerful Learning Practice experience. They’re both believers in the value of Personal Learning Networks (PLN) and the importance of being connected educators. This dialogue about classroom Google jockeys is their first joint post for VFLR.

Shelley Wright: The first time I ever heard the term Google Jockey, I was taking a graduate course in ed technology. Our weekly, webinar-styled class took place online every Tuesday evening, using the Elluminate (now called Blackboard Collaborate) platform. As our professor talked, people would drop comments and relevant weblinks into the sidechat window. At one point, our  professor Alec Couros referred to what we were doing as Google jockeying. Interesting.  At the time, I didn’t consider that it would ever have a use in my classroom; sometimes it takes a while to see the usefulness of a new tool or method.

Fast forward almost one year. I teach senior biology & chemistry, some of the most content- dense classes in our curriculum.  While we learn a large amount of the content through inquiry and project-based learning, there is always specific content that I need to make sure my students learn.

Enter Google Jockey.

Here’s what I wrote in a recent post at the Voices from the Learning Revolution group blog, in which I described some of my teaching strategies in our “flipped” science classroom:

Other times we’ll learn content in the classroom, but we do it interactively. How? We Google Jockey. The first time I told my students we were going to Google Jockey, they didn’t believe it was an actual term. I told them to Google it. It is.

I facilitate the discussion by asking questions, while my students Google, looking for the information we need. As they come across links and videos that explain what we’re learning about, my students send me links that I add to our wiki.  This process allows us to talk about the information, including how to research & find reputable information.

If I had a set of laptops or iPads on which my students could reliably create a Google Doc of our notes as I speak or they Google jockey, I would do it that way instead. There’s something engaging about creating a real-time set of class notes.

According to Urban Dictionary, a Google Jockey is  “somebody who answers a question asked by a teacher, friend, etc by typing the question into Google or another search engine and belting out the first thing they see. Can be done on the phone, in class, etc.” We’ve taken the snarkiness out of the definition in my classroom by “belting out” what’s truly relevant.

Every definition I’ve found for Google Jockey uses it as a noun; I use it as a verb. It’s a dynamic, interactive way to crowd-source information.

Marsha Ratzel: Back in November, I was reading the article Shelley references above — Life in an Inquiry Driven, Technology-Embedded,  Connected Classroom:  Science — because that is the instructional style I’m trying to develop in my own 6th grade classroom. When I read her description of Google jockeying with high school students to “learn content” and “do it interactively, it really resonated. I was eager to try it with my own younger kids because I could see it might be an engaging way to learn the basic facts about curriculum topics.

How so? In my mind, Google jockeying would engage students in looking up the facts that I normally would just teach through lecture, video clips and slideshows. As Shelley says, science content is dense; it can’t be brushed over lightly. No one can do deep thinking about a subject or topic without knowing the facts and fundamentals.

But it’s hard to keep students riveted during a traditional “march through the material.” I felt I needed to find a way to make the basics more interactive — to let my kids do the work of finding the information. That’s really what I’m striving for. I want students to develop the sense that they have the power to find answers to questions themselves. I don’t want to stunt the growth of that valuable skill by jumping in with the answers.

When I read Shelley’s post, we’d just finished our very first Google Documents project, where they had created a science poster presentation on heat transfer labs. Never before had they shared responsibility for creating a single electronic document, and it presented a steep learning curve. From having to figure out how to log-on (I know it sounds simple to do, but my 11-year olds can’t always remember their password and log-ons for every place they go) to formatting text and images, to even typing email addresses correctly, we had to learn everything from scratch.

I loved the idea of Google Jockey but knew we needed some more intermediate skills first. So I designed another project where each class shared a Google Spreadsheet. I asked students to research relevant websites, video clips and animations on several topics. They had to add the resources they discovered into the spreadsheet. This process allowed them to practice cutting/pasting URLs, typing email addresses, and even logging on without problems. Here are the resources they found about the sun.

It took us two more projects before they were ready to venture into the idea of Google Jockey.  I knew we were ready when they were able to help me find and write descriptions of test review resources on the properties of water. We used the spreadsheets again and then transferred the info to our class blog (for easier reading).

I emailed Shelley back and forth a couple of times to learn more about the specifics of how she set up the assignments.

Shelley: Teaching senior-level science is almost like teaching in a different world from Marsha’s. Whereas she needs to scaffold as she leads her 11-year olds to Google Jockeying, my job is to begin to take away the scaffolding and push my upper-teens toward independence.

Instances of conflicting information provide an opportunity to discuss how to evaluate sites for their reliability.  But I don’t talk about specific conflicts with them — they hash it out themselves. Often, more students will Google the info, until the class can reach a consensus. Was the conflicting info an anomaly or part of a larger dialogue?

However, before my students can do this, we’ve talked extensively about the reliability of sites like Wikipedia. Until they enter my classroom, Wikipedia has been a taboo word, banned from their academic vocabulary.  However, research shows that Wikipedia is generally reliable — comparable to other encyclopedias. Any problems caused by its open-source nature are issues that students are likely to encounter across the Internet, which brings us back to teaching evaluation skills.

Marsha: For my sixth graders, I knew I’d have to still scaffold lots of the assignment because they are still so inexperienced when it comes to independent work. They have trouble if things don’t go perfectly. Some might believe that students in 2012 know more than they do. Problem solving is still problem solving. And 11-year olds have to be taught perserverance, patience and creativity to get over hurdles that the problem-solving process presents.

For this assignment I decided I would devote one day to whole-class practice. Since I only have a couple of computers in my classroom, we randomly picked our G-jockeys and everyone else had fun making up questions for them to answer. I displayed the Google Jockey document on the SmartBoard so everyone could see the information as it was entered. There was lots of buzz and excitement as the G-jockeys raced to find answers to questions like “What was the longest game ever played in the NFL?”, “What is the smallest kind of dog?”, “What’s the tallest kangaroo?”, “How do you say ‘I love to eat bananas’ in Ukranian?” and “What was Lady GaGa’s first song?” We had fun and the practice time set a wonderful tone of excitement for the next day.

In preparation, I set up different documents with an overarching question that covered my curriculum’s content, then randomly assigned (for the most part) students to each topic. I made sure I had one super hard-to-research topic for my advanced students and a more straightforward facts-oriented topic for my struggling learners. Anyone could ask to switch questions.

The first day they hunted down answers all over the internet. We had learned from our whole-class practice that multiple users on a Google Document, all trying to add pictures, was a disaster. The document just slows to a crawl. So we were only writing descriptions of the pictures or video clips with hyperlinks to the source. Still, we were plagued by Google Docs problems, and our battle cry soon became “F5 [refresh] is your best friend and resolves most problems.” By the end of the day each document held the research findings of 8-12 students.

A side benefit was that I was able to also help them with researching and searching strategies. One group’s topic was current events: Where in the world was it flooding and why?  Most had never learned to limit a search by dates, and they were thrilled to learn how to enter custom dates into the search parameters.  Such a small thing, but so powerful when they were looking for date-sensitive information.

Shelley: As a senior high teacher, I often experience the satisfaction of seeing and experiencing the culmination of the hard work and scaffolding that previous teachers, such as Marsha, have done. My students are learning to be independent from help, including mine.  Essentially, I’m working my way out of a job. When things fall apart, I often let my students flail through the muck & mire of problem-solving. My role in this process is to know when to let them struggle and when they need help, much like Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.

Usually when we use Google docs, we have no more than five students on them, and we tend to do all of our Google Jockeying BYOD (bring your own device).

Marsha: On the second day my students went back through their research findings, posted their email addresses so other students would be able to contact them, and “cleaned up” their notes. That meant some re-writing, or finding more info to fill in gaps, or even asking more in-depth questions that re-reading the original research prompted them to ask.

By the end of this second day, each document was pretty tidy, held lots of info from both the internet and print resources (encyclopedias and relevant books).  Here’s an example of all the info that one group collected about the the issue of water in urban areas and cities. This was one of the hardest topics to get going….mostly because they’re city kids and can’t imagine not having a faucet that brings water every time you turn it on. So they had to overcome their life experiences in order to start thinking bigger than their kitchen tap.

We ended up with a ton of information — more than any group member could have ever collected alone in those two days. It provided a rich database to supplement our textbook’s page and for them to use to write a blog post.

Over the next week students worked with their research partners to write an article for our class blog about each water-related topic. I should add that this was the first time they had worked within an “inter-class” virtual group — spread across all four of my science classes. It forced them to learn how to use the “Insert Comment” feature. They shared those documents with everyone in their group and they peer-edited each other’s entry.

Google jockeying was fun. It built energy within each class and between classes. I could hear students talking to each other in the hallways about what they were doing. They loved that they could access the documents from home and at school.

Shelley’s post several months ago was the seed that helped me interject a bit of fun into the process of learning some science fundamentals about various topics. It also helped me find a new way to motivate students to better refine their search strategies, solve problems collaboratively, and help each other research and write.

I owe Shelley a ton of gratitude for energizing this set of lessons and for giving me another tool for my digital toolbox.

Shelley: It’s been incredibly interesting to watch how Marsha has used and adapted this process to her own Grade 6 classroom. I think this shows the versatility and usefulness of web tools and technology skills — for grad students, high school and middle level students, and don’t forget first graders.

Even the creation of this blog post — which involved me, Marsha and our editor John — took place over several weeks in a Google Doc. In our classrooms and our professional collaborations, it’s really becoming just business as usual.

For more insights about Google jockeying, read this early K-12 reference to G-j by Karl Fisch and another (3 years later) by teacher Richard Byrne, keeper of the Free Technology for Teachers blog. Some say G-j began in the university classroom: here’s a May 2006 EduCause flyer with “7 Things You Should Know…” And here’s how the Dear Librarian describes a Google Jockey.

For more references…well, why not try google jockeying for answers? And if you’re an early adopter:

Tell us how you’re using Google Jockeys in your classroom!

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Image #1: Google Search logo image for 3/30/11, celebrating Robert W. E. Bunsen’s birthday.

Image #2: Student art, Doodle 4 Google contest.

Image #3: Student art, Doodle 4 Google contest.

About the author
John Norton is Coordinator of Content and Capacity Building with Powerful Learning Practice and Editorial Director of Powerful Learning Press. He's also editor of the PLP group blog Voices from the Learning Revolution. Learn more about John here.