Google Docs for Classroom Collaboration

I’ve previously introduced Google Documents as an efficient tool to organize and publicize classroom materials to a universal or restricted audience. Here, we’ll see how using Google Docs as a collaborative tool for students enhances engagement and learning.

Sharing the Document with your Students
After creating an empty document — either a text document or spreadsheet or drawing — remember to share the document either universally or with a restricted URL.

As part of that sharing, you will allow others to edit the document as well. Remember — this edit option should only be used for those shared documents you really expect to be modified by others. You would not want to allow editing to your syllabus or reading list, on the other hand.

If you have a mailing list of all your students’ e-mail addresses, you can simply add that list to the sharing permissions. If not, you will need to copy the URL and broadcast that somehow — either in another known document, or in shortened format such as www.bit.ly which is easy to copy by anyone.

Ground Rules

Once you notify your students of the document’s URL, establish your learning expectations with them by clearly articulating what the learning activity entails and how to treat an open document. Simple rules might include

  1. Always identify your own work; this can be done by appending your initial and last name at the end of your addition such as [B Martin]
  2. Remember this is a public forum and all the rules of classroom respect will be observed within the document (here, link to your syllabus comments on classroom respect).
  3. After submitting your own work, remember to come back and review other students’ submissions and comments

These rules, of course, are the same rules you would suggest in any on-line learning environment.

Sample Collaborative Learning Activities

1. Commenting on a standard text. Using the Comment feature (Insert > Comment), students can add their own interactive interpretations or questions to an existing text, such as a historical document, published article, or your own faculty classroom notes. Here, the students will see how other students think while engaging with an actual source text — two critical thinking strategies. By seeing other students’ comments and questions, they also learn from each other while bouncing new ideas that you simply don’t have time to address in the classroom.

2. Group pre-writing. As you use small-group learning strategies, groups can use a space within one class document to pre-write a paper project. I’ve used this several times in my First Year Writing course, where the entire class sees other groups’ pre-writing ideas. Groups begin to become more competitive and can “steal” other groups’ ideas if they are usable.

3. Class note-taking. Here, students add their own notes and comments to other students’ notes for a class session or a module. Called crowd-sourcing, the idea is that the collection of various perspectives on what is important from class time shows different ways of looking at the same problem. Students can then use more creative ways of approaching the same topic or question. Yes, this means that some students will submit notes and other students will not, but the task here is not to grade students on their allegiance to note-taking, but to let students on-line do what they do anyway — copying and discussing their class impressions.

See this discussion of crowd-sourced notes which includes this live example of what can happen when more than one person begins to add ideas to an existing document.
4. Group papers or data sets. Depending on your small group learning project, Google Docs is the perfect way for a group to collaboratively bring their material and revisions to one document. This is far superior to multiple documents being shared across e-mail or flash drives. Revision history is maintained by Google Docs, and with the comment feature, the group can pose questions and reply while tracking their own conversation. The final document can be downloaded as an OpenOffice, Microsoft Office, or PDF file. The document-in-process can be shared with you, so you can monitor and advise as it is being created, revised, and edited.

These are just a few ideas for using the cloud for collaborative learning. Start small, and collect feedback from multiple students — some will have more experience with both group work and cloud documents. All students, however, can learn to use these resources easily and will soon be convinced that crowd-sourcing documents is an effective way to learn and to express learning.

In the comments, please feel free to offer your experience, suggestions, and questions about using Google Docs in your classroom. We’ll respond in comments below, and in future posts.

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