Getting kids to collaborate with Google Docs

Image: Martin Lafrance
Image: Martin Lafrance

I’ve been a fan of Google Docs for some time now, although migrating to it has been slow. For the past few years with our 1:1 iPad initiative. my workflow has consisted of administering Dropbox links of PDF files to students via JupiterEd, and then having them open those files in Notability.  This is actually how the majority of the teachers at my site give access to classwork, although they may be using some other cloud service or uploading files to JupiterEd. We also have a few teachers with their own websites and post their work there.

The few times that I’ve used Google Docs in my class it’s been messy. Having students share the doc with their group members took forever, they would initially write gibberish and capriciously delete everyone’s work, and there was no capability to add tables or images. While I loved the collaborative nature of it, I put it off to the side until Google improved its app for iOS so that I wouldn’t have to spend the class period troubleshooting it.

They FINALLY delivered.

That’s not to say that they JUST recently updated their features to include adding tables and images, but I’ve only been aware of it this past school year. I decided to take the plunge again and have my students use it for group work. If it didn’t work as I’d hoped, then I could easily use Notability as a contingency plan. It seemed worth the risk if it meant having an app that allowed true synchronous collaboration!

The test run

I tested this out with a group essay.

  • I created a practice Performance Task for them, complete with visuals, data, articles, constructed response questions, and a writing prompt.
  • The students read, annotated, and answered the constructed response questions on their own.
  • They wrote the outline and selected the evidence as a group.
  • Finally, they composed the essay together in a shared Google Doc.

What it looks like when students are collaborating in Google docs

If you haven’t had students share a Google Doc with each other, or if you haven’t had a chance to try it out yourself, you’re in for a treat! The students find that it’s a mixture of fun and frustrating, although it certainly takes some compromise and teamwork to accomplish the task!

Here’s a video of me collaborating with….myself. Just for the sake of showing you what it looks like!

Monitoring participation

One of the key elements that I insisted upon was having each group share their Google Doc with me. I learned about this from Alice Keeler via Twitter.  The basic steps are:

  • Click on the three dots in the upper right-hand corner
  • Share and export
  • Share
  • Type in my email address

This sends me an email with an invitation to join the Doc. Alternatively, they can Copy the link to their clipboard and email the link to me. I would just ask them to change the permissions from “Can View” to “Can Edit” so that I could offer feedback as needed.  Once I was in, I could see who was and wasn’t working, as well as give them real-time feedback on their progress.

Does this guarantee that EVERYBODY will work ALL of the time? Of course not. However, those students who slouch in their seat and do nothing were held more accountable than before. I could actually see who was typing and when, since each students has a different colored cursor with their username attached to it. Therefore if someone’s name was missing or their cursor stayed in one spot, I could have a discussion with them about participating.

This works for more than just Google Docs

Did you know that this works with Google Slides AND Google Sheets? I’ve actually collaborated on all three, with amazing results. You know I’m going to follow up in future posts about THOSE tools!

If you’ve been hemming and hawing about using this, I URGE you to test out its prowess and see it in action!

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