Fun with Google Docs (Part 2A)

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

A Collaborative Editing Exercise Using Google Docs

Part One looked at how Goggle Docs compare to traditional word processors as utilities for creation and submission of student assignments. Part Two (this one) talks about the collaborative editing exercise I did with my class (2A), as well as the in-class “tutorial” that turned out to be a lot of fun (2B). Part Three goes into using Google Docs as a tool for writing co-authored papers.

I am teaching the “English” part of a communications course for first year engineers. I decided that one of the objectives in this course would be to help students become familiar with some of the 21st-century skills they will need to complete their degrees and after they graduate (see: Learning for the 21st Century, Life and Career Skills, Information, Media and Technology Skills).

So far they have had to learn how to use several utilities they had not previously used.

Over the years I have often complained that group-work is expected in many courses, but that the students are rarely given much support in terms of how to make it work. Google Docs is a tool that can help by tracking how the students are working so we can reflect on their approach.

The engineering class I’m teaching has three major components:
1. A writing component.
2. A drawing component.
3. A design component.

Each is taught by a different instructor, but there remains a common thread running through all of them: drawings are used in the designs and reports, reports reflect work they are doing in design and in drawing.

Students had already been given an editing assignment in the previous semester, but editing is such an important skill that we felt we should have them do more of it. Since they will be spending most of the design portion working in groups on a major design it occurred to me that having them do a group editing exercise could be valuable. Given my own experiences with collaboration on research papers, I wanted to find a way to track who did what in a way that was less cumbersome than using MS Word. So I started to look around.

I also checked out these tools:

  • revizr: I really like the way it marks up text, but found it too difficult to see who did what when. There also didn’t seem to be a way to get at different revisions like one might in a wiki. I still like it and think it is worth another try at some point.
  • zoho writer: I actually think I like this better than Google Docs, but I ended up staying with Google Docs. This is the word processor used by Wiggio.

Here’s why I used Google Docs:

  • Google has the most recognizable name so I was hoping to parlay recognizability into buy-in by the students.
  • It is free and I assumed that some students would already be familiar with it. After all, it was my daughter (a student) who told me that she uses it for all her school stuff.
  • I found the interface very easy to learn.
  • I have some faith that Google’s servers will be available (i.e. no down time) and able to handle the traffic.
  • It  is easy to find existing support and a couple of entertaining youtube videos.
  • Revision tracking is very easy to understand and use.

Here is a link to the assignment specifications. I was astounded to discover that out of over 100 students, only a handful had ever heard of Google Docs and fewer still had used it. In spite of that, after the in class “tutorial”, which only took about 20 minutes, the students seemed to have very little trouble using it. The impression I got from the students was that on the whole it worked quite well. A few commented that they wished they’d known about this last term. I’m in the process of getting approval to administer a survey to the class for some feedback, so stay tuned for more on this when I hear back from them.

A dozen advantages over using traditional word processors noticed while doing this assignment:

  1. There need only ever be a single copy of the document. All members of the team and anyone else who needs to see the document (instructors, markers, what have you) can access the same document.
  2. The owner of the document can decide who gets access and whether they can edit it, invite others to share it too, or only view it.
  3. The owner of the document can easily transfer it to someone else if it becomes necessary to do so, but even if the ‘owner’ is sick or unavailable for some reason, the other collaborators can still keep working on it.
  4. Collaborators can make their changes right in the document itself, or if they choose to have a single ‘writer’, they can still include their ideas, and contributions and the ‘writer’ can incorporate them as time allows.
  5. There is no need to keep sending emails around – everyone you share your document with has access ALL THE TIME.
  6. All you need is a browser – there are no programs to install. Some people do not have Word, and some students only have access to Word when at school so this frees them to work from anywhere.
  7. Changes to the document are updated in real time – this means that several students can be working on the document simultaneously and all can see what the other is doing.
  8. The identities of those currently editing a document are noted at the top of the screen. This, along with the previous two points frees the students to work anywhere and ANY TIME. Getting together to work as a group need not require physical co-location.
  9. Collaborators can simply look at the timestamp to know if the document has changed, and by who.
  10. The revision history actually logs who did what when, so group members can easily see if someone did what they were supposed to, who is pulling his or her weight and who  is not. This has potentially huge implications for managing group projects in the classroom. For example if a group complains that someone is not doing their share on a report, they can share it with the instructor who then has a means of verifying the claim.
  11. Submitting a report can be as simple as sharing the link. When you click on it, there are no files to download and no applications to launch – just view it in a browser window.
  12. If a student has a question for the instructor, it is also easy for them to share the document or link.

The fun just keeps going….

Part 2B will outline the tutorial I set up to teach the class how to use Goggle Docs and describe how it went.

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