Implementation and Student Perceptions on Google Docs as an Electronic Laboratory Notebook in Organic Chemistry

Deborah Bromfield Lee (Florida Southern College, 2014 cCWCS ALOC workshop participant in Colorado) has recently published her use and implementation of Google docs as electronic notebooks in organic chemistry (DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.7b00518). Paper-based notebooks can be easily damaged, can be hard to read if the student has poor handwriting and require the instructor to collect them or the carbon copies if used when grading. If the students do not organize the notebook carefully, the notebooks can become sloppy and difficult to interject material that was forgotten. Electronic laboratory notebooks (ELN) are a way to alleviate these issues. There are many platforms that can be used. In the publication, Google Docs was used as it is free, has a similar structure to Microsoft Word and many students are familiar with it. The ELN was implemented at Florida Southern in Organic I and II and initially compared to the traditional paper-based notebooks. Now they are used exclusively in the organic lab sequence as well as other laboratories.

The format of the organic laboratory used pencasts (created with a Livescribe Echo Pen) for the pre-lab lecture alongside videos on setting up glassware, reactions or methods. Students answered prelab questions as well as wrote their own questions on the lab into the ELN. Professors gave students feedback on their performance, questions and discussions more regularly than what was previously possible as they can access student notebooks anywhere.

Using ELN templates which are designed to scaffold student learning on how to put together a laboratory notebook, helped instructors educate students about notebook organization and knowing what is important. The templates had spaces for required sections and formatting for the data. Prior to the ELN, students were using hardcover notebooks which made it difficult to give students feedback early and often. The ELN allows students to collaborate with each other, paste images, inserts links and easily correct mistakes. Students were aware that falsification of data was not tolerated but could be detected because of the history feature. Labarchives was used in some labs due to the ease of setting up the ELN, ability to sign papers which locks the page from editing, and allows for updates after the notebook is set up (though not discussed in the article). However, this platform is not free.

Details of the study can be found in the JCE article, but some observations are worth noting. The student surveys show how much time was spent on notebooks and reports, the helpfulness of the ELN and students’ perceptions on the ELN indicate that their use has been positive on students. Most students reported spending 1-2 hours on their ELN vs. 3-5 hours for paper-based notebooks. Students reported spending 15-30 minutes entering data into their typed reports as compared to 1 or more hours in traditional formats. They also found that ELNs were in general more helpful and facilitated collaboration with their peers. The ELN notebooks are now being used by most of the faculty in the department for their undergraduate research projects as well.

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