Fun with Google Docs (Part 1)

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

OK, this is just too much fun.

It also has the potential to shift how we work together in some interesting and fundamental ways.
This is the first of a multi-part post outlining my experiences with Google Docs in the classroom and in my own academic publishing.
In late November, a colleague (Thanks Rod!) said he used Google docs for providing feedback to his students who were using Mahara to create learning portfolios. Initially I just assumed it was something like “OpenOfficeOnline” and when I first tried it out, I found it to be fairly limited as a word processor. Oh well, I thought. I don’t really like the idea of leaving my stuff “out there” anyways. I had used it to upload my CV, which it did without error but the formatting got messed up and, since I already maintain both a word version AND an online version of my CV I didn’t really fancy maintaining yet another. I kind of lost interest. But luckily, the story doesn’t end here.

In the meantime I ended up getting a gmail account (which made 5 email accounts for me, not including all the special-purpose email addresses I have created using my own domain for various reasons). I also didn’t really explore the possibilities there – I already knew about email 🙂

Then I noticed my daughter using Google Wave with her friends. She sent me an invitation, but it turns out that unless you know other people using it AND have a reason to work at something synchronously, there really isn’t all that much you can do with it. However, when she was showing me around Google Wave, she also told me more about Google Docs. My daughter uses it for all her school work. So, not wanting to be ‘out-technologied’ by my own offspring, I started playing around with Google Docs again. I am also teaching five sections of a technical writing course, the first half of which had a marking load that nearly killed me. So I was all about finding ways to streamline assignments and the marking process without short-changing the students out of valuable learning opportunities.

This time I discovered some things about Google docs that turned it into my preferred assignment submission format. For students handing in documents as their assignments:

  1. Both for me and for my students, learning how to use Google Docs was refreshingly painless. For the most part, things look like you’d expect them to look and behave the way you’d expect them to behave. You can click on something and more often than not some logical non-overwhelming choices pop up telling you what you can do now.
  2. The formatting limitations are actually an advantage. Too many choices can result in hard to read papers as well as wasted student time. I call this the Pretty Presentation Pitfall. A classic example is when a child is asked to do a project that involves the creation of a powerpoint presentation. Many end up spending 95% of their time messing with fonts, colours, backgrounds, and images, and only about 5% of their time with the content.
  3. Students can submit their assignments by simply giving me shared access to the document. In my situation, I use 1Moodle as my course management system and still want to be able to track assignments through Moodle as well as mark them from Moodle. Using Word or OpenOffice documents last term, my students would upload a document as their assignment submission. I would download it, mark it (placing feedback inside the document while tracking changes so students could see what I had done). Then I had to open another Moodle grade-the-assignment window so I could upload my marked version. Two file transfers, opening another application, window, and numerous clicks later, I had marked an assignment. This may not seem like a big deal if you have 20 students, but the overhead really adds up when you have over a hundred students like I did. You end up spending as much time getting and returning the assignments as you do actually marking them. Getting the students to submit a link to their Google doc got rid of most of the overhead. Now I go to my mark assignments page in Moodle and click on the “notes” link, which still opens a new little window, but this time there is a link that goes directly to the student’s document using the same browser I am already using. I can put comments in their paper (see point 3), and then close it. I update the mark in Moodle and I’m done. Way simpler.
  4. I can put comments in their papers, and add to or change things in the document without messing up the visual appearance of their document like change tracking does. Yes I know this feature can be turned on and off in Word, but most students don’t even know this feature exists so unless I leave it on, they won’t see my comments. Google docs tracks all changes as well as remembering who changed what. It took  about 90 seconds to show the class what these revisions mean, how to look at them, and how to compare two versions.
  5. I can also go back and look at their papers whenever I need to. If I need or want a local copy, I can also download a Word (or other format) version easily.

Really, the only thing I wish for to make my job easier in these assignments is for Google to integrate their word processor with my Wacom Bamboo. That would be the icing on the cake.

In Part Two I’ll talk about the collaborative editing exercise I did with my class, as well as the in-class “tutorial” that turned out to be a lot of fun.

Part Three goes into using Google Docs to create co-authored papers.

The fun just keeps going….


1 Ask me why I don’t use the Blackboard site provided by the university where this course is taught.

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