Revisiting Using Google Documents in the Writing Classroom

software little over a year ago, I wrote a post titled “Using Google Documents When Others Need Paper.” Since then, Google Documents has undergone some significant changes. Perhaps the most notable is the new document editor (which is now the default for new accounts, unless I’m mistaken). That’s a welcome change; the new editor more closely resembles a desktop word processing application than the previous editor did, which makes it feel more familiar to new users.

A second change was not so welcome. One of the best features of the original Google Documents was the ability to compare different versions of a document (click on any of the images that follow for larger versions):

Compare checked 1

That feature made it very easy to see what changes had been made to a document, and by whom:

Compare checked 2

With the advent of the new document editor, the ability to compare different versions of a document suddenly disappeared:

No compare checked

That posed a challenge for me — how could my students and I easily track changes to a document, and document those changes for the readers who’d be looking over their writing portfolios at the end of the semester? (Thankfully, as of September 28th, 2010, Google has taken a big step toward fixing this problem. Though it appears there’s still no way to directly compare any two versions of a document, it is now possible to see what changes have occurred between any given revision and the one immediately prior to it.)

A Solution to the Problem

Happily, I found a solution to the problem in Google Documents itself. Not only can Google Documents import files of various types, it can also export files in a number of formats. For my purposes, the file types in question are .odt and .doc:

Download as

What I do, then, is ask students to download their documents on a regular basis. To make keeping track of files a bit easier, I ask them to adhere to a particular filenaming convention. Each document name in Google Documents takes the form of LastnameFirstInitialAssignmentname (so, in the image at left, the document name is BeeblebroxZSampleEssay).

I also ask students to set up a folder for their portfolios on their hard drives. Inside this folder, they can create one folder for each assignment, like so:

Sample portfolio 1

Then, each time I’ve commented on a draft for any of their essays, that commented draft can be downloaded to the portfolio on the hard drive. All that’s needed is for students to change the filename slightly when downloading — they just need to add “v#” at the end:

Sample portfolio 2

What’s handy about this is that Google Documents preserves comments as well as text when it exports files. That makes it very easy to use the “compare documents” feature in OpenOffice or in Microsoft Word to see how a document has changed between revisions, and the ways in which students have responded to comments on their work:

Comparing docs in Oo


The Advantages

I’ve found that doing things this way provides some distinct advantages (beyond merely getting around the difficulty of tracking changes in Google Documents; these advantages, I think, remain even with the recent update to revision history):

  • The procedure helps students learn both good file management practices and a very basic method of revision control (which goes beyond tracking changes, as Julie noted back in July).
  • It provides students with an electronic version of their complete writing portfolio, including all of their drafts for each essay. At the end of the semester, this electronic portfolio can easily be passed on to any readers who are willing to read onscreen (without losing anonymity by having to share the portfolio via Google Documents), but it can also readily be printed out for readers who prefer paper.
  • Finally, it provides students with an additional backup of their work. Assuming that they’re downloading their drafts on a regular basis, they always have a copy of their work both in Google Documents and on their hard drives.

If you use Google Documents in the classroom, how have you dealt with the lack of ability to compare revisions, and how has that worked for you? Let us know in the comments! (If you’ve had a chance to explore the changes made to Google Documents’ revision history this week, impressions of that are also welcome.)

[Initial image by Flicker user adria.richards. Creative Commons licensed. All other images by Flickr user cavenderamy / Creative Commons licensed.]

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