Google Docs is an online word processor which can be shared with others and edited synchronously. This means its well suited to classroom writing tasks. Once you have got over the initial barrier of learning to set one up inevitable teething problems, it’s a powerful yet simple way to make your in-class writing more engaging, more accessible and more flexible.
Things You Need
A Google account
A bit.ly account
Students need a device (smartphone or tablet and Google Docs app), or a laptop or desktop computer
Once you have a Google account, you will be able to use the vast suite of integrated apps. This includes the online cloud Google Drive, where we start. In order to manage your Docs, it’s best to start by creating a folder in Google Drive for your class. Open the folder then create a new Doc by clicking the plus sign in the top left. Google Docs is an online Word Processor. Go to Google Docs and open a blank Doc.
It's a good idea to rename the Doc now as the automatic save means you will not be asked to name it later. I also usually write down the task instructions at the top of the page then make student/group names so each student/group will have a designated area of the doc to write in.
Sharing your Doc
Click the big blue ‘Share’ button in the top right hand corner and click the ‘get shareable link’ button. A window will pop up. Go to the drop down menu and change the ‘anyone with link can view’ to ‘anyone with link can edit’. Now copy the link.
You will see that URL is very long so to make it more manageable, you can generate a shortened URL. This is where you need a URL shortener. I use bit.ly. Once you’ve created a bit.ly account, sign in and then click the large orange ‘Create’ button in the top right corner.
Paste the link into the box. You will now have a short link. You can customize the back-half (the string of random characters after the ‘/’) to something more memorable or relevant to the task.
I usually copy this short link and paste it at the top of the Doc for convenience but you will always be able to find the link in your list of shortened URLs on your bit.ly account.
If your students will be using their phones or tablets, you need to have them download the Google Docs App before you show them the link to your doc. This is free and does not require any sign up or login. Without the app they will only be able to view the doc and won't be able to write on it. If they will be on desktop computers or laptops, this is not necessary; they will be able to edit after clicking on the pencil symbol.
Next, tell them to type in the shortened URL you created into their browser (for example, Safari, Chrome, Mozilla etc., not Google docs). If they type it correctly, (the link will be case-sensitive) they will be taken directly to your Doc. If they are on a laptop or desktop, the will be able to begin writing after clicking the pencil. If they are on their phones, after clicking the pencil, they will be prompted to open in Google Docs and on opening it, they will be able to begin writing. As they access the Doc, you will see contributors appearing above the tools bar, labelled as various ‘anonymous’ animals.
It is at this stage that you are most likely to encounter problems. You can download these instructions and with some potential problems and solutions here:
During the Task
While the students are working, all you need to do is watch the screen as they write. You don't need to hover behind them and lean over their notebooks as everything is visible on the projector/your screen. As you see issues emerge you can go directly to the student/group to give specific and timely feedback. It's also possible to annotate what students are writing but I have found that the students prefer it if I simply highlight their errors/mistakes and allow them to try changing it first, then following up with face to face feedback.
When you have finished the task, you will have a document containing each student’s/group's work which all the other students can see either on the projector or on their own devices. This is useful for giving specific group and class feedback as you can go directly to examples from the text. You can and edit there are then with the whole class. This doc is also automatically saved into your Google Drive so you can come back to it later in class (the link will still work and students will have continued access through Google Docs) or if you want to share it with other staff as a demonstration of your class work.
Why Do It?
At first sight, this may seem like a great deal of effort and risk just to do writing in class. However, once you are familiar, setting this up is the work of minutes and has a number of advantages over the ‘analogue’ way of doing writing in class.
Ease of reading. Firstly, and not insignificantly, you can easily read students’ writing. This is not just because you do not have to struggle to read their impenetrable handwriting (a genuine problem for me) but also, you do not have to peer over their shoulders or stop them to read their notebooks. From your own device, you can watch them write, read and highlight errors without interrupting their flow.
Feedback is much easier and faster. I have found the best means of giving feedback is simply to highlight errors or mistakes. Students can attempt to correct the error (50% of the time, they know how to) and put their hand up if they don’t know what’s wrong. Students also get immediate feedback on spelling through the spellcheck feature. The ease of feedback means that I can give more feedback than traditional writing formats.
The work is also saved automatically. This means you can return to writings without have students hunt through their notebooks or reams of photocopies and you can also extend writing tasks across several lessons. You and the students have a record of student work which you can use to demonstrate student ability and improvement (or lack their of).
Student Engagement. The increased rate of feedback is perhaps why students seem to engage with this form of writing more than the usual handwritten form. Students may also prefer typing to writing (perhaps because they are not confident or proficient at handwriting, or just familiarity with the form).
Collaborative. Students can all see and write on the same document at the same time. This means students can do genuinely collaborative writing. This avoids the problems of one student dominating group work by being in control of the writing.
Versatility. there are lots of different ways you could exploit Google Docs. My first encounter with Google Docs in a classroom was as a way to get to know other people in the group. The teacher shared a table in a Doc and asked us to upload pictures of and a short description of ourselves. I have also used pictures to provide something for students to write about. Different uses will occur to different teachers and I’m sure there are a wealth of ways to use Google Docs as part of any class.
There will be issues. For some reason some students will not be able to access the doc. This can be for a number of reasons, the main one being that they do not type the URL correctly. Sometimes the issue can be resolved by simply refreshing the page, or closing and reopening the browser. Some students will simply not be able to access it for reasons unknown. The vast majority of students will have no issue and ultimately, as long as there is at least one device between three students the task will work. For the sake of expedience, you may have to convince some students to stop trying to get access and start the task with their partners. If your institution has the resources, another fix is to bring in some extra devices. (For specific technical issues, see the downloadable instructions above)
With the teacher and their devices (and possibly the projector) competing for their attention, some students will understandably be unsure what to do. For this reason is always a good idea to put the task instructions at the top of the Google Doc. It's often a good idea to concept check the instructions before students start doing anything. Another option would be to print out the instructions and hand them out at the beginning.
The students will be anonymous when they are contributing and in some situations, this could be problematic. Students could write rude, offensive or silly things wherever they want but more problematically it is possible to delete what someone else has written. I have experienced one or two instances of this so now, as a precaution, when setting the task, I explain to the students that this is possible and how disruptive it would be. This may not be effective for all classes and you may have to incorporate your own class management techniques to prevent such behaviour.
At the other end of the spectrum, you may have the (usually older) students who struggle with using the technology and as a result might become frustrated or might refuse to participate. These students will need support from other students or you the teacher from the beginning to keep them on board. If you intend to run this type of lesson in the future, it's important to avoid the temptation of doing everything for them or letting more technologically competent students do so.
Implementing a Google Docs writing task for the first time may naturally suffer teething problems and the setup may take more time than you plan for but once you are up and running both you and the students can focus on the task at hand. After the first session, once you and the students are familiar with the setup and technology, implementing writing tasks becomes much easier. Now, when I use Google Docs in my classes, it takes less than two minutes before the students are writing and it has become a normal, unremarkable feature of my class which has substantially improved in-class writing tasks.