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Google Docs and Composition Instruction

My handwriting is poor. For years I have joked that I can get away with this because I'm a doctor.  And I have absolutely no trouble reading my own brand of shorthand. What's the problem? As a writing teacher, I am always commenting on my students' texts, mostly in marginal notes on papers and in an end comment letter. I work very hard to write legibly on my students' texts. But the fact remains that my poor handwriting always makes its way into those comments. I offer a translation "service" to my students when I hand back papers and dedicate class time to a reading of my comments before we work to put common writing challenges on the board. And over the term my students do become better interpreters of my shorthand.

Commenting on student texts has always seemed more personalized when I'm hunched over a desk with a pencil in hand, making decisions about where and when to mark the text. And space limitations of the margins help reduce the likelihood that I'll overwhelm the student with feedback, though that's always a real possibility.

Back around 2001, when I taught freshman writing as an asynchronous online course, I experimented with digital markup using Acrobat. I found it time consuming and clunky, and while I could write more text quite quickly - and legibly - I disliked the distance the process put between the printed page and myself.

MS Word's comment tools and track changes have always bugged me for some reason. Perhaps it's the ease with which one can simply "accept all changes," effectively allowing a student to let me revise the paper. (I feel this way even though I almost never actually rephrase or rewrite a student's sentence.) This is already a challenge in teaching revision: students often revise only those moments we mark in a text, thinking that will "fix" the paper.

Strange. For all I've done to embrace emergent digital writing technologies over the last dozen years, I have resisted what is perhaps the most basic tool the writing teacher might adopt in working with student texts. Until now.

Enter Google Docs

I feel like a luddite for not getting serious with Google Docs. My institution uses Google Apps for Education, effectively putting all of my students on the Google network. This is quite exciting for a number of reasons that go way beyond Docs. But that's another story.

Students write their papers directly into a Doc they create on their account, copy-paste a text document from their computer into a Doc, or upload a text doc to Docs. Once they have the paper appropriately formatted (double-spaced, block quotes, page numbers, etc.), they "share" the document with me. I comment on the document and they get immediate feedback.

It's a bit like MS Office, making it less than beautiful, only I don't need to have the files on my machine or worry about file compatibility. (Until this term, I regularly received attachments in .pages, .doc, .docx, .txt, .odt, and even - yes - .wpd formats.) I have four different word processing programs on my computer so that I can handle this variety!

I do have an issue with "shared" documents and marking texts. The real-time nature of Docs means that my comments show up immediately. I prefer to distribute final, marked papers at the same time, particularly since it can take several days to work through a (virtual) stack of papers. The workaround I'm using involves copying the shared document, pasting it into a new document I own, and making my comments. I can then share the comments to each student at roughly the same time.

Peer Review

More important than the way this tool enables me to comment on texts is its potential in the peer review process.  My approach to peer review has always involved in-class reading and discussion of student texts. Everyone brings multiple copies, small groups do read-arounds and discuss each text in the group, and I sit in on groups to offer guidance and encouragement.

New this term, I'm putting the reading of drafts onto homework, with the class period reserved for discussion of the ideas and suggestions for revision. Students share their draft Doc with designated peers; commenting happens on the Doc.

I can quickly and easily see the character of the students' comments, flag and echo some of the best comments by peers, and add my own to the mix. Gone are the days when I would have to collect 3 copies of a draft to see the "layers" of peer feedback on a student's text, or rely on some other elaborate, paper-heavy mechanism to evaluate the peer review in my classes.

I do worry that the marked document may overwhelm novice writers who can easily become overwhelmed by the quantity of feedback on a single document. (It would be very, very cool if the author could choose to view one set of comments or another.)

Problem - MS Office is Inescapable

In terms of workflow, I have found that the current version of Docs is very limiting when one wants to print comments. Print your Doc and the comments get stripped out before printing. Docs has a full portfolio of export/download options (.doc, .pdf, .html, and more). But only .doc preserves the comments though the export. Frankly, this stinks to high heaven!

Here's the workflow:

  1. Open Doc with comments that you want to print to bring to class, perhaps to reduce laptop multi-tasking during peer review.
  2. Download .doc file to computer. Open in Word, Pages, Open Office, or another editor. Print.
  3. Bring to class.

This approach isn't too cumbersome if you're only printing one Doc. Now multiply the process by 20, 40, 60 to hand back papers with comments.

The writing teacher has already spent 15-30 minutes marking each text. Putting two steps between "desire to print" and "actual print" seems ridiculous. And I'm not sure what technical hurdle would prevent comments from printing. I'm sure Google will address this in some upcoming update.

In an online or hybrid/blended writing course, I can see Docs as a wonderful tool. Printed text becomes irrelevant in an online environment.