Revisiting Google Docs for Classroom Use

One of the first posts I wrote for ProfHacker was “Getting Started with Google Docs in the Classroom”, and in that post I talked about the potential for using Google Docs with students, how I used it with two sections of Introductory Writing, and lessons learned for future use in the classroom. In this post, I will draw your attention to some of the new features of Google Docs and discuss how I might use these features with students when next I have the opportunity to do so.

For those of you who might not know, Google Docs is a free Web-based word processing program—actually a suite of tools (spreadsheets, presentations, forms, and drawings). You can import documents or create new ones, then edit, save, export, and print. 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 [YouTube].

NOTE: As with all ProfHacker posts, I’m not here to tell you to change anything that already works for you. Instead, what we try to do here is offer some examples of ways we have incorprated new and/or different technologies in our classrooms—should you want to take a look and consider doing the same.

In my original post, I focused on four main features of Google Docs we (the students and myself) used in the classroom: sharing with collaborators, synchronous and asynchronous editing, using the revision history, and sending collaborator notifications.

For much more on these topics, feel free to read my original post or the peruse the slides from my 4Cs presentation on the experience. Since that original post, Amy Cavender has written about using Google Docs when others need paper, guest author Thomas R. Burkholder has written about using Google Docs forms, and George gave us the heads-up when Google Docs began accepting any file type for upload and subsequent collaborating and publishing.

But a few weeks ago Google launched a new version of Google Docs (the suite of tools, not just the documents editor). This new version includes:

  • a better document editor: real-time editing including character-by-character changes, synchronous discussion, significantly improved comment placement, better import/export fidelity, document formatting enhancements including image layout and ability to edit the underlying style sheet. At Lifehacker, some of these changes were described as “Wave-like” although “these Wave-like features come close to doing what Wave can do, but for many users, the live typing and inline document commenting are all they’d want from Wave.” I tend to agree with that statement.
  • a faster spreadsheet editor: better response times, seamless scrolling, addition of a formula bar, auto-complete, drag-and-drop column movement, real-time collaboration with sidebar chat. Learn more about the updated spreadsheets editor.
  • an all-new collaborative drawing editor: while I am still shocked that Google didn’t just purchase Creately (an online diagramming application I discussed previously), the Google standalone drawing editor allows you to create and collaborate on flow charts, diagrams, wireframes, and other similar business drawings. You can then insert these drawings directly into your Google Docs or publish them separately. Learn more about the new drawing editor.

You can read the list of what’s new and what’s in progress to get a sense of where Google Docs is headed. If you are interested, take a quick look at this short official presentation:

Some of you may say “but Google Docs still lags behind Microsoft Word in numerous features, so why on earth would I change?” and you’d be right on both counts: Google Docs does lag behind Microsoft Word and some other office suites in many areas, and you wouldn’t change if what you are using works for you. Google is very clearly going after the cloud computing and collaboration market: individuals (and corporations) who want to store their data (documents, in this case) in the cloud, and who want to be able to access and edit those documents in collaborative mode, from anywhere. Although this TechCrunch article is about the new drawings editor, there’s an interesting graphic at the end of the article, used by Google Docs product manager Anil Sabharwal, which shows a conceptual placement of Google Docs vs. Microsoft Office in terms of individual authoring and team collaboration. Google Docs is clearly being marketing and developed as a collaborative authoring tool, which is where it really shines.

In the classroom—and specifically in the composition classroom—I would take advantage of the new style of commenting (which is, of course, the way Microsoft Word has placed comments for years) as students worked on revising their work. In the example below, you can see how a comment might look in Google Docs:

better comments
Showing better comment placement (previously, comments were inline with the text): click to enlarge.

But for me, the transformative technology is the sidebar chat in coordination with the real-time editing, as shown below.

better comments
Showing real-time chat with collaborators: click to enlarge.

While I value talking in person and pointing at specific places on paper, and having students respond to my comments and suggest changes in a lovely, generative discussion, most of the time that experience only exists in my imagination. More often, students make appointments with us and do not show up, or they don’t bring their papers, or they nod silently only to go off and forget what was discussed. Not all students, of course, but many—enough that I’m always looking for more ways to reach more students. Maybe this would be a way.

Several of us at ProfHacker offer virtual office hours, and I’m sure many of you do as well—specific times we’re online to answer questions via instant message or other chat programs, perhaps in your school’s learning management system of choice. How about taking that 20-minute in-person meeting and turning it into a 20-minute session in a Google Doc, where you can highlight something, explain it in the sidebar chat, the student can make some changes, ask additional questions in the sidebar chat, and by the end of the session come out of it with a revision entirely of their own doing, with a saved revision history? How much further along could the student get in that session?

Have any of you used these new features with students? If not, and you’re interested, how might you construct your assignments or interactions with your students? Do you have any questions about using Google Docs in the classroom? At ProfHacker, we have several authors and frequent comment contributors who are well-versed in its use and are happy to offer suggestions and hints.

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