Google Documents (as of early 2015) for Teaching Writing – Part 1

by Shyam Sharmagdocs

I was more impressed when Steve Jobs said that he didn’t let his kids use the iPad than when he called it “magical” while launching it. So, as I share these teaching tips about effectively using Google Docs in this post, I hope that I don’t sound like I have my own type of “technomagicology.” In fact, this post is a follow up to a series of posts that Chris Petty and I wrote on this blog last year, cautioning writing teachers against the pitfalls of requiring students to share (increasingly publicly) the product and process of writing. But I see so many benefits in using Google Docs in the writing classroom that I might sound somewhat superficial.

I’ve split the post into two parts and used sections and subsections for easier reading/skimming. Here’s part 2.

SETTING UP

To ensure that all students learn how to use this required application, I start by helping them create a single Google Docs folder and share the “edit” link to that folder. Students can share the folder either with “anyone with the link in [our university] network” or individually with me and their chosen/assigned peer reviewer. Some students want to limit access to their work so they do the latter. Then they add a file each for all major assignments in their folders; those files have the same access as the folder they are in. I teach students about ownership and control over their documents — view and edit access, potential anxiety about sharing rough drafts, potentially making their ideas public, etc — as issues that are becoming increasingly important in our time.

I copy the folder links and create a navigation panel back on Blackboard for peer reviewers and for myself. For added convenience during grading, I also create a bookmarks folder for each major assignment on my browser.

Because I use Google Docs for writing activities in class, I ask if anyone is unable to bring a laptop to class. I offer to borrow Chromebooks from the office for such students (I haven’t had to do it so far).

The time and hassle of setting up and organization are not enough to make me miss Blackboard’s Assignment, Wiki, or Blog tools. Borrowing laptops for students transforms the class into a collaborative space of a different kind than a computer lab. And the technical setting up and scaffolding activities (which I describe below) have helped the few students who seem to start with some anxiety and resistance quickly overcome those reactions.

noemail

TRACK CHANGES ON SHARED COPY – NO MORE EMAILS!

Especially after the introduction of the “suggesting” mode (which allows track changes), GD has become a powerful tool for both students and teachers in writing courses. Teachers (and peers) can switch to this mode (using the pencil icon on top right) and suggest editing changes directly to text. Writers can “accept” or “reject” the suggestions. In order to discourage students from “accepting” tracked suggestions without thinking through them, I require them to save my suggestions and how they addressed them until the next one-on-one meeting earlier in the semester; as the semester progresses, I encourage them do their best and submit cleaner copies.

Generally, I minimize the use of track changes and instead use marginal comments until drafts have reached the editing stage. One of the exceptions is the introduction paragraph(s), where students often struggle to flesh out their main idea, so I read the entire draft and then go back to suggest direct edits at the level of clauses and sentences.

INSTRUCTOR FEEDBACK—REDEFINING DEADLINES

Basic guidelines are very important when it comes to how I will help, not just what and how I want students to engage in the writing process. For instance, I add the day and time when students can expect to see my next round of feedback to the course schedule on Blackboard landing page. On their part, even though students can develop their drafts offline, they must make revisions (as specified by the assignment) in the assignment file at specified deadlines.

I entertain up to a 24-hour extension for students who request it at the top of their document (“Please read my draft in ___ more hours, #timestamp#”). Interestingly, I haven’t had more than a few students use this opportunity, even when I gave the option of privately emailing me.

So, essentially, the accessibility and collaborative affordances of GD have redefined the idea of deadlines and even that of versions/drafts. Using GD, I am not only able to extend deadlines for the whole class if students, as a class, demand and justify one during class meetings (compared to print submission); I can also start reading some students’ drafts while others are catching up (compared to managing other forms of “submission”). More significantly, I think students are able to focus more on achieving assignment goals than on meeting the deadline. Some students seem to have misunderstood the whole point behind the flexibility, but many more students appreciate my “understanding” (which is made possible by GD).

MORE CONVENIENT AND SUBSTANTIVE TEACHER FEEDBACK

Because of the increased flexibility of submission and convenience for providing feedback, I am now able to require (or allow) up to five drafts for major assignments (instead of three), providing as many rounds of comments (if not more, as needed for individual students). For example, for research paper assignments, students post a “topic, thesis, and plan” in lieu of first draft, to which I provide quick feedback within a day or two. My feedback itself is the reward (instead of grade points) for this kind of midway draft.

The second, required, draft requires an annotated bibliography (with any updates to the topic and plan/outline); I comment on any updated focus and scope of the topic/argument and on the quality and sufficiency of research done. I merge draft 1 and 2 when time is more limited.

The third draft demands a fully fleshed out paper, the fourth requires careful revision for effective framing and focus, and the fifth should be an edited and proofread final copy (which also addresses any pending revision issues).

Interestingly, the total amount of time for providing feedback doesn’t necessarily increase with the number of drafts. The time taken to comment on the plan/outline and annotated sources seems to save time down the road, while also allowing students (and me) to assess their challenges/progress. I only write my comments at the end of the document and don’t go into details or use marginal comments on specific issues.

Even as the drafts develop, because I don’t have to sit down with a stack of papers (or list of downloaded files) that I need to “return,” I don’t have the urge to try to help students “as much as I can” in any sitting. Instead, I can use the distinctive affordances provided by track changes, marginal comments, and even interactive chat (in case of alternative appointments)—as well as the convenience of access—to adapt my feedback to different types of needs and challenges of students. I am also more able to help students with different and unique writing habits.

Sometimes, I do feel like students’ papers follow me home, further blurring the work-life boundary. But I turn this issue into a teaching moment for students (and myself). This is a topic for another post, but basically, I ask students to turn off alerts on their files, to use email judiciously (and not bug me too much with it), and to only expect feedback after my deadlines on the schedule.

I’m hoping that Google will integrate a voice-based commenting feature as a native extension, because add-ons like Kaizena aren’t very convenient to use (I tried, gave up, and stuck to textual comments—using keyboard shortcuts, which save a lot of time).

INTEGRITY, PLAGIARISM, ORIGINALITY

plagiarism

Google Docs not only encourages students and enables the teachers (and peer reviewers) to provide feedback more conveniently and interactively to students’ writing, it also discourages students from trying to bypass the writing process and submit plagiarized work. By promoting students’ agency in, and ownership of, their work, it also encourages them to engage in and learn from the process—rather than try to shortchange their learning by finding a finished product to submit for a grade. It doesn’t mean that every student will engage in the writing process, but even for the unengaged writer, it is much harder to shortchange his or her own learning process.

INCREASED SUCCESS RATE?

I am a techno-skeptic, and I don’t say this lightly, but I think that quite a few students have passed my courses who would might have failed without the flexibility and engagement that Google Docs allows. First, the shared space provided by the tool allows me to better help especially those students who take time to understand the demands of the assignment, students who suffer writer’s block, students who procrastinate and then submit poor writing, students who lack confidence or otherwise need more support, and so on.

Second, I am able to ask students what they mean when I am not sure, as well as to answer their questions. I am able to preview students’ drafts before they come to see me in my office; this helps to make the meeting far more focused and productive (students often come having addressed my feedback, or with questions about them).

Third, especially with early drafts, I take a triage approach to help students who need or ask for more help, more time, or a combination of the two. I notice which students are struggling to develop their topics, arguments, and drafts. When it’s time for students to focus on editing, I can better model how to address issues and ask them to implement the idea in the rest of the draft.

I encourage students to write their request at the top of the document or in the margin (for specific challenges). I also encourage them to reply to my comment when they need to disagree, ask me to clarify, or alert me to look at it again.

Since I switched to Google Doc, I have observed students investing more time and effort in their writing, more conversation in class and in the office, and consequently more frequent and substantive changes in the writing process. I can better show students how to engage in the writing process; I can see how they are doing; and I can help them with it as much as they need and appreciate it.

I will share a few practical activities and strategies from my classroom in a follow-up post.

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About mem13

The world is a rare and colorful and unfathomable place. I hope to capture it here as it looks through the slant of my lens. This is a blog where I write about any- and everything I can think of. Mostly past and present stuff, although if you look closely you'll pick up some prophecies, too (prophecies void in Tennessee). Links to book reviews I've written elsewhere. Once I did a mixed media poem thing. That was cool. The two coolest people I’ve met were Ralph Nader & Chuck D. Chuck praised my threads. Can’t beat that.
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