Google Docs is for more than just personal, boring writing: Collaboration in cloud-based writing apps

Writing can be really boring, but is one of the most necessary things in which every person should gain mastery. Over the last 5 years, cloud-based writing services such as Google Docs have turned boring, old word processing on its head, making it much easier to be productive and work collaboratively. How, though, can teachers leverage cloud-based writing apps such as Google Docs to make the most out of writing? You’d be surprised…there’s more to Google Docs than just 12 point font, double spaced text!

I wrote this post in Google Docs — It’s become an important part of my daily workflow!

The beauty of one document

For many new to Google Docs and other cloud-based writing services such as Microsoft Office 365, it’s a surprise to learn that there’s no actual file saved on a disk. Instead, it lives on a server and is accessed via the Internet. In the case of cloud-based writing, there is only one version of your document. The value of only having one document is that this one version can be accessed from many different devices and by many different people simultaneously. In this article, I discuss Google specifically. However, there are many other cloud-based writing and collaboration apps out there, especially for education. A quick google search reveals many apps out there to help students write, collaborate, and develop positive writing skills.

Google has made some significant improvements to Google Docs in recent years. Primarily, you can now work on documents offline, which used to be the primary challenge with cloud-based services. You can open or sync working files to your device when you have an internet connection, and when your computer or mobile device is not connected to the internet, you can still work on the document. Additional improvements include better security and administrative capabilities for sharing documents. The sharing controls are pretty robust and you know when and who accesses certain documents.

In addition, Google Docs makes it easy to reverse documents to previous versions if the group doesn’t like the newest revisions, or someone decides to be a clown and mess up the group’s work. In the cloud, work is rarely lost. Each change becomes an entry on a list from which you can go back and forth on edits.

With these features, cloud-based services give new life to boring old word processing tasks. Tracking changes and versions of documents, or emailing word docs back and forth becomes obsolete with one, single document that an entire team can access. Plus, backups become a redundancy, as the Google Docs app continuously backs up your work.

Thinking about what you can do with Google Docs in the classroom.

As reflected in my previous posts, I like to challenge myself to think about not what a technology does, but instead what activities it will help you do. Thinking in this way helps develop a perspective about the usefulness of specific techs in particular contexts, such as classrooms and personal work. To that end, here are some activities that Google Docs helps facilitate in the classroom:

Same-time group writing

Perhaps the best feature you get with Google Docs is that multiple people can work on the same document at the same time. This really opens the door for collaborative work. Teachers who think of some creative activities for students to do that align with pedagogical principles can really take advantage of synchronous writing. Students can watch in real time as things are typed and provide feedback. Students can each work on separate parts of the document and then share what they did. Groups can negotiate edits to text in real time. Concepts can be explored and defined via the web and “put onto paper” as groups come up with shared definitions and understanding.

Asynchronous group writing

Similar to the synchronous writing capabilities discussed above, asynchronous writing extends opportunities for working together outside of the classroom and expanding classroom time. Even if students are not online together at the same time, they can benefit from others’ participation on compiling a document. Google provides features to show “what’s changed” since the last time a person logged in, which allows for easy catch-up. The same actions for discussing text, arguments and concepts in the context of a written text are facilitated by Google Docs.

Merging individual contributions. In Google Docs, you can either edit text directly or “suggest” changes. Select the “suggest changes” option in the top right corner of the screen when you have multiple collaborators on a document. You can see the revision history of the document in under the “file” menu and by selecting “view revision history.” Individuals’ contributions to the document are color-coded in the document’s history. These contributions can be compared by collaborators, allowing the group to decide what elements to keep and what to discard. This is also a great opportunity to develop shared understanding on concepts, arguments, and writing structure.

Comments and chat window — “a document within the document”

The comments function in Google Docs is a strong tool for collaboration. I like to think of the comments sidebar asthe document within the document, offering a channel for people to discuss the content being written. Comments can be offered on particular sections of text, which are highlighted. Comments can also be made on comments, which allows for side conversations to happen without ruining the original text. When comments are no longer useful, you can mark a comment as resolved, and it disappears from the comments sidebar. All comments, however, are saved in the “comments” button at the top right corner of the screen.

I find myself having full conversations in the comments bar when working with others. The sidebar becomes a document within the document!

Similarly, there is a synchronous live-chat window that can be activated when more than one person are editing a document simultaneously. This chat window can help collaborators organize their work and discuss issues that arise. These tools are really useful to take advantage of!

Notifications on comments and edits

Google Docs provides timely notifications for documents. As activity can be asynchronous, it can be difficult to remember to check back on a document often enough. With G-Docs, you can get notifications sent to your email whenever people do things in a document. This can be anything from minor edits to offering comments on the document. You can also email all collaborators directly with the “email all collaborators” function, which helps improve communication and organization when working on a document together.

Add-ons, plugins, and other apps extend functionality

Google Docs comes with a library of extensions that you can add to the app. These are usually developed by third parties to give users additional functions. Access the library of add-ons by clicking “Add-ons” in the menu bar and selecting “Get add-ons.” Some add-ons are as simple as the ability to insert special characters, to as complex as organizing todo lists and other collaborative tools that don’t come “stock” with Google Docs. Personally, I use add-ons in Google docs to help me insert math equations, special characters, and to format tables in more custom ways. You can also build charts directly in Google Docs using the “chart builder” add on. In addition to add-ons, you can integrate Google Docs with IFTTT, a service that allows you to link apps you use to your docs to automate tasks and provide reminders. The combinations of app integrations on IFTTT are seemingly limitless with Google Docs/Drive and can really improve the experience of users based on their interests. In a previous article, I briefly discussed the value of integrating IFTTT into your personal and classroom workflow, as it can really help organize work. You can check that out for more info.

What do you think?

Let me know what you’re thinking! What are your thoughts on cloud-based writing with tools like Google Docs? Do you have any tricks or special activities with collaborative writing apps that you find helpful for teaching and learning? — tweet me at @jeremyriel! I’m also always on the lookout for cool apps and resources, so if you’d like to drop me a line about what you use related to this post, let me know.

This article was cross-posted on the UIC College of Education Recess Blog on 4–27–2016. This is part of my weekly TechBytes column on short tips for student teachers on thinking pedagogically about digital technologies.