Work flexibly and collaborate with Google Documents

Mark D. Sheehan, Shizuoka University of Art and Culture


Language instructors must consider a number of factors when making new technology a part of their teaching practices. The first round of questions often posed includes nuts and bolts matters such as: What does it cost? What are the benefits of the technology? How can my students and I use the product? and, Is this product for me? This review of Google Documents (GDocs) will address these essential considerations and conclude by providing examples of how this cloud computing service can be used by language teachers and learners.

What is Google Documents, and what does it cost?
Google Documents is a free web-based software application suite that allows users to create documents, presentations, spreadsheets, forms, drawings, and templates, and share them with collaborators. Document authors can invite other users to view or edit files. Files can be published on the web or downloaded and printed. To use Google Documents, users must first sign up for a free Google account. There are a number of other excellent features that come with a Google account and Google has begun to create options for GDocs to be used by larger groups such as schools or companies. However, this review will focus on ways that individual users and students can benefit from using Google Documents.

What are the benefits of Google Documents?

Because GDocs is web-based, no additional software besides a web browser is required to create and share document, presentation, or spreadsheet files. Documents or presentations authored in Google Documents are stored in a familiar way. Folders can be created for easier organization and exchange of data. Document files can be downloaded from GDocs as Word, Open Office, RTF, HTML, or PDF files. Presentation and spreadsheet files can also be downloaded in a similar fashion as PowerPoint, Excel, or PDF files. This feature provides users, students in particular, with the ability to create and work on texts and presentations even if they do not have MS Office or other expensive software applications on their home or school computers. A recent function added to Google Documents is the ability to upload a variety of file types to GDocs. This feature enables users to edit and store documents imported from a computer or received as an email attachment. The latter function will convert Word or Excel files attached to Gmail messages and store them in GDocs; the files can be viewed, edited, and printed from any location. Users never lose track of data and can readily retrieve the latest version of their work.

Anyone who has shared files with colleagues or students is aware of the inconvenience of volleying attached documents of various incarnations for review and editing by multiple collaborators. Keeping track of the data, accessing the text from home or office computers, and overcoming compatibility problems caused by exchanges among computers with different versions of software can not only frustrate busy teachers, but also greatly impede productivity. Projects created in Google Documents have no such obstacles. Accessing data and editing documents is as simple as logging on to a web-based email account; all document amendments are saved and updated automatically. Collaborators need not use email or exchange attachments to communicate about revisions or feedback.

How can language instructors and students use Google Documents?

Google Documents facilitates collaboration on projects in a number of ways. Students can receive instructor feedback or input from team members once a user is invited to edit a document. To send an invitation to view or edit a document, an author needs to choose the “share” function and enter an email address; a link will be sent to the collaborator via an email message. There are some cases when an instructor may need administrative control and opt to be the creator of the document; he or she can later share that file with a student or students so they can collaborate on it. In other cases, students can be the document owner and issue the invitations.

In either case, instructors can insert comments and corrections into a document at any time; furthermore, revision histories reveal how often individual students have accessed the materials. The time and type of changes that have been made by collaborators are easily monitored.

The author of this review has not only used Google Documents to collaborate with colleagues and guide students, but has also had students publish GDocs projects on the web. Students with limited technical skills can produce and share quality materials with ease. Project files can be linked to from an external site. Figure 2 is an example of this function. To view this example online, please visit: <>.

GDocs are particularly useful for presentations. Students without PowerPoint or other presentation software on their home computers can create, access, and practice their slideshows from anywhere. This function also eliminates another problem that student presenters sometimes encounter. Forgotten memory sticks or damaged files that oddly sabotage groups on presentation day are no longer an issue since students can log in to GDocs to access their files from any language lab computer. Slide shows can be played from Google Documents. Furthermore, presentation files subsequently can be published to an external website for students to review and rate the materials. Figure 3 is an example of a presentation created and published by a group of students in a British Literature Course. To view this example online, please visit: <>.

Who is Google Documents for?

GDocs is an ideal tool for language instructors who require their students to work with Word, PowerPoint, or Excel files. The ability to work on and correct materials from any location fosters collaboration, increases productivity, and improves the quality of the finished product. There is no cost and almost no learning curve for this web-based application suite; the multi-lingual options in GDocs enable more people to have greater proficiency with the applications. While some GDocs users may encounter bugs or find limitations, fixes and improvements from Google laboratories are usually not far away. To try GDocs, go to <>.

Mark D. Sheehan is a faculty member at Shizuoka University of Art and Culture in Hamamatsu, Japan. His research interests include CALL and materials development. Having had some success using GDocs with his students, the next challenge is to get his family to use GDocs to plan an upcoming vacation.