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Review of Google Docs as Instructional Tool

Video Review

Scope

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.

Context

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.

Function

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).

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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 Office.org. 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.

Caveats

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).

Recommendation

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.

References

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 http://www.google.com/enterprise/apps/education

Google. (ca. 2014b). Google Apps for Education agreement. Retrieved June 7, 2014, from http://www.google.com/apps/intl/en/terms/education_terms.html

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 http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2013/08/31/review-google-apple-decent-contenders-to-office/2723315/

Leonard, W. (2014, May 29). Review: Google Drive leads in features, lags in ease-of-use. InfoWorld. Retrieved June 7, 2014, from http://www.infoworld.com/d/cloud-computing/review-google-drive-leads-in-features-lags-in-ease-of-use-243281

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.