Why Google Docs should matter to Schools:

Why Google Docs should matter to Schools:

I wrote this impassioned e-mail in response to a discussion about using Google Docs within our district. You may be able to sense the passion, but I hope it is at least somewhat of a restrained response:

I only know that I have seen and experienced for myself, my students, and for the adults I have worked with closely (in both real and virtual environments), but I thought that I would share a few thoughts.

I do not believe that we should consider Google Docs as a replacement for Word or as a competitor for OpenOffice. It just can’t compete, and I think that telling teachers and students that it is a good replacement for those tools would definitely blow up in our faces.

The only reason why we should be considering Google Docs is because of its collaborative toolset. It isn’t about creating the same thing in a different space, as OpenOffice or StarOffice would be. It is about changing the paradigm of creation. Although having things stored in a cloud is nice becasue you can access them from anywhere, this is something we could do in a decent way when Universal Content Management is up and running.

Although sharing a single document/presentation/spreadsheet and working on it together does not seem like a game changer, my experience has been just the opposite. When I introduce the idea of live-collaboration on documents, both adults and students shift their thinking. They no longer consider doing everything by themselves. They start to have an instinct of clicking on the share button first, even before there are words on the page.

Concretely, when students have access to this tool, they plan their own projects. They are able to own their learning much easier than with trading files and keeping things separate. For example, before I left the classroom, I used to do a National Novel Writing Month project where each student tried to write a novel in one month. We wrote these on google docs and then shared them with one another for commenting. We also had a single document for planning and keeping track of numbers of words (a short novel being 50,000 words). It was a terrific success, but that isn’t what I found valuable. After I left, my kids wanted to do it again the next year. Although they had no class that was asking them to do this, and no formal after school club, they set up the organizing document and started linking their own novels into it. They were able to organize writing a few hundred thousand words simply by having the tool to do so. (Although this may sound like wikis would fit the bill here, but on many occasions, students would use the Google Docs as a defacto meeting place when they were at home or in different parts of the school. They would ask questions of one another and make comments while 3 or more people were looking at the same thing.)

As for adults, the shift comes in when work is actually done. Putting Google Docs (or a similar synchonous collaboration tool) into the mix allows the work to get done in the meeting, rather than after the meetings. It allows for teachers to collaboratively lesson plan. It allows for the best ideas to come together without having to wait until “you do your revision”. To include a real-world example, when our Language Arts department was trying to come together on non-negotiable verbage in the classroom, using a Google Doc allowed us to all put our initial ideas on the white space (including the shy members) and then publicly comment on them. It shifted our conversation from debating words on butcher paper, to actually crafting the best language to use with students.

I know you can all tell that I am pretty passionate about collaboration. However, I also believe in the security of data surrounding that collaboration. If it takes longer to get a Google Docs integration right, so be it. But, I am not interested in having adults or students create in the same ways that they always have. We need to move them forward because these are the tools of the modern workplace. If we are not teaching them to collaborate as an instinct then I’m not sure that we are doing the job we are here to do.

I just want to say thank you to **** for “throwing these things out for discussion”. The best plans I have been a part of are when smart people get together and debate things out. I think that there needs to be a lot more serious discussion on whether or not other collaborative tools could perform the work of Google Docs for sure.


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  1. Hi Ben,
    I’ve been trying Google Docs for a family holiday. We have a calendar that we can all add comments to so we know what everyone else is planning.
    I don’t really like the look of Google Docs and I usually have trouble with formatting when I shift something across from Word.
    I am testing Adobe Buzzwords with a collaborative teacher project. I like that it stores a history of document changes where I don’t think Google Docs does. I also like how with one extra click you can use adobe connect now to meet up with others in a ‘meeting room’ with Web Cam, microphone, screen share and chat capabilities.
    These are great collaborative tools, but it would be great to explore different ways of doing this so students could collaborate in this way without the need for email accounts and registration.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Ben Wilkoff

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Google docs does in fact do revision histories quite well.

    Adobe’s products are really well polished, their platform isn’t nearly as open (sharing features not as universal, and publishing things as web pages doesn’t allow you to share feeds about progress.)

    I don’t think that google docs has a monopoly on collaboration by any means, but to my thinking it is has the lowest ceiling for the uninitiated.
    I can’t dispute that there is no meeting place built into google docs, but adobe connect is not free for massive collaborations. It is like adobe is a “try before you buy” product, whereas google is s try and try and try, and then buy when you need something more (google apps document management, etc). Anyway, thanks for the comment.

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