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Google Docs: (Still) Not Ready for Primetime

Last year I embraced Google Docs for student peer review and document submission in composition courses. I've been pleased with the way the sharing of documents helps me better track and support the peer review process in my writing classes. Peer review reading/marking becomes homework, class time is spent on discussing revision options, and everyone involved can see the comments as they emerge. And the addition of offline commenting and access through Google Drive really enables me to do my own commenting even when I lack internet access. All good!

But I remain flummoxed by the print limitations embedded within the app. I cannot understand why Google has not implemented a "print with comments" feature for its tool.  I worked around that problem in Spring 2012, but I really expected Google to add the feature by now. Amazing that Google Docs drives users through MS to make full use of a central feature of its tool.

How to print a Google Doc with comments?

It's easy, if you have MS Word: Simply download the document as a .doc file, open in Word, and print. That's great for a one-off print job.  Now, multiply that by 50-75 papers, the number of papers one might print if one teaches 2-3 sections of writing.

Here's the workflow:

  1. Receive shared document from each student in the class.
  2. Move each document into a Google Drive folder to organize the class papers.
  3. Open each paper in Google Apps, make comments.
  4. Download paper to hard drive as .doc file.
  5. Open in MS. Word.
  6. Print.

Insane. I recently printed marked papers for two sections of composition and spent about an hour just getting the shared docs (wtih comments) to print. And if one uses Google Drive's offline access, this workflow effectively means doubling the copies of the student paper on one's harddrive.

Why Not Just Use MS Word?

Great question! I have several key reasons for avoiding MS Word:

  • Not every student has MS Word. (Yes, there are workarounds - Open Office, for example.)
  • I don't like the idea of moving progressively more "marked up" papers around a peer group via email attachments. The Cloud is key because of the simultaneous editing features and all comments appear on one document.
  • Ease of "accepting changes" in Word bothers me.
  • I really like the versioning history in Google Docs.

The real question here is whether the cloud-based Office 365 tool would radically simplify my workflow here.  I don't know, really, but reviews of that tool suggest that autosave may be problematic in Office 365.

Why Print Docs in the Cloud?

This is the $64,000 question.  Can't we simply avoid the whole doc print thing here? After all, papers are submitted electronically, students comment electronically, and I comment electronically. Writers have ready access to the original, marked document. Why bother to print?

Read just about any study of screen vs. print reading and you'll quickly find that we read more carefully when a document is printed. We skim web texts.  Make no mistake about it: A Google Doc may be akin to a printed paper in terms of content, but keep it on the screen and most of us fail to read as carefully.  In a writing class, where evaluation of claims, evidence, organization, and proofreading are central elements of the revision process, there's real value in retaining the "print" output.

I have already ceded so much to the cloud by putting the drafting, peer review, and revision processes online. For some strange reason, I want to retain the easy ability to hand my students printed, marked comments on their final drafts.  We spend class time reading the comments, considering areas of strength and weakness, and focusing on the writing without the distractions of social media, the email inbox, etc.

Plea to Google: Activate the "print with comments" feature in Google Docs.  If I'm not mistaken, you used to have that feature in an earlier version of the tool. It's essential in the Google Apps for Education suite!