Teaching Writing with Google Docs

Keith Hamon
Keith Hamon teaches college writing and literature in West Palm Beach, Florida. Keith is keenly interested in connectivism and rhizomatic education, and exploring the rhizome through MOOCs.

One of the key results of flipping my writing and literature classes has been that my students do much of their writing in-class on computers provided by the college. All of these computers have Microsoft Word on them, but I prefer to use Google Docs/Drive instead. Given that MS Word is the standard word processor for my college and most of the rest of the world, then this preference may require some defence. After all, my colleagues expect all of their papers to be submitted in doc or docx format, and my students are most familiar with Word, so what are the benefits of Google Docs that make it worth swimming against the tide?

Google Logo

Why Google Docs?

First, Google Docs can do the job. It is not as feature-rich as MS Word, which is the Swiss Army knife of text production, but GDocs has all of the features that I require. Indeed, I find GDocs’ neat, clean, clear subset of features to be a welcome relief from the crowded swarm of features in MS Word, most of which neither my students nor I ever use. My career-oriented college requires APA (American Psychological Association) style for all academic papers, and Google Docs can handle that.

But if Google Docs can only do what MS Word already does, then the switch would not be worth it. Fortunately, GDocs can do so much more—things that fit quite nicely into my flipped, just-in-time, technology enabled classrooms.

 

Sharing

The first truly huge advantage has to do with sharing. My students don’t submit papers, they share documents. Big difference.

But the sharing doesn’t start there. I first share with them. I share the assignment, the sample document, and a template for each assigned writing. I don’t give them paper, and I don’t attach Word files to an email. Rather, I share each online document with their Google accounts, and they have almost instant access to the documents from any network connected Mac, PC, tablet, or smartphone.

Their first task, almost always completed in-class when they receive the assignment, is to create a shell for their documents and to share them with me and with their peer-review group. Their writing processes begin with connecting to support groups, all of which include me. Collaboration and peer-editing is built into their documents from the ground up, and I find that particularly productive and much easier to do with GDocs than with MS Word.

This is a key feature of using GDocs rather than MS Word: my students share their documents  at the very beginning of the writing process, they do not submit a paper at the very end of the writing process. Thus, I am engaged with their writing much earlier when both I and their peers can be of real help to them. My students learn about writing mostly as they are writing. They learn very little from a failing grade, except that they can’t write. That isn’t the lesson I’m trying to teach.

 

My students learn about writing as they are writing. They learn very little from a failing grade.


 

Because I have access to their documents so early, I learn much more about my students’ writing and the issues that they need to overcome. This positions me for better teaching. It positions the students for better learning. That’s a win-win.

 

Plagiarism

Then, because I’m involved in the writing process so early, I almost never have an issue with plagiarism, which seems to plague the rest of my profession. I can see why. A paper is so opaque, and by design. Unfortunately, though, a teacher cannot peer easily into a printed paper to see the writing process behind all those black words on white paper. With the magic of Google Docs, I can see through the text all the way back to the beginning, because through its Revision History feature, GDocs tracks and preserves all edits to a document. It even color codes the changes and stamps the date, time, and identity of the writer. At all times, I can tell who did what, where, and when in any document. I show this to my students at the beginning, not as a warning, but to let them know that all our interactions with the text, including mine, are transparent. This transparency stops most of the issues with plagiarism.

Google Docs Revision History

 

Peer-editing

So GDocs are shared early and thereby rendered transparent. These are great advantages that are difficult to achieve with MS Word, but there is more. Because these are shared documents, I find it much easier to build peer-editing groups. Students are not swapping or emailing papers with each other. They share. Moreover, GDocs gives each student great control over how they share a document. For instance, a student can give her peers only Comment privileges, which allows them to make comments on the document but not make any changes or share it with others. This teaches my students useful 21st century literacy skills, which include awareness of security and privacy issues. That’s useful.

 

Research

This easy connection to others is neatly complemented by easy connection to information. GDocs are part of Google, and Google connects more people to more information than anyone else in history. As you might expect, Google Research is built right into GDocs. Highlighting a search term in a GDoc and clicking Tools > Research opens a search tray to the right of the document window that displays web pages related to the search term. Moreover, GDocs can focus the search so that it displays only results from Google Scholar, which should be acceptable to most any college professor. Research really couldn’t be much easier, and while I still teach and expect the use of libraries, I know that most information is moving to the Net, so that’s where I expect my students to get most of their information.

Google Research

 

So sharing and research are big plusses for me, but my students seem most impressed with the ease of use and ubiquitous access of GDocs. First, GDocs saves everything. Always. I’m composing this blog post on GDocs, and I haven’t saved it once. Google saves it. And I don’t have to carry it around on a thumb drive or worry about a sudden disruption in power. Google has it, and I can get back to it from any computer, tablet, or smartphone. I have Google Docs on my iPhone, and many of my students do at least some of their writing and editing through their own smartphones. My students are always connected, so GDocs makes great sense to them.

I, of course, still use Microsoft Word from time to time, but I am using it less and less. For me, the difference between Google Docs and Microsoft Word lies in pedigree. MS Word was created for stand-alone personal computers for the purpose of creating paper documents. It still works that way. GDocs, on the other hand, was created for networked computers to generate documents that might be printed but are more likely to be shared over the network. GDocs is connected to the vast resources of the Net from the ground up, MS Word is not. And that makes all the difference, as my students compose and share networked documents—they don’t write, print, and submit papers.

 

Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Mike Knell.