How to Use Google Docs for Collaborative Writing in Class

How to: Use Google Docs for Collaborative

What You Need: A Google account, a computer in class, and (ideally) a projector.
What your students need: a device (a smartphone, a tablet or laptop, desktop computer) each or at least one between three; The Google Docs App if using a tablet or a smartphone.


Before the class

Creating a Doc

Once you have a Google account, you will be able to use the vast suite of integrated apps. Google Docs is an online Word Processor. Go to Google Docs and open a blank Doc.

Finding Google Docs

Finding Google Docs

Inkedgoogle docs title_LI.jpg

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 group titles so each group will have a designated area of the doc to write in.

Sharing your Doc

Click the share button in the top right hand corner and click get shareable link. 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’. Copy the link. You will see that URL is very long so to make it more manageable, you can generate a short URL. In your browser, search ‘Google shortener’. Paste in the link and it will generate a unique short link. I usually copy and paste this at the top of the Google Doc so all the students can see it on the projector.

Sharing your Doc

Sharing your Doc

Shortening the link

Shortening the link


Pre-Task Setup

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 (not Google docs). If they type it correctly, they will be taken directly to your doc and be able write there.
Assign your groups a number so they know where they should be writing. This is also useful for the teacher to see which group is writing what, as contributors will be anonymous. As they access the Doc, you will see contributors appearing above the tools bar, labelled as various ‘anonymous’ animals.

Collaborators will appear here

Collaborators will appear 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 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 the teacher to come round and give feedback face to face. You can highlight sections for delayed class feedback as they come up.

Post Task

When you have finished the task, you will have a document containing each 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) or if you want to share it with other staff as a demonstration of your class work.

Why Do It?

All of this may seem like a great deal of effort essentially just to get the students to work together. Firstly, once you and the students are familiar with Google Docs, setting up a collaborative writing session is the work of a few minutes: create, share, write, feedback. Secondly, the ability to see what all the students are producing in real time, the ability of students to edit their own work and see the work of others as they write, the ease of giving specific and class feedback and the fact that any student production is automatically saved, make any teething problems worth the initial outlay in effort and hassle.

Potential Issues

Technical issues

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 (there are no spaces, it is case sensitive, it needs to be typed into the address bar). 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 expediance, 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.

Task Setting

With the teacher, the projector and their devices 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 and make them visible on the projector. 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.

Behaviour Issues

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 not had these issues but 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.

Be Patient

Implementing a Google Docs collaborative 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 collaborative 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.