Sunday, 14 November 2010

Using Google Docs in the EFL classroom

This term I made a decision to switch over to Google Docs to deal with all the written assignments my students do. Now, if you are not sure what Google Docs is - and don’t worry, you are not alone, Google doesn’t do the best job in the world to promote it - it’s an online document editor that can replace Microsoft Word if you don’t plan on doing anything too fancy such as inserting complex tables or pictures into your document. 

The basic interface of the Google Docs word processor (click to enlarge)

Let’s be honest though, much of what we do with word processing software isn’t that complex, often it’s just text and I rarely ask my students to do more than that, most of the time they are just submitting text essays.

Now, this term I had about fifty students on a higher level EFL/British culture course and they had to submit weekly learning journals and semi-regular essays. On a similar course last year I had so many problems trying to keep track of all their documents via email: often they would send documents but then not name them, or they would paste their text directly into the email and I had to copy/paste over to Word so I could comment and edit. And then I had to remember to email the document back with the comments on. It became a bit of a logistical nightmare.

Now with Google Docs all this emailing back and forth is largely unnecessary. All you have to do is to create a doc for each student with their name on it, share it with them via email. They then open up the document in their web browser and then any changes that they (or you) make to that doc will immediately appear on it. All you have to do is open it from your Google Docs account and you can see the changes and comment on them. Easy. Also, Google Docs has a half-decent comments facility, so you can highlight portions of the text and make comments in the margin. Nothing like the sophistication of that on Microsoft Word, but  it gets the job done.

a Google Doc with highlighting and comments (click to enlarge)

The one downside of this - apart from the rather rudimentary editing features it offers - is that the whole process of sharing a document seems to be needlessly complicated, particularly if you are trying to share it with a) someone who doesn’t have a Google account and b) doesn’t know that much about computers. Much as I love Google, they don’t have that whole intuitive UI thing down pat like Apple do, and I spend a lot of time walking my students through how to exactly set up a google account, accept the invitation to the document and then be able to view/edit the document online. It shouldn’t be that complicated.

Another thing I’ve found useful with Google Docs is the ability to use it for document storage and folder sharing. I mentioned above that you can share an individual document, but you can also share whole folders. This is particularly useful if a course has a lot of documents (articles/handouts etc) that you want your students to have and you don’t want to constantly keep photocopying the documents or digging them out for absent students. You can just share the whole folder with an individual or group via email invite and then they have access to all the documents. And it doesn’t matter if the document wasn’t created in Google Docs, since you can easily upload Microsoft Word, PDFs, or files of any other format to be stored in the online folder. You automatically get 1GB of free storage and you can increase that by paying a small amount of money every year (I pay about £3 for an extra 20GB).

Example of folder and different file types in it

Oh, and Google docs is excellent for creating surveys and questionnaires. Within Google docs there is a section called Google Forms and here you can easily create surveys that can then be either embedded in a webpage or sent as an email. When they are sent as an email, they survey itself is actually in the email so students only have to fill it out and press submit. I’ve found this really useful for getting feedback from students at the end of a chapter/topic/course.

Example of student survey

And the results are automatically collated into a spreadsheet for easy access. I know sites such as Survey Monkey do something similar, but for me it’s much easier if this can all be done from one place rather than having to use different sites for different things.

survey results collated into spreadsheet

Using Google Docs on mobile

Another main reason for switching over to Google Docs is the ability to view and (possibly) edit students’ documents on either my mobile phone or my ipad. I spend quite a bit of time on busses and trams travelling to and from work and I thought I could use that time by checking on students’ work, maybe even responding to what they’ve written.

Google do provide a fairly easy way to view Docs on your mobile device. You can just access them through the mobile web pages google provide. I find this useful if I just want to quickly check if students have submitted their essays or to have a quick skim through of what they have written.

Viewing Google Docs on a mobile phone

Editing Google Docs is less straightforward or cheap. Google haven't yet enabled editing on mobiles, not even on ipad, but it is supposed to be coming soon. You need to find a third party application to do this, normally part of a larger word processing package like Quick Office or Documents to Go, both of which are pretty pricey on both mobiles and ipad. In the end I chose Documents to Go as it had better bluetooth keyboard support on the ipad and seemed to handle tables much better (though neither of them handle tables terribly well).

Documents to Go on my Android mobile phone with options

I do actually edit Google docs on my phone, particularly making short comments on students journals and I use them on the ipad to make notes on trainees lessons during CELTA observations. These editing apps are even more limited than the online versions, some very basic formatting is possible (underline, font changes, bullets etc) but no ability to add margin comments or anything like that.

Documents to Go on the ipad with formatting options

There are certainly other uses of Google Docs. The one obvious use that I haven't really had a chance to experiment with is collaborative document editing. Students could share documents among themselves and work on texts together, or it could be a way to encourage peer correction among students. There is a chat facility that enables you to talk with your collaborator while editing the document.

Overall, I’ve found using Google Docs has really streamlined my (e)paper trail. At times last year with email it felt no better than having the students hand in work on paper and then constantly keeping track of where I’d physically left them. With Docs I always know exactly where everything is. It certainly can’t completely replace a dedicated offline editing programme like Microsoft Word - the functionality is still too limited, especially when it comes to inserting things like tables - but if you are working mainly with text, then it can do a pretty damn good job.