I don’t get into the classroom as much as I’d like to
nowadays, so whenever I get a chance to do some teaching or teacher training, I
like to try out new ideas. Last year, I used a week of teacher training
workshops in Oxford (as part of the ELT Summer Seminar
) to try out using screencast software
to give feedback on writing; see my post about it here
. This year, I used two
lovely groups of teachers on the same course as guinea pigs for using Google
Docs for student writing.
I’ve used Google Docs myself as part of writing projects and
I’ve heard various people talk about how it can be used with students,
especially for collaborative writing. There’s a very good blog post about using Google Docs with EAP students by David Reid
, for example.
Context and task: As the workshops I was leading were on the
theme of teaching writing skills, giving the participants a writing task to
complete themselves, and for me to give feedback on, was an ideal way to
demonstrate some of the practical issues I wanted to discuss. Having learnt
from my experience last year of trying to give screencast feedback to 27
individual trainees within the space of a couple of days (!!), this year I
chose a group writing task. On the first day, we did an activity which involved
a group discussion and as a follow-up I asked each group (of 4 to 5 people) to
write a very brief summary (max 60 words) of the most interesting point to come
out of the discussion. The summary was to be written using Google Docs.
Set-up: I did a quick demo in class just to show what Google
Docs looks like and how it works. I had four groups altogether, across two
classes, so I set up four documents and gave each one a heading plus a simple
rubric. This meant that when the participants reached the document, they knew
they were in the right place.
I then collected their emails and set about sharing the
document for each group with its members. As a newbie to setting up Google
Docs, I wasn’t sure how simple this process was going to be, but actually it
turned out fine. For those with Gmail accounts, it was super simple; I just
added their email addresses to the document using the ‘share’ button and hey
presto, everything connected up beautifully. For those without Gmail accounts,
the process wasn’t quite as smooth, but still wasn’t problematic. In these
cases, I sent them a link to the document which they could click on to access
it. Apparently, they didn’t get an icon with their name and profile picture,
but they still had no problem editing and commenting along with everyone else.
Giving feedback: One of the benefits of Google Docs, beyond
students being able to work collaboratively, is that as the teacher you can go
in and offer feedback at any point. For this task, I checked in to see how
things were going before the deadline I’d set for completing the task. The
first thing I noticed was that all the groups had got carried away and written
way too much, so I was able to leave a comment just reminding them of the word
limit and nudging them back on track. This seemed like a really nice way of
working together with students to help them achieve the best result, rather
than just waiting for them to get it wrong then failing them.
Once the deadline had passed, I went in again and gave more
detailed feedback. On this occasion, I didn’t ask the participants to act on my
feedback, but with a “real” group of students, it could have been the start of
a series of interactive revisions. Again, it’s an opportunity for the teacher
to act more like an editor that an examiner, helping students towards the best
possible final piece of work. (See more of my thoughts on this relationship here.
Drawbacks: My initial concerns about whether everybody would
get on okay with the technology and be able to access the documents turned out
to be unfounded. One feature that we found a little bit frustrating though was
the fact that the comments, which appear in the margin, don’t seem to link up
quite so clearly and obviously with the sections of text they refer to, like
they would in, say, a Word document. The comments seem to jump about, sometimes
switching order when you click on them and just generally being a little bit
Participant reaction: The reaction to the technology was
generally pretty positive and I think it opened up lots of potential ideas for
teaching. What was more interesting, perhaps, was the teachers’ reactions to doing
a group writing task. To be asked to work together with a group of people
you’ve only just met is no easy task! All the groups reported feeling a bit
unsure about how to organize themselves, how to get started and what the
etiquette was for commenting on or editing others’ writing. I think it was a
useful exercise for the teachers in putting themselves in their students’ shoes. Some of the points that came up in the post-task discussion:
- Would it be easier for students who know each other better
(so later in a course)?
- In terms of group dynamics, is it better to let students choose their groups or
for the teacher to ‘engineer’ the groups?
- Would the interaction/dynamics vary depending on the cultural background of the
- Would it be better to give students more guidelines for carrying out the task;
allocating roles and procedures maybe?
- Or alternatively, would setting too many ‘rules’ stifle students’ own critical
thinking and creativity? Is working out how to work together part of the
Overall, the whole thing was a really interesting exercise
and I think Google Docs will now definitely be added to my teaching toolbox.
Labels: ELTSS, feedback, Google Docs, Oxford, teacher training, writing