Getting Started with Google Docs in the Classroom

Google Docs in Action

One of the goals of Prof. Hacker is to introduce to you some of the tools we use so that the tools become less intimidating. Face it, changing one’s preferred word processing program can be pretty intimidating—not only for you but for students as well. In this post, you’ll get a quick introduction to Google Docs as well as some “lessons learned” by yours truly. In the comments, I hope others will share their experiences using Google Docs in the classroom.

What is Google Docs?

Google Docs is a free Web-based word processing program. Although the name says “Docs,” you aren’t limited to just text-based documents with the occasional image thrown in for good measure. With Google “Docs” (and a Google Account) anyone can create or import spreadsheets and presentations in addition to documents. Once you have created or imported a document, spreadsheet or presentation, you can edit it, save it, export it, and print it to your heart’s content. More importantly for my purposes in the classroom, these documents can be shared with collaborators.

If the Google Docs concept is new to you, I recommend taking three minutes to watch this introductory video from Google:

For the remainder of this post, I will focus on Google Docs as a word-processing program and will leave the discussion of Google Spreadsheets and Google Presentations to another day, as they are worthy of posts of their own.

Sharing with Collaborators

A Google Doc is created by a document owner (or initially uploaded, as Google Docs will import Microsoft Word, OpenOffice, RTF, HTML or text files) who can then set viewing and editing permissions for others. When sharing the document with specific collaborators, the document owner can allow those collaborators to edit and view the document, or simply to view it. You can also allow the world to view it, but not edit it, by publishing it as a web page.

In the classroom, editing privileges can be used in several ways, such as:

  • Instructor shares a document with all students, such as a sign-up sheet for presentations or group projects
  • Student shares document with Instructor and receives feedback within the document; Instructor can add comments, highlight problem areas, make text changes in a different color, and so on
  • Student shares document with a select group of peers and receives peer review feedback through comments and text changes
  • Group project leader shares a document with other team members to complete a collaborative or cooperative writing assignment

Synchronous and Asynchronous Editing

When collaborating on a document, editors can make changes and leave comments synchronously (although I would only ever attempt this with a few other people at a time before it gets difficult to manage) or asynchronously. One of the benefits of Google Docs is that the document auto-saves almost as quickly as you can type—documents will often have hundreds of revision points, which leads me to the next benefit of Google Docs: the revision history. You can view, compare, and revert to any previous point in your document.

Revision History

The revision history feature was helpful when reviewing drafts of student essays, as the breadth and depth of changes (or lack thereof) were clearly displayed. Doing a quick revision comparison allowed me to determine the amount of time I would spend commenting on that document, and I could group all the lightly revised documents for (relatively) quick feedback.

For my composition students, the revision history was extremely helpful because half of the course grade was based on a portfolio of their work. This portfolio required several drafts of their selected essays, but also a cover letter from the student that explained their revision process for each essay. Although sometimes difficult to navigate, the Google Docs revision history allowed the students to pick specific points in their writing process and discuss the changes between these points, down to the most granular details. Although I told the students ahead of time that they would need to be aware of their writing and revision process in order to talk about it at the end of the course, students reported that the Google Docs revision history was a “life saver.”

Another benefit of the revision history was that it shows when the document was created and when it was last updated. Students told me that they realized early on that they couldn’t lie about the dog eating the homework, so they didn’t try. It’s true—no one tried to pull the old “But I sent it! There must be something wrong with your email” trick. A few students were legitimately able to say that they finished a document before the due date, point to that due date, and thus receive credit for the assignment, with no muss and no fuss about it.


Collaborators can send notifications to other collaborators at any point in the writing and reviewing process. When the e-mail notification is sent, it includes the document title in the subject line. Using a consistent string in the subject line will also allow you to filter these notifications into specific folders (or labels) for each class section. The notifications themselves also allow students to ask for specific feedback, such as “Could you check my thesis statement?” or “I don’t think I have a conclusion. What do you think?” or “Did I cite correctly in the 4th paragraph?” In my class, Google Docs fostered communication—of that I am sure.

Lessons Learned

  • As with any new technology, students will be resistant or at least hesitant. Have clear goals and reasons for using the technology.
  • Be available to answer questions about the application. If possible, devote one class period to hands-on time in a computer lab or to demonstrating the application.
  • Student access to computers and software will surprise you. In my case, I was shocked that every single one of my 48 students had their own laptop or desktop computer as well as Microsoft Office and an Internet connection. Since one of my reasons for using Google Docs was to eliminate the need for students to have their own computer and word processing software, that benefit became moot.
  • Students will be resistent to play and to figuring things out on their own. For instance, a common complaint from my students was that Google Docs has no spellcheck function. It does, of course: it’s the first option in the Tools menu. Other complaints about Google Docs not having X or Y could also be traced to students simply not looking for it at all.
  • Students might not realize the benefits you’re touting until something bad happens. “All your documents are backed up,” I said to them, but this didn’t hit home until one student ran into class one day and said “Oh my gosh, my computer died in the middle of my essay!” I calmly opened my laptop, logged into my account (as I was a collaborator on the document), and showed the student the essay—saved constantly by Google until her computer crashed. It was at that moment that 24 light bulbs appeared over students’ heads and any lingering resistance to the technology vanished.
  • Students will worry about how the document “looks” when printing or exporting, because some of the formatting functions in Google Docs can get a little wonky. Take some time to talk about the layout and formatting tools.
  • No one liked the in-text Google comments, preferring comments in the margin like those produced by Microsoft Word. I completely agree. The in-text comments make for a messy document. However, these comments did ensure that students read them, as they had to take the time to delete the comment before they revised that part of their draft.
  • The revision history can be hard to conceptualize. When students revised their essay, several of them started by copying the first draft and pasting it further down in the document (separated by a line or other indicator) before revising it. I explained that they didn’t have to do that, and that drafts are saved sort of “behind” the text they were revising. That took some time to explain, and I’m not sure all of them quite figure out how “deleting” something from their visual field didn’t actually delete it, but just revised it.

These are only a few of the lessons I learned when I used Google Docs with two sections of an Introductory Writing course. That experience in particular was part of a research project that lead to a presentation at 4Cs in 2009. I would use Google Docs again in a heartbeat, and will always introduce it to students as a word processing option regardless of the class I happen to teach.

For more information about Google Docs, see Google’s Getting to Know Google Docs. What experiences have you had with Google Docs in the classroom? Share your story—or questions—in the comments section.


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