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Review of Google Docs as Instructional Tool

Video Review


Google Apps for Education is a suite of cloud-based applications provided free of charge to educational institutions for their students and faculty. Among the applications are Gmail (email), Docs (word processing), Drive (cloud-based storage), Site (web pages), Slides (presentations), Sheets (spreadsheets), and Calendar (Google, ca. 2014a). This review addresses the individual and collaborative composing affordances of Google Docs and the group sharing affordances of folders in Google Drive. While Google Docs and Google Drive are free-standing applications available to anyone with a Google account, this review focuses specifically on the tools as part of Google Apps for Education.


Google and campus IT departments collaborate to install Google Apps for Education to become students’ (and optionally, faculty’s) default email and file-sharing applications. The Google Apps for Education benefits page insists that, when installed, “Your data belongs to you” (Google, ca. 2014a.) Closer reading of the Google Apps for Education Agreement indicates that data are stored on Google servers that are not necessarily on U.S. territory, and that location of the storage facility itself is not determined by the campus IT department (Google, ca. 2014b). Campus decisions to implement Google Apps for Education are fraught with competing issues of price (free) and convenience (very) pitted against data access, location, and institutional control.

Campuses that elect to install Google Apps for Education make available the free suite of applications to their students. Email addresses are tied to the campus student information system (e.g. Banner or PeopleSoft) and used as Google Accounts to provide access to the applications. File sharing services that may originally have been handled by on-site servers (like a shared drive) transition to cloud-based Google Drive, with free accounts providing gigabytes of data storage per account.


As Google’s cloud-based word processor, Google Docs is deeply integrated into Google Drive; Google Docs is among native applications available in Google Drive when creating a new file (other applications include Presentation, Spreadsheet, Form, and Drawing; see Figure 1).

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 4.13.49 PM

Figure 1: Native applications available in Google Drive. Screen capture of ODU Google Drive interface.

As a word processing application, Google Docs uses a relatively familiar interface that resembles locally-installed applications like Microsoft Word or Familiar menu items and icons represent standard functions, and the on-screen layout represents the printable surface of the document, complete with margins and page borders (see Figure 2).

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Figure 2: Google Docs interface resembles standard application interfaces. Screen capture of an untitled document in ODU Google Docs.

Google Docs’ print output features don’t match those of stand-alone  applications like Microsoft Word. Such limitations are well documented (Jesdanun, 2013; Leonard, 2014); among them are limited header and footer formatting (important for academic assignments), limited table of contents, and limited pagination options. Since Google Docs is web-based, its functions are limited to standard or proprietary HTML affordances.

Beyond print output constraints, Google Docs is a capable, easy-to-use, free word processor. It affords standard functions like copy, cut, and paste, font styling, list numbering, tab defining, and much more. It functions as a drag-and-drop application: images, videos, and other media files are easily added to the Google Doc either by selecting a file or by dragging it into the document. Because its interface resembles most stand-alone application interfaces, newcomers to Google Docs can quickly start creating documents.

Google Docs in the Classroom

Google Docs excels in sharing and collaboration. Files are easily shared from within the document using the upper-right “Share” button (see Figure 2) with the public, with members of the institution, or with specific individuals using an email address. Since a free Google Account can be tied to any email address, anyone with an email address can access a Google Doc. Google Drive affords customized group and individual sharing and permissions at the folder and file levels, so entire folders of Google Docs (and other files within a folder) can both inherit parent folder permissions or have custom permissions set.

Sharing a Google Doc means that those given appropriate permissions may access and edit the file simultaneously. Simultaneous access and editing gives Google Docs a clear advantage over other word processors. Microsoft Word, for example, can share files and track changes, but only a single user may access the file at a given time. Google Docs tracks every change made by every user, and every change can be undone by rolling the file back to any previous state. The document is saved automatically after every change as long as stable internet access is available, so there is little concern about losing data as a result of unsaved changes.

Google Docs affords unlimited commentary on highlighted text passages, and comments can be threaded to at least one level in subsequent responses. Comments can also be marked as resolved, an action that clears the on-screen comment thread but saves the entire comment text for access as needed. Users can respond to comments asynchronously or in real time during a composing session. In addition, synchronous in-document chat is available, meaning users can “text” one another as they work together on a document. The combination of collaborative tools makes Google Docs and Google Drive a versatile tool that affords group composing activities in synchronous and asynchronous contexts.


As noted earlier, an institution’s decision to enter into an agreement to offer Google Apps for Education is fraught with questions of participant agency and data ownership. Even before a teacher makes decisions about using Google Docs for collaboration and composing, institutional administrators should recognize confluences that require cross-disciplinary and cross-departmental discourses involving IT departments, curriculum specialists, teachers, administrators, and students. All of these stakeholders in a distributed learning implementation should be encouraged to contribute to an ongoing conversation about best practices and lessons learned via implementation (Neff & Whithaus, 2008). And once the institution implements Google Apps for Education, the implications to students in the context of the class should be considered and communicated in the syllabus.

Google is a for-profit multinational corporation whose ultimate goal is to generate profits for its stockholders. Entering into a business relationship with Google has costs that may not appear in institutional accounting spreadsheets, but will emerge in terms of power relationships between Google and the institution regarding data ownership, location, and access. More directly, as DePew and Lettner-Rust (2009) point out, asking students to use any technology inherently “shapes the power relationship between instructors and students[;] interfaces cannot be perceived as neutral or innocent” (p. 175). The goal of the decision to bind one’s institution to Google for its services and one’s students to Google Docs for its affordances should be one and the same: to empower end-users to make pedagogy-driven decisions about course content that are complemented by affordances of the technology tool (Hewett, forthcoming; Cook, 2005; Hantula & Pawlowicz, 2004).


The decision to use Google Docs in the classroom should support the learning outcomes of the course. For online writing teachers, those outcomes include creating communities of inquiry that integrate cognitive, social, and teaching presence (Garrison & Vaughan, 2007); providing low-stakes student-centered composing opportunities and engaging student and instructor feedback (Warnock, 2009); reinforcing “critical and liberatory pedagogies” (Reilly & Williams, 2006, p. 59); and teaching and exemplifying meta cognitive reflection on the technologies themselves as applied rhetoric (DePew, forthcoming). Google Docs and Google Drive, as applications in Google Apps for Education, support these outcomes.

Sharing folders and files supports the creation of a composing community focused on a common subject or object of inquiry. The teacher can create the shared environment using shared folders and a scaffolded writing assignment that requires file sharing among groups and associated feedback written work.

The comments feature in Google Docs affords rich commentary and meta-commentary from students and teachers alike throughout the composing process, from low-stakes feedback in invention, drafting, peer review, and revision, to formal assessment from the instructor. Comments afford multi-way conversations that empower students to respond to peer and teacher feedback.

Teachers can use Google Docs to reflect on the affordances and constraints of the technologies. By using the very technology they are assigned to critique, rich conversations about power politics, accessibility, availability, and other critical approaches can emerge and be facilitated by a trained, engaged teacher. More directly, Google Docs, like any other ICT in OWI, is both an object of critical analysis and a functional technology. As such, it affords opportunities to encourage students and teachers alike to practice applied rhetoric. And with the backing of the corporate behemoth that is Google, Google Docs provides a remarkably rich object of critical analysis and represents DePew’s (forthcoming) “pivot point where function and rhetoric merge” (n.p.).

As a result, I recommend that teachers in both OWI and f2f environments consider incorporating Google Docs in their classes as a free and capable word processor and a highly collaborative, student-focused composing tool that functions as both medium for collaboration and assessment and object of rhetorical study.


Cook, K. C. (2005). An argument for pedagogy-driven online education. In K. C. Cook & K. Grant-Davie (eds.), Online education: Global questions, local answers. Farmingdale, NY: Baywood Publishers. Baywood’s Technical Communications Series

DePew, K. E. (Forthcoming). Preparing instructors and students for the rhetoricity of OWI Technologies. In B. L. Hewett & K. E. DePew (eds.), Foundational practices of online writing instruction. Manuscript in publication

Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. D. (2007). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines, (3-30). San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Google. (ca. 2014a). Google Apps for Education. Retrieved June 5, 2014, from

Google. (ca. 2014b). Google Apps for Education agreement. Retrieved June 7, 2014, from

Hantula, D. A., & Pawlowicz, D. M. (2004). Education mirrors industry: On the not-so surprising rise of internet distance learning. In D. Monolescu, C. Schifter, & L. Greenwood (eds.), The distance education evolution: Issues and case studies (142-162). Hershey, PA: Information Science Pub.

Hewett, B. L. (Forthcoming). Foundational principles that ground OWI. In B. L. Hewett & K. E. DePew (eds.), Foundational practices of online writing instruction. Manuscript in publication

Jesdanun, A. (2013, August 31). Review: Google Docs vs. Apple iWork vs. Office. USA Today. Retrieved June 6, 2014, from

Leonard, W. (2014, May 29). Review: Google Drive leads in features, lags in ease-of-use. InfoWorld. Retrieved June 7, 2014, from

Neff, J. M., & Whithaus, C. (2008). Writing across distances & disciplines: Research and pedagogy in distributed learning. New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Reilly, C. A., & Williams, J. J. (2006). The price of free software: Labor, ethics, and context in distance education. Computers and Composition, 23(1), 68-90. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2005.12.001

Warnock, S. (2009). Teaching writing online: How & why. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Ecology of a Conference


For this post, I’ll be analyzing the 4Cs conference in terms of ecology and distributed cognition. My conference experience this year involved multiple settings, as the main conference was at the JW Marriott, the IWCA Collaborative was at the Hyatt Regency, and my hotel was the Hampton Inn at exit 103, about a twenty minute  drive each day (except on Friday when parking turned out to be a nightmare and I drove around the city for almost an hour).

The IWCA Collaborative at the Hyatt is a mini conference on the Wednesday of 4Cs. In addition to concurrent sessions, the collaborative also offered an opening breakfast, a luncheon, and a reception for attendees. Spaces of the conference included the large ballroom for meals, meeting rooms for sessions, a boardroom for a “quiet space,” a meeting room for space planning, and (attempted) gender-neutral bathrooms–in addition to all of the non-conference spaces surrounding the designated spaces: a food atrium downstairs, other meeting rooms being used by a STEM conference, hotel rooms, and the  offices for those working in the PNC Convention Center that is connected to the Hyatt.

4Cs at the JW Marriott was a much larger conference, encompassing a substantial portion of the hotel’s meeting spaces. Like the Collaborative, 4Cs used meeting rooms for concurrent sessions as well as the ballrooms for featured sessions and speakers. The ballrooms also served for reception spaces, registration, and book exhibits. The large halls offered spaces for digital and non-digital poster sessions and socializing. Additionally, non-designated conference spaces became part of the conference as attendees took advantage of them: Starbucks, the Velocity sports bar, and the lobby (additional spaces also served for those who stayed at the JW Marriott, such as the rooms and the fitness center).

Mapping the Distributed Cognition

Because there were so many spaces and activities, I’m going to narrow my discussion down to a simply one: attending a session. As Bateson explains, a behavior is a complete circuit that includes both the person and the environment, so I’ll begin with specific behaviors and analyze how the environment is a component of them.

By “attending” a session, I mean not only being present in the session but also all of the complexities that define someone as attendant to the events and dialogue occurring in the session. Attendees who are attendant to the sessions are engaged and gaining something as a result of being in attendance (learning something, questioning existing ideas, offering ideas that help shape the session for everyone). Session boundaries are drawn in several ways: arbitrarily by conference organizers according to the presentation titles and descriptions and physically by the walls and doors of the designated rooms for these spaces.

Conference Program: Conference attendees perceive the arbitrary boundaries through the physical (or digital) copy of the program and decide which sessions to attend based on titles and speakers. In this way, the conference program serves as what Norman labels a perceived affordance–the design of the program and descriptions allow attendees to perceive that they can attend a session. Disciplinary jargon and session titles follow cultural conventions, acting as primary indicators for the perceived affordance of attendance–that is, session attendees perceive the level to which they can be engaged in the session based on the jargon and organization of each session as described in the program. If presenters’ presentations do not match the attendees’ expectations, then their level of engagement or attendance could be reduced.

Physical Spaces: While seemingly straightforward with its traditional structure (again, cultural conventions) of chairs for attendees, chairs and tables for presenters, and technology for presenting, the session environment allows for a complex series of understanding and interaction.  Beyond the affordances of sitting, standing, and demonstrating offered by the chairs, floors, and technology in the room, the arrangement allows attendees to perceive social roles and adhere to social expectations (or not). Upon walking into a room, attendees are able to distinguish between presenters and other attendees based on their choice of seating. The facing of presenters’ seats to attendees’ seats affords conversation while distinguishing presenters as the leaders of the discussions. In this way, the structure of the room also creates perceived constraints (Norman) for attendees: the ability to engage only when allowed by presenters.

Technology: There are multiple technologies in each session room that afford the displaying and receiving of information that either engages or disengages both presenters and attendees. Laptops for both groups afford the offloading of information. For presenters, they can use their laptops to display information in such a way that they don’t forget their points or to illustrate concepts to the audience. Attendees can use their laptops (or other devices such as tablets or notepads) to take notes rather than trying to remember all of the points of the presentations and ideas they have during.
The full affordances of the technology are dependent on the users’ familiarity and comfort in using the devices. While they are likely (but not necessarily) familiar with their own devices, the technology of the room often creates constraints. For instances, if the room’s projector doesn’t connect with the presentation device, the presentation is constrained to verbal delivery. Additionally, lack of access to the Internet proved to be a constraint for many of the presenters whose presentations had been designed with Internet access in mind. Finally, the layout of the room in relation to the technology provided both affordances and constraints for full attendance. While the lights were dimmable to enable better viewing for attendees, the placement of the display screen next to the presenters’ table made it difficult for both the presenter and his or her copresenters to see the visual components.

Other People: The final component in the session environment is the people. The levels of experience and the simultaneous similarity and diversity of knowledge amongst the group affords discussions of concepts and ideas. Presenters afford attendees points for discussion that, hopefully, engage learning and growth for all of the people present. The attendees afford the presenters an opportunity for feedback and questions that challenge or expand upon their own ideas. Time constraints, however, limit presenters’ ability to fully explain their arguments, thereby also potentially limiting the discussion or attendees’ full attendance to the presentation.

Examining a conference session takes us beyond Gibson’s description of affordances to Bateson’s ecology of Mind and Norman’s perceived affordances. Perceiving that a chair affords sitting and that a presenters’ afford information doesn’t fully encompass the cognitive activities taking place. The full experience of a session is a complex integration of human and environmental factors only briefly described above. Looking at it in this way, it’s easier to understand Bateson’s point about examining a system by including all of its pathways. To separate, or cut off, one of the pathways included above would exclude a key piece of the system.


Bateson, G. (1987). Form, substance, and difference. Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology (pp. 454-471). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc.

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The theory of affordances. The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Norman, D. (n.d.). Affordances and design, Retreived from