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Since they were first made available in 2007, online documents provided by Google Docs have become very common in both the office and in blended learning environments in which computer-mediated communication is utilized. Google Docs has maintained its prominence among other free online documents as well as commercial word processors in general. Google Docs are often compared with products like Microsoft Word, as in Kovaleva (2011) and Hartley (2012).
Since 2010, numerous sites have provided word processing apps for online collaborative editing, most using EtherPad as the platform they are built upon. Some features of EtherPad have made it especially popular among educators (Pymm & Hay, 2013; Brodahl, Hadjerrouit, & Hansen, 2011; O’Hare, Quartermaine, & Cooke, 2011). However, EtherPad and Google Docs are quite different, and deciding which to use involves a tradeoff between pragmatic considerations and pedagogical affordances.
Sites that provide EtherPads include Frama Pad, Mozilla Pad, Pirate Pad, Primary Pad, Qik Pad, Titan Pad, and TypeWithMe. The process of choosing is simplified by knowing that there are only two types of EtherPads and the differences are largely cosmetic.
In a Type 1 EtherPad, the work area (see Figure 1) does not have the appearance of a Word document, but looks more like an email message field. A Type 2 EtherPad (see Figure 2) more closely resembles a Word document. However, in either type, text alteration is limited to bold, italics, and underlining (Floss Manuals, n.d.).
As students become comfortable using EtherPads, they often ask how to change the text font or import an image, and regrettably, they cannot. The variety of formats of text documents that can be imported varies from site to site. EtherPads generally claim to offer the ability to import Word and .rtf files but reliability is patchy. Furthermore, when importing text files, any previous work is written over and cannot be undone. Also, although EtherPad claims to be working on this, using EtherPads on the go via smartphone is currently not possible.
Google Docs by contrast has many of the features available in a standard word processor. A ruler at the top of the document can be used for adjusting left/right margins. There is an ample array of fonts, character sizes and text colors to choose from. Importing images and tables is simple. A Google Doc can be exported as a doc, docx, odt, rtf, pdf, txt, or html file much more easily than with EtherPads. Additionally, the Google Drive mobile app allows users to work on documents while on the go.
What are the benefits of choosing EtherPad over Google? The first is convenience: To access a Google Doc, a student must have a Google account. Aside from ethical considerations, leading an entire class through the process of signing up for Google accounts is difficult. After students have signed up, they must request access to the online document, which the instructor must then grant; or the instructor can enter each student’s email address into the “Invite People” field of each document. Moreover, until students edit their account profiles, they will be identified within the document by their email addresses rather than their actual names. In contrast, an instructor can have an entire class working on EtherPad documents within one class period. Creating several EtherPads and distributing the appropriate URL to each group could take as little as 15 minutes.
A second advantage that especially appeals to educators is the Time Slider that enables a step by step view of students’ collaboration. Google Docs have a Revision History that allows a similar function, but in “more detail” mode it often records non-events.
Yet another advantage is the authorial color feature of EtherPads. Each member of an EtherPad is assigned a different text color. This makes it easy for teachers to give an appropriate amount of credit to each student. Google Docs also feature authorial color view, but only in “Revision History” mode, and then only the most recent edits in a given edit frame are colored. In the following frame, previous work returns to black, making it easy to identify new edits but difficult to keep track cumulatively.
In view of these points, EtherPads would seem to be the obvious choice for educators. However, EtherPads have one shortcoming that makes all the other points trivial. A great deal of the learning in a collaborative assignment occurs during metatalk (Storch, 2010). However, the quality of students’ metatalk is limited by the poor quality of the interface provided in EtherPads. The chat field in both Type 1 and 2 EtherPads is a narrow strip that does not expand as the user types. It limits users’ view of what they are typing to several words, making object regulation—which is important for quality collaboration (Brooks & Donato, 1994)—difficult. In Type 1 EtherPads, the display window for past posts can be expanded, but students tend not to do so. Type 2 EtherPads do provide a larger display area for viewing past comments, but not for typing as it occurs.
Neither Type 1 nor Type 2 EtherPads support embedded discussion threads; this is a major shortcoming. Maintaining awareness of earlier topics is difficult and students tend not to continue prior discussions. I have observed that communication in the chat area of EtherPads is very much in the moment and lacks the depth of asynchronous communication. Moreover, if a teacher comments on an earlier example of language use, that teacher-student talk is likewise lost in the roll and the opportunity for leading students to “notice the gap” is unlikely to be accessed.
Google Docs documents feature a Comments column and a Chat area so both synchronous and asynchronous communication are supported. Comments are linked to highlighted portions of the text. This limits free ranging discussion somewhat, but also makes it very easy for instructors to get students to attend to specific textual issues. Comment topics are embedded separately so that specific issues are easily located. The text field enlarges to accommodate the length of each post as it is typed, thus better facilitating quality metatalk and students’ object regulation of their own language output. Also, teachers can notify students by email of comments and responses relevant to them individually by typing an @ followed by a member’s name. Chat allows freer and more direct exchanges whenever students prefer to use simple and synchronous communication.
EtherPad, therefore, provides quick and easy-to-implement online editing, with some of the pedagogical advantages of online editing but a very limiting environment for fostering metatalk between students, or correction and L2 modeling by teachers. Google Docs offers everything that EtherPads do not, but only for the teacher with the time and patience to set up the document.
Some educators may feel that the level of synchronous communication supported by EtherPad is adequate. However, there are three other points to consider. First, while Google Docs have various privacy settings for viewing and for editing privileges, EtherPads have none. Anybody who has the URL can view and edit an EtherPad document. They can also engage in chat completely anonymously. Most sites assign each EtherPad a random ten-character URL and these are probably fairly secure. However, at least one of these sites allows visitors to freely enter and view other users’ documents. For teachers concerned with Internet safety, this is far from secure.
Second, EtherPad reliability during use is unstable and often disconnects without saving users’ inputted data. Brodahl, Hadjerrouit, and Hansen (2011) report that their study was adversely affected by poor reliability of EtherPads, and a forum discussion at TypeWithMe (2011) revealed similar disruptions involving three different EtherPad providers. Furthermore, during the writing of this article, while collaborating in a shared Primary Pad document, three other persons and I were repeatedly disconnected and our writing was lost. Finally, once an EtherPad assignment is complete, it is difficult to delete the EtherPad, with different providers offering a variety of solutions.
The instructor’s selection of software will very much determine the way their students interact. If an instructor’s main focus is on work produced through collaboration, EtherPads may be more than adequate. Despite the negative points noted here, existing literature shows that many teachers have been satisfied with them. However, for instructors who wish to exploit the potential of quality metatalk, EtherPads are simply not up to the job. Teaching from the premise that the process of collaboration is as important as the product leads to a strong preference for Google Docs—a preference that I support. By implementing Google Docs into their courses, teachers not only provide an effective means of completing writing assignments, but also introduce students to a powerful collaborative tool that they may use on their own in future coursework and later in their professional lives.
Brodahl, C., Hadjerrouit, S., & Hansen, N. K. (2011). Collaborative writing with Web 2.0 technologies: Education students’ perceptions. Journal of Information Technology Education, 10, 73-103.
Brooks, F. B. & Donato, R. (1994). Vygotskyan approaches to understanding foreign language learner discourse during communicative tasks. Hispania, 77(2), 262-274.
Floss Manuals. (n.d). Getting started with EtherPad. Retrieved from <en.flossmanuals.net/etherpad/getting-started-with-etherpad>
Hartley, B. (2012). Not so suite: Microsoft Office vs. Google Docs. Conspire. Retrieved from <blog.mindjet.com/2012/08/not-so-suite-microsoft-office-vs-google-docs>
Kovaleva, A. (2011). Top 5 apps to edit documents online. Freelance Switch. Retrieved from <freelanceswitch.com/productivity/top-documents-apps-online>
O’Hare, S., Quartermaine, L., & Cooke, A. (2011). Issues involved in supporting pre-service teachers’ learning in an online environment. In Developing student skills for the next decade. Proceedings of the 20th Annual Teaching Learning Forum. Retrieved from <otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2011/refereed/ohare.html>
Primary Pad. (n.d.). Welcome to Primary Pad. Retrieved from <primarypad.com>
Pymm, B. & Hay, L. (2013). Using EtherPads as platforms for collaborative learning in a distance education LIS course. iConference 2013 Proceedings, 965-970.
Storch, N. (2010). Metatalk in a pairwork activity: Level of engagement and implications for development. Language Awareness, 17(2), 95-114.
TypeWithMe. (2011). Losing connection to EtherPad lite synchronization servers. Retrieved from <typewithme.idea.informer.com/proj/?ia=37043>
David Gann has been teaching in Japan since 1996 and is an Assistant Professor at Tokyo University of Science. He is the coordinator of the Critical Thinking SIG and the co-producer of Critically Minded Podcast. His main interests include critical thinking instruction, CALL, and learner autonomy.